And they did fellowship one with another and did rejoice one with another, and did have great joy. – Hel. 6:3
There is a powerful synergy of the saints as they fellowship together. Whatever its members are individually, a ward or branch working and worshipping together becomes more than the sum of its constituent parts. Each person has special needs to be met and unique talents to contribute.As members share one another's burdens, they drink from a collective well of living water that can nourish and sustain everyone. The essence of this synergy is captured by the poet who penned, "I lift thee, and thee lift me, and together we ascend."
The right of peaceable assembly is guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. But of the four freedoms enumerated by the First Amendment, assembly was the principle whose inclusion was most tenuous when the issue was considered by the House of Representatives in 1789.
During debate one legislator moved to strike the reference to assembly, reasoning that the term was redundant because it is self-evident that if individuals have a right to freely converse, they also have the right to meet together for that purpose. However, other delegates were painfully aware of episodes in American and English history when the right of peaceable assembly had been denied. The move to delete the term was soundly defeated and freedom of assembly was firmly enshrined in the First Amendment.
More than 150 years later, the Supreme Court observed, "It was not by accident or coincidence that the rights to freedom in speech and press were coupled in a single guaranty with the right of the people peaceably to assemble. All these, though not identical, are inseparable."
This principle has been interpreted by the courts to establish a broad umbrella for individual liberty. In his insightful treatise on American democracy, Tocqueville wrote, "In no country of the world has the principle of association been more successfully used or applied to a greater multitude of objects than in America."
On any Sunday, in a typical congregation, Latter-day Saints exercise the right of assembly with little thought of its origin. The family's arrival at the ward meetinghouse is punctuated with greetings from friends on their way to worship. At an LDS meeting, sounds of hymns fill the air. A look into the chapel reveals a blend of singles, young families, and older couples. Most seem relaxed and appear to enjoy the sunlight streaming through the windows.
The sacrament is blessed and passed by young Aaronic Priesthood holders and sermons reflect strong gospel foundations of the speakers, or at least a use of good reference materials. Most members of the congregation are attentive. Generally, the spirit of the gathering is captured by the congregational hymn, "Join in the jubilee, mingle in song, join in the joy of the Sabbath School throng."
In other times and places outside the United States that don't have First Amendment protections, conditions for assembly have been much different. The spacious and well-maintained meetinghouse is transformed into a tiny basement room. The throng of carefree and prosperous families and singles on the way to church becomes two or three elderly members plagued by chronic poverty and hoping to avoid confrontation as they arrive to take part in an illegal assembly.
The bright sunlight streaming through the chapel windows each Sunday is gone because most gatherings must be held at night with drapes and windows closed to avoid prying eyes. Hymns of praise are replaced by fearful whispers and well-researched sermons give way to heartfelt discussions from worn, but treasured, Bibles and the Book of Mormon. The carefree jubilee becomes a concerned gathering, where a knock on the door could foreshadow serious problems.
But despite the adverse conditions and serious consequences, Latter-day Saints continued to meet. For small, dedicated groups, the synergy of gathering overcame the oppression of governments. One of the great missions of this dispensation was that of President Ezra Taft Benson into Europe immediately following World War II. A particularly poignant experience was his party's arrival in war-torn Germany in 1946. Arriving in the city of Karlsruhe, they parked their car among heaps of concrete and twisted steel. As they climbed through the debris, the sounds of the universal call to assemble, "Come, Come, Ye Saints," could be heard. In a badly damaged structure were 300 German saints who had been waiting for President Benson's arrival. Most were in rags and some appeared emaciated from a lack of food. All were suffering from the cold of winter. But still they came to gather together and listen to the Lord's emissary.
More than four decades later when a small number of missionaries were first allowed in Bulgaria, they again encountered the unquenchable desire of people to assemble to worship in spite of hardships. For years, the youth of Bulgaria had not actually been forbidden to attend church, but their teachers from state schools frequently stood at cathedral doors writing names of any students who were there. Monday morning, young churchgoers could expect to be verbally abused and punished for their folly. Retribution even extended to parents in the form of job or housing discrimination.
In early 1991, sister missionaries entered Smolyan, Bulgaria, to teach English in the school system. Between classes and after school, students crowded around the missionaries with questions. However, their interest was not in American clothes, television, or culture. Rather, these young people wanted to know about religion – how to pray, how to develop faith, and how to repent.
The first Sunday meetings in Bulgaria were a verification of the words of the Savior who promised, "For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them." But the two or three soon became 20 and then 40 – not just friends of members (there were none) or people located by tracting (the sisters had no time to knock on doors), but individuals who came on their own to satisfy their need to worship God.
For several months it was not possible to have the sacrament because there were no priesthood holders in the congregation. Now this difficulty has been overcome by the faith and dedication of a young man who has been a member of the Church for less than six months. Each Sunday morning, 19 year-old Dimiter Jordanov makes a three-hour bus trip from his home to bless and pass the sacrament for the saints in Smolyan.
Gathering to worship is so natural for most Latter-day Saints in the United States that they seldom think about the privilege. This attitude could be interpreted as a lack of appreciation for the guarantees found in the First Amendment. However, it might also reflect the durability of our freedom. Still, complacency can be dangerous in a world where restrictions on assembly have been so pervasive.
It would be appropriate for Latter-day Saints to ponder the question posed by Emerson who asked, "What greater calamity can fall upon a nation than the loss of worship?"