This quick-and-dirty (and embarrassingly long) post traces some of the history of Christian liturgy to consider a different way to think about Mormon ritual. It’s very much exploratory; I welcome your insights and critiques.
Many of the most rancorous debates of the Reformation Era—and there were lots of them—revolved around liturgy and the practice of Christian rituals. Not only did Protestants clash with the Roman Church as they attacked and rejected the conventional set of seven sacraments, but before long, the new Protestant schools of thought were in conflict with each other as well. More than anything else, in fact, it was the debate over the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, that shattered the prospects of a united Protestant Christendom.
Protestants did indeed demand radical changes to the liturgy. It was one thing to critique the excesses and abuses of a deeply corrupt Church, or to advocate for a conciliar model of authority over a primal one—these kinds of complaints were ubiquitous. It was something else entirely to challenge the sacramental structure which had been the essence of the Church and the mainstay of religious life among the laity for centuries. In one of his great treatises of 1520, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, Martin Luther brought the entire structure crashing down. Using an intensive and plain reading of the Bible as his sole criterion, he slashed the seven traditional Roman sacraments (baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, penance, anointing of the sick, ordination, marriage) down to three (baptism, Eucharist, penance). When he could not satisfy himself with a biblical sanction for penance, he cut that as well.
Luther and other Protestants not only pruned back sacramental practice, eliminating the forms they believed had accreted inappropriately over time; they also challenged the underlying mechanics of sacramental theology. Since the 13th century, the canonized doctrine of the Church had been that the sacraments functioned ex opere operato (“according to the work worked”). The rituals were, in other words, efficacious in and of themselves. They did not depend on the worthiness of the priest, and they did not depend (directly) on any condition in the parishioner—only on his or her participation. Sacraments were conceived as channels of God’s transformative power and grace, and they were the prerogative and duty of the Church. They were also necessary to obtain salvation.
Luther and those who followed him, however, rejected almost all of these premises. Naturally, they came to reject the precept that administering the sacraments required priestly ordination from Rome. They also rejected the notion that the sacraments could be efficacious or transformative independent of faith. Indeed, as in everything else for Luther, faith in God’s promises was the vital thing. Baptism and the Eucharist were special settings in which God’s promises of mercy and redemption were announced, and where those who had faith in those promises—and only they—could be invigorated by his grace.
While Luther actually remained fairly conservative on some aspects of sacramental theology, others in his time and afterward did not. The Swiss Reformer Huldyrch Zwingli and his associates jettisoned the doctrine that the baptism and the Eucharist involved some sort of mystical communion and construed them instead as memorial acts or as ceremonies through which participant made pledges of loyalty, a formulation well suited to the Swiss’ mercenary industry at the time. Protestantism as a whole moved steadily away from an understanding of the sacraments as efficacious, transformative, and vital, and toward an understanding where they were symbolic, instructive, and to be commended.
Over the next several centuries, in conjunction with this shift, the term “ordinance” largely replaced “sacrament” in the English-language Protestant lexicon. I haven’t found precisely when or where this terminological shift occurred, but it seems to have happened after Calvin in one or more branches of the Reformed (Calvinist) movement. “Sacrament” was, presumably, too redolent of Catholicism, from which all Protestants were eager to differentiate themselves. In any case, by the nineteenth century and emergence of Mormonism, “ordinance” was clearly the term of choice among most American Protestants for the kind of rituals they practiced. Charles Buck’s ubiquitous Theological Dictionary approvingly defined the “Ordinances of the Gospel” as “institutions of divine authority relating to the worship of God” that included baptism and the Lord’s Supper, along with other On the other hand, according to Buck, the term “sacrament” was a term mostly associated with the liturgy of Catholicism, and could only refer to Protestant practice in qualified ways. The terms “rite” and “ceremony,” meanwhile, referred primarily to the practices of the Jews .
Protestants of almost every stripe in early America took the ordinances baptism and the Lord’s Supper seriously. That much is reflected in the intense polemical debates in theological journals throughout the nineteenth century. But because they, like Luther and their other forerunners, staunchly rejected the idea of “works-righteousness”—the doctrine that outward behavior could bestow merit or reduce sin—they rejected the idea ordinances were vital for salvation. Speaking of baptism, Buck acknowledged that “it is an ordinance binding on all who have been given up to God in it.” However, he continued, “it is not essential to salvation; for mere participation of sacraments cannot qualify men for heaven.” To consider baptism as strictly necessary to be saved was “to put [baptism] in the place of that which it signifies” . Baptism and other acts of worship were, then, normative but not obligatory.
