A Visit to Zion and Mormon Sacrament Meetings

By June 6, 2008

John Turner is assistant professor of history at the University of South Alabama and contributing editor at the Religion and American History blog.

I recently blogged at Religion in American History about my attempts to learn about contemporary Mormonism during a recent research trip to Utah.

One of the highlights for me was attending church at a ward in Sandy (priesthood meeting, Sunday School, and sacrament meeting). (I thought only African Americans spent so long in church on Sundays — we Presbyterians are in and out in 58 minutes sharp!).

I was curious about one element of the sacrament meeting, actually one of the elements. I’ve never seen water used anywhere else to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. My first thought was that it must symbolize baptism. Of course, I also figure it could not symbolize Christ’s blood, but I could be wrong about that. Can anyone enlighten me on the origins of this practice? and the Mormon understanding of the sacrament more generally?

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. John: I’m not sure when the switch was made to water. As far as I understand, wine was used originally. I don’t know if grape juice was used for awhile, but wouldn’t doubt it. Anybody know?

    There is passage in the D&C that is often used as a sort of explanatory justification for the practice (most Mormon kids never think about it: its the norm; but as missionaries you have to start explaining it). D&C 27 reads:

    it mattereth not what ye shall eat or what ye shall drink when ye partake of the sacrament, if it so be that ye do it with an eye single to my glory?remembering unto the Father my body which was laid down for you, and my blood which was shed for the remission of your sins.
    3 Wherefore, a commandment I give unto you, that you shall not purchase wine neither strong drink of your enemies;
    4 Wherefore, you shall partake of none except it is made new among you;

    The background, as printed in the heading, explains that this instruction was given to Joseph by an angel as he set out to “procure wine” for a sacrament service. It doesn’t specify water but seems to be what has been later used to explain the rationale. I imagine, like much else in the Church, the change was probably primarily a practical shift to save time and money.

    Comment by stan — June 6, 2008 @ 11:05 am

  2. John, you might find these passages from Paul Pixton’s entry on the sacrament from the Encyclopedia of Mormonism to be helpful.

    In Latter-day Saint usage, Sacrament designates that ordinance instituted by Jesus Christ as a means by which worthy Saints may renew their covenants with their Redeemer and with God the Father (cf. Mosiah 18:8-10; JC, pp. 596-97; AF, p. 175). On the Eve of his trial and crucifixion in Jerusalem and surrounded by his closest associates, the Twelve apostles, Jesus took bread, which he blessed and broke and then gave to them, saying, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Jesus likewise took the cup, blessed it, and then gave it to them, “Drink ye all of it; For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Matt. 26:26-28). The Book of Mormon records that the resurrected Jesus instituted this same ordinance in memory of his body and blood as he showed himself to the righteous of the Western Hemisphere after his ascension from Jerusalem (3 Ne. 18:7; 20:3; 26:13).

    The Sacrament in LDS belief does not serve primarily as a means of securing remission of sins. It does, however, focus attention on the sacrifice for sin wrought by the Savior and on the need for all those who have been baptized to maintain their lives constantly in harmony with his teachings and commandments. For this reason, there are numerous scriptural injunctions concerning the need for compliance with God’s commandments by those who partake of the Sacrament (1 Cor. 11:22-23; 3 Ne. 18:28-29; D&C 46:4). Unbaptized children, however, being without sin, are entitled and expected to partake of the Sacrament to prefigure the covenant they themselves will make at the age of accountability, age eight (see Children: Salvation of Children). In administering the Sacrament, Christ himself used emblems readily at hand at the Last Supper?bread and wine. To Joseph Smith the Lord declared “that it mattereth not what ye shall eat or what ye shall drink when ye partake of the Sacrament, if it so be that ye do it with an eye single to my glory?remembering unto the Father my body which was laid down for you, and my blood which was shed for the remission of your sins” (D&C 27:2). In typical LDS practice, bread and water are used.

    Comment by SC Taysom — June 6, 2008 @ 11:05 am

  3. Also, the 12 and First Presidency continued to use wine as part of their weekly sacramental meetings in the Salt Lake Temple into the early 20th century.

