Priesthood and Church Liturgy

Last summer, I posted some Venn diagrams mapping shifts in authority between 1877 and 2010. There are many trends possible when evaluating such representations; however, one important trend during the twentieth century has been an increasing association between priesthood and liturgy.

This dynamic is traced in (yes, I know) Kris’s and my paper on female healing, which is forthcoming in a few weeks, and as well in a paper I have under review treating Mormon rituals for the dying and the dead. In some respects one could say that the association between priesthood and Church liturgy reached an apex in the late sixties when only Priesthood holders became authorized to offer Sacrament meeting prayers. In contrast, the new 2010 handbook specifically states that women have the authority to give both opening and closing prayers in Sacrament meeting, and in my ward, women are frequently the concluding speakers. That said, the 2010 handbook also shows that the trend is still alive.

As described in the aforementioned papers, many Mormon rituals began on the folk level. There are many reasons for this, but the idea of having a codified liturgical text to outline ritual prescription originated in the early twentieth century and really didn’t have complete footing until the 1968 general handbook of instructions. Moreover, several common rituals appear to have arisen in the late nineteenth century. For example, both dedicating graves and dedicating homes arise in the last quarter of that century. In both cases, they begin without formal decree. People, including church leaders, just start doing them. Neither are considered priesthood ordinances and any member of the church can perform the dedications (though priesthood holders, often church leaders, actually perform the majority of the documented rituals).

I’ve nailed down the time period in which grave dedication became a priesthood ordinance to a couple of years in the mid the 1940s. At this time the major liturgical instructions don’t mention dedication of homes. One may rightly consider that home dedication was at this time still a “folk” ritual, which persisted in spite of an emphasis on codified liturgy. In fact, home dedication is not even included in the 1968 handbook, the first edition to include liturgical texts.

However, for the last several decades, home dedication has been included in the general handbook. The 1998 and 2006 editions include the following text:

Church members may dedicate their homes as sacred edifices where the Holy Spirit can reside and where family members can worship, find safety from the world, grow spiritually, and prepare for eternal family relationships. Homes need not be free of debt to be dedicated. Unlike Church buildings, homes are not consecrated to the Lord.

To dedicate a home, a family might gather and offer a prayer that includes the elements mentioned above and other words as the Spirit directs. (see also this Church News article)

As can be seen from this instruction, home dedication was the last hold-out to exclusive priesthood authority. Any member of the family could pronounce the dedicatory prayer. However, as evidenced in the comments of the Venn Diagram post linked to above, many people (maybe most) have believed that home dedication was indeed a priesthood ritual. Well, the new handbook (2010, Book 2, 20.11, p. 176-77) revises the instruction significantly:

Church members may dedicate their homes as sacred edifices where the Holy Spirit can reside and where family members can worship, find safety from the world, grow spiritually, and prepare for eternal family relationships. Homes need not be free of debt to be dedicated. Unlike Church buildings, homes are not consecrated to the Lord.

A Melchizedek Priesthood holder may dedicate a home by the power of the priesthood. If there is not a Melchizedek Priesthood holder in the home, a family might invite a close relative, a home teacher, or another Melchizedek Priesthood holder to dedicate the home. Or a family might gather and offer a prayer that includes the elements mentioned in the preceding paragraph and other words as the Spirit directs.

While not exactly like the shift in the healing liturgy at the turn of the twentieth century, it is very clear that dedication by the “power of the priesthood” is presented as implicitly superior to a prayer by a non-priesthood holder.

In some respects the change is not surprising considering how many people thought that home dedication was a priesthood ordinance to begin with. However I was a bit surprised as I had tended to view Latter-day Saint liturgy as having become fairly stable. Regardless, I think it is extremely fascinating to witness historical trends manifest in my present day experience with the Church. I have often thought, “I wonder what people thought about x, y or z, when a, b, or c letter came out.” Well, I now know for at least one future bit of history.

If home dedication is to follow the pattern set by the balance of Latter-day Saint liturgy, then the last sentence of the 2010 instruction will likely be removed in the next edition. I guess, we will have to wait and see.


  1. Fascinating.

  2. “If home dedication is to follow the pattern set by the balance of Latter-day Saint liturgy, then the last sentence of the 2010 instruction will likely be removed in the next edition.”

    I sort of hope not–given the number of women-headed households in the church, it would be a pity to formally exclude them (although that has, of course, been an effect of the pattern you point out in many other instances, and there’s no good reason to suppose it would be otherwise in this case).

