2020 Handbook: The Lord’s Supper and the Right Hand

This week church leaders directed the release of the new general handbook of instructions (2020 v. 11/19). Among the updates are its public and digital-only availability (previously only sections were public). There have been several discussions about changes from the last iteration of the handbook. Here, I will be digging into one specifically: instructions for members to take the Lord’s Supper (generally “the sacrament”) with their right hand.

Section 18.9.4 comprises instructions on the Lord’s Supper, including: “7. Members partake with their right hand when possible.” Some people were surprised by this directive. Though the practice has significant history, it has not been included in official church instructions for decades. Here I’m going to contextualize that a bit.

As with all Latter-day Saint liturgy, the revelations generally included the existence of a particular ritual (or not) and perhaps an example ritual text. Details about how, when, where, and to a significant degree why a particular ritual was to be performed was largely worked out performatively. In the case of the Lord’s Supper, early Saints (like their New Testament-era archetypes) often celebrated the Lord’s Supper as an actual meal. In some cases they ate and drank until they were full. Later, as the ritual became integrated with regular worship services we see a process of formalization. For example it doesn’t look like we settled on using the canonical prayers for the Sacrament until the Utah era (don’t freak out, we don’t use the canonical prayers for ordination and yet priesthood offices still exist). This formalization process took well over a hundred years (see my previous post on home dedication). As part of this formalization process of the Lord’s Supper, church leaders have variously emphasized the practice of taking the emblems with the right hand.

First, there is a long and ancient history of right-hand usage in civic and religious acts and discourse. The New Testament, for example, is chock full of references. There is a lot to dig through, and I’m sure there are significant treatments, but let’s move to the early nineteenth century. The Book of Common prayer used at the time indicates that communicants were to receive “the bread in the hollow of his right hand.” Similarly, an 1804 Episcopal publication from New York directed that participants “receive the consecrated Bread with the right hand.” This was followed by an explanatory note stating that “receiving the consecrated Bread with the glove on the hand” should be avoided “as familiar and irreverent.” [n1] This isn’t a thing isolated to us.

I did a quick check through my notes (I’ve got files on the weirdest things), and it seems that besides one very early text, essentially all formal discussion of right hand sacrament consumption that I could locate is isolated to about a 60 year period starting in the late 1890s (there are a few outliers, which we will discuss later). This makes sense because this was the period when the details of how to perform rituals was largely being discussed (all the old timers were passing away, and people were questioning everything) [n2]. There is a lot of other documentation early in the Restoration for right handed actions, whether “manifesting” ones support or commitment, or extending the “right hand of fellowship” (this latter one was a recognized ritual among German baptists).

A few years after being ordained an apostle, George Cannon gave one theological basis for this that is explicitly Mormon. At the December 31, 1863 general council meeting of the Birmingham Conference, Cannon spoke and remarked on how people who anointed and blessed sometimes used their left hands. He strenuously encouraged the elders to use their right hands to bless, anoint, confirm and ordain, as “in the right hand is the power of the priesthood.” He then referenced the endowment ceremonies of the Temple. While silent on the Lord’s Supper, he does address the sacramental function of the right hand, and made a theological argument in support. [n3] Cannon did, however, remain somewhat flexible. Later in life he remarked how

there was a disposition among our people to be very technical and to attach importance to things that were in and of themselves not so important. Brother Brigham Young illustrated it also by telling how he had been corrected for pouring the oil with his left hand in anointing the sick. Of course, we know it is right to use the right hand in the anointing; but a great many people become very strenuous on small matters, as though they were of importance. [n4]

A few years after this, apostle Daniel Wells spoke in Salt Lake City and discussed the Lord’s Supper. By this time the Saints shared a communal cup, and some people apparently used it to “quench their thirst.” Wells found this utterly problematic, “highly improper and irreverent.” The then went on to outline some similar sentiments to our Episcopal friends:

I have seen brethren and sisters partake of the sacrament with their gloves on, and in a very careless attitude, stretching out the left hand. You should always put forth the right, hand when taking either the bread or the cup; and you should take off your hats if you have them on, and partake of the consecrated emblems with reverence. [n5]


This classic image was published in Harper’s four years after Well’s sermon. [High Res]

Now, I couldn’t find anything else on the matter of right-handed Sacrament consumption until the end of the century, and then the documentary record is quite regular. Because I may use the materials in a publication later, I’ll just be summarizing the data:

Late 1890s
– Sunday School curriculum enjoining members to take the emblems with clean, bare, right hand.
– Church leader discussions about whether to kneel and raise one hand (right) or both hands while saying the Sacrament prayers.

1900s
– Documentation of local bishops instructing their members to use their right hands.
– 1905 Letter from JFS to his son Alvin noting that right hand should be used for anointing, blessing, and cites the temple. He notes: “The practice makes the rule. But always remember that it is not the rule or practice which gives life or force but the true Spirit. There is no good in splitting hairs nor in tickey-tecnical rules. ‘The letter killeth but the Spirit giveth life.’” [n6]
– Church leader discussion that anointing with the left hand is fine.
– GenCon address by George A. Smith noting that the right hand should be used and again “the sacrament should not be accepted with a gloved hand; nobody should receive it in that irreverent manner.”[n7]
– Sunday School leaders encouraging right hand usage.

1910s
– Right hand usage taught in church magazine.

1920s
– Church leader discussion of raising right arm during sacrament prayers.
– Church curriculum emphasizing right hand usage for Sacrament.

1930s
– Church magazine teaches right hand usage for Sacrament.
– Church general handbook includes direction to take emblems with the right hand. (not included in subsequent editions)

1940s
– Joseph Fielding Smith teaches that right hand not necessary (later changes his mind and teaches strongly that right hand should be used) [n8]
– Multiple church publications note that there is no rule about which hand should be used, though the right hand is “customary.”

1950s
– A church publication noting that right handed consumption is “customary” but not the rule.
– A church publication noting that it is “advisable” to use the right hand, though not absolutely necessary.
– Perhaps surprisingly, Bruce McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine doesn’t say anything about it.

1961
– Leadership training that the right hand should be used, pointing to JFSII’s strong teachings advocating right hand usage.

The next thing in my files is from then (relatively) young Russell M. Nelson, who wrote for the Ensign in 1983, answering the question “Is it necessary to take the sacrament with one’s right hand?” Nelson wrote of the scriptural and historical invocations of the right hand, and relayed an etymology of “sacrament” that was well meaning, but mistaken. He concluded (as several others have before him) that “the hand used in partaking of the sacrament would logically be the same hand used in making any other sacred oath. For most of us, that would be the right hand.”

I understand that some CES-type folks have been teaching the use of the right hand through the subsequent decades, but my files don’t really track that. I had an instructor at BYU who taught that any right hand requirement was merely “folk doctrine.” Despite the pejorative whiff, he technically wasn’t wrong.

Most recently, I was informed that President Oaks spoke at a meeting last year and emphasized quite strongly that the right hand was an important requirement for the Lord’s Supper. Then we have the handbook release this last week.

TLDR
So, after a period of celebrating the Lord’s supper like a meal, we, as other Christians who have approached the Lord’s Supper, have made it more symbolic. In doing so, we (like other denominations) have had leaders teach that we should take the emblems with our right (clean, un-gloved) hand. It seems to me that like many other rituals being questioned and formalized at the turn of the nineteenth century, many people concluded that taking the sacrament with the right hand was recommended, but that it wasn’t wildly important (though surely many also thought it was vital). Other things like raising the right hand during prayers, and anointing with the right hand were deprecated (I only included a few references to this). Perhaps because there is no scriptural injunction (again it started as an actual meal), there seems to have been a step away from official emphasis on the practice in the last third of the twentieth century. However, both President Oaks and Nelson, who were raised in the periods of greatest emphasis, appear to be proponents of the practice. It is perhaps, consequently unsurprising that the new handbook incorporated the teaching. And while many church leaders have made similar arguments to support the practice as our Protestant cousins, they have also added to them by invoking temple practice.

_________________

  1. John Henry Hobart, A Companion for the Altar: Consisting of a Short Explanation of the Lord’s Supper, and Meditations and Prayers, Proper to be Used Before, and During, the Receiving of the Holy Communion, According to the Form Presrcibed by the Protestant Episcopal Church, in the United States of America (New York: Peter A. Mesier, 1804), 243-244.
  2. Stapley, Power of Godliness, 69.
  3. ”Minutes of a General Council,” Millennial Star 26 (April 2, 1864), 211. Cf.,George Q. Cannon, Journal, January 5-6, 1864.
  4. Cannon, Journal, February 18, 1897.
  5. Daniel H. Wells, Sermon, August 18, 1867, JoD, 12:134.
  6. Joseph F. Smith, letter to Alvin F. Smith, December 16, 1905, MS 1325, CHL. Also published in Hyrum M. Smith III, and Scott G. Kenney, comp., From Prophet to Son: Advice of Joseph F. Smith to His Missionary Sons, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1981), 93.
  7. Conference Reports, (April, 1908), 36.
  8. Justin R. Bray, “Excessive Formalities in the Mormon Sacrament, 1928–1940,” Intermountain West Journal of Religious Studies 4 (2012), 69-70. Honestly, Justin’s work on the Lord’s Supper is the best stuff we have. Definitely worth reading.

Comments

  1. Really appreciate the context and explanation. Fascinating stuff. I think there have been some real improvements in the new handbook, but this directive is an example of nitpicking micromanagement at its finest.

  2. J, thanks so much for this explainer. This helps. I especially love the letters from people like JFS and Cannon.

    Though you didn’t go into the scriptural background, I wonder if the discomfort with rules like this stem, in part, from our unfamiliarity with texts like the Old and New Testament where the practices originally come from? It seems that the impulse, based on comments in the last thread, is to throw off any traditions that seem at all to be “letters of the law”–that distract from the spirit. But I personally like the recommendation. I’m not going to judge anyone who doesn’t take it with their left hand, but it feels like a small way to connect my actions, in form AND in spirit, back into the canon of scripture. Maybe that’s just me? Dunno. Either way, thanks for the background.

  3. Michael LeFevre says:

    I wonder how much of this right hand stuff, dates back to the Semitic/Arabic practice of the right hand for the mouth and the left for the other end of the alimentary tract?

  4. I actually don’t mind ritual in worship services, but when I consider the typical Mormon sacrament meeting, awash as it is in flip flops, cargo pants, untucked shirts and the constant use of mobile devices, including during the administration of the Lord’s Supper, it puzzles me that anyone would be preoccupied by the hand used in an otherwise almost formless ritual.

  5. Growing up, I had never heard of the right hand requirement. I grew up in Utah in the 70s and 80s in a sometimes active family. About seven years ago, when we were living in the Midwest, an eleven year old girl in our branch had a stroke that left her with very limited function in her right arm. A primary teacher had taught her that the sacrament should be received with the right hand and this caused her significant concern and worry that she was somehow less than or unworthy without being able to partake of the sacrament properly. Her parents helped her overcome such thoughts. With lots of hard work, she is serving a mission now and can probably use her right hand fo take the bread and water; but I was disappointed to see this addition to the handbook.

  6. I don’t mind incorporating symbolic aspects of worship into our ordinances. But to receive it in this way makes it feel pedestrian, like we’re getting a memo from corporate headquarters that we need to include cover sheets on our TPS reports.

  7. Sherry Work says:

    In RMN’s Ensign article he also says “Much more important than concern over which hand is used in partaking of the sacrament is that the sacrament be partaken with a deep realization of the atoning sacrifice that the sacrament represents.” Using the right hand is symbolic but it is not essential.

  8. I’ve seen that Harper’s picture before but never noticed just how wild it is, along with the description of it. However, to avoid going off-topic, I noticed that the only two cups in plain view are being administered or received by the left hand. The woman that appears to be breastfeeding would also likely have to use her left to take the water.

  9. Anna Jillings Buttimore says:

    I’m left-handed, and it’s not always easy to take the sacrament with my right hand, so I may deliberately rebel.

  10. My parents taught me the right hand rule as I was growing up in the 70’s-80’s. The teaching has stuck with me to the point that I feel guilty when I rebel and take the sacrament with my left hand. It is so weird that little things like this can make a difference. I’m left handed so maybe this lesson hit me harder than it otherwise would have because I had to make a special effort to remember to use the “correct” hand every time I took the sacrament as I grew up. My conscious mind knows it isn’t a big deal but my subconscious insists I’m doing something wrong when I break this rule.

    Thank you for this history! The fact that they’ve codified this practice in the new manual is more disappointing to me than it should be.

  11. I’m on board. “They would not look…because of the simpleness of the way”. I cannot think of any request from the brethren that has been easier to do.

  12. Charlie Nielson says:

    Funny thing here J I have been a lefty because I’m holding the hand of my wife with my right hand. She likes to sit on my right. Now the mechanics of this makes her use her right hand. Wow I could on. Thanks for the info.

  13. Charlie, I think there is going to be more than a little couples-jockeying if this practice lasts for the duration!

  14. Ryan Mullen says:

    While I appreciate an understanding of historical practice, until someone can demonstrate that the origin of this practice (or its ancient covenant counterpart) is not rooted in left-handed bias, I will continue to disregard the right-hand rule—just as I disregard ancient practices of misogyny and ethnic prejudice.

  15. Jack Hughes says:

    I’m left-handed, but I take the sacrament with whichever hand is most convenient in the moment. No lightning strikes yet. After reading this well-researched post, I will make it a point to use my left hand next Sunday to prove just how little God really cares about this.

    I grew up in the Church, and I never once heard about the supposed right hand requirement until I was in my 30s, when a strident high councilor spent about 10 minutes of his allotted speaking time droning on about the “unwritten order of things”, including the right hand sacrament thing. I just dismissed it as one of those weird Utah Mormon things (I grew up well outside the mountain time zone, and was used to Utah transplants trying in vain to push their weird cultural practices on the rest of the ward).

    Use whatever hand you want. Use your left foot even (if you are skilled enough). I don’t care. Neither does God.

  16. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for this outstanding overview of the history. When I was a boy in the 60s emphasis on the right hand was a thing, and I have used my right hand all my life, mainly from us le memory from that youthful experience.

    I believe it is common even today for fundamentalists to raise their right arm to the square while blessing the sacrament.

  17. The OP demonstrates that we as a church have not exactly been consistent with this practice. So why, in this era of change, would we go back to it now? It seems to be based mostly on tradition and we are ridding ourselves of many pointless traditions (missionaries only able to call home twice a year for example). I have no issue with the Church wanting us to do things properly per the Lord’s instructions. But this seems to be pure tradition. Pharisees smiling today.

  18. Jack Hughes says:

    FWIW, the new handbook cautions leaders against withholding the sacrament as a go-to punishment for confessed transgressions. This is a move in the right direction. The truly penitent are the ones who need the sacrament the most.

  19. I think there’s value to the symbolism of taking the sacrament with the right hand as a symbol of taking a covenant action. I have no qualms at all with the instruction to do so. However, I think something like “but leaders and those passing the sacrament should make no attempt to correct or admonish someone for taking the sacrament with the left hand.” That is, although there is value to it, and perhaps enough to note it in the handbook (though I don’t know if that’s necessarily true), it could be clearer that this is a non-essential element.

