Mormonism and Time: The Impact of Mechanical Time and Hypermediation on Practice and Authority in the LDS Church

This two-part series will focus on Mormonism and time, it will examine how time, and various conceptualizations of time, have impacted the ways that Mormonism is practiced and resisted; it will also examine the implications of time on authority in Mormonism. Using Hartmut Rosa’s work on social acceleration, and borrowing some ideas from E.P. Thompson and Manuel Castells, this post will begin by examining how the broad implementation and synchronization of mechanical, abstract, or “clock” time has impacted Mormon practice and Mormon authority.

Part two will examine resistance to Mormonism using the theories and ideas of social acceleration and hypermediation. In an age of hypermediation, it seems that Mormon leaders can barely finish issuing a statement before that statement is altered, remediated, appropriated into memes, and repackaged in ways that are potentially damaging to the Church’s image. In both the gradual transition from natural time to mechanical time, and in the ever-increasing speed of dissemination and digital network formation, Mormon leaders have experienced a loss of authority, creating a crisis of legitimacy for the Church.

Part 1: Authority, Practice, and Mechanical Time

Mormons, just like most people in advanced industrial societies, have become ever more controlled by the clock. E.P. Thompson, Hartmut Rosa, and others have theorized the implications of the imposition of mechanical, abstract, or “clock” time on society. Before mechanical time, when time was experienced, it was typically experienced in terms of natural occurrences: tides, changing seasons, the position of the sun and other stars in the sky, the phases of the moon, etc. With the introduction and mass implementation of synchronized, mechanical time, humans conceived of time not by what nature or instinct told them, but by what the hands, and later, the backlit and LED digits on the clock told them. Birth (2012) writes, “Somehow, our culturally shaped consciousness of time has shifted away form observing cycles in the world and toward cycles embodied in objects that are manufactured” (p. 2).

In a sense, clocks began to shape—and to some extent, control—life, causing religious leaders and adherents to cede some of their authority to broad societal understandings and adaptations of mechanical time.

Take the sabbath, for example. Some religious traditions (Seventh-Day Adventists, the United Church of God, etc.) believe that the sabbath is to be recognized on Saturday; while other traditions (Mormonism, Lutheranism, etc.) believe that it is to be observed on Sunday, but even when a certain day of the week is selected for the observance of the Sabbath, the actual boundaries of the “Sabbath” became complicated, and perhaps arbitrary when mechanical time was broadly integrated into society. What used to be determined by a natural process—sundown to sundown—becomes, for many, including Mormons, determined by the hands of a clock.

For Mormons, who believe in keeping the Sabbath day holy by, among other things, abstaining from making purchases on Sunday, this can have interesting implications, as can be seen in this photo of a checkout line at a grocery store in Provo, Utah (a town that is about 94% Mormon) at 11:53pm on a Saturday night.


Shoppers in Provo, UT line up all the way around the back of a grocery store just minutes before midnight on a Saturday so that they can make their purchases before the Sabbath day officially begins–according to U.S. Mountain Standard Time.

Perhaps Mormon Sabbath day observers living just east of the world’s designated time zone boundaries, can ease their conscience by traveling over the river or state line to make some quick, last-minute purchases when the Sabbath has already arrived on their side of the boundary; after all, it’s not Sunday over there yet, at least not according to the abstract, mechanical time by which they live—hopefully God switched over from natural to mechanical time with the rise of capitalism and industrialization, as well.

Journals and other records of religious meetings and conferences kept by early-19th century Mormons often make mention of a church leader speaking for hours at a time—a speaker would simply speak until he said everything he felt needed to be said. Brigham Young, Joseph Smith’s successor according to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, wrote:

I, although young in years and lacking experience, had thought a great may times that I would like to hear some man who could tell me something, when he opened the Bible, about the son of God, the will of God, what the ancients did and received, saw and heard and knew pertaining to God and heaven. So I went to hear Lorenzo Dow. He stood up some of the time and he sat down some of the time; he was in this position and in that position, and talked two or three hours and when he got through I asked myself, ‘What have you learned from Lorenzo Dow?’ (Young, 1871)

kirtland-temple-visionYoung himself was known for his lengthy addresses: “One week after his baptism, Brigham Young gave his first sermon. He was so carried away by the spirit that he spoke for more than one hour” (Arrington, 1985). In other accounts, natural processes were used to describe the duration of a Church leader’s, or a member’s speech:

“As soon as he got “Joseph” out, “is a Prophet” was the next; and from that, his tongue was loosened, and he continued talking until near sundown” (Young, 1852).

Thus we see that in the early years of Mormonism, Church authorities could speak as the spirit directed them, whether their message took three hours, an hour, or an entire evening to deliver— they did not have to stop until they finished saying what they had to say. The length of public addresses was guided by the enthusiasm of the audience, the energy of the speaker, and the content of the message. Public addresses were not prepared or altered to fit neatly predetermined time slots and broadcasting time limits. And although there was a large clock located at the back of the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, the speakers rarely, if ever, paid attention to it (Kimball, 1932). But that all changed with the broad integration and synchronization of mechanical time. Very quickly, Church leaders began to hand over their power—or have it taken from them—by the clock.


With the rise of capitalism and industrialization, mechanical, synchronized, “clock” time has come to shape the way that religion is imagined and practiced.