  3. Stephanie says:

    Hmmm, interesting. I assumed the priesthood was required for home dedication, but I am also surprised at the clarification because my gut feel is that we are moving in the opposite direction. I’m not really sure what to make of that.

  4. I always thought home dedication was a priesthood thing. When I first joined the church, girls from the ward were always calling the guys to cone dedicate their apartments, so I’d just assumed. Interesting.

  5. Stephanie says:

    Actually, yes I do. It just means that home dedication will officially be a priesthood ordinance soon like you say. But, wow, do I feel a sense of loss (even though I didn’t realize I had anything to lose). I’m kind of surprised at my emotional response to this. Maybe it’s in knowing the historical trends and what they mean.

  6. I think Elder Oaks’ most recent talk could be adduced as an argument for _not_ formalizing home dedications in the way other folk liturgies have been formalized.

    (Matt W.–you fell for that line? ;))

  7. Independent of context, I love your glee about being in a position to know future history!

    This latest development is part of a trend that goes beyond liturgy. Was it the 1998 handbook (my memory doesn’t want to place it that far back, but it is older than 2006) that made Melchizedek Priesthood a requirement for all varieties of ward clerks? That quiet, unremarked, and unexplained modification in the then-new handbook resulted in my aunt’s being released as her ward’s membership clerk, a calling she enjoyed and was quite good at (better, clearly, than the preceding several priesthood-holding clerks who had left ward records in a shambles).

    I’m glad she didn’t live to see her earlier home dedication invalidated.

  8. I hadn’t caught this subtle (but as you suggest, significant) change in my reading of the latest handbook, J. Thanks for pointing this out.

    Ardis, I wasn’t aware that women could be assistant clerks (at least not in the very recent past). Were they able to be financial clerks as well as membership clerks, do you know? Were they able to be the ward clerk?

    I know my mother has always wished she could be a financial clerk, and I’d always assumed (and apparently she had to) that the calling was restricted to Priesthood holders.

  9. The parenthetical statement should read “(and apparently she had, too).”

    A bit of quick research reveals that the 1998 Handbook did indeed stipulate that all clerks and assistant clerks be Priesthood holders and the ward clerk and assistant financial clerk be Melchizedek Priesthood holders. I can’t find anything on what the 1989 handbook (or 1991 supplement) said on the issue, though.

  10. Well, it sounds like we could solve this implosion of church callings and ordinances into the black hole of the priesthood by simply giving women the priesthood. Much easier than trying to reverse ungrounded but unstoppable bureaucratic inertia.

  11. Christopher, the earlier handbook didn’t mention a priesthood requirement for those sub-clerks (but it did for the clerk, which makes sense, I suppose, given the priesthood councils he is required to attend); it didn’t specifically permit women to be financial and membership clerks (who handle paperwork without exercising priesthood), just didn’t outlaw them.

    That’s why I see J.’s home dedication discovery as part of the same trend. Definitionally only a priesthood holder can dedicate a home “by the power of the priesthood,” but we have no explanation as to why such power is required either to dedicate a home or to keep accurate records. There’s something else at work here.

  12. Thanks, Ardis. Very interesting.

  13. Dedication of homes (as I think you have pointed out) seems to be a practice deriving from temple dedication which in turn may have roots in antebellum Protestantism, etc. That being the case, and with the gradually increasing emphasis on the family and frequent warnings about its disintegration (prop 8, hello) the styling of homes as temple equivalents (BKP a big proponent) the trend to make home dedication a priesthood function seems, well, a predictable one – in addition to the other more general trend you note. Excuse the ramble.

  14. Thanks for the comments, all.

    WVS, I think that is right. While there are all sorts of dedicatory rituals happening in early Mormonism, the dedication of the Kirtland Temple in recapitulation of the Israelite antecedents looms over Mormon liturgical history (as well as the Antebellum context). I think that the association between temple and home coupled with an emphasis on fathers in family ritual administrations adds further heft.

    Ardis and Chris, that is an interesting parallel. At the same time that priesthood associations with Church liturgy grew, there was a growing association between priesthood and church bureaucracy. The phrase “by the power of the priesthood” is actually one that is emblematic of this shift. Even Bruce R. McConkie conceded that there was actually authority of the priesthood through which the power of God is manifest.