  20. My mother (b. 1937) was insistent about this. It’s such a deeply ingrained habit for me that I’m sure I use my right hand virtually every time but don’t think much about it. Which kinda begs the question of whether the symbolism has any impact. I think about a lot of important things during the sacrament but that’s not one of them.

  21. If Nate Oman were still on the internet, this is the point at which he would write about how the establishment of a theologically meaningless but institutionally endorsed rule is a sociologically important way of providing a harmless outlet for various ornery saints’ rebellious tendencies, like beards at BYU or the like. Annoyingly, he would probably not be wrong.

  22. Well this is well done research.

    I’m a little bothered by obsessing with petty details.

    When I read this section of the manual I noticed that the comment about partaking with the right and is when the bread is being passed. It repeats that statement for the water. I don’t think that is supposed to actually mean anything, but in the rule-based step by step kind of paradigm where we do everything by the book, one could argue (weakly) that the cup of water can be handled ambidextrously. I mean, I think it’s obviously intended for people to take the water with their right hand as well, but it doesn’t actually say that.

  23. Thank you for the very well researched context. It’s interesting how the emphasis has changed over time and seems to be based on a desire for reverence.

    But since one in every nine people is left handed (including me) I’m still left with a sincere question. Historically why WAS the right hand considered more reverent? And is that reason, whatever it is, still relevant today?

  24. Great analysis, JS. Related topic: What is the basis for serving the sacrament to the presiding authority first before the rest of the congregation is allowed to partake? The scriptural basis seems to be AGAINST this custom. It is the antithesis of Christ’s instituting the sacrament in last supper in which he served the apostles first and washed their feet, telling them the greatest among you shall be your servant. How we evolved this custom that reflects the kingdom of this world instead, I’ll never understand.

  25. Aussie Mormon says:

    Bryce, one thing that I either heard, or read, or am just thinking I did, is that by the presiding officer taking it first, he is essentially ratifying that the ordinance was performed correctly.

  26. The other chad says:

    As a currently serving senior missionary in a second/third world mission, I’m grateful for that “when possible” qualifier. In our area, and in this era of communicable disease, there is risk in obeying the handbook after extending the right hand of fellowship to 90-100 of my brothers and sisters. Breaking out the hand sanitizer seems a little offensive here.

  27. Sidebottom says:

    Thank heavens we are rid of the Boy Scouts and their left-handed official handshake.

  28. Mark Ashurst-McGee says:

    All hail the Stapley database

  29. The Other Brother Jones says:

    I have never heard this taught over the pulpit. If I did it was so rare that I cannot recall it. But I think we can say that it is NOT doctrine. Doctrine is not defines by one leader saying it over the pulpit. Doctrine is what is taught consistently and repeatedly by all the 1stPres and Q12. (as stated by one of the 12 last conf)

  30. ashurstmcgee says:

    I’m pretty sure there is a section in JFS’s Answers to Gospel Questions (or possibly DoS) about right-hand partaking with some explanation about the right-hand being associated with righteousness (and the left hand with evil).

  31. ashurstmcgee says:

    In 1836, the priesthood officers washed their hands and then their faces before washing their feet and then partaking of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. So, they had washed their hands before partaking the eucharist. Not sure if that was meaningful to them.

  32. Thanks Mark! Yeah, it is Doctrines of Salvation. I pointed to it through Bray’s article because he documented JFSII’s shift. And as I remember (I should go back and look it up), the JS journal entry for the first anointings documents a hand that was used but it has a strike out through it and a correction. I should go back through that.

    Bryce, passing to the presiding officer first is formalized in the 1940s (I treat this in PoG, p. 97), and the discussion is around the idea of priesthood order. I have just recently found documentation that the practice was happening decades earlier, though.

