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Food as Relic? Sacrament Bread as Material Culture

By: Amanda - September 25, 2013

This is a guest post from Kris Wright, a fantastic independent historian whose work on the healing practices of Mormon women  (written with Jonathan Stapley) has received awards from the Mormon History Association and should be required reading for anyone interested in the history of Mormon women.  Links to those articles can be found here: http://digitalcommons.usu.edu/mormonhistory/vol37/iss1/1/ and here: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1664187

temple bread

Photo courtesy of the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers

Two weeks ago, I ran up the steep hill behind the Conference Centre in the pouring rain (without an umbrella, of course) on my way to the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers Museum.  I have been interested in the material religion of Mormon women, particularly how they have created and used religious objects that are associated with LDS rituals –things like sacrament bread, sacrament vessels, consecrated oil, sacred clothing and other textiles.  I was hoping to see some handmade sacrament cloths that were housed in the museum and cursed myself for my poor planning.  As I entered the building soaked and winded, I hoped that the trip was going to be worthwhile.  I did see the sacrament cloths, but it also ended up being a great opportunity to see something that I would have never imagined still existed – sacrament bread from the 19th century.

This artefact is described as “Bread blessed for sacramental purposes at the dedication of the Salt Lake Temple.  President Wilford Woodruff brought it to daughter-in-law Naomi Butterworth Woodruff who was ill at the time.  Donor is granddaughter Emmarose Woodruff Christiansen.   Maker:  Unknown”   While the bread was baked in 1893, it was not donated to the DUP Museum until 1956.  This blew my mind – bread that was 120 years old!  Living with the humidity that exists in the Great Lakes Basin, I see bread go moldy all the time, so I was amazed at the longevity of this bread and even more amazed that someone had thought to save it (for decades!!) before donating it to a museum.  A couple of hours later down at the CHL, I met up with Justin Bray, shared my find with him and he mentioned that the Church History Museum also has a piece of sacrament bread.  This item is described as a “Small brown papered package tied with string labeled: “Bread used in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper in the Salt Lake City Temple April 20, 1893 by Wm. Paxman” (L 3″ x W 2″ x D 1/2″).

Anthropologist Adam Yuet Chau has questioned,

… Can food be relics? The usual qualities of food do not lend themselves to becoming relics. Food is perishable, and rotten food stinks. Food is meant to be consumed; therefore it is more likely to end up in someone’s stomach than on an altar or in a relic collection. A food item is seldom unique, therefore it does not possess one of the necessary qualities of relics: rarity. Because food is usually commonplace, it is difficult to endow a food item with extraordinary qualities.[1]

Similarly, archaeobotanist Delwen Samuel who studies ancient bread points out that,

Bread has rarely been recognised as an archaeological artefact, either as a class of material which survives in the archaeological record, or as remains which deserve detailed post-excavation analysis. Because ancient bread is uncommon, often difficult to recognise and little studied, its investigation has had a low profile. In many ancient and modern societies, however, bread has been a staple foodstuff, a focus not only for nutrition but for social cohesion and symbolic thought. As such, it plays a key role in culture. The archaeological study of the production and role of bread has the potential to provide unique insights into ancient society.[2]

While certainly not ancient, these pieces of bread have most likely survived because of the desiccation that can occur in an arid climate, like Utah’s, and are particularly worth studying within the context of symbolic meaning and as evidence of material religion.  While Eucharistic bread has been used as a relic[3] in different faith traditions, Mormons are not likely to ascribe mystical characteristics to sacrament bread.[4]  So why would two different people save the bread and then donate (or have descendants donate) it to a museum.

When describing the administration of the Lord’s Supper at that  School of the Prophets in Kirtland Zebedee Coltrin paints a vivid picture of the centrality of bread to early Mormon worship:  “The sacrament was also administered at times when Joseph appointed, after the ancient order that is, warm bread to break easy was provided and broken into pieces as large as my fist and each person had a glass of wine and sat and ate the bread and drank the wine; and Joseph said that was the way that Jesus and his disciples partook of bread and wine.”[5]   When she recalled the events surrounding the Kirtland Temple dedication Nancy Naomi Alexander Tracy recalled:

“Blessings were poured out. Solemn assemblies were called.  Endowments were given. The elders went from house to house, blessing the Saints and administering the sacrament. Feasts were given. Three families joined together and held one at our house. We baked a lot of bread.”[6]

In describing the millenarian characteristic of the Lord’s Supper in Kirtland, Matt Bowman has said,

The elements themselves hold no sacred power; the grace of the rite, rather, resided in the boundaries, and in the history they assumed.  To take the Eucharist from the hands of Joseph Smith was to become a part of a radical and apocalyptic world. But the bread was just bread, and the wine could just as easily be water. But while the elements did not matter, the identity of both the administrators and the communicants did, precisely because the rite was deeply connected to the health of that salvific community [7]

