The Bare Facts of LDS Ritual

SC Taysom earned a BA degree in History from BYU and an MA and Ph.D. in the History of Religion with a specialty in American Religious History and Ritual Studies from Indiana University, Bloomington. He has published on Mormon and Shaker topics in Dialogue, the Western Historical Quarterly, and various other venues. He will participate this November in the inaugural panel of the Mormon Studies Consultation at the American Academy of Religion’s annual meeting. He lives in Bloomington, Indiana, with his wife and two children.

Jonathan Z. Smith is, arguably, the most influential representative of the History of Religions school since Mircea Eliade. In an important essay from the early 1980s called “The Bare Facts of Ritual,”* Smith upends what had been the dominant scholarly interpretation of a class of rituals performed by a wide range of northern hunting cultures. Although the details varied, all of the rituals involved a mimesis of the actual hunt, in which an animal is killed according to strict, elaborate and specific criteria that would be nearly impossible to replicate during the hunt itself. Before Smith, scholars viewed such rituals as attempts at magically prefiguring the actual hunt in the hope that like would beget like and that the “real world” hunt would match the perfection of the ritual hunt. Smith offered a new interpretation based on two factors: first, the notion that the power of the ritual comes from its dissimilarity to what actually happened on the hunt, and second, the idea that although the hunters themselves were intelligent enough to realize that the ritual and the reality never met, they continued to perform the ritual anyway.

The ritual, according to Smith, represented “a perfect hunt with all the variables controlled….Such a ceremony performed before taking on an actual hunt demonstrates that the hunter knows full well what ought to transpire if he were in control; the fact that the ceremony is held is eloquent testimony that the hunter knows full well that it will not transpire, that he is not in control.” So what good are such rituals? Smith suggests that through their ability to present a world in which “contingency, variability, and accidentality have been factored out,” they “display a dimension of the hunt that can be thought about and remembered in the course of things,” and that they further “provide a focusing lens on the ordinary hunt which allows its full significance to be perceived.”

The first time I read Smith’s essay, I immediately thought about the rituals of the LDS Church—those with which I was most familiar as a participant. I have always been a little uncomfortable with the question about keeping all of my covenants that is posed during the temple recommend interviews. Considering the comprehensive nature of those covenants, I am convinced that no one keeps all of them perfectly. To what extent, I wondered, are rituals such as the temple endowment or even the sacrament instructive in their dissimilarity with real life? Our covenants are comprehensive in their requirements for righteousness and we enter into them with the knowledge that we will fall short, but we enter into them anyway. Those who disagree with Smith would argue that we partake of the sacrament each week believing that this time, unlike all of the previous times, we really will always remember Him and keep the commandments we have been given. Smith’s argument would suggest that we partake in full appreciation of the fact that we will not always remember nor will we keep all of the commandments, but we would if “contingency, variability, and accidentality have been factored out,” and for a brief moment at the time of the ritual, we do and they are. After that, all we can do is strive to make the ideal and the reality meet with the understanding that only in the sacred ritual space will such full congruence be achieved. Does Smith’s model of mimetic ritual and the power of perfect expectation and imperfect execution have anything to tell us as Latter-day Saints? Does Smith’s model fail to apply because of our belief in a redeemer who bridges the gap between the ideal and the performance?

*Jonathan Z. Smith, “The Bare Facts of Ritual,” in Smith, Imagining Religion From Babylon to Jonestown (Chicago, 1982): 53-65.


  1. SC, thanks for the post and welcome. I think that Smith’s model works better in Mormonism’s salvific ordinances than for its non-salvific rituals. No body believes that once they are baptized and washed clean of their sins that they will endure in that state for more than an instant. In fact it appears that the language of baptism to wash away sins has ceded to the language of baptism for a covenant relationship with Christ and the Church. I think the sacrament can be best viewed that way as well. The temple is a bit more complicated, as we only go once for ourselves…I’m not sure how proxy work fits into this.

    Healing rituals, on the other hand, have gone through a transition in Mormonism, but I’m not sure that either the early rituals or the rituals today are explained by Smith. In early Mormonism, the Saints would struggle daily to administer in a fashion that yielded results. You see family and community administering multiple times, sometimes scores of times over weeks and months, or you see Saints making pilgrimages to the Temple for special healing rituals. Now we administer once and hope that it is efficacious and according to Gods will. Perhaps this latter praxis is closer to Smith? But it still hopes for an actual realization of the ritual promise.

  2. SC Taysom says:

    You point out an important element in Mormon thought that has been under appreciated, namely the wide range of ritual types within Mormonism. Also, as you correctly pointed out with regard to healing rites, many Mormon rituals have a protean quality that makes them hard to pin down long enough for a model like the one Smith proposes to work (I think for example of rebaptism, which in the nineteenth century often preceded important events such as receiving the endowment or being sealed in the temple). The endowment is interesting because, although we only do it once for ourselves and technically do not renew the covenants in subsequent visits, I think that most Mormons view their repeat endowment sessions as an opportunity to “renew” those covenants.

  3. Agreed. As a side note, this is an area that hasn’t received nearly as much attention than it deserves. There are hosts of studies yet to be done and published. Do you think people view their temple proxy work as a personal renewal? I’m not ready to say that is incorrect, but I am not so sure, either.

  4. SC Taysom says:

    All I have to offer is anecdotal evidence (and we all know that the plural of anecdote isn’t data), but I frequently hear people mention something a long the lines that they enjoyed going to the temple to “renew” their covenants. I was teaching a gospel doctrine class on the sacrament once several years ago and I asked the class how we renew our covenants. The first answer was during the sacrament, and the next answer was during repeat visits to the temple. A majority of the class agreed with this, so we looked at official church statements about how the sacrament is the only ordinance that we receive repeatedly for ourselves. So, at least on a very limited scale I have found some indication that members of the church see their temple experiences as somehow effecting a renewal. It would be interesting to conduct a formal study, or even an informal survey, to see how many people have heard expressions about “renewing” covenants at the temple.

  5. /Threadjack

    I miss Bloomington. That’s where I joined the Church. I knew some Taysoms there. They were great people. One of them taught me how to bless the Sacrament.

    AS for the renewing nature of the Temple, while it may not be official doctrine that we are “renewing” our covenants, we are definitely reviewing them. Perhaps the question is what do we even mean when we say we are “renewing”

  6. SC Taysom says:

    Strangely enough, I am related to the other Bloomington Taysoms only distantly–our common ancestor Charles Taysom joined the church in Herefordshire (think Benbow Farm) in the early 1840s.

    I think you draw a useful distinction between renewing and reviewing, one that had not occurred to me before.

  7. Mark IV says:

    Isn’t this also a useful way to think of events like baby blessings, and the way we set people apart for callings? When people receive new callings, they are usually blessed that they will work tirelessly and valiantly in their callings, but often the reality doesn’t match the ideal. And even when contingencies and variables intrude, I still like to envision the ideal.

  8. SC–welcome, thanks for blogging with us.

    I’ve never thought of the temple as a renewal. That language is interesting. I wonder if it’s just gotten absorbed since we talk about sacrament covenants that way. Except it’s renewing a covenant from a different ordinance entirely. Language surrounding ordinances/covenants sure gets wacky–like what the heck does it mean to “take out” your endowments? Take them out and what? put them in your pocket?

    As a younger person, I believed I could somehow do better so that week I was really committing to being perfect. As I grew up and gained a more realistic view of life and the choices that I make it became more like Smith’s example.

  9. SC Taysom says:

    Mark IV
    Your point about the ritual of being set apart is interesting and helpful. One more example of the tremendous variety of rituals in the LDS tradition

    I have always assumed that the renewal of covenants trope is grounded in the language we use to describe the sacrament (which, by the way is an interesting Mormon usage in itself– for most Christians “sacrament” is so generic a term that our use of it to refer exclusively to the Lord’s Supper causes confusion among some outsiders–it is like referring to something as “the ritual”). The thing that has always struck me about the “taking out my (your, his, her) endowments” line is that it uses a plural even though the ordinance is formally known as the temple endowment, not the temple endowments. Maybe this is a throwback to the days when second anointings, sometimes called second endowments, were common?

