(To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, click here.) I was talking to an elderly woman in my LDS ward and I asked her if her father had mentioned partaking of the Sacrament in a large ward goblet, or chalice, or cup, where everyone, children to ancients, passed the cup around taking a sip. She replied that she’d heard tales of it as a child from her grandmother, who told her she didn’t enjoy taking sips from the cup after those old high priests, with their long beards, had taken hairy sips!
I’d wager most Latter-day Saints who take the Sacrament weekly and sip from tiny paper cups aren’t aware that for about 90 years, members sipping from a large ward Sacrament goblet was the norm in LDS chapels. Frankly, it was the norm in most protestant and Catholic congregations as well. In the fall 2012 “Journal of Mormon History,” Justin R. Bray, an archivist at the LDS Church History Department in Salt Lake City, has a fascinating article. “The Lord’s Supper During the Progressive Era, 1890-1930.” Bray explains that the gradual demise of the single-goblet Sacrament ritual in Mormon chapels was one of many sanitary reforms initiated during the “Progressive Era” in America.
As Bray relates, even before some church members began questioning the use of a large ward goblet, sanitary reformers were already at work initiating reform measures in the cities. One of the first disease-breeding “conveniences” to go were drinking mugs, usually chained next to water fountains in cities. Salt Lake City stopped using public drinking mugs in 1910, for example. The mugs were a health hazard. They allowed people ill with disease to pass on bugs to unlimited numbers of persons. Bray relates one case where an entire student body and faculty of a school was taken ill due to one sick student who drank from a public mug.
As Bray writes, “The Progressive Movement … was an attempt to cure the ills of American society left over from massive industrial growth in the late 1800s.” Reducing disease caused by factory conditions and unsanitary housing was part of the crusade. Many Mormons, including LDS Church President Heber J. Grant, considered themselves progressives. As early as 1900, Bray relates, Seldon Clawsen, a member of the 18th Ward in Salt Lake City, was lobbying LDS leader George Q. Cannon, to do away with the large sacramental cups. Cannon’s death postponed his efforts for about a decade, but by 1910, as Utah was reforming its public drinking locations, efforts were renewed, led by Clawsen, to replace the cups with individual tiny cups and trays.
Initially, there was strong opposition to the idea of replacing the large communal cup, with traditionalists arguing that the Lord would not allow illness to result from his Sacrament. Eventually, an 18th Ward committee recommended ending the large communal cup practice to the bishop and the stake president of the Ensign Stake, where the 18th Ward was located. The stake president cautiously referred the matter to church leadership.
Then-LDS President Joseph F. Smith handled the matter more like a politician than a spiritual leader. As Bray’s article relates, he was”impressed” with the tiny cups but felt that most members would oppose a change. Also, Smith was worried he would be blamed in the tiny cups idea failed.
Eventually, though, as Bray relates, quoting Clawsen’s notes, “President Smith … looked at the floor for a minute or two, then he looked at us and smiled and said, ‘I have it. I’ll turn the matter over to the Council of the Twelve. Then they can take the blame for the failure.’”
Eventually, the Quorum of the Twelve allowed the 18th Ward to use the tiny cups, so long as the ward handled the costs. After a little while, every ward in the Ensign Stake was using tiny cups instead of a large cup.
It wasn’t long before the First Presidency of the LDS Church began recommending, but not mandating, that members use the tiny cups. In an interesting bit of marketing, the LDS Church leaders recommended that wards buy metal sacrament cups and trays patented by a church member, Jacob Schaub, who sold his cups and trays through the Sunday School Union Bookstore. Despite the endorsement, Bray relates that Schaub’s Sacrament set was never very popular with wards, which were not afraid to buy sacramental sets not affiliated with the LDS Church. The article includes old ads from Schaub, and another competitor, Daynes Jewelry Company, that were advertised in LDS church periodicals. Ironically, Brays relates that one objection to the Schaub tray and cups was that they failed to meet sanitation standards. Nevertheless, Schaub prominently placed in his ads that his Sacrament set was “Recommended by the First Presidency.”
For six years, the use of the trays and tiny cups were largely restricted to the Salt Lake City area. LDS President Joseph F. Smith did little to promote a change, church-wide, from the traditional large cups. As Bray relates, what hastened the end of of large, communal Sacrament cups in LDS wards for good was the Spanish Influenza epidemic after World War I. Returning U.S. soldiers brought it to America, where 675,000 Americans died; 21 million across the world. In October 1918, Utah banned all public gatherings, and many residents wore protective masks over mouths. Bray writes, “Whole cities were quarantined. Some cities, like Ogden, allowed people to enter only with a doctor’s certification of good health.”
Ironically, the Spanish flu epidemic claimed the life of LDS President Joseph F. Smith, who died of pneumonia “caused by the influenza virus.” Because of the epidemic, the next LDS president and prophet, Heber J. Grant, was not sustained until June 1919, in a delayed LDS General Conference.
As mentioned, Grant was “progressive by temperament, diligently campaigning for ‘better city ordinances and state laws on the question of proper sanitary conditions,’” writes Bray. During the same conference that sustained him as church president, Grant said that 1,000-plus LDS church members had died from the Spanish flu epidemic in nine months. It wasn’t long before ads for trays and tiny cups became ubiquitous in LDS Church publications, thereby helping sales of trays and cups outside of the Salt Lake valley. In 1923, as Bray relates, a 13-step guide for LDS wards on handling the Sacrament was published in the LDS periodical “The Improvement Era.” As Bray relates, “these instructions stressed that the sacramental water must be distributed in ‘individual glasses’ and ‘carried in trays.’”
No mention was included of a common sacramental cup. After nearly 100 years, the practice of a large common Sacrament cup, passed around to babies, ancients, tobacco users and delicate lips, had ended.