    Comment by SC Taysom — June 6, 2008 @ 11:07 am

  4. Your second guess, that it represents Christs’ blood is correct, and is reflected in the prayer you heard offered during the ordinance: “O God, the Eternal Father, we ask thee in the name of thy Son, Jesus Christ, to bless and sanctify this [water] to the souls of all those who drink of it, that they may do it in remembrance of the blood of thy Son, which was shed for them; that they may witness unto thee, O God, the Eternal Father, that they do always remember him, that they may have his Spirit to be with them. Amen.” (Doctrine & Covenants 20:79, April 1830)

    This prayer is patterned after the one given in the Book of Mormon, which was used by disciples who received it of Christ (Moroni 5:2). You’ll note that there is one word changed from the text of the scripture, as the prayer is presently given. That is a reflection of a slightly more recent revelation to Joseph Smith: “Listen to the voice of Jesus Christ, your Lord, your God, and your Redeemer, whose word is quick and powerful. For, behold, I say unto you, that it mattereth not what ye shall eat or what ye shall drink when ye partake of the sacrament, if it so be that ye do it with an eye single to my glory — remembering unto the Father my body which was laid down for you, and my blood which was shed for the remission of your sins. Wherefore, a commandment I give unto you, that you shall not purchase wine neither strong drink from your enemies; Wherefore you shall partake of none except it is made new among you; yea, in this my Father’s kingdom which shall be built up on the earth.” (Doctrine & Covenants 27:1-4, August 1830). Over time, it became customary and then essentially a rule that water is used for representing Christ’s blood in this ordinance.

    But your first impression of the ordinance of the sacrament is also correct, in describing the duality of the symbolisms involved. The ordinance of the sacrament both reminds us of Jesus’s atoning sacrifice, and of our own commitments made through baptism (which itself is a symbolic act in remembrance of Christ’s atonement–death and resurrection unto new life). They are inextricably intertwined.

    Comment by Coffinberry — June 6, 2008 @ 11:15 am

  5. Also, the use of wine came into conflict with increasingly strict adherence to the Mormon health code in the 20th Century, the Word of Wisdom. Thus, as admonitions against the consumption of alcohol became mandatory the wiggle room for using wine dissipated.

    Comment by Joel — June 6, 2008 @ 11:58 am

  6. John: I chatted with Grant Underwood about it. Apparently the shift probably occured in late 1800s/early 1900s in northern Utah but continued for a little while longer in southern Utah where there were more vineyards. It was probably largely a practical change but probably also related to a growing emphasis and changing interpretation of the Word of Wisdom (D&C 89), which, though it technically still sanctioned the use of wine for sacramental purposes, gradually came to be interpretted and implemented as a general proscription of any alcohol, period; with the exception, of course, of Robitussin–as long as its not a beverage.

    Comment by stan — June 6, 2008 @ 11:59 am

  7. Joel,
    That conflict was precisely the reason for getting rid of it in the temple sacrament services.

    Comment by SC Taysom — June 6, 2008 @ 12:03 pm

  8. Given the entry by Pixton and Coffinberry’s first two paragraphs, it seems that the sacrament serves much the same function as in most Protestant churches (no efficacy for the forgiveness of sins, salvation, exalation, etc.) but a symbolic reminder of Christ’s sacrifice and atonement. Correct?

    Thanks to several for explaining the history of using water in particular.

    Comment by John Turner — June 6, 2008 @ 12:42 pm

  9. John – as the Pixton entry demonstrates, the Mormon conception of the Lord’s Supper is very Baptistic: memorialist, and, increasingly in the twentieth century, tied to a covenental understanding of baptism.

    Comment by matt b. — June 6, 2008 @ 12:45 pm

  10. The sacrament is typically (popularly at least) considered or interpretted to be a weekly renewal of the baptismal covenant, so it is related to forgiveness of sins and salvation in that sense.

    I beleive that the view of sacrament as baptismal renewal is a development in Mormonism that grew up over time, which I suspect may be somewhat related to the cessation of rebaptism during the 1890s and early 1900s (quite a transitionary period in a lot of ways). I may be off on that; it may be an even later development (or maybe that sense was around earlier), but that’s my thinking on the matter.

    Comment by stan — June 6, 2008 @ 12:49 pm

  11. One interesting vestige of the transition over time between the use of wine and the use of water in this ordinance is found in the hymns of the Church. For example, in “O God, the Eternal Father” the hymn reads:

    O God, th’Eternal Father, who dwells amid the sky,
    In Jesus’ name we ask thee to bless and sanctify,
    If we are pure before thee, this bread and cup of wine,
    That we may all remember that offering divine.

    (W.W. Phelps, circa 1834; as currently appearing in Hymns of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1985, no. 175, verse 1.)

    Reflecting the late 19th, earlier 20th century, is the hymn “Reverently and Meekly Now”

    In this bread now blest for thee, Emblem of my body see;
    In this water or this wine, Emblem of my blood divine.
    Oh, remember what was done that the sinner might be won.
    On the cross of Calvary I have suffered death for thee.

    (Joseph L. Townsend; appearing in Hymns: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints 1948, no. 280 v.2; also Hymns of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1985, no 185, v. 2)

    And later still is:

    With humble heart I bow my head
    And think of thee, O Savior, Lord.
    I take the water and the bread
    To show remembrance of the word.

    (Zara Sabin, appearing in Hymns of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1985, no. 171 v. 1.)