  10. “performed before taking on an actual hunt demonstrates that the hunter knows full well what ought to transpire if he were in control; the fact that the ceremony is held is eloquent testimony that the hunter knows full well that it will not transpire, that he is not in control”
    I am going to read on, but I am not buying any of this so far. I think the Hunter feels the ‘ritual’ will put him in power. A football player, on Wed. does not caught a pass in practice, and think “too bad that will never happen on Sat.” No, He feels he is ready to ‘take control’ the game, because he’s got his mind right.

  11. That’s catch a pass….

  12. SC Taysom says:


    I probably did Smith an injustice with my brief description of the hunting ritual. The important point about it is that none of the things that the ritual requires could actually happen in real life. It would be like a footbal ritual in which the defense lies down and willingly allows the offense to score. Would that happen? Probably not, but it might do just as you suggest and empower the team and mentally prepare them for a defense that would not lie down. Also, there is a difference between practice and ritual. The hunters did not use the ritual to enhance their hunting skills, something that did every day of their lives, but rather as an incantation to help provide a bountiful hunt.

  13. Another discomfort for me is this idea that those preforming rituals, don’t know what’s going on. To me rituals are to provide a sense of understanding and control, for the the ‘simple ‘ mind, not misunderstandings of whats going on.

  14. Not sure that I follow, bob.

  15. #12: I guess it another case of talking passes each other. To me, a ritual is an act of magic, a way of gaining power, it can “enhance your hunting skills”. It is not asking a favor of a God, for things to work out well, that would be more in the line of Religion.
    #14, I read in many of the above comments, people saying they did not know the rituals had deeper meaning or that they did not understand, fully at some point, what the ritual meant. (see renewal). To me. a ritual is simple and to the point. (like a “High Five!”).

  16. When I attend the temple I know I am receiving, by proxy, an endowment for another. However, on a personal level, I feel like I also review / recommit to / “renew” those covenants for myself.

    (In terms of your informal survey, SC, I try not to “say” renew, but I likely “think” renew when what I really mean is recommit to or review.)

    Along with the sacrament, the temple covenants are a definitive method I use to measure my personal obedience and progression – how I am doing and in what areas I am in need of more humility, repentance, and reliance on the Lord. I have never come away disappointed with that approach.

    “Renew, review, recommit” terminology for temple covenants seems to me to be simply semantics and cultural usage. Technically, they might be different, but they all blend together for me.

  17. #15: Too much James Frazer in my thinking?!

  18. My wife wrote an encyclopedia entry on hunting rituals a few years ago. I still have an image of the bear and certain women imparting sexual power to warriors in their hopes of conquest (I will confess I have forgotten the tribe). I think at least part of the rituals that she reviewed is the sense of capturing some portion of the prey, which itself might have powers beyond human ken. Surely there is a component of hoping to gain control over an external power that ritual provides.

    Also, perhaps one could consider programmatic elements like Visit/Home Teaching or weekly worship meetings as rituals of the type JZS describes, moments when our interactions are idealized in the hopes of creating such encounters in other settings, even as we recognize they are not to be as ideal as these others encounters.

    What are you doing with the Mormon Studies AAR piece? I think I remembered to renew my membership even though I won’t have time to go to AAR this year.

  19. # Sorry Sam, your thinking of the “Clan of the Cave Bear”, but it still fits.

  20. Bob, no clue what you’re talking about.
    I looked at the article. Turns out I was combining Mandan buffalo hunt rituals (the sexual power sharing) and a couple of different bear rites, both Siberian and Lapp. Mea culpa.

  21. Steve Evans says:

    Bob, once again you choose to visit us with your nonsensical comments. Sometimes I wonder if you’re just playing with us. Most times, I think you’re off your nutter and need help. Either way, please leave SC’s excellent post and the rest of us alone.

  22. SC Taysom says:

    It is going to be a panel at the AAR with the subject “Teaching Mormon Studies: Theory, Topics, and Texts.” My presentation will focus primarily on the theory element.

  23. Sounds great. I’d be interested to read your talk when it’s done.

  24. SC Taysom says:

    Sure thing.