  15. In some ways this may be seen as a liberalization. Most people did assume that home dedication required MPH. Now the instruction says you can do it either way–a dedication by power of the MPH or a prayer with the same elements but not by the power of the MPH. Perhaps (using my predictive glasses (borrowing them from J. Stapley) the next step will be a similar change to the liturgical instructions for healings–one may choose to have them done by the power of the MPH or to have them done with a prayer with the same elements, but not by the power of the MPH (i.e., essentially a return to pre-1940s practice).

  16. DavidH, I don’t think that healing quite fits that description (notably before the 1940s it wasn’t just a prayer with the same elements, it was an anointing and a blessing). Perhaps another possible evolutionary route would be the Sacrament Meeting Prayers. 1. Anyone can do it, 2. Only Priesthood holders can do it 3. Anyone can do it. That ritual is the sole exception to the trend, however.

  17. Interesting find on the home dedication, J. I hadn’t noticed that. The expansion of priesthood authority in some areas, and the specific regression in others, such as prayers and speakers in sacrament meetings, creates some dynamic tension. While there seems to be an effort to allow more voice in the church for active, worthy, non-priesthood holders (ie, women), the converse of reserving some acts as being priesthood only almost seems to be a reaction to (struggling to find the right non-pejorative term here and failing) hedge up priesthood rights and privileges. I seem to recall some parts of Elder Oaks talk that, while allowing more room for the “personal” line, still seemed to be shoring up the foundations of the “priesthood” line.

  18. Great catch, J Stapley.

    Interesting. It’s fun to speculate as to why the priesthood becomes necessary for dedications. Maybe a home dedication with priesthood authority is superior to one without it. But if that’s the case, what else could be improved by applying the priesthood? Hmm… Maybe the priesthood has all sorts of untapped potential!

  19. “it is very clear that dedication by the “power of the priesthood” is presented as implicitly superior to a prayer by a non-priesthood holder”

    I guess it wasn’t so clear to me. What is clear is that any of the three alternatives are valid. I suppose one might argue that the non-priesthood alternative is last in order, and therefore least desireable, but I did not read it that way at first.

  20. J. Stapley, what I meant is that the pre-1940s women’s blessings (including annointing, when done) were done not by the power of the priesthood. And that they could again be done not by the power of the priesthood. To that end, the future change in policy could be by a choice in the manual–i.e., that blessings and annointings could be by the power of the priesthood or not, as the manual now expressly does for home dedication. By the way, I could also see a similar modification to grave dedications.

    My point is that the giving of an option–by the priesthood or not–could lead to opening other rituals to be done that way. (Baby blessings?) It is not necessarily an evolutionary way to close off home dedications without priesthood. (In PH meeting in my ward a couple of months before the new handbook, we were expressly taught that a home dedication could only be done by an MP holder. Even after reading the prior language, some thought the MP requirement was implied. Now we know it is optional)

    Another analogy would be the handbook’s limitation on “being voice” in certain ordinances to TR worthy MP holders. Some view this as a more restrictive rule than in the past–since there was not an explicit rule. Yet, the way it was presented at the training meeting indicates that some of the leaders think it represents a broadening rule–that perhaps there have been local leaders who in the past have required that everyone in the circle hold a TR. The new handbook makes clear that TR worthiness is not absolutely required.

  21. Ah, I see what you are saying. Makes sense.

  22. Stephanie says:

    Martin, I am having a hard time figuring out how to take your comment.

    But if that’s the case, what else could be improved by applying the priesthood?

    Are you serious? Given this line of thinking, the answer is likely “Women are left with nothing meaningful to do besides bear children because everything is ‘better’ if done by priesthood authority”. (Sorry if your comment was tongue-in-cheek)

  23. Stephanie says:

    DavidH, that’s a hopeful way to look at the changes. I am interested to see what happens in the future.

  24. In a larger sense, with one blessing or prayer we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow our homes. The men and women and children living there have consecrated (and will consecrate) it far above some priesthood holder’s (or pray-er’s) poor power to add or detract.

  25. Mark, one could say the same thing about almost every sacrament, no?

  26. Stephanie says:

    Mark B (and J), that’s a really good point. I taught President Packer’s talk from April 2010 conference (The Power of the Priesthood) to the RS in my ward, and my take-home message was that we sisters share an equal responsibility in unleashing the power of the priesthood in our homes and communities.

  27. Re. 24

    This is totally off track, but I have always felt that both the Gettysburg Address and the 2nd Inaugural ought to be included in at least our informal canon.


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