It’s been two generations since LDS prayer circles were cast out of the world and relegated to temple-ritual status. Its members-only status ironically has robbed the prayer circle of the spontaneity it once enjoyed. About nine score years ago, the original prayer circles, organized by LDS church prophet Joseph Smith, underscored the early 19th century personal-relationship-with-God theological progressiveness that shaped Mormonism.
As D. Michael Quinn related in the Fall 1978 issue of Brigham Young University Studies, the first prayer circle, part of the 1833 School of the Prophets, imitated the protestant prayer rings. Quinn writes that participants sought visions of angels, and when that wish was granted, some shrank in fear of what their eyes beheld.
Eventually, Smith’s prayer circle began to have ritualized language resembling the prophet’s revelations that concerned future temple ordinances. As Quinn relates, the Nauvoo Prayer Circle eventually encompassed more than 65 church members, male and female. Some of the participants were members who had received the “second endowments” that are still around today but rarely, if ever, discussed at church gatherings.
According to Quinn, the prayer circle under Smith, called the Quorum of the Anointed, was not a group that made church policy, such as the Council of the 50. Smith’s easy acceptance of women into the prayer circle provides evidence, in my opinion, of his egalitarian ideals for that time period and degree of tolerance of women’s roles in the church. After his death, prayer circles would eventually close to LDS women for a long time.
Prayer circle participation at that time was considered a somewhat elite status, writes Quinn, and that didn’t change after Smith’s death. Only about 10 percent of the heavy influx of endowed Mormons were included in circles after 1845, but still numbers swelled considerably, and more circles had to start. By 1846, it was church policy to not have women in prayer circles with LDS men. As Quinn relates, women were encouraged to meet with other sisters in Relief Society prayer gatherings. Such all-female circles were further restricted in 1896, when church leadership advised against any sisters in prayer circles. As Quinn writes, “Rarely privileged to join their husbands in the separate prayer circle meetings after 1846, Latter-day Saint women also discontinued even occasional Relief Society prayer circles by the early twentieth century.”
Quinn writes that prayer circles, still a practice with elite status, were of two states during the middle of the 19th century. There were ecclesiastical prayer circles, that included inclusion by priesthood rank, and special daily prayer circles, headed by priesthood leaders that could include men of diverse stations. Interestingly, Quinn relates, the First Presidency prayer circle sometimes functioned in a special prayer circle manner, with guests outside the church hierarchy included. Eventually, the special prayer circles, which were spread out over the church, were put under the guidance of the LDS apostles, who continued to assign priesthood subordinates to head other circles and help recruit members. Final membership to a prayer circle was decided by the First Presidency.
This arrangement for special prayer circles lasted for several decades. The “elite status” of being in a prayer circle became even more exclusive as the LDS Church grew in membership. As Quinn writes, “By 1929 the growing membership of the church had highlighted the inequity of having such special prayer circles for the privileged few.” They were soon discontinued.
However, ecclesiastical prayer circles of lower areas of the LDS Church continued well into the middle of the 20th century. These included stake prayer circles, although it was the decision of a particular stake president to have a stake prayer circle, which of course had to be approved and overseen at the highest level of the church. According to Quinn, the largest stake prayer circle was in Alberta, Canada, stake from 1948 to 1950, which had about 80 participants. There were also ward prayer circles in operation as well, notes Quinn.
The purpose of the prayer circle, according to official church doctrine, has always been to teach “the true order of prayer.” Incidents such as an 1846 prayer circle that claimed to witness counsel from the late Prophet Joseph Smith would have been greeted with skepticism 100-plus years later. The decision to restrict prayer circles to a part of the temple endowment ceremony, according to Quinn, was an administrative decision spurred by the difficulty of a worldwide church to deal with future stake and ward prayer circle requests.
Discretion and respect for temple ordinances prevents me from mentioning what occurs in a prayer circle, but in my opinion, it would not look out of place in other Christian gatherings. The history of prayer circles once being a male-only procedure is quite ironic, since it is my experience that many of today’s prayer circles are populated by men only after they have received a stern, nodding beckon from their wives.
(Quinn's article can be downloaded for free here.)
-- Doug Gibson
This column was originally published at StandardBlogs.