I would to know when we started this.

I would love to know when we started this.

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.


  1. It seems the ordinances that come from within us represent our progress and those performed by others are symbolic solemnized displays of our internal progress or invitations to go further.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    You are correct that JAT was the one who edited AoF 4.

  3. The answer to your caption is since John the Baptist. That’s what church art tells me.

  4. Interesting thoughts. But a quibble with your conclusion that “ordinance” means “law.” In the context of the Article of Faith description, “ordinance” can’t be completely entirely defined as “law,” else what to make of its description of the primary four as “laws and ordinances.” It would be redundant. I like to think (without basis) that, at least in the Articles of Faith, the term “ordinance” partakes of the “sacramental” meaning. Another option, of course, is that “faith” and “repentance” are the laws, while “baptism” and the “laying on of hands” are the ordinances. In any case, for something so elemental, it seems we could have a clearer explanation. Darn that messy Restoration!

  5. You mean when we started baptism, or when we started having the holding of the hand that will be holding the nose be a quasi-official part of it?

  6. J. Stapley says:

    Cynthia, as Ronan alludes in his comment, I meant that particular grip. I haven’t seen it anywhere else, and would love to know how it became the sort of approved method.

    Thanks Kev.

    Hunter, you are right about the laws and ordinances bit. Maybe it was poetic parallelism? I think that faith as ordinance is closer to ordinance qua law than ordinance qua authorized ritual.

  7. I really like the discussion of how “ordinance” was used historically. There are so many other examples of how we use words differently now than they were used in the past without understanding the differences – and understanding the differences is important, imo.

    Personally, I like the reading of the AoF that sees faith and repentance and the first principles and baptism and the laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost as the first ordinances. Hence, “the first principles and ordinances of the Gospel are . . .”

  8. Also, I like ordinance as “law” in light of, “There is a law irrevocably decreed . . .”

    In that sense, I think faith, repentance, baptism and the laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost are great examples of how we view ordinances as “laws” – and I think perhaps no member would argue at all with calling them commandments and equating commandments with laws.

  9. Ordinances as rituals are symbolic spiritual placebos, their effectiveness lies in belief and desire. Faith and repentance are personal and can’t be trade marked as easily as baptism and the laying on of hands. At issue is the placement of church between you and God. Don’t allow ordinances to become golden calves, they can lull one into complacency believing they have been saved when all they do is open the door and invite you to do the work required to achieve your own personal relationship with God.

  10. I agree, Howard, in concept (although I would never call them “placebos”). When I teach my Sunday School class about covenants and ordinances this month, we will talk extensively about the symbolic nature of covenants and ordinances and the Mormon resistance to placing eternal consequence on the ordinances themselves sans belief, desire and effort.

    I believe there is an important reason that faith and repentance (which are hope, desire and action focused) precede baptism and the laying of of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost in that AoF. Our youth need to understand the connection between covenant keeping and ordinance performance, and I like that they are coupled in this month’s lessons.

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    Actually, “laws and ordinances” could be a formation based on common legal duplication. For historical reasons, it was common to pair synonyms derived from Anglo-Saxon and Latin (often via French). So you get formations like “will and testament,” “aid and abet,” and so forth. See the list here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Legal_doublet

  12. Ray,
    I use placebo respectfully. The swing from nocebo (non-belief) to placebo (belief) is often the difference between illness and health and probably accounts for the power of faith healing. Placebo is so powerful that pharmaceutical companies have to demonstrate effectiveness beyond placebo in order to market a new drug.

  13. Agreed, Kevin – which is why I like “strait and narrow” much better than the common misuse of “straight and narrow”. Using “straight” instead of “strait” (or simply misunderstanding the difference) changes the meaning fundamentally and in a way that is destructive to the original meaning.

    Again, I agree, Howard – but I still wouldn’t use that word, since it would be misunderstood by most people who would hear or read it.

  14. Placebo…it would be misunderstood by most people who would hear or read it. I know. It creates a wonderful teaching opportunity. :)

  15. Kevin’s explanation of “laws and ordinances” makes sense, especially since “law” comes from Old English (and ultimately from old Norse) while “ordinance” comes from old French (and ultimately old Latin). I think “laws and ordinances” was just tapping into common legalese to make the point that it is obedience to the law of the gospel that provides access to the saving power of the atonement. After all, you don’t “obey” a ritual, you perform it (though by doing so you might obey a law that says the ritual must be performed).

  16. J. Stapley says:

    Thanks Kevin! That is really helpful.

    Regarding priesthood rituals as merely symbolic, I’m fairly certain that JS would wrestle you over it.

