Preparing the sacrament

So we’re talking about the priesthood in Sunday School today, and a fairly recent convert asks the following question:

If the priesthood is the authority to act in the name of God and to perform acts that have eternal significance, why do you need to the priesthood to prepare the sacrament? What authority is necessary to get some slices of bread in a tray and fill those little cups? Or do those trays and little cups have a significance that means that only the priesthood can handle them?

As the answer to the last question is clearly no, a missionary suggested it was because the sacrament required a high level of respect because it was a sacred ordinance — but as the questioner pointed out, you don’t need the priesthood to show respect.

Any ideas? I came up with an answer, which I’ll post later. A hint: it was historical rather than doctrinal.


  1. If it had anything to do with respect, would we really leave it to teenagers? It was always goof-off time for us when I was helping prepare as a kid.

  2. It is not at all uncommon to require Priesthood Authority for preparation of a sacramental ceremony.

    The bread and cups themselves are not sacred, however, the purpose for which they are being prepared is.

    The need for Priesthood seems natural.

  3. Yeah. When I was a teacher someone taped up a sign in the little preparation area in our chapel that said, ‘Please wash your hands!’ The teachers all added their own hygiene rules, like ‘Please don’t pick your butt,’ and getting much much worse. It was there for at least six months before someone noticed it.

  4. I’m assuming we’re purposefully leaving out blessing part, right?

    But I think it’s an interesting question. Perhaps it’s not really needed. When the deacons pass the sacrament, they often just pass it down the row, not directly to each person. Hypothetically, would it be less valid if the priest just handed off the tray to the first member closet to him, and have the tray just get passed from each member to the next?

    Perhaps the deacons pass the sacrament not because it is required–but as an opportunity for them to experience in a small way the priesthood is all about–serving and adminstering.

    As far as preparing goes, perhaps it could be tied to the fact that Christ broke the break at the first sacrament, and instructed his apostles to do likewise to remember him. This could be interpreted as justification for requiring priesthood authority to prepare the sacrament.

    I don’t claim to have a complete answer, but those are some thoughts.

  5. I’ll bet two shekels that the disciples who prepared the meal for the Last Supper (i.e. what would become the sacramental bread and wine) were women.

  6. Mike L –I’m talking directly about the slinging of bread into trays and filling cups — blessing and passing didn’t come up. (Although you make a point about the passing.)

  7. Ah, I now see we’re talking about the preparation only, not the passing.

    Ok, but in response to #5, the teachers don’t make the bread. Mr. Wonder takes care of that, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t hold the priesthood.:)

    And I think what I said earlier in regards to deacons applies to teachers as well. Perhaps it’s not strictly required, but is a responsibility given to teachers as a preparation and learning opportunity. They are learning, in a small way, about the priesthood.

  8. Another way to say what I’m saying (and then I’ll be quiet, I promise):

    Does it require the priesthood to visit less active member families? Of course not, but home teaching is a priesthood responsibility. The leaders of the church have the authority to assign responsibilities to priesthood holders, even if the task itself doesn’t directly require the priesthood.

  9. Thoughts from #8. Why aren’t young women called upon to participate in visiting teaching?

  10. Sacrament preperation has more to do with perparing young men than bread and water.

  11. ed42: Honestly, I’m not sure how your question relates that what I said in #8. Can you explain?

  12. the code word for scholars these days is “boundary maintenance.” In this case not between religious groups but between subgroups within a given tradition.

  13. I’ve had the Activity Day Girls in several different wards, and a favorite activity was always baking the bread to be used in Sacrament Meeting. Knowing it was their bread being passed to the congregation helped them feel a vital part of the service. I’m not sure it requires the priesthood, but I’m glad the young men have the opportunity to participate so closely by preparing and passing (and cleaning up after!) the sacrament. It would be a good thing to look for ways the YW can do this too (like making the bread). Wonder if there are other things girls could do that wouldn’t freak out traditionalists?

  14. I argue here that preparing, breaking, passing the elements are all meaningful parts of the liturgy of the Lord’s Supper; it’s merely because we’re so non-liturgical in our day to day worship that we miss the symbolic and sacramental meanings of seemingly mundane acts.

    Whether one must hold the priesthood to perform liturgical rites is another question altogether.

  15. The “sacraments” were originally called “mysteries” (Gk. musterion). In the context of 1st century Hellenistic mystery cults, a musterion was a more-or-less secret initiation rite in which mystes of higher rank transmitted arcanum (secret knowledge) to acolytes of lower rank. Of course, the extent to which early Christianity fits the mystery cult schematic is something people still fight about; probably it varied depending on region.

    As Chrisitianity ossified in the third century and following, the musteria began to be described as sacraments and the mystes (who in Christianity were the elders) began to be described as priests. (Notice, by the way, the etymological derivation of priest from presbyter.) The development of the priesthood concept enabled Christianity to re-imagine apostolic succession as the transmission of authority rather than just knowledge, thereby proscribing gnostic heretics from authentic Christianity. The development of the sacrament concept allowed Christianity to re-imagine itself as a public religion and to give some teeth to the need for priesthood (because sacraments would not be efficacious unless administered by a priest).

    Most Protestant groups moved away from the Catholic view of efficacious sacraments and ministerial priesthood. The Anglicans were an exception. They retained the “sacrament” terminology and still talked about them as being efficacious, though in a highly ambiguous way. They also retained the Catholic polity of bishops, priests, deacons, etc. where other Protestants did away with it. I suggest that Joseph Smith’s polity might be best understood as an adaptation of the 19th century Episcopalian model. There are respects in which it is true to the 1st century church, but also repects in which it uses the language and forms that developed in later Christian tradition.

  16. Kevin Barney says:

    In my view neither the preparation nor the passing requires priesthood at all. We assign those tasks to the teachers and deacons because, for historial reasons, we have come to a position where instead of mature men we ordain young boys to these positions, and there was a need to come up with duties suitable to their young and limited abilities, and these were natural one to fill that bill. They’ve been doing it so long we have a tendency to assume that it is an eternal requirement that only males ordained to those priesthood offices have the authority to do such. But this simply isn’t true. The young women, or primary children, for that matter, could just as easily do it.

    I’d suggest a read of William G. Hartley, “From Men to Boys: LDS Aaronic Priesthood Offices, 1829-1996,” Journal of Mormon History 22/1 (Spring 1996): 80-136.

  17. Kevin, Hartley, in that article quotes Heber J. Grant as saying that passing the sacrament is not a priesthood duty. They just needed something for them to do. Women frequently used to do the stuff that teachers do.

  18. Kevin, my explanation was along the same lines. My understanding is that sacrament meeting in the early Utah period and well into the twentieth century was a priesthood fest, from soup to nuts, including speakers and prayers. The design of church buildings reinforced this by seating the quorums on the stand if I remember a JI post correctly. Over the last hundred years that had changed, although we still hear whispers about when women can and cannot pray or speak in church. The preparation and (I would suggest) passing of the sacrament as priesthood duty grows out of that. (I think there is even a sense in some places that ushers must be priesthood holders.)

  19. Aaron L. says:

    I imagine that historically, holders of the Aaronic priesthood were given more to do to “magnify their priesthood”. Or rather, what they were asked to fo had a practical aspect, not just so they could magnify their priesthood. One example that quickly comes to mind is the collection of fast offerings. The original reason AP holders (probably not boys 12-17 years old) to collect fast offerings is now moot given modern transportation. But we have to give AP holders something to do, right? I see the preparation of the sacrament in the same light. The Aaronic priesthood has historically/doctrinally taken care of the more temporal aspects of worship. But since our worship and its preparation is not all that involved, what they are assigned to do takes the appearance of work only for priesthood holders. I’m probably way off base but I don’t post often I want to change that. Anyway, the new member was right to ask the question.

  20. It’s worth noting that deacons passed the Eucharist in Puritan congregations.

  21. I remember once when I was in YM that the teachers in charge of preparing the sacrament had wandered off from the kitchen where the sacrament trays were being prepared, and a couple of the young women who happened to be there decided to start putting cups in the water trays. The teacher’s quorum advisor stopped by and was pretty offput, and rounded up the boys post-haste to finish the job. They didn’t redo the job, though :)

    With #8, I think it would be great for the YW to help with visiting teaching. My wife teaches YW, and suggested the same thing — YW just don’t have that much to do to contribute to the ward.

  22. Chad Too says:

    Whoever was supposed to bring the bread today forgot, so today’s big assist in Sacrament prep came from the Priest who was old enough to drive and from the Bishop’s counselor (the British one, not the Southern one) who quickly ponied up 5-bucks to send with said Priest to Familymart down the street.

    Fortunately, we were singing “Reverently and Meekly Now,” which has to be the longest, proddingly slowest Sacrament hymn in the book and the Priest got back in the middle of the third verse. The organist only had to play one extra instrumental verse to give the Priests enough time to finish breaking the bread.

    I suppose another assist should go to whoever was working at Familymart today.

  23. I believe it is a result of the concept of priesthood representation and intermediary assistance.

    Scripturally, the duty to “administer bread and wine — the emblems of the flesh and blood of Christ” is given to the apostles (D&C 20:38 & 40), with the *administration* of the sacrament delegated specifically to the priests (v. 46). The teachers and deacons are to assist the priests in these duties but not to “administer” the sacrament. (v. 58)

    So, while I personally agree with everyone who says that it’s to give the teachers and priests something to do in our formal worship services as an exercise of their priesthood, I do not agree that young women and primary children can “assist the priests” in their duties relative to the sacrament. The D&C clearly defines it as a Priesthood ordinance, just like baptism. I understand completely the perspective that all assist in the non-administrative aspects with the passing that happens now on individual rows, but the teachers and priests fill a representative priesthood role as they assist the priests in taking the sacrament to the general membership. That “assistance” must remain an element of the overall nature of the sacrament as a priesthood ordinance, if multiple trays are being presented simultaneously to multiple members. It doesn’t have to be teachers and deacons who do it, but it has to be those who hold the priesthood.

    Using teachers and deacons to assist with the sacrament led to the current structure of teachers preparing and deacons passing – all things that are the primary responsibility of the priests. That specific structure is cultural, not scriptural, and it could be changed (swapped, for example) at any point without violating any eternal principle.

    If only one tray was being passed at a time – or if there were plenty of priests – or if our meetings lasted all day like in the past and we had plenty of time for the administration of the sacrament, there would be no need for “intermediary assistance” – thus eliminating the need for teachers and deacons to participate in the ordinance. However, since we don’t do that now whenever there are teachers and deacons available (even with plenty of priests), I return to the idea that the teachers and deacons need some way to exercise the priesthood.

  24. Ray, that is one interpretation of the scripture. It is the modern interpretation. Read the Hartley article. I agree that priests have the mandate to administer the sacrament. However, what the teachers and deacons now do is not administering the sacrament. Women currently pass the trays down the rows (something that you wouldn’t see in a Catholic church).

  25. So, when I, a woman, take the sacrament tray from a deacon is the ordinance somehow more efficacious than it is for the unfortunate person to whom I pass it on?

    Pardon me if I seem a little feisty. Today I heard in church that because men have the PH they are better able to understand scripture and that single women, deprived of PH in the home and needing a boost, have a greater quotient of Spirit than the rest of us. It’s been a tough day for doctrine.

  26. SC Taysom says:


    Please tell us that somebody contested that nonsense.

  27. So the recent convert is suggesting we outource the dirty work to non-priesthood holders (women) and let the men have all the glory. Great!

    Just kidding. I think BiV’s suggestion that involvement elevates connection/thinking about Sacrament is right on.

  28. Is that Hartley article available online anywhere?

  29. #26 No, because it was said at the end of the class, there wasn’t time. I did go straight to the single woman in tears to reassure her and have since learned that several single women asked for blessings from the Bishopric after the meeting. Next time I teach RS I will find a way to fit in a gentle but clear correction, hopefully not offensive to the bright and delightful young woman who taught the class.

  30. Kevin Barney says:

    For the Hartley article, see here.

  31. #24 – J, I agree with you. I said that the teachers and deacons are not administering the sacrament. I also agree with Hartley. I don’t see how what I said is any different than what you and Hartley said.

    #25 – Molly, I didn’t say or mean that – not in the slightest. That’s one of those things that leaves me shaking my head in total exasperation.

  32. Btw, the second paragraph in #23 should have read “teachers and deacons” not “teachers and priests”.

  33. Yikes, one more clarification:

    Molly, just so it’s perfectly clear, it’s comments like mentioned in class that drive me nuts – not anything you said here.

    This has been a rough five minutes.

  34. I guess, I must have misinterpreting your exegesis in (#23), Ray. You said, that deacons and teachers “can ‘assist the priests’ in their duties relative to the sacrament,” but that women could not. This is fine, and I agree, but I don’t know what you mean. If what deacons and teachers currently now do has been done by women in the past and the President of the Church that institutionalized the current deacon/teacher participation in the ritual said that their activities do not necessarily require the priesthood, then what do you mean by “assist[ing] the priests”?

  35. #31 No, you didn’t so I directed my comment not to you but to the issue at large. Just wanted to underline the hypocrisy here.
    And as to the teachers and deacons needing some way to exercise the PH, OK, but couldn’t we argue the YW need greater public participation in the community as well? But, of course, that gets us into a tug of war for just the aspects of PH or life in general, public recognition, that fly most in the face of the ultimate source of PH power, love.

  36. I see what you mean, J. Sorry for the misunderstanding. (and Molly, I don’t see any hypocrisy, since women – and even kids – still can participate just as openly in the sharing of the sacrament as the teachers and deacons.)

    Let me try to address the “representative assistance” I mentioned, with the explicit clarification that the priests’ duties relative to the sacrament do NOT include the prep and passing of it.

    It is the priests’ duty to administer the sacrament. The best definition of “administer” for this instance is:

    “to supervise the formal taking of (an oath or the like).”

    Supervise means:

    “to oversee, manage, direct, control, guide.”

    So, the priests are to oversee or direct the formal taking of the sacrament. Teachers and deacons are given the responsibility to assist the priests by watching the members – as those members pass the sacrament to one another in their respective pews. Iow, all members participate in the taking of the sacrament as equals, but the priests “supervise” the process – including delegating to the teachers and deacons the responsibility of ensuring that every member has the opportunity to partake. This fits very well into the general responsibility of the Aaronic Priesthood to “watch over the Church always”.

    In summary: The members participate fully and equally in partaking of the sacrament, and the actual preparation and passing of the sacrament require no priesthood authority, but the basic administration (oversight / supervision) of the ordinance is given to the Priesthood. Again, as I said previously, the prep and passing aspects are cultural and could be changed or eliminated entirely without violating any eternal principle.

    At least that’s my take – and I think Hartley’s.

  37. And as to the teachers and deacons needing some way to exercise the PH, OK, but couldn’t we argue the YW need greater public participation in the community as well?

    Yeah, that’s what I was thinking.

    And the idea that we have to invent work for boys to do so they can feel what’s its like to have the priesthood raises the question whether they should have it at all.

    Do deacons really still go out and collect Fast Offerings by hand? What a tremendous waste of time and energy. Isn’t this the kind of thing Elder Ballard was on about?

  38. 37 — They’re teenage boys. Giving them the priesthood and giving them something to do is better than leaving them nothing to do, even if it were make work.

    And this isn’t make work. It gives them a chance to participate in an essential ordinance and practice acting in an appropriate and valued way right in the middle of the community. I’m not seeing the harm here anywhere. The young men get a chance to serve, the ward is served and, most important, the sacrament is available.

    Without these few things, there’s nothing of consequence that’s remotely boy-oriented and spiritual until we’re looking at full-time missions at 19. Sitting still, singing, and listening to someone talk are not boy-oriented activities. We lose plenty of young men as it is — would taking this away accomplish anything good to balance out removing this from the young men and giving them even less reason to show up?

  39. But can’t the same be applied to girls as well? And I don’t accept the idea that ‘[s]itting still, singing, and listening to someone talk’ are ‘girl-oriented.’

  40. Do deacons really still go out and collect Fast Offerings by hand?

    Every month.

    What a tremendous waste of time and energy.

    Well, maybe. My recollection is that some wards tried doing away with that practice and allowing people to just pay it with their tithing but fast offering donations dropped to alarminly low levels, so the deacons were recommissioned to go door-to-door.

  41. MCQ, I did this in California as a kid, but the wards I’ve lived in as an adult have not done this. I wonder to what extent it’s a practice outside the Mormon belt?

  42. namakemono says:

    re #40 – not in Japan they don`t – and we don`t hand our tithing to the Bishop either – it all gets paid in at the post office – how boring is that??!! I`m not sure of the reason or history behind it though.

  43. Deacons collect fast offering here in my Canadian (non-Albertan) ward.

  44. 39 — Then go into primary and see for yourself the relative rates of boys and girls engaging in those activities. My friend is the primary music directory, and yesterday I asked him about relative rates of singing between boys and girls. He said that, in senior primary, there were four girls and about twelve boys, and they did a song that has a girl part and a boy part — those four girls clearly outsung the twelve boys.

    And no, I don’t think it applies the same way to girls. We don’t have as much of a loss of girls between 12-19 as we do boys.

  45. The ties between the Sacrament and blood sacrifice are many. Thus, in my mind, the priesthood authority that used to perform the sacrifice now prepares and performs the ordinance of the Sacrament.

    That most of the Aaronic priesthood holders are Y.M. is just a product of the modern church. Any bishop or Y.W. president should be aware enough about their congregation to know if the Y.W. need or want similar opportunities to serve. My guess is that most Y.W. never gave it a second thought.

  46. sister blah 2 says:

    #25–Molly, we “learned” the same thing yesterday.