American Protestants’ attitudes toward ordinances were also shaped by the ideas they inherited from the Reformers about religious authority—a subject which had seen radical change. Against the Roman practice of linear ordination and hierarchy, Luther famously popularized his doctrine of “the priesthood of all believers,” which asserted that the priest in his habit was no more spiritually distinguished than the laborer at his plow. The church, moreover, was more about the collective interests and welfare of its members than the intercessory powers of the priest. The primary priestly role of officiating in the sacraments was replaced by a Protestant mandate to preach and minister. Hence, while many Protestant churches in America required that their ministers or preachers baptize, they did so by virtue of a denominational authority, not a sacral one.
Emerging from this milieu, Mormonism naturally adopted the language of “ordinances” to refer to its own sacred practices. Joseph Smith’s revelations used the term with some frequency and in several senses. Often “ordinances” denoted, as the term did for Protestants, the general pattern of practices that God ordained and called for . But Mormons also used “ordinance” in ways that Protestants would not have recognized. “Ordinance” became especially associated with a special subset of rituals—some of them novel—that were considered necessary for salvation . By the time Joseph Smith died, the saving ordinances of Mormonism numbered (by my count) six: baptism, confirmation, male ordination, washing, anointing, and sealing.
Mormons’ conventional usage of the Protestant term “ordinance” to describe these practices obscures the fact that these ritual in fact became sacramental, and that Mormonism adopted a fully sacramental theology, in the same sense that had existed in the Roman Church before the Reformation. The return to priestly ordination (“priesthood,” in the literal sense) enabled Joseph Smith to reintroduce the doctrine that the saving rituals had to be done by those holding sacral authority. Smith also restored some sense that ordinances held the power to channel God’s power or grace in essential ways. “In the ordinances of the priesthood,” one revelation taught, “the power of godliness is manifest” . Without them God’s power could not be attained. Finally, Smith reintroduced the mandate that saving ordinances were vital for salvation, although with an additional innovation. The principle of ritual surrogacy enabled the performance of the rituals for those who could not enact them themselves.
All this historical context raises the question: Aside from the constructive theological value it might offer, what is the value of looking of Mormon ritual through the lens of sacramental theology? How can recognizing the sacramental component of early Mormon theology help us better understand the Mormon past? This is a question, I think, that deserves asking; I have a few ideas to propose and hope to hear others. Regarding the saving ordinances of Mormonism as sacramental in character, I think:
1) Gives a better sense of associations and parallels with Catholicism. In my research on baptism for the dead, I found that the performance of proxy baptisms led a number of observers to associate Mormons with Catholics. After watching Mormons perform proxy baptism, one observer reflected that it seemed Mormons were generally “good orthodox Baptists. However, he also noted, “in some of their forms they run close into Catholicism” .
2) Opens the way to a better understanding of how Mormons have come to experience their own “sacramental system.” Medieval Catholics looked to the sacraments as the framework for their religious lives, and many would agree that Mormons today have the same attitude toward their own saving ordinances. How and when have Mormons come to see these rituals in an integrated, paradigmatic way? How significantly does that diverge from the experience of Protestants, and what does it reveal about Latter-day Saint lived religion?
3) Provides a fuller grasp of Mormon soteriology and its divergence from Protestantism. Despite emerging from the bosom of Protestant revival, Mormonism acquired a very different plan for human salvation. The necessity of salvific acts, the centrality of priesthood authority, the whole enterprise of vicarious salvation—all of these highlight a major a point of major dissimilarity between Mormons and Protestants. How did this theological divide come about?
What are your thoughts and reactions?
 Charles Buck, A Theological Dictionary, Containing Definitions of All Religious Terms; A Comprehensive View of Every Article in the System of Divinity…, (Philadelphia, 1830), s.v. “Ordinances of the Gospel,” 319; “Popery,” 349-352; “Ceremony,” 62-63; “Rite,” 401-402
 Ibid., s.v. “Baptism,” 32.
 For usage of “ordinance” in this sense, see The Doctrine and Covenants of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints; Carefully Selected from the Revelations of God. By Joseph Smith, President of Said Church. 2nd ed. Nauvoo, IL: John Taylor, 1844, 294 [D&C 52:14-16], http://josephsmithpapers.org.
 For this sense, see Joseph Smith’s letters on baptism for the dead, e.g. Doctrine and Covenants, 1844, 420-430 [D&C 128].
 Ibid., 113 [D&C 84:20].
 “Nauvoo—We Spent a Sabbath with the Mormons,” New York Spectator, 23 Aug 1843, 4.