  25. St. Cyril of Jerusalem wrote in 350 A.D. of Early Christian rituals which bear a surprising similarity to present-day Church of Jesus Christ (LDS) temple ceremonies.

    Hmm, what other Christian churches continue those rituals of Early Christians?

  26. Megatron says:

    Umm, I don’t know Bot…Freemasons?

  27. Fenevad says:

    #25: Bot, can you be a bit more specific and provide a reference to a description of these rituals? Otherwise the question is pretty vague since we don’t what rituals are surprisingly similar to LDS temple ceremonies.

    My first reaction though is to be a bit dubious. I’ve seen enough FARMS analysis of texts that are “obviously” temple texts (if you have their super secret decoder ring) that I always wonder what the basis is for deciding on similarity.

    Some of the Enoch apocrypha in particular are interesting in light of LDS temple worship, but I wonder if others in ritual-rich religions might not say the same things about their own religious experience.

  28. If anyone is interested in looking at the temple from the perspective of a high-level non-Mormon theologian, I recently came across a fascinating book by Margaret Barker (a Methodist minister) entitled “Temple Theology” – the basis of her construction of a “restorative” Christian theology. A remarkable summary of her “elements” can be found at:


    I have included a few blurbs from her bio, just to give some context to her position.

    (Margaret Barker read theology at the University of Cambridge, England; elected President of the Society for Old Testament Study in 1998; Editor of the Society’s Monograph Series; part of the symposium Religion, Science and the Environment, convened by His All Holiness Bartholomew I, the Ecumenical Patriarch; involved, since it opened in 1977, with the work of a Women’s Refuge.)

  29. Thanks for this one.

  30. I think Bot may be thinking of St. Cyril’s explanation/analysis of the chrism. You can find it here. There is some similarity, but personally, I don’t find it “surprisingly” similar, given the probable Old Testament sources of both.

  31. Robert Durtschi says:

    >>unlike all of the previous times, we really will always remember Him and keep the commandments we have been given.

    The wording that fits best is that of the prayer on the bread “that they are willing …”

    As Stephen E. Robinson pointed out in “Following Christ” that is a promise we can all keep.

  32. Megatron says:

    So, are you saying that we don’t covenant to always remember Christ and keep his commandments?

  33. Megatron, the actual quote for the bread is: “that they are willing to (1) take upon them the name of thy Son, and (2) always remember him and (3) keep his commandments which he has given them.”

    From a strict grammatical standpoint, the “willing to” carries through the list of three actions. From a practical standpoint, we know we can’t fulfill them completely, so all we can do is covenant to do our best and let the Atonement make up the difference.

    The quote for the water is different: “that they do always remember him.” That moves past a willingness to do and professes a commitment to do, but it is only in relation to “always remember him” – not to always keep his commandments. That’s profound, IMO.

  34. Yeah, Ray, I agree that that is profound. It also ties in the idea that the “remember him” is what gives meaning to the “keep his commandments” in the same way that blood gives life to flesh. He did good works, in the flesh, which we ought to follow by keeping his commandments, but it is his blood that liberates us from the inevitable failure. So, to bring it back to post, maybe the bread is the perfect expectation, while the water saves us from the imperfect execution?

    Actually, in my view, the sacrament prayers are not covenants (at least, not in the formal sense of temple covenants). The sacrament is not a promise to do this or that, or to not do this or that, but an expression of devotion, a “witness…that [we] are willing,” a testament. It gives us a chance to declare our allegiance. Basically, I get to say every week, “yeah, I’m with Jesus.” Of course, devotion leads to righteous actions, but the beauty of the sacrament is that it requires the devotion and lets the actions follow. So if the expectation of devotion is the “perfect expectation,” then maybe Smith’s ideas fit well with the sacrament since it (the way I see it anyway) leaves room for imperfect execution by not making the execution the focus of the ritual.

  35. SC Taysom says:

    Getting back to the issue of “renewal” in the temple ceremony, I came across the following language in the Temple and Family History Work section of the Church Handbook of Instructions (Book 2):
    “Regular temple attendance helps members recall their own covenants….” So we can add”recall” to review and the other terms we listed earlier.