Scholarly Inquiry: Dan Belnap on Ritual, Pt. 2

By July 10, 2014

The stirring conclusion of our conversation with Dan Belnap on ritual in Mormon Studies. For those new to the conversation, refer to Part 1.

One of the challenges faced by theorists of practice and ritual is defining precisely what these categories are and what they encompass. Do you have any opinions on the scope of Mormon ritual studies or, for that matter, on the boundaries of Mormon liturgy?

Obviously, my answer to the first question will be personal. I’ll begin by stating that I find great strength in LDS orthodoxy. I know that some believe that scholarly study is limited by this, but I have found just the opposite. Thus, I do not set out to study ritual in order to criticize or undermine the church’s structural or doctrinal integrity. Yet this does not mean that one cannot look critically at LDS history interpretations of doctrine, nor does this necessarily create an “either/or” conflict. For instance, many have noted the similarity between the masonic ritual system and the LDS endowment. While some see this as proof that the church’s claims of authenticity are compromised, others simply ignore the relationship. I see a third position, one in which God established the temple ritual system utilizing a system that Joseph Smith was familiar with. I’ve often wondered what our liturgy would be like if Joseph had been more familiar with Greek or Russian orthodoxy instead.

In terms of some parameters, I categorize LDS ritual in three categories: salvific, non-salvific ordinances, and, what Bob Millet calls sacramental living. The first refers to those rituals that necessary for salvation. This would include baptism, marriage and sealing rites, and the endowment. They can be characterized as LDS “high ritual,” or formalized ritual that highlights the ecclesiastical structure of the church and are singular in that they are only performed once for a given individual. As the second term suggests, the second form of LDS ritual are those that are not necessary for salvation, but are characterized from the third form by the explicit use of priesthood. These would include naming, the sacrament, blessings, interviews, etc.. While not necessary for salvation, they do benefit the lives of others while here in mortality, thus Millet’s designation of them as ordinances of comfort. The final category are those that do not require priesthood authority, but are formalized nonetheless. These can include the individualized ritualization of daily scripture study and prayer. Family home evening may be included in this category. All three categories are fascinating to me in terms of their ritual importance to the LDS experience. As for the liturgy itself, I think nothing indicates better the concept of continuing revelation that the innovations that have occurred in our ritual structure since Joseph Smith. Contrary to popular belief, ritual is often adapted to reflect cultural and social change. This is certainly true for LDS ritual. I have no idea, and certainly have no authority to determine, what the next innovations will be, but I’m pretty confident that they will happen.

Also contested among theorists is the nature of the relationship between religious rituals and religious beliefs. Do you see Mormonism, presently or in the past, entailing a particular idea about the meaning or purpose of ritual? What kind of meaning do Mormon rituals have for those who participate in them?

According to Ronald Grimes: “no one can accuse of the Mormons of being ritually flat or theologically shy.” As I’ve stated a couple of times, our religious experience does not separate our doctrine from our ritual. Instead, the two are synergetic. Our rituals embody our understanding of salvation and our doctrines inform the significance of our rituals. Of the texts that we do have, both scriptural and teachings from prophets in this dispensation, it would appear that our rituals facilitate the interaction between the mortal and divine realms. For instance, if we understand “ordinance” to be “ritual” then the following statement by Joseph Smith takes on new meaning: “Reading the experience of others, or the revelation given to them, can never give us a comprehensive view of our condition and true relation to God. Knowledge of these things can only be obtained by experience through the ordinances of God set forth for that purpose. Could you gaze into heaven for five minutes, you would know than you would by reading all that ever was written on the subject; I assure the Saints that truth, in reference to these matters, can and may be known through the revelations of God in the way of his ordinances, and in answer to prayer. Similarly, in Doctrine and Covenants 84:18-22, we are told that the “power of godliness” is manifest in the ordinances of the priesthood. As for the meaning, one of the things that I find most fascinating about a ritual experience is that for all its communal meaning it is an intensely personal, especially when performing rituals that are not fully explained. In many cases, our ritual behavior is intuitive in symbolic meaning. Baptism as an act that symbolizes transformation or rebirth via physical immersion is somewhat obvious. But other rituals are less clear. Much of the temple endowment falls into this latter category. In this ritual series the reasons as to why the specific actions are to be performed are not really explained. We are given a context within the ritual itself, but the actions are independent to the overall narrative. And in these cases, the ritual becomes open to one’s individual significance in terms of meaning. In other words, what the ritual means exactly becomes a highly personalized definition. Since no meaning is explicitly given the performer is free to define the rite in their own manner. There is a lot of latent power in such an opportunity.

One of the insights that emerges from the historical study of ritual is the recognition that rituals change and are adapted over time. How should the development of Mormon rituals be analyzed? What, if anything, can an awareness of the dynamism of ritual contribute to our larger narratives of Mormon history?

Again, I’m not sure there is any particular methodology that “should” be addressed over others. Traditional LDS ritual study has focused on the symbolic nature of ritual or on ritual continuity between dispensations and I believe that these are still productive approaches. Others have begun to explore the sociological factor of ritual as well as the historical development of particular ritual forms. Megan Sanborn Jones has reviewed the relationship between performance and ritual. Personally, I’m fascinated with the physiological effects of ritual and the doctrinal implications of these effects. I think this is vibrant time for ritual studies and I expect to see more done among LDS scholarship. As for the last question, I’m reminded of a quote by Gerald Bradford who has said: “The experiential, ritual, ethical and legal, and material dimensions of Mormonism all have one thing in common: relatively little attention has been paid to them. These elements need to be integrated with other dimensions of the faith and compared with like characteristics in other religions before the tradition’s structural makeup is fully portrayed. What it means to be a Latter-day Saint is reflected in the experiential and ritual dimensions of the faith every bit as much as in what adherents believe or in the sacred writings they hold dear. In terms of religious experiences, despite the fact that the tradition is noted for having collected massive amounts of firsthand personal accounts in the form of correspondence, diaries, journals, and so on, there is a dearth of academic studies dealing with this dimension.” I couldn’t agree more and I look forward to see what will happen.

Article filed under Ritual Scholarly Inquiry


  1. “I see a third position, one in which God established the temple ritual system utilizing a system that Joseph Smith was familiar with.”

    I believe there is precedent for this position. When Jesus took His disciples to the upper room for Passover, He basically reinterpreted the elements of the Seder meal – the unleavened bread and wine – into a remembrance of His body and blood. Just as members of the Nauvoo lodge would have been familiar with the aspects of masonic ritual, the Jewish disciples would have been well familiar with the God Saves His People aspect of the original Passover now being transferred to the act of Jesus dying on the cross.

    Comment by larryco_ — July 14, 2014 @ 4:25 am

  2. There are dozens of precedents for the idea that revelation can adapt, reinterpret, and recontextualize preexisting cultural elements. Glad to see this come up.

    Comment by Ben S — July 16, 2014 @ 8:22 pm


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