  17. J, I’m not arguing that priesthood rituals are “merely” symbolic. (Howard might be, but I’m not.) I would lose that wrestling match, literally, and figuratively – since I wouldn’t engage in the first place.

    I just want to make that clear, in case anyone read my comments that way.

  18. And offer what as an explanation?

  19. Right, J. It was Talmage who requested the 15 to vote on his proposals on wording changes for AoF. Talmage’s argument was: faith is not an ordinance in the now entrenched Mormon usage, better to see it as principle.

  20. J. Stapley says:

    The binding on earth and heaven. This is at the core of his cosmology and liturgy. Sam Brown’s book is a great place for the details.

  21. The binding on earth and heaven. Well I like that concept, but how does that make the ritual more than symbolic?

  22. J. Stapley says:

    The salvific rituals of the church incorporate symbolism to a great degree (most emphatically the death of Christ [hailing frere Kramer!]). But take the sealing of spouses or children-to-parents as an example. JS would argue that this act didn’t symbolize the eternal union of the participants or their commitment to be together. He would argue that the ritual performance actually constructed a portion of the cosmological network of heaven.

  23. jcobabe says:

    Adam apparently felt little need for deconstruction and critical analysis of the “salvific rituals of the Church”.

  24. People act in accordance with what they believe. If they believe they are married most of them will act like they’re married. The hocus pocus and pomp and circumstance helps solidify that belief. If the dead are truly able to watch the living ordinances being performed the same thing goes on on both sides of the veil and voilà a welding link is formed. Out of what? Symbolism. Symbolism isn’t bad, neither is placebo, that’s simply how it’s done. If you believe otherwise please explain how.

    Joseph was being a good doctor by increasing the faith of his patients in his medicine as he well should have. But please, let’s not drink the KoolAid.

  25. Alf O'Mega says:

    Kevin, is the resemblance between Anglo-Saxon/Latin legal doublets and similar structures in Hebrew poetry coincidental (independently derived ideas converging), or was there possibly some conscious imitation?

    (Please state your conclusions unequivocally. Declaim, if possible.)

  26. J. Stapley says:

    Howard, if you were chatting with a Catholic and asked the same question about the host and the body of Christ, they would rightly say you just aren’t getting it. If you want a middle way you could use Taves’ bit about a materialization of divinity by the act. However, I don’t see any compelling reason to reject the idea that the things are actually doing something.

  27. J. Stapley,
    Thanks for clearing that up.

  28. John Mansfield says:

    Would Zina D.H. Young consider that she had been called by the laying on of hands to administer the ordinances? Anything of note about original use of the word ordinances in the fifth article?

  29. J. Stapley says:

    That is a great question John. Zina claimed that Joseph Smith did specifically authorize her and others, apparently by the laying on of hands, to administer healing blessings. Simultaneously, she taught (as did JS) that any worthy Latter-day Saint women was authorized to administer these blessings. The fifth article is really interesting in light of the antecedent lines. But perhaps one simply can’t administer faith and repentance?

  30. I love this J! I am troubled though when you refer to a Venn diagram at the end of the post and provide nonesuch. :(

  31. Finding these thoughts about laws and ordinances interesting, I turned (Justin-style) to Google Books and searched for “laws and ordinances.”

    The first result was an old publication called “Laws and Ordinances of New Netherland, 1638-1674.” Just a few books further was “Laws and Ordinances of the State of Deseret.” This book contains the text of the proceedings of the first territorial legislature.

    The first ordinance established Iron County. The second gave James Rawlins the right to control wood and timber in one of the canyons above Salt Lake City. The third granted water rights in Tooele Valley. A later ordinance incorporated the Church:

    AN ORDINANCE incorporating the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints. Passed, Feb. 4, 1851.
    Sec. 1. Be it ordained by the General Assembly of the State of Deseret, that all that portion of the inhabitants of said State, which now are, or hereafter may become residents therein, and which are known and distinguished as “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints,” are hereby incorporated, constituted, made and declared a body corporate with perpetual succession…[etc.]”

    The book refers to quarantine laws and militia laws, but only criminal laws are listed (pp 25-31). The laws start with murder, go into excruciating detail about poisoning, briefly mention manslaughter and self-defense, and run through arson, dueling, abortion except to protect the life of the mother, and so forth.

    A more specific search for “‘laws and ordinances’ Nauvoo” comes up with a Deseret News 1856 reprinting of the 1843 “Laws and Ordinances of the City of Nauvoo.”

    The State of Deseret laws and ordinances were much more carefully delineated than the Nauvoo laws and ordinances listed in the Deseret News article.

    Well, thanks, J. and Kevin and all, for this interesting discussion. It’s the first time I’d ever considered that the familiar old language in the third Article of Faith might have an actual historical meaning.

