The Sacrament: a (somewhat speculative) liturgical genealogy. (Part III)

This is the third post in my short series about the “genealogy” of the LDS sacrament. In the first we looked at Oliver Cowdery’s 1829 Articles of the Church of Christ as the “birth” of the sacrament in the restored church. In the second, we looked at the sacrament prayers that Moroni records as the source for the prayers that Olive Cowdery put in the Articles. In this one, were going to look at the account in 3 Nephi of Jesus’ post-resurrection sacrament meal as the source of Moroni’s prayers.

The Progenitor of the Line: Jesus’ Words in 3 Nephi 18

Oliver Cowdery got the sacrament prayers from Moroni, but where did Moroni get them? I think it is apparent, from a close reading of Jesus’ words in what is now 3 Nephi chapter 18 that the prayers that Moroni recorded almost four centuries later were a liturgy that developed out of those words, similar to the way that the Eucharistic liturgy celebrated by Christian churches in the middle east and in Europe around that same time developed out of the accounts of the last supper in the gospels.[1]


Third Nephi, Chapter 18 by A.B. Wright.


In 3 Nephi 18 Jesus breaks bread, blesses it, and gives it to the disciples. (See vv. 2-4). After they have eaten, he explains that a priest will be ordained, and that he, Jesus, will empower that priest to “break bread and bless it and give it unto the people of my church.” (v. 5). He then commands: “this shall ye always observe to do.” (v. 6). He then explains:

this shall ye do in remembrance of my body, which I have shown unto you. And it shall be a testimony unto the Father that ye do always remember me. And if ye do always remember me ye shall have my Spirit to be with you. (3 Nephi 18:7).

He then blesses the wine and gives it to the disciples, and then explains:

Blessed are ye for this thing which ye have done, for this is fulfilling my commandments, and this doth witness unto the Father that ye are willing to do that which I have commanded you. And this shall ye always do to those who repent and are baptized in my name; and ye shall do it in remembrance of my blood, which I have shed for you, that ye may witness unto the Father that ye do always remember me. And if ye do always remember me ye shall have my Spirit to be with you. (3 Nephi 18:10-11).

3 Nephi 18 does not give set prayers for the sacrament, but by the time Moroni comes along, four centuries later, the sacrament has developed into a liturgy of set prayers that incorporate all the elements of Jesus’ teachings about the sacrament when he first gave it to the disciples. We can trace nearly every line in Moroni’s liturgy to a line in 3 Nephi 18:

O God, the Eternal Father, we ask thee in the name of thy Son, Jesus Christ, [compare 3 Ne 18:19] to bless and sanctify this bread [compare 3 Ne 18:3, 6] to the souls of all those who partake of it; that they may eat in remembrance of the body of thy Son [compare 3 Ne. 18:7], and witness unto thee, O God, the Eternal Father, that they are willing to take upon them the name of thy Son, and always remember him, [compare 3 Ne 18:7] and keep his commandments which he hath given them [compare 3 Ne 18:10], that they may always have his Spirit to be with them [compare 3 Ne 18:7].

O God, the Eternal Father, we ask thee, in the name of thy Son, Jesus Christ, [compare 3 Ne 18:19] to bless and sanctify this wine [compare 3 Ne 18:3] to the souls of all those who drink of it, that they may do it in remembrance of the blood of thy Son, which was shed for them [compare 3 Ne 18:11]; that they may witness unto thee, O God, the Eternal Father, that they do always remember him [compare 3 Ne 18:11], that they may have his Spirit to be with them [compare 3 Ne 18:11].

Given the similarity between Moroni’s liturgy and the words of Jesus in 3 Nephi 18, I think we can identify Jesus’ giving bread and wine to the disciples as the ancestor of Moroni’s liturgy.[2] But the four centuries of sacrament observance between that meal and Moroni are not recorded, and the line between them is unclear. This is where we have to speculate a bit.

Set prayers prescribed by Jesus but not recorded, or set prayers developed by the church?

