“Undone:” The Contours of a Folk Tale

By March 4, 2014

There?s a new Mormon urban legend making the rounds.

You may have heard it before ? even from me.

The story goes like this: an infant has been brought to be blessed and given a name in a Mormon sacrament meeting, a public rite of passage initiating the newborn into the community of the congregation, and by extension, into the Church as a whole. The father for whatever reason is unavailable to perform the ceremony, so an elderly relative, generally a grandfather, steps in. The child is brought before the congregation, the old man lays his hands upon it, and promptly ordains the child to priestly office. The blessing ritual has been bungled.

In most variants, it is the Melchizedek priesthood, usually reserved for all active adult men (and the authority by which the grandfather performed the rite in the first place) that is bestowed, which heightens the incongruity. In every variant, the child is a girl, barred from priestly office in the LDS church. That?s the first punchline.

The second follows: after various leaders express alarm, the grandfather waves him off, turns back to the child, waves his hand over it, and declares ?Undone.?

I first heard this story in 2008, told to me by a dear friend in my own congregation. It was presented as something she had witnessed shortly before I arrived. So I retold it for a couple of years as an event that had taken place in my ward. Then, I began to hear it from others ? a friend in California, my brother in law in Utah, and now, another friend in Kansas ? and am now reconsidering. It appears to be metastasizing in the way that all good urban legends do.

There are a number of aspects of this story worth interrogating ? particularly why it?s taking off at the present moment. I will suggest two, but feel free to speculate more.

First, there?s the gendered aspects of the story. The story?s plot ? and much of its appeal ? turns on the giddily transgressive act of the ordination of a girl. The stakes of female ordination here are heightened precisely because it occurs in such a typical ritual setting, thus, the story breaks the ordered cosmos and sends a congregation into the dizzy carnival of disrupted expectations.

But the story wouldn?t heft the weight it does without the second aspect: that word ?undone.? The ultimate loopiness of the narrative lies in the fact that the restoration of normal order in this story is achieved only through further disruption: the grandfather?s apparent invention of a ritual practice. What?s interesting here is that the story points to the innovation, inventiveness, and ad hoc nature that indeed characterized much of early Mormon ritual-making before the settlements of practice in the twentieth century. In the story, then, we hear echoes of an old ritual past, marshalled here to defend the conservative entrenchment of the twentieth century.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism Cultural History Ritual


  1. True, when I first heard it (from you!) I completely compartmentalized it with the “shaking off of one’s feet” ritual, which is both a negative ritual and hopefully as inefficacious/silly in the grand scheme of it all.

    I’m curious if most modern Mormons, those who know about it (there are some interesting threads going on about whether or not most Mormons even know about women participating in healing blessings) would categorize early Mormon women’s rituals as “ad hoc” –something that wasn’t necessarily necessary (“obviously” some would say “since we don’t do it now”) but was part of the try-as-you-go part of the restoration.

    Comment by EmJen — March 4, 2014 @ 12:31 am

  2. The version I have heard didn’t mention that the baby was a girl. Maybe that twist was added later to the story.

    Comment by Niklas — March 4, 2014 @ 2:27 am

  3. My favorite part of first hearing this story was that it was at a gathering at MHA, and Darius Gray, who was present, blurted out, “if only I knew that that was all it took!”

    Comment by Ben P — March 4, 2014 @ 9:16 am

  4. “the story points to the innovation, inventiveness, and ad hoc nature that indeed characterized much of early Mormon ritual-making before the settlements of practice in the twentieth century”


    Comment by J. Stapley — March 4, 2014 @ 1:10 pm

  5. …and as a sidenote, ordaining infants to the priesthood (Melchizedek even), wasn’t completely uncommon in the 19th century. E.g., WW ordained his son Joseph as part of his baby blessing. No examples of female baby ordination, though.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 4, 2014 @ 1:12 pm

  6. After thinking about this this morning, I also think it is interesting the disconnect between how members and the institution view the efficacy of particular rituals. In the modern church, I believe that unless a particular ordination (or other salvific ritual) is recorded it isn’t considered valid. Moreover, for something like a sealing cancellation (the temple seems to be the originating locus for these views), a FP member can authorize a cancellation, but it isn’t really canceled until it is so noted in the records of the temple. So who has authority to cancel a sealing? The recorder of the temple?

    At the moment of an action, I doubt very many participants in Mormon liturgy think that the act itself isn’t efficacious, regardless of whether someone writes it down. A method to cancel the words seems necessary then.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 4, 2014 @ 3:02 pm

  7. J. Stapley, Those are some really interesting questions. When does a priesthood ordinance become effective? Does it depend on the ordinance? Or, as you indicate, in some instances only when it is recorded? Is there an assumption that as soon as an ordinance occurs, it is recorded somewhere? In heaven, if not on earth? And what’s the difference, if any, between an ordinance taking effect and being valid? The mind starts to boggle a little …

    Comment by Gary Bergera — March 4, 2014 @ 4:38 pm

  8. And 5 years later, that little girl uses her priesthood to raise her grandfather from the dead…

    Comment by lemuel — March 4, 2014 @ 8:38 pm

  9. That sounds like a story I heard from a good friend who is a religious history professor who loves to speak expressively with his whole body as he explicates fascinating intricacies of religion and philosophy. He’s not the kind of guy who would mislead me, though, so I’m pretty sure this isn’t an urban legend. Which is to say, couldn’t be.
    [I agree that there’s something here about the space between word and power that is not quite brought to consciousness as this story circulates; nice]

    Comment by smb — March 4, 2014 @ 9:28 pm

  10. FWIW, the tight correlation between (salvific) ritual act and true and faithful record comes pretty early, certainly by 1842 and the revelations regarding baptism for the dead. Sealing = recording, etc. for example, all the early proxy baptisms that went unrecorded subsequently had to be repeated, observing the proper forms for witnessing, documentation, etc.

    Comment by Ryan T. — March 5, 2014 @ 12:12 am

  11. Those letters do seem to be the formal beginning (though important antecedents exist). Outside of the temple liturgy, I’ve wondered how long it took to extend to other salvific rituals.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 5, 2014 @ 1:33 am

  12. Fascinating and fun, Matt. Thanks.

    Comment by Christopher — March 5, 2014 @ 3:38 pm


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