Hey guys, so I hold in my hand … a deck of playing cards. Now, you don’t hear Latter-day Saint leaders talking a lot about cards these days, but for a long time, past leaders discouraged members (sometimes rather strongly) from playing with face cards like these. Now, I always found that counsel to be a bit odd. I mean, what harm could possibly come from playing an innocent game of Go-Fish? But here’s the thing — when leaders started discouraging people from playing cards, Go-Fish was not the game cards were being used for. Let’s talk about it.
Alright, so here’s the deal: As culture changes, the counsel leaders give as you participate in that culture is also going to change — that applies to the counsel religious leaders give to adherents, the counsel parents give to their kids, etc. New cultural trends gain popularity while old trends fade into the background. For example, hopefully, parents in the future won’t have to warn their children against the dangers of Tide Pods because they’ll no longer be associated with that ridiculous Tide Pod Challenge. There’s nothing inherently wrong with Tide Pods, but when it becomes popular for kids to eat them, you’re going to keep your kids away from them.
In the past, church leaders warned against the use of playing cards. As noted in an article by LDS Living, “… prophets advised members to avoid playing cards because the context in which they were used was associated with gambling, drinking, unlawful behavior, or wasted time.”
A lot of statements from church leaders make that association very clear. For example, here’s a quote from then-apostle Merriner W. Merrill in 1900: “People get together and indulge in card playing. I do not know personally that there is any particular wrong in playing cards, but it is the example and the fascination about it which leads to gambling, and this has ruined many men and families. It leads to drink and to many other evils.”
At a time and in a culture where cards were closely associated with these activities, I think this is great advice, and I’m grateful leaders gave it. I’m no expert, but I sure have seen a lot of movies, and according to pop culture, the theory checks out. Think about pretty much any movie scene featuring a saloon. What’s going on there?
So it seems clear to me that this counsel was given because of the culture surrounding it. In 1943 John Widtsoe pointed out that there’s nothing wrong with “the many and various card games on the market not employing the usual ‘playing cards.’ Most of these furnish innocent and wholesome recreation, and many are really instructive.” The problem was with “the ‘playing cards’ handed down to us from antiquity.” Namely, these cards with the double-faces on them. There’s nothing inherently evil about these cards or the faces on the cards — these have simply been the cards traditionally used for and associated with gambling. But “As playing cards began to be used for more wholesome games that did not involve gambling or were not associated with drinking, saloons, casinos, or antisocial behaviors, playing cards began to become more widely accepted, and the connotations surrounding the cards began to shift.”
The last time anyone from the First Presidency or Quorum of the Twelve Apostles spoke out against playing cards was more than four decades ago, in 1974 — probably long before most of our viewers were born (myself included). President Spencer W. Kimball said, “We hope faithful Latter-day Saints will not use the playing cards which are used for gambling, either with or without the gambling.” Again, it seems that the idea was to stay as far away from the line as possible. Now, I imagine that the classic saloon culture had long been on the way out by 1974, but remember that President Kimball was born in 1895. The card-playing culture was surely something he saw growing up.
But why hasn’t anything been said in recent decades? Again, I think it’s because the culture surrounding playing cards has shifted over time. Face cards are now used for much more than just gambling. That said, please notice that the counsel against gambling has, of course, continued — but the use of playing cards hasn’t been discouraged in decades.
Now, just to add some context, this taboo on playing cards hasn’t just been a Latter-day Saint thing. Plenty of other Christians discouraged card-playing back in the day, whether in a saloon or at home. Here are some strong words from the famous Evangelical preacher Billy Sunday from 1935: “You must want a lot of vomiting, puking drunkards or you wouldn’t sow saloons, and you must want a bunch of gamblers or you wouldn’t play cards in your home. If you’ve got any cards in your home you’d better throw them in the furnace when you get back there or else throw your Bibles in the furnace. The two won’t mix!”
So, what does all of this mean for Latter-day Saints today? Well, I think we roughly fall into two categories. There are some members that think, “Hey, if the prophets counseled against it, that’s all I need to know — face cards are out. It doesn’t matter if leaders haven’t said anything about it in 40 years, the counsel still fully applies.” To be perfectly frank, it’s usually (and understandably) the older generation (that grew up with this counsel) that falls into this category.
But I think that the vast majority of Latter-day Saints today see no problem playing non-gambling games with face cards. It seems to be understood that this was practical counsel given with a purpose within a certain cultural context, and as the negative baggage associated with face cards has waned, the counsel to avoid face cards has also waned. Most Latter-day Saints do not see the use of playing cards today as rebellion against our leaders’ counsel, it’s just seen as understanding the cultural tides.
But at the end of the day, of course, do what you feel comfortable with, and don’t judge those who feel differently. Check out the resources in the YouTube description for more info on this, watch some of our other videos while you’re here, and have a great day!
- “Playing Cards: What the prophets have actually said,” via LDSLiving: https://bit.ly/3zhUxLt
- Newspaper example of what one non-Latter-day Saint community was saying about card-playing in the early 1900s: https://bit.ly/3Q6ia0B
- Here are four short articles written by Joseph F. Smith in 1903 about the dangers of card-playing in the early 20th century: https://bit.ly/3zgJTVD / https://bit.ly/3vk2tej / https://bit.ly/3PHeHWe / https://bit.ly/3Je5YbY