Last night I attended a baptism that was accompanied by much laughter and merry-making, which was at times shushed by many of those in attendance. The LDS practice of “reverence” as a means of producing the conditions for spiritual experience sets boundaries around certain kinds of laughter. In other contexts, “loud” laughter is prohibited. When we fast, we are supposed to abstain from laughter as well as food (D&C 59:15). These particular ways of regulating laughter are not unique to Mormonism.
Some Christians have attempted to eliminate laughter altogether, basing themselves on the Bible (e.g., James 4:9; Luke 6:25). Basil of Caesarea frankly taught: “the Christian…ought not to laugh or even suffer laugh makers.” (Ep. 22). The regulation of laughter has been a staple in Christian history, considered to be a problem in the seriousness that is the Gospel.
Laughter has often been one of those subjects of ethical formation and regulation, both within Christianity and in Western culture more generally. The pleasures and vices of laughter must be managed, and the strictures around this can be traced back to Plato and Aristotle. Too much laughter was a sign of a lack of self-control and could bring shame upon whoever was overcome by it. Like all good pleasures, laughter has to be experienced in moderation. Like sex, anger, desire, and other passions, laughter became a point for ethical evaluation.
In my experience, the regulation on laughter is probably not taken all that seriously by most contemporary LDS (and other Christians). I concede that LDSs have an embodied knowledge of when it is inappropriate to laugh in worship settings, but I don’t think I have ever heard a sermon on controlling laughter. The bishop does not hold an annual combined priesthood/relief society giving his “laughter” lesson. The interesting question is why not? Why have other forms of ethical regulation such as sexuality, anger, pride and financial discipline been emphasized and moralized in LDS discourse, but not laughter? Is Mormonism’s stance on laughter simply a reflection of modern values which view laughter positively, with an inheritance of puritanical hesitation around laughter in word alone?