Smells and Bells

“Smells and bells” is a short-hand, colloquial way of speaking about high church liturgy, especially Orthodox and Catholic. It is sometimes contrasted with “Happy Clappy” low-church liturgy of Pentecostals, Baptists, and many “non-denominational” churches. I’d like to consider LDS liturgical life in contrast to the smells and bells form to uncover a bit about what sorts of knowledge and experience these rituals are meant to convey.

One of the obvious features of smells and bells is its reliance upon olfactory and auditory senses to communicate sacred space, time, and a transcendent experiences. (The question of exactly what ritual and liturgical life is meant to accomplish is fraught, and several books have been written on this question, most importantly for me is Catherine Bell, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice. In many ways, the question itself is bound up in a Protestant-Catholic debate that has been raging for centuries, and Anglophone dismissal of “rituals” as an inferior, primitive form of worship inflected most scholarship up to the late 1970’s, and continues today. But I digress.) To answer the question loosely of what smells and bells do is transport the person into an alternative place, in some cases Heaven itself, or the divine presence. These practices are often derived from such texts as Isaiah 6, Ezekiel, Leviticus, Revelation, etc, and are consciously imitating ancient Israelite temple rites.

In a typical service of this type, one might experience olfactory sensations, auditory experiences from different instruments and voices, play with vision, such as different lighting, hiding and revealing to signify mystery, bodily movement and poses, verbal communication, sometimes in mysterious language, the use of ritual clothing, the modification or alteration of how one speaks with respect to volume, intonation, etc.

While the LDS temple has most often been compared to liturgical life of this sort, in many ways it differs. Temple rites focus on primarily verbal communication, straight-forwardly-visual images, and movement and touch. There is no music. There is no smell.

This raises for me two sets of questions: First, what does such a ritual enactment of sacred space say about how we view the sacred? Does such a ritual presentation spring from an impoverished imagination about heaven, perhaps rooted in the anti-Catholicism that was the fabric of 19th c. America? Or, do the elimination of musical and olfactory experiences enhance the sacred experience? Can we get by in creating an alternative space by ignoring certain sensory experiences?

Second, from what does such a presentation spring? I have already mentioned anti-Catholocism, but I wonder to what extent the modern reinvention of the senses plays a role in the LDS ritual imagination. Leigh Schmidt’s book Hearing Things shows how the Enlightenment literally changed the way we hear, what we hear, and how it is interpreted. He shows how the shift to empirical ways of knowing and hearing caused us to stop hearing God. He suggests that we ask why we stopped hearing God rather than why premoderns heard him. The metaphysics of prescence were altered in the creation of modernity. Though in many ways Mormonism straddles the modern and the premodern in this regard, we find ourselves frequently on the modern side of things with respect to sensory and empirical knowing. Can the same be said for smells and even the lack of mystery and symbol in the visual experience in the temple?

10 Replies to “Smells and Bells”

  1. I’m trying to think of a snappy, rhyming, two-word summary of LDS liturgy (sacrament meeting, not temple) . . .

    Screaming and dreaming?

  2. Interesting. I think it is important to note that the Kirtland temple rituals required washing of pure water and then cinnamon scented whiskey. The oil (used by the barrel) in the Nauvoo temple was perfumed. I also think it is important to note that the nineteenth-century church leaders frequnetly admonished members to bathe (even multiple times) before going to the temple and demanding that clean clothes be worn (these things having a dramatic influence on the smell of the experience).

    There was also a temple choir that performed before endowments until the 1920’s.

    I think there is a large shift in all facets of the Mormon liturgy during the twenties. It was basically a modernization and rationalization (and, really, protestantization). It is hard to derive an anti-catholic ritual bias during the 19th century when we told the protestants to shove it and adopted catholic-like rites that wouldn’t appear in protestant religions until the end of the century and into the 20th. Fleming’s recent paper in Church History has some interesting cultural background as to why this might have been the case.

  3. Julie,

    For sacrament meeting: Poop and scoop.

    I get sick of smelling the poopy diapers (including my own kids, but at least I take them out immediately). Scooping up the fruit snacks, cheerios, and doodled on programs is always a fun after sacrament meeting activity.

    I can think up a few for the temple, but to be honest they would all end up being unappreciated and/or sacreligious.

  4. “There is no smell [in the temple].”

    I beg to differ. Every time I smell cheap peppermints, I think of the temple. What a bizarre association.

  5. A traditional Catholic friend of mine who is proud of his “high church” liturgical traditions, jokingly refers to other less-liturgical churches as “low and lazy.” And, accordingly, a “low and lazy” Episcopal church known as “Saint John’s” becomes “Mister John’s.” Ha ha – said in good fun, and without any disrespect intended.

    But to answer your question, for me, the lack of “smells and bells” in our own tradition is simply due to anti-Catholicism.

    P.S. I vote for “screaming and dreaming.”

  6. Lol for all the suggestions!

    J.Stapley- thanks for the background on temple worship. I recall the bit about the scented oil, but I didn’t know about the temple choir! That is fascinating. What it all prelude, or was there some part of the ordinance that it fit into? As for bathing, I think that what you are suggesting is that no-smell is still a smell, and perhaps getting rid of one’s own scent before entering the temple functions as a ritualized use of smell. One might notice the absence of scents in the temple that one would normally encounter in the outside world. I think this is a great idea. As we’ve moved away from an agricultural society, however, the no-smell smell has become simply mundane and not something that we would notice.
    As for the anti-Catholicism, I agree with you that Mormons are really moving in that direction, but I am not sure that they saw it as such. I think that if they made a connection, it was to voluntary organizations like the Masons, etc, not Catholics. It is possible for one to imitate Catholics, but still hate them and avoid too much imitation (like smells and bells), no?

  7. TT, yeah, I don’t really think that there was a conscious poaching from the Catholic liturgy, though Fleming, in his article argues for perhaps unconscious poaching. What is intriguing is a month before he died Joseph declared in the Sermon in the Grove that the “ole Catholic Church is worth more than all[.]” It is also amazing how well the Mormon liturgy tracks the development of the Catholic liturgy, it is just compress over a hundred years instead of two thousand.

    The Temple choir, from what I have been able to find, simply performed as a prelude to Temple service. There was a time for singing in the old endowment, but that was a negative example. While I do think that Joseph consciously connected the liturgy to Masonry, I do think his lived Biblical religion (with extra old testamenty goodness) is where the treasure lay.

  8. I think “sleeping and weeping” is a better way to describe sacrament meeting, especially fast and testimony meeting.

    Of course I have nothing constructive to add–but great post.

  9. Don’t forget about “Oh Say What is Truth” that used to be sung.

    Interestingly I remember that when the video endowment came out Nibley in particular was incensed (no pun intended) that music (MoTab soundtrack) was part of the video. Even when I was in college in the early 90’s he was still grumbling about this.

    Of course modern Mormon temple worship seems oddly tied to the TV shows Star Trek. The first video was tied to the 60’s Star Trek while the refresh seemed oddly visually similar to Star Trek: The Next Generation.

    The issue of smells is very interesting since there are no incense or the like. (Thankfully – incense gives me allergies)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *