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

This is the fourth post in my series on the sacrament’s origins. In the first and second posts we looked at how and why Oliver Cowdery used the sacrament prayers recorded in Moroni for the sacrament liturgy in the restored church. In the last post, I suggested that Jesus did not give set prayers to the Nephite disciples for the sacrament, but that the disciples developed what would ultimately become Moroni’s liturgy out of  Jesus’ teachings on the sacrament when he gave them bread and wine. I argued, though, that the account of the bread and wine recorded in what is now 3 Nephi chapter 18 is the ultimate source for Moroni’s liturgy, and that we can trace almost every line in Moroni’s liturgy to those teachings.

In this part, we are going to take a look at the places where Moroni’s liturgy differs from Jesus’ teachings in 3 Nephi 18.

The DNA of Lost Ancestors

I think it is reasonable, given the similarity between 3 Nephi 18 and Moroni’s liturgy, to conclude that the events recorded in 3 Nephi 18 are the ancestor of Moroni’s liturgy. But exactly how the line connects these two is shrouded in the mist of undocumented history. It isn’t clear how many generations there are between the two–how many lost ancestors stand in that line, who they were, or what impact they left.

But at least some of those lost ancestors may have left traces of themselves in the liturgy. Moroni’s liturgy is very similar to Jesus’ words in 3 Nephi 18, but it is not identical. There are a few differences. And these differences might be the traces of some organic development that happened during the four centuries between 3 Nephi and Moroni.

Changed order

First, Moroni’s liturgy slightly rearranges the elements of Jesus’ teachings in 3 Nephi 18. In 3 Nephi 18, Jesus teaches the disciples that drinking the wine witnesses to the Father that they are willing to keep Jesus’ commandments. See 3 Nephi 18:10. But in Moroni’s liturgy, the statement that the communicants witness their willingness to keep Jesus’ commandments is part of the prayer on the bread. See Moroni 4. At some point, it appears that the disciples shifted this portion of the prayer from the wine to the bread. That could be an indication that the prayers were not always so rigid–that perhaps the disciples felt freedom to rearrange the order of the elements of Jesus’ teachings in composing extemporaneous sacrament prayers before the liturgy had settled into the set form that Moroni recorded. I don’t know exactly what to make of this difference, but I think that perhaps it indicates that we should not be too invested in drawing conclusions from differences between the prayers on the bread and the wine (or water), and should instead  take the ordinance as a whole that draws its meaning from all its parts together.

Dropped language

Second, Moroni’s liturgy omits Jesus’ reference to his body in 3 Nephi 18 as the body which he showed to the disciples. In 3 Nephi 18 Jesus describes the wine as being drunk “in remembrance of my blood, which I have shed for you” and describes the bread in parallel as eaten “in remembrance of my body, which I have shown unto you.” In Moroni’s liturgy, the prayer on the wine keeps Jesus description of his blood by consecrating the wine to be taken”in remembrance of the blood of thy son, which was shed for them,” but the prayer on the bread consecrates the bread to be eaten “in remembrance of the body of thy son,” and omits referring to Jesus’ body as the body which was shown to the disciples. This may be an indication that the priests modified the liturgy once the congregations no longer included people who had actually seen Jesus’ resurrected body.

Added language

Third, Moroni’s liturgy adds an element that was not explicit in Jesus’ words in 3 Nephi 18. The prayer on the bread that Moroni records includes the statement that by eating the bread the communicants witness their willingness to take upon them the name of Christ. This is the only element of the sacrament liturgy from Moroni that does not appear to have a direct and explicit antecedent in Jesus’ words in 3 Ne 18. So who is this lost ancestor, this unrecorded mother who left her DNA in the sacrament liturgy in this manner?

There are many places in the Book of Mormon that mention or discuss the importance of taking upon oneself the name of Christ. John Welch has argued, relying on this line from the prayer on the bread, that the sacrament prayers were derived (at least in part) from King Benjamin’s sermon, noting similarities to Benjamin’s discussion of taking in the name of Christ through a covenant. See, e.g., John W. Welch, “Our Nephite Sacrament Prayers,” in Reexploring the Book of Mormon, John W. Welch, ed. (FARMS 1992), at 286-89. But the Book of Mormon passage that is textually closest to the added language in Moroni’s liturgy is not from King Benjamin, but from Nephi’s closing sermon on baptism and the Holy Ghost: Nephi says that we will have the promise of the Spirit, and the ability to speak with the tongue of angels, if we will “follow the Son, with full purpose of heart, acting no hypocrisy and no deception before God, but with real intent, repenting of your sins, witnessing unto the Father that ye are willing to take upon you the name of Christ, by baptism.” 2 Nephi 31:13.

But even though Nephi discusses witnessing to God our willingness to take on the name of Christ as an element of baptism, how did that become one of the witnesses of the sacrament? Jesus does say in 3 Nephi 18 that the bread and wine should be given to all those that are baptized in his name, so there is a link in Jesus’ words between baptism and the sacrament, and Benjamin does discuss being willing to obey God’s commandments in connection with taking upon oneself the name of Christ. (Mosiah 5:5-8). The disciples may have expanded these links into the doctrine that in addition to witnessing to God that we always remember Jesus and are willing to keep his commandments, we also renew the baptismal covenant to take upon ourselves the name of Christ, and they may have then ultimately made that doctrine explicit in the liturgy of the sacrament prayers by adding to the sacrament the willingness to take on oneself the name of Christ. That would be consistent with the idea of extemporaneous prayers.

It could even be the case that this development was the result of Jesus’ miraculous appearance to the disciples to reiterate the importance of taking on his name as the foundational identify of church members. See 3 Nephi 27:5.

We can only speculate, but these differences give me further reason to think that, like many other religious rituals, the sacrament did not burst onto the scene in 3 Nephi fully formed as the liturgy that Moroni would record four centuries later, but that it developed over time as the disciples and priests did their best to follow, preserve, expound, and share Jesus’ teachings in an environment where literacy and access to written records was likely far more limited than what we are used to now, until it ultimately settled into the liturgy that Moroni recorded in the early Fifth century. In other words, if the sacrament liturgy that Moroni recorded was the then-ultimate result of a process that began with extemporaneous prayers that then coalesced into a set liturgy, these are exactly the kind of variations that we would expect to find.

Next time: The Nephite Sacrament and the old world Eucharist as children of long lost brothers.



  1. The plot thickens.

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