  33. ashurstmcgee says:

    Foot-washing in 1836 was conducted in a highly regimented priesthood order.

  34. I have saved this in my files and used it a few times when counseling with people:

    (From Joseph F. Smith, From Prophet to Son: Advice of Joseph F. Smith to His Missionary Sons, compiled by Hyrum M. Smith III and Scott G. Kenney [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1981], 93.)

    Alvin F. wrote to ask if there were a rule about pouring the oil with the right hand when administering to the sick. Answering the question, Joseph F. [Smith] took occasion to warn his son against excessive attention to details that tend to obscure the true meaning of the ordinances.

    [Joseph F. replied]
    The question you ask about anointing seems very simple to me. I think it is the general practice to pour the oil with the right hand. I suppose because most people are right-handed. But there is no law or rule against anointing . . . with the left. We shake with the right hand. In the endowments the signs and tokens are made and given with the right hand. When we lay but one hand on the sick it should be the right. We take the Sacrament with the right hand. The practice makes the rule. But always remember that it is not the rule, or practice, which gives life or force, but the true spirit. There is no good in splitting hairs nor in tickey-technical rules. “The letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life.”

  35. Thanks Matt. That is a larger quotation of the correspondence I cite in the post.

  36. It’s always funny to see leaders reject nit-picky rules in favor of focusing on the spirit of what we do and then go right ahead and give nit-picky rules. They just can’t help themselves. I blame the white shirts.

  37. Roughly 15 years ago, when I first walked into an LDS church, I partook of the sacrament bread for the first time ever.
    And the poor kid passing it to me (I was on the end of the pew- where “first contact” occurs) balked as if I had spit in the tray. Why? Because I used my left hand. Not only did hid eyes bulge, but he didn’t seem to want to relinquish the tray.

    I remember that moment well. I still feel the awkward “outsider” vibe that coursed through my body. I immediately asked my boyfriend if i had done something wrong, and either he was unaware of the unspoken rule, or (more likely) he was sensitive to my first experience at his church.

  38. After shaking so many hands before the meeting starts, I feel it is only sanitary to take the sacrament with my left hand. But I do understand the symbolism of it, even if I wonder how much the apostles at the last supper held to it.

  39. MARK DONALD THOMAS says:

    Terrific post. This notion of the requirement to use the right hand in the sacrament has deep and rich roots not only in Christian tradition but in the Bible. One example is Isaiah 41:10, 13 which states:
    I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness . . .
    For I the LORD thy God will hold thy right hand:

    Joseph Fielding Smith is likely the best known representative of those in Mormonism that believe in what may be called the Mormon Theology of the Right Hand—those who advocate an extensive and thorough use of the right hand in all ordinances, ceremonies, and protocol.
    Smith cites these verses in Isaiah 41 as evidence that the right hand has special religious significance that is not arbitrary, but was divinely mandated from the beginning of the world. This statement coincides with the Mormon teaching that the gospel is the same in every age and that Mormonism represents its restoration. Smith offers no evidence for such early sources for the use of the right hand, but does offer customary practice inside and outside of Mormonism to defend the practice and theology—such as the custom of placing the right hand on the bible when swearing a legal oath in court. According to Smith, the right hand is a symbol of righteousness and must be used instead of the left in making church covenants, such as partaking of the bread and water in the Lord’s supper. See his Answers to Gospel Questions, volume 1 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 143. But Smith’s Theology of the Right Hand is not and has never been universally known or accepted within Mormonism.

    Other Mormons have considered at least some of this extensive emphasis on the uses of the right hand in ordinances and sacraments (such as the taking of the sacramental bread and water exclusively with the right hand) a mere tradition lacking divine mandate. In a separate line of thinking, Mormon author A. Gileadi sees the “right hand” in verses 10 and 13 as a reference to any prophetic figure who serves as God’s agent of punishment and deliverance, and especially a pseudonym for the latter-day Servant–an odd reading indeed.

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