We believe that through the atonement of Christ all mankind may be saved by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel. We believe that these ordinances are 1st, Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; 2d, Repentance; 3d, Baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; 4th, Laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost.
- Joseph Smith, the Wentworth Letter, 1842
It is the privilege of all Sisters living as they should to administer the ordinances to their Sisters in sickness & the little ones in faith & humility even being careful to give God the Glory.
- Zina D. H. Young, discourse at the first Annual General Relief Society Conference, 1889
My wife teaches the young women of our ward, and as the youth curriculum is focusing on covenants and ordinances this month, we have begun to discuss the topic in our home. This is a subject that is of particular interest to me, and I think it is worth taking the time, at least in a venue such as this to talk about what ordinances are.
The Roman Church has generally celebrated seven “sacraments”: Baptism; Confirmation; the Lord’s Supper; Penance; Anointing the Sick (or dying); Ordination; and Marriage. These sound familiar to us. As far as I can tell, we picked up the term “ordinances” from other religious dissenters. I’ve seen eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Baptists use the term en lieu of “sacraments,” I’d assumed because of anti-Catholic sentiment, but probably also for genuine theological difference. Though even there some Baptists continued to use “sacraments.” And I’ve seen both early Methodists and Baptists call the Lord’s Supper, “the Sacrament.” If I were better read (note, I’m planning on working on this) I could probably tell you precisely when and why the terms were used and by who, and what they meant. However in the sense we are talking about salvific rituals performed by ecclesiastical authority, I don’t see anything particularly peculiar about the very early Mormon usages, speaking contextually.
And there, you see what I did? I already gave away a bit of my temporality. Perhaps you noticed the interesting usage of “ordinances” in the introductory quotations. The original articles of faith listed “Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ” as the first ordinance of the Gospel. That may seem peculiar if ordinances are rituals performed by others for us. But this is not the totality of the term’s usage. In fact the issue of the Times and Seasons immediately following the publication of the Wentworth Letter included a section entitled “An Ordinance Regulating Actions, in the City of Nauvoo.” This was a municipal law (or municipal ordinance, if you will), regulating certain aspects of commerce within the city. Ordinances are laws. As I remember, it was James Talmage that edited the Articles of Faith to our current form for the 1921 edition (help me out, I’m too lazy to look it up). By that time “ordinance” had a catechismal value that didn’t correspond well to the original text. Maybe we can blame Jaques.
But if we want to limit ordinances to the sacerdotal functions analogous to the Roman seven, then what of our peculiar Mormonisms? Women had been laying their hands on the sick, anointing, and blessing since Kirtland. When Zina spoke in the 1889 conference, she had already blessed thousands. In fact that year alone, she blessed at least 189 people. To be fair some people said that this wasn’t an ordinance. Lot’s of rituals and ritualized activities aren’t recognized as such, even some currently requiring priesthood ordination. And what of the temple? Or non-Salvific rituals, like baby blessing? Are the initiatory rituals of the Temple an ordinance? And if they are, by what authority are they performed?
Authority. That is the real peculiarity, and perhaps locus of our confusion. The Venn diagram is a mess. Trust me. I actually quite like the recent quasi-Roman approach to classifying certain rituals. But I also think that it is important to recognize that not everything fits so nicely into that box.