It is possible, I suppose that after Jesus gave his disciples bread and wine, he then took Nephi aside and gave him the prayers to use, word for word, in the exact same form that Moroni recorded it 400 years later, and that the disciples used that exact same form with no variation for almost 400 years. But if Jesus had done so, it is strange that the disciples didn’t record it, or that Mormon didn’t think it merited inclusion in his record.[3] Given the attention that the narrator pays in 3 Nephi to Jesus’ words, and given that Jesus does prescribe a set prayer for baptism, I think it more likely that Jesus did not give the Nephite disciples set sacrament prayers.

I speculate, instead, that the disciples developed the prayers that Moroni later recorded as an effort to follow, preserve, and give effect to Jesus’ teachings on the sacrament. We can only guess at how that development might have happened.

At one extreme is the possibility that the Nephite disciples wrote the prayers immediately in the wake of Jesus’ visit and set them down in a format that would be binding in all the Nephite congregations, and which survived, unaltered, until Moroni recorded them. That’s what John Welch argues for. (See footnote 3.)

Another possibility, though, is that the prayers were not initially set prayers, but that the priests simply gave an extemporaneous blessing on the bread and wine, and that the prayers were later standardized. There could be any number of reasons for that standardization. Maybe the priests wanted to have set prayers out of a desire to make sure that the sacrament was done right. Maybe some priests added false doctrine to the prayer, or maybe some priests got long-winded and just added too many extraneous things to the prayer, so that church leaders felt the need to regulate and standardize the prayers. Given the lack of a recorded set prayer anywhere in 3 Nephi–not one provided directly by Jesus, and not one composed by the disciples–I think the latter possibility more likely. We also don’t know the extent to which the Nephite disciples or church members were literate, or had access to written records, and if literacy was limited, then putting Jesus teachings’ into a liturgy of set prayers would be an effective way to preserve those teachings and provide access to them to church members.

Next time: but what about the ways in which Moroni’s liturgy is different from Jesus’ words in 3 Nephi?

[1] I’m taking for granted that the Book of Mormon is an ancient text. So, given that the sacrament prayers come from the Book of Mormon, I’m assuming an early fifth century american origin for the sacrament prayers, rather than look for possible early nineteenth century sources in the eucharistic liturgies of other Christian churches. Mark D. Thomas once wrote an article exploring some similarities between the Nephite Sacrament and eucharistic practices of other christian churches. See Mark D. Thomas, “A Rhetorical Approach to the Book of Mormon:Rediscovering Nephite Sacramental Language,” in New Approaches to the Book of Mormon, Brent L. Metcalfe, ed. (Singature Books 1993) at 53-77. Thomas suggests that the sacrament prayers in Moroni are responsive to eucharistic controversies in nineteenth century American Christianity, but he does not argue outright that they were a nineteenth century creation. He admits that his argument may lead some to that conclusion, but he raises the alternative possibilities that such parallels may be due to the Book’s author or translator writing with a nineteenth century audience in mind, or that the same or similar controversies were also present in an ancient context. But see also Richard Anderson’s highly critical review of Thomas’ article: Richard Lloyd Anderson, “Review of “A Rhetorical Approach to the Book of Mormon: Rediscovering Nephite Sacramental Language” (1993),” FARMS Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 6/1 (1994), at 379–417.

[2] I suppose that an alternative explanation could be that Mormon or Moroni, or perhaps some earlier chronicler arranged Jesus’ teachings in 3 Nephi 18 such a way as to make them match up with the sacrament liturgy that had developed by the time that Nephi’s record was put into the form in which Mormon had it. But for purposes of this discussion I am going to assume that the account of Jesus giving bread and wine to the disciples influenced the liturgy Moroni records, rather than the other way around.