Rosa (2013), drawing on the work of Norbert Elias and Michel Foucault, discusses how modern “disciplinary society” has been conditioned to follow and obey the dictates of mechanical time. Strictly-observed, globally-synchronized, societally-accepted mechanical time was necessary for the rise of capitalism: trains had to depart on schedule, workers had to show up to their factory jobs at a specified hour, deliveries had to be received in a uniform manner. In order for all of this to happen, mechanical time had to govern society and its institutions.

As Rosa points out:

“…countless studies have shown in the meantime, the key institutions of the disciplinary process, prisons, schools, barracks, hospitals, and workhouses, are characterized above all by their strict regulation of time” (p. 7).

Even religious leaders have had to cede a portion of their authority to the clock as mechanical time came to govern religious institutions in modern society, as well. 

In contrast to the talks given by the Mormons of the early 19th century, Mormons today, both in their local wards, and at General Conference, are instructed to tailor their talks to fit within strictly specified time limits. A bishop will commonly ask a member, “Would you be willing to speak next Sunday for 15 to 20 minutes on the topic of faith?” If the member accepts the assignment, he or she will often spend hours preparing the talk, and making sure that it fits within the allotted time. If, when delivering the talk, the member begins to go over the allotted time, the bishop will flip a switch that turns on a small red light next to the microphone on the lectern as if to say, “Okay, you’re done. Your time is up!”

Whether or not the audience is deeply engaged in what the speaker is saying, whether or not the speaker’s words are creating a shared sense of communion and spirituality, and whether or not the speaker still has many important things left to say, it is the clock that speaks the loudest, and it’s time to move on—the next meeting has to start on time, the commercial break won’t wait, people have other places to be, there’s always the “next thing” looming on the schedule.

Evidence of the dominance of the mechanical time in modern Mormon religious meetings is abundant and the following are a few quotes from speakers at Mormon General Conferences:

In 1871 (the earliest recorded mention in the conference archive):

“I see the clock, and I am reminded that it is time to quit” (George Q. Cannon).

In 1928:

“Two difficulties confront the ordinary speaker at a General Conference of the Church. One is to select a theme suitable to the occasion; the other is to present that theme in some degree of completeness without overrunning the allotted time… I recognize, of course—we all do—the wisdom and the necessity for time limitations, where so many speakers are to be heard from, and I try to conform to the regulation. But it is not the easiest thing in the world to lose one’s self in a subject and keep an eye on the clock—to talk about eternity and all the while be thinking about time—the time to close. No man can serve two masters” (Elder Orson F. Whitney)

In 1949:

“You know, I never quite get finished on a subject, the clock travels too fast.”

In 1955:

“My brethren and sisters, I assure you at the outset that I will keep my eyes on the clock. I know my brethren will also keep their eyes on the clock… there is so much to say on an occasion like this, and there are so many to say it that time becomes very precious” (Elder Alma Sonne)

These quotes help to illustrate another point made by Rosa:

“…the oft-remarked dominance of abstract time over “event time” in modern societies—something revealed, for instance, by the fact that events like a talk, a seminar, or a workday do not end when the relevant tasks are finished, but rather when a certain period of time has elapsed—is not some cultural peculiarity, but rather a social-structural necessity” (p. 10).

Greenhouse (1996) describes how objects, such as the clock, actually begin to possess their own power over the users of those objects:

“In effect, the social construction of knowledge, including the ways in which power can shape this construction, can be reflected in the objects by which people think. Moreover, the ability of objects to mediate power allows them to serve as a means of creating social order through suppressing individual agency” (p. 61).

As can be seen from the quotes above, Mormon leaders speaking to members of the Church at General Conference have admitted that their individual agency (to speak, to say everything they wish they could say), has been handed over to the clock as a mediator of power, and as a creator of social order.

UnknownTaken a step further, one can see how the power that mechanical time wields in the modern age not only manages thought, but actually works to shape it, as well. Given that the representation of the clock goes unquestioned by those in advanced industrial societies (Birth, 2012), the materials and practices of the social institutions operating in those societies are designed and implemented with mechanical time being taken into consideration: a Mormon speaker prepares his/her talk with a certain time frame in mind, limiting the information that can be included; Mormons attending Church services have come to expect that each of the three meetings on Sunday will only last for a certain amount of time (about an hour each), and if a talk or a meeting seems to run over the allotted time, many of those in attendance will begin to check their clocks, and to wonder how much longer the talk or meeting will last; instructional manuals prepared for Sunday School classes are also prepared with time constraints in mind, General Conference, Music and the Spoken Word, and other broadcast Church programs must also take into consideration the pre-determined schedules and time frames of the networks on which they are broadcast. All of this serves to shape how Mormons perceive their religion, and what they come to expect of it—looming over every aspect of the religious experience, barely in the background, and always ready to jump into the foreground should tacit expectations not be met, is time.

In part two of this post, I will address the concepts of speed and hypermediation. In his book, Social Acceleration, Rosa describes the relationship between speed and modernity. Rosa, Henry Adams, and others have described how since before the industrial revolution, society has been gradually speeding up through the creation of tools and technologies. Rosa describes this process by examining technological acceleration, acceleration of individual lives, and acceleration of the pace of life, more generally. With the creation of digital technologies, social acceleration has increased and physical space has largely been eliminated. This has had broad implications for individual lives, and for social institutions; I will be examining some of these implications with regard to Mormonism.



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