    In this Bread

    Comment by Coffinberry — June 6, 2008 @ 1:41 pm

  12. Stan (#10), that is my impression, though there needs to be some solid analysis to verify that.

    Comment by J. Stapley — June 6, 2008 @ 1:46 pm

  13. During my research on the Mormon Reformation I found that there was already a sense in which the sacrament was understood as a renewal process, even when it did coexist with rebaptism. This view shared mental space in the minds of 19th century Mormons with a much more explicit sense of forgivenes for sins than currently exists though. It might be worth noting just for the sake of context, that it wasn’t until the early to mid-1850s (it came earlier in SLC that outlying areas) that the sacrament was administered on a weekly basis.

    Comment by SC Taysom — June 6, 2008 @ 2:07 pm

  14. This seems to me a classic problem for someone interested in a lived religion or folk religion approach. Those of us who read our history closely, particularly who are aware of Protestant memorials, will tend to read it as matt b does, but actual Mormons on the ground will have a variety of approaches, some of which are more sacramental than memorial.

    A few issues worth considering in terms of whether the “sacrament” in folk Mormonism is actually sacramental:

    1. Are children allowed to partake and under what circumstances? (this varies; some explain a refusal to adminster to children as a ritual concern)
    2. How does restriction from sacrament under church discipline affect salvation status (say in the intermediate mode of disfellowshipment, in which rebaptism is not required)?
    3. What shall we do of the folk rhetoric of the water as “mini-baptisms”. Anecdotally, I know of LDS who hew strongly to this trope in a mode that borders on sacramental.
    4. What of the use of sacrament in the temple, how that narrative about the highest leaders partaking within the temple precincts affects broader views of this sacrament?
    5. What to do with people like my wife who centralize participation in “sacrament” within the 3-hour block (she does not feel she has attended church if she does not partake).
    6. What of the restriction of extra-ecclesial participation (at least on a folk level; I haven’t read the policy manual) to the discretion of the bishop?

    Comment by smb — June 6, 2008 @ 2:51 pm

  15. Stephen: Thanks for the correction. Interesting stuff.

    So where does idea of sacrament/Lord’s Supper as baptismal renewal/forgiveness of sins come from? Is it in early Methodism (Chris)? Or other traditions? Or is it a Mormon development?

    One other thing Underwood mentioned, using water in the sacrament/Lord’s Supper is not unique to Mormonism but can be found in other traditions throughout 19th and 20th centuries; it’s uncommon, but not unique. I don’t really know anything about that though.

    Comment by stan — June 6, 2008 @ 2:56 pm

  16. Stan, I didn’t think of it as a correction so much as an effort to add some nuance 🙂

    Another interesting wrinkle that I would add to smb’s list is the question of just exactly what is being renewed. Mormons that I have spoken to differ on the subject–some think that they are renewing only the baptismal covenant, some that they are renweing all covenants. Incidentally, the same kinds of problems adhere to a study of folk religion and the temple. That problem is especially difficult because it is spoken about infrequently and even then in formulaic ways.

    Comment by SC Taysom — June 6, 2008 @ 3:12 pm

  17. On the water thing, Grant Underwood is technically correct, but it is still very, very uncommon to find a congregation that uses water as part of a communion ritual. I mean like genuine Bigfoot sightings uncommon. But Matt knows more about that than I.

    Comment by SC Taysom — June 6, 2008 @ 3:16 pm

  18. SC, I think that’s actually a common view. It seems entailed by the theological notion of repenting of sins and no a sin. If you repent of your sins then that entails a renewal of all covenants.

    While Moroni 6 moves towards the memorial position there is work on the Nephite sacramental prayers and theology arising out of Benjamin’s speech. (There was a FARMS paper on this from the early 90’s which I can’t quite locate at the moment)

    Comment by Clark — June 6, 2008 @ 3:47 pm

  19. John Welch has written a few papers on that subject. Here’s one:

    Benjamin’s Covenant

    Comment by Justin — June 6, 2008 @ 4:24 pm

  20. But then, SC Taysom, isn’t is also unusual for a congregation to pass its communion to everyone in the congregation regardless of age? Since very small children are partaking, just as a practical matter… juice stains clothing when spilled, and wine is alcohol. For both reasons it makes sense to use water when little people are involved in the passing down the row.

    Comment by tona — June 6, 2008 @ 4:40 pm

  21. Tona,
    I’m not sure why you are addressing that question to me, I was offering a statement of fact about the relative rarity of the use of water, not offering a judgment about it. Your theory sounds as plausible to me as any other I suppose. Although, as has been pointed out above, wine was used throughout the nineteenth century and my guess is that it stained just as easliy then as it does now.

    Comment by SC Taysom — June 6, 2008 @ 5:07 pm

  22. Sam – I wonder if you’re conflating ritual with sacrament on a couple of your points there. The two are not necessarily one.