[3] Welch disagrees with me on this point. He recognizes that Jesus did not use Moroni’s liturgy, but says that we can “confidently assume” that Moroni’s liturgy was settled “at least very soon after the appearance of Jesus in 3 Nephi and quite possibly at the time of Jesus’ appearance itself.” John W. Welch, “From Presence to Practice: Jesus, the Sacrament Prayers, the Priesthood, and Church Discipline in 3 Nephi 18 and Moroni 2–6”, Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 5/1 (1996), at 126. But his reasoning for that conclusion seems to be based on the assumption that the sacrament Jesus gave to the Nephites requires set prayers. I don’t see any support for that assumption in 3 Nephi. Welch says that “the record states that Nephites observed the sacrament again with Jesus and that they continued to do so from that time onward (3 Nephi 20:3; 26: 13),” id., but that does not support his conclusion that Moroni’s liturgy was set at that time because there is no reason, aside from the assumption that set prayers are necessary, why they could not have continued to observe the sacrament with extemporaneous prayers. Welch further says that “[t]he fact that they so dutifully recorded, preserved, and used the words of Jesus in general, together with the fact that they were commanded to use specific words in performing the ordinance of baptism (3 Nephi 11 :27), gives considerable assurance that the Nephites began using the sacrament prayers as we know them at a very early time and that they did not change them during the four hundred years between the times of Jesus and Moroni.” Id. But again, the fact that they dutifully preserved his words and were given a set prayer for baptism doesn’t support that conclusion that there was a set prayer for the sacrament; in fact, I think it actually supports the opposite conclusion, because it demonstrates that when Jesus wanted to institute a set a prayer, he said so, and the disciples recorded it. And even though it is plausible, given the textual record, that the disciples set the prayers at an early stage, certainly none of this demonstrates that the liturgy remained completely unchanged “during the four hundred years between the times of Jesus and Moroni.” Id. It is natural for rituals and patterns of worship to evolve, and I see no reason why this would have been an exception–particularly given that Jesus did not prescribe a set prayer.


  1. AussieMormon says:

    The question that comes from this, is just how set is a set prayer?
    The ordinance related prayers have varying degrees of setness.
    We have baptism and sacrament prayers which are fully set. That is, if you say them wrong you need to do it again.
    Confirmation is also fully set, but, depending on where and when it is performed may be followed by a non-set blessing.
    Administrations are partially set. There are certain things you need to do and say (address person by name, state the authority, anoint/seal anointing) but there is some flexibility in how it’s done. (Like confirmation, a standard blessing can follow if the spirit directs)
    A non-anointing blessing pretty much just has address by name, and state authority.
    Assuming Christ didn’t give them the Moroni set prayer, it seems like the 3 Nephi scripture sacrament instructions are on par with the administration. There are things that actually re needed to be stated. (Christ didn’t say that thy needed to state the things, but it was likely needed so that they did remember the instructions).
    That being the case, they presumably either via direct instruction or via need (with the new prayer provided by revelation) compacted it down.
    From this…at what stage will a prayer be standardized from what it needs to include to what it must include?

  2. Baptism and the sacrament are arguably the most set prayers we have today, but even they are not completely rigid. The book of Mormon itself documents at least two different baptismal forms. (Though only one has Jesus express approval.) And there is some variation over time even in these prayers. Section 20 says “has” in the sacrament prayers, while Moroni says “hath.” 3 Nephi says “having authority given me of Jesus Christ,” while section 20 says “having been commissioned of Jesus Christ.” But earlier versions of eggs is now section 20 either had the book of Mormon language or just incorporated it by reference. And nobody has any issue, of course, changing “wine” to “water” in the sacrament prayer when water is used. And all these prayers are translated in various languages without any problem. It’s not like keeping everything in Latin, or Arabic, for example. So while the prayers are set prayers, there is still a degree of flexibility, and perhaps there is a greater degree of flexibility in what is acceptable to the Lord than there is in our practice. I don’t believe that the church is wrong to require us to be scrupulous about following authorized forms, but perhaps the Lord would accept more variations than would be authorized under current practice. At least, unless we’re going to assume that he rejected a great number of ordinances performed in the past, I have to believe that he accepts some variations that would not be authorized.

  3. Oh, also, speaking of liturgical variation, the whole controversy about priesthood ordination—whether one has to expressly confer the priesthood and then ordain to an office within that priesthood, or whether it is sufficient to just ordain to an office—is also an interesting example of a case where there were more than one acceptable form, initially, but the practice got standardized to what it is now.

