Who, besides recording angels, could count the exact number of deacons who have served the Church since Titus Billings, Serenes Burnett, and John Burk were the first deacons ordained in the Restored Church in 1830 to 31.
With pocket calculator in hand, we might try some rough figuring, based on annual totals (95 deacons in 1854; 18,000 in 1906; about 150,000 today) and turnover rates (two or three years service per deacon), to conservatively estimate more than two million deacons. The Lord must assign great importance to the office to have called so many deacons to serve in his kingdom in the last days.
Many leading men in the Church have gone on record as being impressed with the power of deacons and as having warm memories of their own days as deacons. To cite a century-old example, John Smith, an English convert, recalled as a mature man that “he joined the Church when eleven years of age, was ordained a deacon when fifteen , felt such a power as he had never felt before.” Nearer to our own century, Elder George Reynolds, one of the seven presidents of the First Council of Seventy, expressed similar gratitude for his brief service as a deacon:
“If there was any duty to which I have been called in the Church that I performed to the utmost of my ability, it was in magnifying the calling of a Deacon.
“I was never absent from meeting when it was possible for me to be there. I was often at the meeting house an hour or more before the time set for the services, to open the door and prepare the room, and I took great pleasure in seeing that everything was properly arranged—that the seats were dusted, the gas lighted in the evening, and all the other little matters attended to that made the room comfortable for the Saints to assemble in. I really believe I took more pleasure and satisfaction in that work than in the higher responsibilities of later years.”
A more recent example, former Eastern States Mission President James H. Moyle, writing in the 1940s, pointed out how his call to be a deacon actually changed his boyhood behavior. When called by his bishop to be a deacon, young James, who had been hanging around with the rougher boys in the ward, hesitated briefly and then accepted:
“I gradually broke away from the roughs, and so devoted myself to the duties of deacon that the bishop said I was the best in the ward. We cleaned out the meetinghouse, swept, mopped, and dusted, filled the coal-oil lamps, trimmed the wicks, made the fire, did all the janitorial work, and put the house in order generally, and looked after the door and entrance. … We took our turns cleaning the meetinghouse and had to do it frequently. I was very conscientious about it, and never thereafter allowed myself to be wayward or irreligious.”
Why is it, we might ask in light of these three cases, that older men have fond memories of their service as deacons? At least three solid reasons for such feelings seem apparent when we look at the history of deacons’ work in this dispensation: fellowship, service, and personal development.
As Elder Moyle noted, a boy’s standards determine those with whom he associates. Once a boy is involved in a deacons quorum, his fellow quorum members often become his best friends. They then mutually influence each other for good, as illustrated by this story:
William Smart as a youth joined his playmates in regularly upsetting a crotchety widow in their neighborhood. Then one day the boys were ordained as deacons.
“The spirit of the Deacon coming over me to some extent,” said Brother Smart, “I found myself willing, and even pleased to unite with my young brother deacons in chopping wood for the poor and for the meeting house.”
One day, seeking some fun, the deacons paused before the widow’s property and discussed ways in which they might best torment the old lady. But this time the result was different.
“Since they last met here,” Brother Smart recalled, “a change had crept almost imperceptibly into the lives of some of these boys. They were now Deacons in the Holy Priesthood.”
Instead of pranks, one boy suggested they take the woman’s wagon, pull it down the hill, load it up with dry willows, and then take the load back and chop the willows up for her woodpile. The other boys, once they realized their friend was not joking, heartily agreed.
The widow spotted the boys taking her wagon down the hill and hurled verbal arrows at them. Then she stormed to a neighbor’s and vented her anger. But was she ever surprised when the old wagon was returned to her loaded with dry willows and the crew of grimy, perspiring boys—whom she recognized as her old tormentors—energetically began chopping kindling for her! She scolded, laughed, and cried alternately, then exclaimed: “Boys, God bless you! I forgive you for all your past mischief to me!” She and the boys then knew that “some silent force had wrought a change,” and that invisible force was the new power and spirit they had received with their ordination.
Deacons, never in Church history content to just hold meetings, have always performed important Church assignments. As assistants to teachers, priests, and bishops, they have tackled a variety of useful tasks. A century ago, for example, their primary assignment was to care for the ward meetinghouses.
“A good deal depends on a deacon in making a meeting comfortable,” said deacon Mark Lindsay in 1874. “We should be there at least an hour before meeting begins. Have the house nice and clean, not too hot, nor too cold. … Have your sacrament plate clean, a clean table and cloth, and take care to keep it clean, or it [cloth] will be soon washed away.”
Concern for the poor likewise has characterized the deacons’ activities, particularly their collecting of fast offerings. Today deacons walk their fast offering routes or have older boys or fathers drive them around while they collect cash or checks in the special brown envelopes. Old-time deacons, by contrast, had perhaps a bit more adventure in collecting fast offerings. Borrowing a father’s wagon and team, a pair of deacons would circle an assigned block, knock at each house door, and return to the wagon loaded with boxes, baskets, jars, or packages—rarely money. Two Provo deacons, for example, on a monthly fast offering trip in 1903 loaded into their wagon “2 lbs. bacon, 40¢ cash, 1 bottle fruit, 1 pk raisins, 1 can oisters [sic] and 43 lbs. flour.”