It is within this context that I think that there is a connection between the sacrament bread from the dedications of the Kirtland and Salt Lake Temples which is important and is the reason that we have them today as artefacts in museums.  The bread seems to have come from the Priesthood Leadership meetings held on the 19th and 20th of April 1893, during the dedication period of the Salt Lake Temple.  On the 20th of April, there was a testimony meeting, Joseph F. Smith read the account of Jesus administering the sacrament from 3 Nephi, then 115 men participated in a prayer circle followed by the Lord’s Supper.[8]  Each member was given a large glass with the Salt Lake Temple etched into it, as well as a napkin.  Brian Stuy notes that,

“Presiding bishop Preston blessed the bread and “Dixie” wine (from Southern Utah) “and the brethren were invited ‘to eat till they were filled’ but to use caution and not indulge in wine to excess.” [B.H. Roberts noted]  The Sacrament as we partook of it was after the ancient pattern as taught to the Saints by the prophet Joseph.’[9]

Similarly, Charles Ora Card wrote

… We convened again at the Lords Supper in the Prests room.  Blessings upon the Bread & Wine by Bps Preston & Robert T. Burton & we partook and were filled not only with the food of the body, but of the Spirit & truly it was a pentacostal(sic) feast.  God was with us & we felt to bless not only each other but the whole human family.  We were in the Temple from 10 A.M. until nearly 6 P.M. I felt it was a day of days & would be remembered not only through time but All Eternity.[10]

The dedication of the Salt Lake Temple was described as a literal fulfillment of prophecy – it was a time of spiritual manifestations, a birth(!), as well as a storm and seagulls – all powerful indications of God’ power to those who attended .  It was an offering to the Lord.  As Stuy points out, when viewed through the diaries of contemporaries, it was seen as an event that was unparalleled since the dedication of the Kirtland Temple.[11]     Participation in The Lord’s Supper on April 20, 1893 was an embodied form of recommitting to the laws of God, to the religious community and to those early liturgical sacramental moments with Joseph Smith.  When combined with the prominent themes of the dedicatory services — forgiveness, the millennial reign and unity,[12] one could argue that bread was a perfect keepsake from the dedication — a physical reminder of the of sacramental meals which facilitated the forgiveness of sin, salvation through community and the Pentecostal possibilities of  temple dedications.

***MANY thanks to Kari Main, curator at the DUP Museum in Salt Lake City for her generosity in sharing her time, knowledge and photographs with me.



[1] Chau, Adam Yuet, “Mao’s Travelling Mangoes: Food as Relic in Revolutionary China” (Past and Present supplement 5 “Relics and Remains”, edited by Alexandra Walsham; pp. 256-75)  http://www.ames.cam.ac.uk/general_info/biographies/chinese/chau-publications/CHAU%20Mao’s%20Travelling%20Mangoes.pdf

[2] (Delwen Samuel, « Bread in archaeology », Civilisations [En ligne], 49 | 2002, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2005, consulté le 11 septembre 2013.    http://ancientgrains.org/samuel2002bread.pdf

[3] Chau states, “a relic as relic is usually a small thing that is a fragment or concentration of something

larger, an inanimate thing reminding one of a previously live thing or person; it has power and therefore is revered and worshipped.” Ibid, p. 256.  Snoek, Godefridus J. C., Medieval Piety from Relics to the Eucharist: A Process of Mutual Interaction (Leiden, The Netherland: E.J. Brill, 1995)

[4] See Doctrine and Covenants 27:2,5

[5] Salt Lake School of the Prophets Minutes, October 3, 1883 in Merle H. Graffam, ed., Salt Lake School of the Prophets Minutes, 1883 (Palm Deseret, CA: ULC Press, 1981), 38.

[6] Nancy Naomi Alexander Tracy, 1816-1902, “Life History of Nancy Naomi Alexander Tracy Written by herself”, Typescript, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University. Retrieved http://www.boap.org/LDS/Early-Saints/NTracy.html

[7] Bowman, Matt.  Liturgy as History: An Approach to Mormon Worship, 1830-2008, unpublished paper, p. 22-23.

[8] Stuy, Brian, “‘Come, Let Us Go Up to the Mountain of the Lord’: The Salt Lake Temple Dedication”:  Dialogue A Journal of Mormon Thought 31 (Fall 1998): 102–122. According to Stuy, The First Presidencey, the entire Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, except Moses Thatcher, the Seven Presidents of the Seventies, the Presiding Bishopric and the presidents of stakes and their counselors were in attendance.  William Paxman was President of the Juab Stake. Wilford Woodruff was apparently absent on April 20th due to illness.

