Recent posts here at BCC have considered the ideas of ordinances and covenants—the terms themselves and how the Latter-day Saint understanding of them has developed over time. In this post, I would like to consider these concepts in still another light. I believe that it is our particular regimen of covenants (which are made in ritual contexts we call ordinances) that imparts to the LDS way of life most if not all of its distinctive energy.
Some have argued that a belief in Joseph Smith as a prophet in very deed, in the Book of Mormon as an authentic ancient record, and in the current leaders of the Church as prophets, seers, and revelators are the indispensable hallmarks of being LDS. Certainly such demarcations might be invoked as the point beyond which, if one still wants to claim to be LDS or Mormon, a qualifier such as “cultural” or “social” or “lapsed” or even “unbelieving” might be warranted. But even assent to certain key beliefs does not really get at what is transformative and identity-forming in our tradition. What makes a real Latter-day Saint identifiable as such is not just her doctrinal commitments, but the way that covenants she has made have shaped her human relationships, lifestyle choices, and devotional practice.
Covenants order our communities, our families, and our lives. They have temporal and physical effects such that even if belief fades and practice lapses, the stamp of covenants upon the social, familial, and cultural topography of daily life does not wash off in a day or even for years, if ever.
This emphasis on making and keeping covenants—sacred promises made or renewed in the ritual contexts of ordinances like baptism, the sacrament, the endowment, and marriage sealing—constitutes what I have come to think of as the discipline of Mormonism (taking the latter term to refer specifically to the LDS tradition in this instance). We make more sacred promises than any other Christ-centric tradition of which I am aware, and we endow those promisees with sustained spiritual and social gravity. Some of the ways we do this include:
- Repetition. After baptism, by which we enter into the new and everlasting covenant with a promise to keep the Lord’s commandments (which are myriad), take his name upon us, and become a part of the covenant community of the Saints, we renew these promises on a weekly basis in partaking of the Lord’s supper—the sacrament. There has also been in the past two decades or so an accelerated emphasis on returning to the temple as often as circumstances permit. In the temple we are reminded of promises we have made in that setting.
- Purity requirements. Baptism is the means by which we enter into covenant, and confirmation—right after baptism—is intended to lead to cleansing by the Holy Spirit. Thereafter, we are expected—expected both socially and ecclesiastically—to maintain lives of cleanliness and repentance in connection with the weekly sacrament. This ritual purity is also required of those who would go to the temple, setting the promises made there in a category apart from New Year’s resolutions, self-improvement goals, or even legal contracts. We see legal contracts as binding, certainly, but a covenant feels just as weighty as a contract to a Latter-day Saint, even though there is no signed instrument or penal code to back it up.
- Disciplinary regime. This is related to the purity requirements. Covenants are treated seriously in that certain violations of them are regarded as grounds for formal ecclesiastical review and possible disciplinary actions such as disfellowshipment or excommunication.
- Maintenance of sacred space. The baptismal font, though usually connected with a primary room, is partitioned away and only opened for the ordinance itself. The chapel, where the sacrament is administered, is likewise to be used only for meetings of a reverent character. For all other purposes, our buildings include cultural halls or other rooms apart from the main sanctuary of the chapel. And the highest decorum and the most subdued vocal registers are expected in the temple, where regimentation prevails and where great efforts are expended to maintain an atmosphere of serenity and worship at all times.
- Formality and order. Also related to the purity requirements and the maintenance of sacred space is the elevated behavior and dress associated with the making of covenantal promises. The covenant-making and disciplinary framework of the Church is anchored to the geographies in which we live our lives–the wards and stakes to which we are assigned (we don’t pick and choose) and by which we are organized, or “set in order.” Sunday best is encouraged for services where the sacrament is administered, and is expected in the temples. In such settings we often address our leaders and one another by formal titles (President, Bishop, Brother, Sister, etc.). There are handbooks and policies, and even an “unwritten order” of things that all serve to spell-out and maintain the highly structured social and ecclesiastical organization of the Church.
- Language. There is a certain tone of language—associated and imbued with the language of scripture—that is used in covenantal settings as well. It is prescribed, even scripted, and set apart in that way from other speech modes that we use, even at Church.
As should be obvious to anyone reading this summary of LDS formalities, they come with an inherent risk. It can be tempting in a tradition such as this to slide too far toward a legalistic, even pharisaical approach in which the means of solemnizing covenants and investing them with seriousness become ends in themselves. Unfortunately, stories of policies being rigidly enforced to the wounding of the actual people they were meant to bless are known to most members of the Church. So are stories of members who rebel against any kind of high expectation for behavior, dress, or language such that they fail to appreciate the goods that times and places of formality have to offer. But when it is done right—when LDS practice weds and balances its sense of covenantal gravity with “kindness and pure knowledge,” when we open ourselves to the dramatic tension of living with both high expectations and deep patience for ourselves and each other, when the Church is as true as the gospel (to borrow Eugene England’s beautiful phrase), then our attitudes and actions combine to invest our covenants with lively force and we gain access to some of the richest veins of grace that being a Latter-day Saint has to offer.
Questions: In what other ways does LDS practice impart gravity to the covenants that form its core? Are there practices—official or otherwise—that might detract from them? How do other faith traditions that you are familiar with compare to the LDS approach to sacred promises? What are some specific examples of how covenants contribute to the formation of LDS identity? To what extent does the density of local LDS populations impact the way that covenants are perceived and lived? Is there one covenant or many?
NOTE: This post is the sixth in a series based on the monthly themes from “Come, Follow Me,” the new youth curriculum for the Church. Here are the previous posts for January, February, March, April, May, and June.