  32. And for a closer look at the change in use between “ordinance” and “sacrament”: http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=ordinance%2Csacrament&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=

  33. JennyP1969 says:

    I’m not sure women are welcome in this particular conversation, so I hope I am not barging in. Love this post and ensuing comments.

    My study of women blessing women and children in the early days of the church is that hands, oil, circles, wording, and all things pertaining unto the performing of all blessings and ordinances are to point our mortalness into a focused godliness. All symbols bring our focus to whatever is being symbolized. “Things” can bring meaning to our moments. Moments can be holy. Indeed, “things” like hands and words can be holy. Thus, the Holy One showed us how to use mortal things…… to do holy things….. that symbolize Him and His Way to progress toward Godliness, and to momentarily transcend mere mortalness. Some are better at this than others, but we may all get there, by and by.

    Faith is the literal power used in all priesthood blessings and ordinances. I do not understand why women may bless by the power of faith and accomplish the same healing men may proclaim by priesthood power. But I know both uses of power are holy and bring us a little closer to God. Rituals are to bring us closer as well — again, because they focus our hearts and minds on the holy things they represent.

    Otherwise, we would could just go along calling out, “Feel better!” or, “Have a nice labor and delivery!” We casually say such things, but casual isn’t holy. Holy things (that which is godly) must stand apart from casual and flippant. They may be simple things, but they set things apart — our thoughts, feelings, focus, yearnings, moments, actions……and ultimately, ourselves. We use holy things, go to holy places, do holy things…… to become more holy and like unto God. Literal change happens to our body, mind, and spirit, making Holiness far more than a concept or an ideal. Man of Holiness is so very encompassing.

    I would very much love to study, learn, say, and do holy things through principles, ordinances, and rituals. Till I can one day be worthy to be called Woman of Holiness. Thanks for letting me chime in, guys. Carry on…

  34. Well said JennyP1969!

  35. Thank you for the article. May I add my voice to make one small correction. Faith is not an ordinance, neither is repentance, they are principles. I believe Joseph Smith even referred to faith as a principle of power. I’ll have to look up the reference on that one. Thanks again for the article.

  36. Mephibosheth says:

    I would love to know when we started this.

    Ditto. Please let us know what you find.

    Not sure if it’s too obvious, but searching for the word “ordinance” in the Bible seem to bring up all kinds of OT and NT references where it seems to be used interchangeably as both “ritual” and “law.”

  37. I just thought of one other item, as a descendant of Zina Young, I know that some of her materials are only available to blood relatives. Perhaps that is why some of her information has not yet been digitized.

  38. These ideas were on my mind this while cycling to work this morning because I need to teach this topic on Sunday. Ordinances were not laws, in my head at least, because they were the rituals which affirmed the covenants (which contained the laws). Clearly, I need to do more work with these ideas.

  39. JennyP1969 says:

    I love the concept this post makes that points to an ordinance being a law. We have passed an ordinance in our town restricting lawn watering during the hot afternoons. I also love how faith is the “evidence” of unseen things, thus tying faith into law and ordinance. The whole 4th AofF is so much greater than the sum of its parts. Perhaps we could also say that baptism and receiving the Holy Ghost are outward expressions of inward covenants……so ordinances are external symbols of making covenants. Repentance is an inward and outward expression of an internal making and/or keeping of covenants. Faith is both inward and outward, but is always born within to be developed unto an outward power. Ordinances are are always born on the outside to signify the inward faith, the outward power of faith, and the inward/outward cleansing of required repentance.

    Thus, in the meaning of this post, faith and repentance are, indeed, ordinances — they are required by official decree. That’s kinda cool to consider……. I really learn a lot from you folks.

  40. JennyP1969, although baptism may be an outward symbol of an inward covenant, I am not sure whether I accept that you could potentially make the covenant without the ritual act.

  41. @Aaron R. Agreed, we cannot arbitrarily make covenants and expect God to be bound to them. Only when God’s delegated authority authorizes this covenant does God become bound to the terms of the covenant, and only then will the conditional blessings of the covenant flow as we faithfully abide by those conditions.

  42. Elizabeth Mansfield says:

    This comment is a little off the center topic of ordinance definition here, but you’ve got me thinking about something. Maybe the reason that the modern Church doesn’t encourage women to use the laying on of hands for healing the sick (as was clearly done in the past), is that same reason that the Church does not encourage speaking in the tongue of angels (as Brigham Young did early in his membership–see Manuscript History of Brigham Young). Maybe these things can be counterfeited too easily—Maybe the decision to keep with established lines of male priesthood authority for blessings, etc. was to help the Church hold to a gold standard–cut out ALL of the counterfeits at the sacrifice of some non-counterfeits. i.e. We’re not doing everything we can do, but what we are doing is completely correct.