In addition to collecting offerings, deacons have helped the needy by donating muscle power: painting houses, raking leaves, shoveling walks, running errands. Illustrative is a case that took place near the turn of the century when deacons aided two families in their ward:
“On the tenth of May, the Deacon’s quorum, with the consent of the Bishopric, assembled at the beet field of Sister __________, whose husband had recently died. The quorum with the aid of relatives, to the number of sixty-eight, went to work, and they cultivated and thinned nine acres of beets before they quit the field. This work lifted a heavy load off the family of Sister __________, was in great distress at the time.
“A few days later, the Deacons went to the farm of Sister __________, a widow, and thinned several acres of beets for her also.”
While a few bishops asked their deacons to pass the sacrament as early as the 1870s, it was not until after the turn of the century that passing the sacrament became a Churchwide assignment for deacons. It is included as one item in an interesting list of recommended duties for deacons published by the Church about the time of World War I:
Collect fast offerings
Messenger for bishops
Prepare fuel for widows and old people
Care for the poor
Pass out notices
Pump organ at meetings
Keep Church property in good condition
Assist in caring for cemeteries
Keep order in meetinghouse
Maintain meetinghouse grounds
Assist in Primary work
Assist in Religion Class work
Act as ushers
Boy Scout work
Attend the doors
Distribute special notices
Certainly through fellowship and service deacons past and present have learned important behavior patterns, attitudes, and concepts about their religion. Stewardship, the basic principle of Church government, is learned early by deacons who, given an assignment, must carry it out and report their success to their leader. Also learned are feelings of compassion when helping the needy, attitudes of worship and reverence while passing the sacrament, and respect for bishops and Church authorities while doing tasks for them.
In addition, deacons receive formal gospel education at their quorum meetings. Before the day of Church lesson manuals it was left up to the deacons themselves to decide how to spend their meetings profitably. And the old record books indicate they did a pretty good job in planning and carrying out worthwhile quorum meetings. A century ago, for example, a typical deacons’ meeting involved the usual opening song, prayer, and minutes, then a mixture of moral stories like “How Rob Saved His Bacon,” readings like “The First Drink,” and songs like “Stay on the Farm” or “Paddle Your Own Canoe,” interspersed with gospel talks and songs and frequent bearing of testimonies. Here, to cite an old minute book from Centerville, Utah, is a pre-Christmas deacons’ meeting in 1884:
“Chas. Tingey commenced by Reading the 5th chap. of Daniel. [Dan. 5] Which was a description of the writing on the wall concerning the destruction of the Kingdom of Beltschazzer. Perry Tingey read a selection Entitled ‘A Little Girl’s Xmas Thoughts.’ Jn. Capner lectured a few minutes on the 12th Chapter of Isaiah. [Isa. 12] He concluded his remarks by reading the Chapter. Samuel Capner spoke upon the order that should be observed in our meetings. P G Tingey, James Smith, Parley Parrish, Harry Barber, and Wm Miller each spoke a few minutes. Roll called. Programme for the next meeting read.”
While somewhat casual and unsystematic, such quorum meetings produced meaningful gospel understanding as well as practical public speaking and singing experience.
Only after 1908 did deacons quorums receive systematic courses of study to use in their meetings, and over the years since then the Presiding Bishopric has provided scores of carefully prepared courses and different lesson manuals geared to teach deacons both religious principles and righteous conduct—gospel theory and application.
Because of these three characteristics of deacons’ work—fellowship, service, and personal development—older men, who have served long in priesthood work, look back gratefully to the time when they stepped onto the beginning rung of the priesthood ladder to serve as deacons.
Not horsepower but priesthood power moves the Church forward, and deacon power is an essential part. Without deacon power, the Church would suffer in two ways. First, bishops and others would have to drop some of their own duties in order to take upon themselves the work that deacons are supposed to do. Second, and perhaps most important, if a generation of deacons fail, within two years there would be no teachers, in four years no priests, and after a decade or two the ranks of the Melchizedek Priesthood quorums would not be filled with prepared and qualified adults, graduates of the preparatory Aaronic Priesthood.
Brigham Young’s generation described deacons and other Aaronic Priesthood members as being the legs and feet of the Church, without which the Church would be crippled. But it is also important to note that without Aaronic Priesthood experience, boys themselves would be crippled. So deacon power involves both benefit to the Church and benefit to the deacon.
Two million deacons. That’s a lot of fellowship, a lot of service to the Church, a lot of personal development. And when we get right down to it, these qualities—and not statistics—are what recording angels and our Heavenly Father are most concerned about.