  47. Nice to know you were there. I hope you will introduce yourself.

  48. sister blah 2 says:

    #47– :-) In my case it came up at the beginning of the lesson though, so probably not the same ward. I pointed it out because I think that multiple occurrences of this being taught indicates that it wasn’t just random aberration of a teacher, but rather that the curriculum would easily lead someone to teach this.

    It was a tough lesson for me because I feel deep joy and belief in the idea of an incomprehensibly vast power that is officially channeled specifically through our restored priesthood in a very real, even tangible way. I’ve had breathtaking personal experiences with priesthood power.

    And that kind of expansive grandeur of priesthood is what the lesson was all about–“all truth” comes through the priesthood, “everything important” comes through the priesthood, etc. (these are actual quotes from the lesson).

    But at the same time, I struggle with the idea that God would restrain from providing blessings, be they understanding of the scriptures and doctrine or healings, to those without the priesthood. If my child is hit by a car, and alone I say a fervent prayer of healing, is that less effective than if my husband were around to give a real blessing? And yet, there was a time in the hospital where I *insisted* that my husband call another priesthood holder and made all the doctors and staff wait until he arrived before proceeding, so I could get a priesthood blessing. My husband suggested, given the extremely dire urgency the doctors were expressing about the situation, that we just say a prayer together instead. But I insisted. And a miracle happened that day. So, I dunnooo….tough one.

  49. sister blah 2 says:


  50. Steve Evans says:

    SB2, shoot me an email, will you? I don’t know if yours works.

  51. #48, why would you wait at the hospital for another priesthood holder to give you a blessing? You and your husband saying a prayer together isn’t the only alternative, he could have easily performed BOTH parts of the ordinance. It strikes me that there is little reason to involve two priesthood holders in blessings for the sick/injured except for that catch-all reason we are already discussing–to give more people a chance to serve (something to do).

  52. sister blah 2 says:

    #51- Good question, Dug. I’m (unfortunately) pretty ignorant of the logistics of priesthood stuff. I’d never even seen a blessing of the sick done before that time. I said I wanted a blessing and my husband said that meant we’d have to call someone, I just assumed that’s how it is. Maybe he didn’t have oil, so we were waiting for both another priesthood holder and oil?

    As far as just giving people something to do, it was actually very meaningful in this case. The priesthood leader we ended up getting a hold of (we didn’t have a directory with us and he just happened to be on my husband’s “recent calls” list, so that’s how it happened) was having a very trying time in his life, this was just a few weeks before he moved out and ultimately got a divorce (I didn’t yet know this was going down). He was very moved that we asked him, and I think it helped affirm to him that he was still worthy and valuable in the kingdom despite what the ward rumor/judgment mill was thinking.

  53. Molly, #25, yes, this was precisely why I questioned my wife when she stood up to walk the sacrament down the row to the next person–she took at least 5 steps. I whispered to her, when she returned, that as a woman she should probably slide down the row rather than walk upright like a deacon, lest someone get confused, or the efficacy of the sacrament be ruined. Accustomed to my pathetic satire, she just rolled her eyes at me and boldly proceeded to walk the water down too. I think it still counted, but wasn’t sure.

  54. 53 — She should have passed it back to you and over to the deacon that started it down the row. The deacon on the other side can pass the sacrament to the people on the other side. There’s no need for a member in the congregation to move themselves most of the time.

    Just as there’s no need to get into the idea that the value of the ordinance for an individual is dependent on anything other than a good-faith effort to receive the ordinance through proper authority and a willingness to live the gospel. But since when does doing something require that it be needful?

  55. Alas, tone is more difficult to convey through writing than speaking, but I hope 54 realizes I was being completely facetious. Maybe he was too, and I didn’t catch it! I hope so.

  56. CraigH, I certainly realized you have a delightful sense of humor.

  57. #48

    And that kind of expansive grandeur of priesthood is what the lesson was all about–”all truth” comes through the priesthood, “everything important” comes through the priesthood, etc. (these are actual quotes from the lesson).

    I belive that these things come to any member who worthily participates in priesthood ordinances and then keep the associated covenants. Hence these wonderfull things come not by holding the priesthood but through the ordinances of the gospel which are administered though those who do hold the priesthood,

  58. 55 — I got the humor. It was dry humor, and the respectful way to respond to dry humor is to play along with more dry humor. Perhaps I was too dry?

    However, my comments work in the context of the overall thread, particularly my second paragraph. The first paragraph was tangential, but a good point (I think).