  43. J. Stapley says:

    Amy, thanks! That settles it, I’m officially going to poach all of this. It would appear that JS (I’ll have to go back and check Pratt’s antecedent) was explicitly using legal language.

    JennyP1969, of course women are welcome. I’m not sure why you would think otherwise, but if it is anything I have done, I apologize. Anyway, I would say that the scriptures are pretty clear that if a miracle occurs, it is by the power of faith, regardless if it was in regards to a priesthood holder or not.

    Kelly, I guess one of the points of this post is that JS did say that faith was an ordinance. I’m unaware of any non-public papers of Zina.

    Aaron, I’d be interested in what you settle on.

    Elizabeth, while church leaders explicitly warned about the potential for glossolalia, from Joseph Smith to Joseph F. Smith. These same leaders (and all other leaders during the period) were very much supportive of female healing, without any real qualification. Despite the warnings about glossolalia, it still continued into the 20th century, and probably ended more because the church itself had changed and not because of those warnings. While church leaders did emphasize priesthood to distinguish Mormon healing from the Divine Healing movement of the late 19th and early 20th century, female healing wasn’t deprecated. If you are interested in the history and trajectory of the practice, may I recommend this article?

  44. This is really excellent. Great crowd sourcing.

  45. JennyP1969 says:

    J. Stapley: when I was writing my first comment, no women had yet entered the discussion. I felt a bit like I was worming in on a terrific male-bonding thing, sort of. It was very nice and I was hesitant to enter in. But, yes, I always feel welcome here. I love BCC!

    Aaron R.: not sure where you got that by saying baptism is an outward expression of an inward covenant that I was in any way implying or stating that baptism wasn’t necessary. All ordinances are the physical manifestation of the inward covenants, and all ordinances symbolize many holy things that focus our whole soul upon living beyond mortal/fallen ways. They are absolutely necessary! Sorry I didn’t make that clear.

    Elisabeth Mansfield: Joseph F. Smith took women blessing other women and their children away because he felt the men were content to let women handle these things and were languishing in their priesthood duties. I think it’s an article by Linda K. Newel where it’s cited, among other church history scholars. He worried that the brethren would be content to let women do everything. So he revamped RS to be under the direction of the priesthood and began discouraging women giving blessings. By the time that generation passed away, the younger sisters knew nothing about past female blessings. And the rest is history. It’s hard to imagine the stalwart men languishing, but he was there, and he was the prophet. So I’m sure he saw and knew things from spiritual guidance, and from temporal experience. Anyway, I don’t think fear of counterfeit blessings going on was the concern, but rather that the sisters were the real deal and an imbalance was developing.

    Speaking of imbalances…….

  46. JennyP1969, I suppose that I read your comment as suggesting that the outward symbol is merely that (an outward symbol) and therefore does not necessarily have any bearing on the inward covenant-making. Apologies if I mis-read you.

  47. J. Stapley says:

    JennyP1969, Joseph F. Smith was actually a stalwart supporter of female healing. He is on record perhaps more than anyone else (check out that article I linked to above).

  48. “May I add my voice to make one small correction. Faith is not an ordinance, neither is repentance, they are principles.”

    Evidently Kelly is channeling James Talmage. That is the current usage in the Church, but a brief look at the “Laws and Ordinances of the City of Nauvoo” (linked above) suggests that Joseph Smith did not distinguish between laws and ordinances, as was done eight years later by the Utah Territorial Legislature.

    From looking at the text in the 1856 Deseret News, all the items Joseph Smith calls “laws and ordinances” appear to be municipal ordinances. That would seem to indicate, as J. said in the original post, that when Joseph Smith wrote the Wentworth Letter, he understood “ordinances” to mean “laws.”

    So instead of substituting “principles and ordinances” to update the wording of the 4th Article of Faith, Talmage probably could have substituted “laws,” and that would have been more faithful to Joseph Smith’s probable original meaning.

  49. Elizabeth Mansfield says:

    J. Stapely: Thanks for the link to your article. I will read it. I am always happy to learn more.

  50. J. Stapley says:

    Amy, I have to admit that you have kindled a desire in me to actually read the Legal Series of the JSPP, something I must say that I wasn’t particularly looking forward to.

  51. I’m not sure there was ever an apostasy from the religion of the Pharisees, Ron Den Boer. It’s a faction of basically every aspect of human activity, alas. It would be nice if no Mormons ever acted like Pharisees. But if that were ever the case, we’d be even more peculiar a people than folks accuse us of today.

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