    Your third point, though, I find fascinating, relevant, and thought-provoking. Certainly, I think, in both official and popular discourse (to the extent that we can separate them, which is difficult and not entirely useful), baptism is sacramental because it remits our sins. As we’ve seen here, though, it’s unclear precisely what its relationship to the LS is. The hymns CF posted for example, at least to me, indicate primarily a memorial function – especially with that historically loaded word ’emblem.’ There is, though, a strong and generalized sacramental sense within Mormonism in general; we’re fond of our sacred objects (the garments being only the most common example). So it doesn’t surprise me that some of that should bleed over to the bread and water, though we’re still far from the Catholics there.

    Tangentially, what exactly does it mean to ‘renew’ a covenant? Is that some sort of metaphysical communion with God or is it merely re-commitment on our part? This is an important question that I’m not sure there’s an official answer to. (Kathleen Flake seems to imply the latter.)

    Stan – notions of the Lord’s Supper as a means of forgiving grace go, I think, all the way back to the traditional Catholic interpretation of the LS as an offering made to God by Christ to gain us forgiveness. The association of the two are pretty common, I think. Interpreting it as a renewal of covenants is present in Puritan liturgy.

    Comment by matt b — June 6, 2008 @ 5:43 pm

  23. matt b, agreed, it’s a murky definitional area. rituals can memorialize without bestowing salvation. What’s strange is that sacraments are implicitly so heavily theological that we often aren’t quite sure how to describe them in the lived experiences of believers.

    Comment by smb — June 6, 2008 @ 6:08 pm

  24. Matt, not all rituals are sacraments, no question about that. They are certainly different categories, but would you argue that sacraments are not (usually) rituals? The sacraments of which I am aware all fit in at least one of Bell’s genres of ritual action. Bell isn’t the be all and end all, but I think it’s a fairly widely accepted schema. I’m just curious about what sacraments might not be considered rituals as well.

    Comment by SC Taysom — June 6, 2008 @ 6:12 pm

  25. That was the one Justin. I think given the sacramental prayer language as well as the connections Welch brings up there is a strong performative view of it as a sacrament – which is not to neglect the memorial function as well. Both are present in the LDS language.

    As an aside it is sometimes interesting comparing the language for the sacrament in the Didiche with that in Moroni. There really is a different view.

    Comment by Clark — June 6, 2008 @ 7:06 pm

  26. Taysom – I think Sam’s got it; I probably should have added the suffix -al in my first sentence; that is, I’m saying that simply because a religious act is ritualized, doesn’t mean it’s conceived of as sacramental, in the sense of being a fixed channel for a particular type of grace.

    That’s a point about theology, not ritual, though I certainly do agree that ‘sacraments’ as acts are all rituals of one form or another.

    Comment by matt b — June 6, 2008 @ 7:21 pm

  27. Thanks Matt, that clears it up for me.

    Comment by SC Taysom — June 6, 2008 @ 7:28 pm

  28. This post brings to mind a guy I met on my mission in Pennsylvania. Some sisters in my zone (missions are divided into geographic zones with about 5-6 companionships in each) were teaching the guy. He had a long beard that grew way up high on his cheekbones, nearly to his eyeballs. He came to church several times and seemed really interested but he really took issue with water instead of wine in the sacrament. He was quite opposed to it. The sisters kept teaching him and he kept bringing it up. One night they were teaching him and he went kinda bizerk on them. He told them he was like a prophet and that he had a gift that allowed him to discern error. (He also had visions of oracular floating orbs.) He said Mormonism was one of the most scriptural churches he had attended but the one error was the use of water instead of wine. Then he burst into revelatory language and went off on some harangue that kinda weirded them out. He gave them some of his recorded prophesies, which they gave to me later (I was curious). It began: “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty…Thus saith the Spirit…” or something like that. I’ve still got it somewhere. Maybe I should dig it up so Matt can write a paper on it.

    I’m not making any comparisons, John, of course 🙂
    just came to mind as I was thinking about water instead of wine.

    Comment by stan — June 6, 2008 @ 10:27 pm

  29. Stan,

    You have to get the tapes out and give us a sample. Don’t let Matt have all the fun!

    Comment by SC Taysom — June 6, 2008 @ 10:39 pm

  30. Wow. Stan, you’ve got a knack for digging these people up. Floating orbs – those are a really common manifestation of ghosts. Hmmm.

    Comment by matt b. — June 7, 2008 @ 1:22 am

  31. We should get a digital camera and a digital recorder and go ghost hunting at that guy’s house.

    Comment by David G. — June 7, 2008 @ 1:01 pm

  32. See Wikipedia for a timeline of Sacrament changes

    Comment by J Lee — June 12, 2008 @ 2:11 pm


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