  4. Set prayers put to the test one’s notions of language and translation. Unbroken transmission over 400 years would be incredible. Clear transmission over 1800 years is simply not believable without some intervention that will look like inspiration or God’s hand.
    Furthermore, as noted, “set” does not mean fixed and unchangeable. It is not the case that “nobody” has any issue changing “wine” to “water.” I do–I think it is a significant change that illustrates something important about the way the Church works. There is a history of the Church changing things for what seems–to an outside observer–to be expediency, sometimes without declaration, explanation, or common consent. It is what it is, but I think we should recognize and accept the informal, but only at high level, process of change in describing the institutional organization and operation. Set prayers. Temple practices. The recommend process and questions. Variations in marriage practices (not just the big ones, like polygamy and marriage of same-sex couples, but civil followed by temple, civil or temple after divorce, multiple partner sealings, clothing in the sealing room, etc.) The “set” in set prayers should, in my opinion, be discussed not (not just) in terms of language and transmission, but in terms of authority, i.e., who has the right or authority to make changes.
    A separate point (that I encourage you to address and might otherwise be skipped in a discussion of liturgical practice) is that our attention to form is different for words and ritual actions than for substance. Compare D&C 20:76-79 (“shall kneel . . . saying . . . shall take the cup also, and say”) with D&C 27:2 (“it mattereth not what ye shall eat or what ye shall drink when ye partake of the sacrament”).

  5. J. Stapley says:

    I think that you are correct that there is a clear connection. If the restoration is any context, Mormons didn’t use the set prayers in the BoM or Articles until well into the Utah period. It appears that extemporaneous prayers were more common. I also have a half dozen baptismal prayers that were used by church leaders in the 19th century. I have a hard time projecting med-twentieth century textual fastidiousness onto anyone, especial cultures millennia away from us that we basically know nothing about.

  6. christian, your comments are always so thoughtful. Thanks for commenting. You’re absolutely right that the nature of language itself is in tension with the idea of a set prayer that does not change.

    And you raise an interesting point about the way authority is bound up in all this. Variation may not be inherently inimical to the ordinance itself, but who has the authority to decide what degree and kind of variation is acceptable? That’s not really the point of what I’m doing with these posts, but I may work that it in one of the future ones. The point that I was making in my comment above about variation being less acceptable under current practice than perhaps it would be acceptable in the absolute is, I think, very much related to your point about authority.

    My comment above that “nobody” has an issue with substituting water for wine was a bit glib. The point is really more that the church doesn’t seem to think it’s a problem for purposes of getting the text right, so even if we are appropriately scrupulous about getting it right, we still have to recognize the point you made, that a set prayer is not an unchangeable prayer.

    Your second point–that we are very strict about getting the words and actions right, and not so worried about the material substance of the emblems. Is also interesting. (Although, even on actions, section 20 and Moroni 4 both seem to indicate that the congregation should kneel as well as the priest, and I’ve never seen that happen, nor have I seen anyone try to insist on it in and LDS sacrament service.) I probably won’t deal with it in this series because I’ve limited myself to looking at the origins of the ordinance before the organization of the church as opposed to current or historical practice in the church. But perhaps in a separate future post one day.

  7. Stapely, that is fascinating! I was not aware that the textual scrupulosity we currently hold to was so late a development. Do you have any idea of what may have caused the shift away from extemporaneous prayers? I mean, I can speculate, but unlike speculating about Book of Mormon cultures, here there may be actual historical answers. In any case, I very much agree with you that we should be skeptical about ” projecting med-twentieth century textual fastidiousness onto anyone, especial cultures millennia away from us that we basically know nothing about.”

  8. J. Stapley says:

    It is fascinating! It appears that in the case of the Lord’s Supper, BY just decided we aught to start regularly using the published prayers. This is an area the needs some work, as the implications are important, I believe.

  9. Similar questions arise over temple ritual in the 19th century. Lots of variation.

  10. That I was aware of, some, but I guess always just kind of assumed that sacrament and baptism were more standard.

  11. Even mid-twentieth century textual fastidiousness comes with variations. I was taught to give more weight to the language skills, learning experience, and potential embarrassment of a young priest than to precision with the words. (This seems absolutely clear to me. Not a matter for debate.) By observation I am fairly certain we did not all get the same lesson.

  12. Great point, Christian. The fact that we make allowances is itself a source of variation and there is even variation in the extent to which we make allowances. I’ve sat through times (rarely) where the Bishop will make the priest repeat the prayer 3 times because of an errant word, and I’ve also sat through times where Bishops let the same thing slide.

  13. Wonder Why says:

    J. Stapley, thanks for this: “I also have a half dozen baptismal prayers that were used by church leaders in the 19th century.”

    Can you give a source where I could find more information about these baptismal prayers?

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