Mormon Rituals: Ordinances or Sacraments?

By March 21, 2014

This quick-and-dirty 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 commendable.

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 others. 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 [1].

Protestants of almost every stripe in early America took the ordinances of 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” [2]. 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 [3]. 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 [4]. 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 rituals 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” [5]. 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” [6].

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?



[1] 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

[2] Ibid., s.v. ?Baptism,? 32.

[3] 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],

[4] For this sense, see Joseph Smith?s letters on baptism for the dead, e.g. Doctrine and Covenants, 1844, 420-430 [D&C 128].

[5] Ibid., 113 [D&C 84:20].

[6] ?Nauvoo?We Spent a Sabbath with the Mormons,? New York Spectator, 23 Aug 1843, 4.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. This is very, very smart stuff, Ryan. I can’t give much of a comment since I should be listening to conference papers, but this reminded me of JS’s Nauvoo sealing theology, where he told saints to be “crafty” in their sealing so that God would be forced to honor their union.

    Comment by Ben P — March 21, 2014 @ 2:30 pm

  2. This is a really interesting angle that I’ve never before considered. It would seem that Mormon rites are not “ordinances” in the sense that they are merely symbols of inward commitments, but on the other hand they do not seem like they are the channels whereby God’s grace is administered, either. It seems to me that Mormonism takes a more legalistic approach where ordinances are the formal “signatures” on a legally binding agreement – legally necessary for administrative purposes. Maybe this stems from Mormon ontology and anthropology, in which all the beings/intelligences in the Universe are separate, self-existent entities but are bound together through loving agreements.

    Comment by Syphax — March 21, 2014 @ 7:24 pm

  3. This is a fascinating post, Ryan. I’m not sure where I come down, there’s absolutely justification for both sides. I’m personally in favor of sacraments.

    Comment by J Stuart — March 21, 2014 @ 7:49 pm

  4. Very much agreed, Ryan. One curiosity is “the Sacrament” of the Lord’s Supper. I’ve seen Puritans and then later both Methodists and Baptists during hate SGA call it simply “the sacrament.” I have no real handle on how that terminology developed.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 21, 2014 @ 11:42 pm

  5. Thanks, all. Syphax, I think you’re spot on, although I’m fascinated by the “in the ordinances…the power of God is manifest.” I’d really like to study that more and see precisely what that meant/was interpreted–whether that was a reference to non-sacramental ordinances (e.g. healing) or whether there is a sense that baptism, for instance, is a channel of divine power.

    J, you’re quite right. And of course there’s that same usage in Mormonism, which I couldn’t get to in this post. I’d also love to know where it comes from, but no idea yet.

    Comment by Ryan T. — March 22, 2014 @ 5:18 am

  6. I like Joseph Smith’s description of these ordinances/sacraments as authoritative signs. Therefore grace is not so much administered as it is placing authorized signs on individuals which are recognized by heaven whereby these individuals might receive grace and the blessings of heaven by abiding by the conditions belonging to those signs.

    The fullness of the power of God then cannot be given or made manifest until these signs are first given, and then the conditions of the sign are met.

    What if we should attempt to get the gift of the Holy Ghost through any other means except the signs or way which God hath appointed? would we obtain it? Certainly not; all other means would fail. The Lord says do so and so, and I will bless you.

    There are certain key words and signs belonging to the Priesthood which must be observed in order to obtain the blessing. The sign [taught by] Peter was to repent and be baptized for the remission of sins, with the promise of the gift of the Holy Ghost; and in no other way is the gift of the Holy Ghost obtained.

    There is a difference between the Holy Ghost and the gift of the Holy Ghost. Cornelius received the Holy Ghost before he was baptized, which was the convincing power of God unto him of the truth of the Gospel, but he could not receive the gift of the Holy Ghost until after he was baptized. Had he not taken this sign or ordinance upon him, the Holy Ghost which convinced him of the truth of God, would have left him. Until he obeyed these ordinances and received the gift of the Holy Ghost, by the laying on of hands, according to the order of God, he could not have healed the sick or commanded an evil spirit to come out of a man, and it obey him; for the spirits might say unto him, as they did to the sons of Sceva: ?Paul we know and Jesus we know, but who are ye??? (History of the Church, 4:555; from a discourse given by Joseph Smith on Mar. 20, 1842)

    Comment by SteveF — March 22, 2014 @ 11:40 am

  7. Nice work Ryan. I touch on some of this stuff tangentially in the diss. The grimoires borrowed heavily from the Catholic liturgy and I argue that JS was influenced by the grimoires.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — March 23, 2014 @ 4:57 pm

  8. Fascinating stuff, and far outside my area.

    A few questions-

    Can you expand on male ordination as a saving ordinance?

    Should we equate “the power of godliness” with “the power of God”? I’m not sure if Ryan T’s comment is making that equation, or if it’s just mental shorthand, but I see a real difference between these two terms.

    God’s power (i.e. “the power of God”) may be manifest or visible much more in some ordinances than others; the tangible before-and-after difference in a healing is potentially very different than that at baptism, for example.

    But all the saving ordinances relate in a way to “the power of Godliness” i.e. the ability to become as God is, as successive ritual passages that evince progress towards godliness.

    Comment by Ben S — March 24, 2014 @ 9:22 am

  9. Ben (and Ryan), I hope that you don’t mind if I jump in. Ordination to the ecclesiastical priesthood of the church is often read through the lens of the “oath and covenant of the priesthood” which frames ordination in explicitly salvific terms. Ordination is also necessary for males to participate in the temple liturgy.

    For the last 120 years or so (particularly hastened during the years of correlation) to associate the priesthood with the “power of god.” Check out the worldwide leadership training videos from last year as a great example of this framework. It maps quite poorly onto early Mormonism.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 24, 2014 @ 10:28 am

  10. Thanks, J.

    Yeah, Ben, the question of understandings about divine power in the ordinances is an important one that I can’t speak to very well yet. The reference to “the power of godliness” is interesting but needs to be contextualized in other contemporary discourse. J, we ought to discuss this further.

    Comment by Ryan T. — March 25, 2014 @ 12:11 am

  11. BTW, has anyone looked at
    By Our Rites of Worship: Latter-day Saint Views on Ritual in History, Scripture, and Practice
    Edited by Daniel L. Belnap ?

    Dan was ahead of my at UChicago, and very sharp. Diss on Ugaritic ritual liquids or some such.

    Comment by Ben S — April 3, 2014 @ 8:22 pm

  12. There is a solid chapter on the development of the modern Mormon healing ritual, Ben S. That is for sure! Seriously though, it is an interesting volume. The intros are great, and I like the chapters in the last section (except Millet’s). The ancient stuff was a mixed bag.

    Comment by J. Stapley — April 3, 2014 @ 9:24 pm


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