[9] Stuy quotes B.H. Roberts Journal 20 April 1893.  The Church Museum of History also has in its possession a “Napkin wrapped in brown paper. Written on paper: “Napkin used in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper in the Salt Lake Temple April 20, 1893 by Wm. McCune. 115 participating in the same.”   As well as  a bottle labeled “Wine used in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper in the Salt Lake Temple April 20, 1893 by Wm. Paxman”  Similarly, there is also a water glass with a picture of the Salt Lake Temple labeled “Tumbler used in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper in the Salt Lake City Temple April 20, 1893 by Wm. Paxman

[10]Godfrey, Donald G. and Brigham Y. Card, eds.  The Diaries of Charles Ora Card; The Canadian years, 1886-1903 Salt Lake City: The University of Utah Press, 1993 p. 221

[11] Stuy, Ibid, p. 101.  For supernatural events surrounding the temple dedication see, 106-110.

[12] Stuy, Ibid, p. 111-117.

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13 Comments

  1. Wow–I had no idea that the DUP and CHM had century-old pieces of sacramental bread in their holdings, nor was I aware of the larger context and story. Fascinating! Thanks, Kris!

    Comment by Christopher — September 25, 2013 @ 2:17 pm

  2. In that image, are those centimeter blocks on the left? It is hard to tell how large it is.

    This is wonderful stuff. I was totally surprised that they had bread in the collection. The analysis is brilliant.

    Comment by J. Stapley — September 25, 2013 @ 2:26 pm

  3. Like Jonathan and Christopher, I am bowled over that the bread still exists and by the amazing you have done in uncovering its provenance. The fact that bread still exists from the 1893 dedication of the SLC temple is just astounding.

    Comment by Amanda — September 25, 2013 @ 2:35 pm

  4. It is quite a large piece of bread — about the size of a two-cup measure (?). It’s nothing like the small pieces of bread used in modern services.

    The collections of the DUP can be intensely irritating, displayed as they are, but are wonderful in their own right. They have some real treasures in there.

    Thanks for this write-up, Kris. It’s all very interesting, and I would have loved to have made it to your recent lecture.

    Comment by Amy T — September 25, 2013 @ 2:57 pm

  5. Jonathan,

    The dimensions of the bread are 2″ x 2″ x 2.5 inches, the box’s dimensions are 5.5″ x 3.5″x 2″.

    Comment by kris — September 25, 2013 @ 3:09 pm

  6. This is a great post–made all the better by the fact that I attended your recent lecture and enjoyed it very much.

    Comment by Saskia T — September 25, 2013 @ 3:10 pm

  7. Amy – the DUP is a real contrast to say the Church Museum of History. I love that it still feels like a relic hall.

    Saskia — you should have come to say hi! I would have liked to have met you.

    Comment by kris — September 25, 2013 @ 3:14 pm

  8. This is fantastic, Kris! The presence of the past indeed.

    Comment by David G. — September 25, 2013 @ 4:02 pm

  9. Really wonderful post Kristine! As you note, the host-as-relic was not unusual for medieval Christians, but I had never heard of the preservation of Mormon sacrament bread until now. I think I’ll have my students next semester read this post!

    Comment by David H — September 25, 2013 @ 4:54 pm

  10. So interesting! When we were at Gettysburg a few months ago, my son was fascinated by a piece of hardtack in the museum there–someone had saved it from the battle and written the date on it. Being hardtack, its survival is not as surprising as this ancient bread! I hope you saw the Sacrament goblets and pitchers there at the DUP museum too. Kari has that great artifact database in the basement–but I wish patrons could just look things up in a front lobby kiosk since it’s such a treasure hunt in that hidden gem of a museum/giant attic.

    Comment by anita — September 25, 2013 @ 9:07 pm

  11. Whoops. My previous comment should read that the case was that size, so please ignore it and look at Kris’s answer. : )

    My family and I were just at the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and noticed that they’ve recently removed their large display about piki, the blue Hopi corn bread, to make way for a new exhibit. (The display had included a movie featuring the Sequaptewas, Hopi members of the Church.) Piki is used in every day meals, of course, but it also has ceremonial or sacramental purposes, and for many years its history and uses occupied a prominent place in a major museum.

    Comment by Amy T — September 30, 2013 @ 4:16 pm

  12. […] Food as Relic? Sacrament Bread as Material Culture […]

    Pingback by The Cultural Hall Podcast – Articles of News/Week of September 30th — September 30, 2013 @ 9:27 pm

  13. This is fascinating! I followed a link from DesNews.com (congrats on being featured). On a more practical note, I would sure love to have a copy of the recipe for that bread! It would be nice to find out the science behind WHY it did not deteriorate like any other bread one could buy or bake today.

    Comment by Mormon Soprano — October 23, 2013 @ 3:18 pm