New Approaches to the Book of Mormon
Brent Lee Metcalfe, editor

Chapter 3.
A Rhetorical Approach to the Book of Mormon:
Rediscovering Nephite Sacramental Language
Mark D. Thomas

Much contemporary research on the Book of Mormon focuses on historical claims at the expense of understanding the book’s message. A few researchers have suggested setting aside historical claims in order to focus on interpretation. Justification for this is based on the fact that the Book of Mormon presents a universal, providential history that transcends any particular history and points to a universal path of personal and social salvation. Yet the book’s message finds expression in an idiom that cannot be fully interpreted outside of history. All literature to a greater or lesser degree is attached to history. Therefore there needs to be some mediation between textual interpretation and historical setting.

The claim for an ancient origin of the Book of Mormon is ultimately a claim for religious authority, but in the final analysis the book’s authority cannot depend on its age. If the Book of Mormon’s message is profound, that alone should be sufficient reason for serious analysis and dialogue. If the book is not worth reading, no claim to antiquity can salvage it. So I propose interpreting this sacred narrative in the historical and literary context in which it emerged. Yet I wish to appeal to history as an interpretive aid. The historical setting to which I will appeal is the original 1830 audience. I will examine the manner in which Book of Mormon rhetoric addresses this audience.

I contend that for interpretive purposes, it is more important to understand the book’s audience than its author. The Book of Mormon Title Page makes a critical rhetorical claim: the text is an ancient document addressing a modern audience. The book spends a great deal [p.54] of time focusing on events surrounding its discovery. Prophecies of events after 1830 are rushed over rather quickly and are addressed from the perspective of the audience in 1830 (for example, 2 Ne. 28; Morm. 8).

In fact, the book is so interested in this audience that several characters speak of that time in the present tense and address the audience in the second person “you.” Frequent commentary interprets the narratives for the benefit of this nineteenth-century audience. When Jesus appears he commands his Nephite listeners to record his sermon for the sake of latter-day readers. Rhetorical criticism seeks to understand how a work addresses its audience and is a key to understanding the book’s message.1 In fact, the Book of Mormon states explicitly that this is the preferred interpretive approach. Only the latter-day audience could fully interpret the prophecies of that time.

Another reason to interpret the Book of Mormon in a modern context is the language of the book—the language of Joseph Smith. Language evolves over time, and certain words and phrases have lost subtleties of meaning since the early 1800s. To ignore these subtle differences in language is to risk misinterpretation. The book does not easily lend itself to interpretation based on any ancient language in the absence of the original gold plates or an understanding of “reformed Egyptian.” But any appeal to the antiquity of the text must begin with the nineteenth century simply because that is the language of the text itself. A rhetorical approach is thus not one among many approaches; it is one of the starting points for other interpretations, regardless of when the book was written.

An additional reason to begin with the nineteenth-century audience is because the Book of Mormon utilizes nineteenth-century literary forms and theological categories. This use of modern forms will be an immediate focus of this study which examines the form and meaning of the Lord’s Supper in the Book of Mormon.

There is also a broader reason to interpret the Book of Mormon in the setting of Joseph Smith’s day. Interpretive theory demands some historical setting. Certainly there are those who deny any importance to historical setting because they believe interpretation reflects the person who interprets or because the text is self-contained. But to accept subjectivity in interpretation does not imply arbitrariness. And Wayne Booth has taught us that an author cannot choose whether to use rhetorical heightening. The only choice is the type of rhetoric to be used. If fidelity to the text is claimed as a virtue and if one of the tasks of interpretation is to grasp original meaning, then history is important. [p.55] Emphasizing strategic rhetoric aimed at a specific audience helps avoid the distortion and inattention often given to texts which are held as authoritative and holy. Scripture is often not allowed to differ from what the contemporary reader believes, and the text becomes little more than the projected voice of the reader. What appears to be respect is a smothering of the text’s voice. Letting the text speak requires attention, sincerity, and integrity.

Once we listen to the dialogue between text and original audience, we are in a better position to grasp the universal message of the book. We must be careful to avoid equating the meaning of a text with what its audience says it means. Even the audience is liable to misinterpretation. It is the dialogue between text and audience that is the interpretive aid. For the Book of Mormon all history points to Jesus as savior of the world. This salvation includes conquest of death and guilt, and establishment of community. The text demands therefore a leap beyond historical circumstance and a narrow historical audience. The Book of Mormon’s history symbolically expresses a universal understanding of existence, and the ambiguities and limits of a particular passage are conquered by their transcendent, symbolic quality. But the text must first be “translated” from its “foreign” tongue before the contemporary audience can grasp the universality of its symbolism.

The Book of Mormon’s attention to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper provides an opportunity for testing and elaborating this rhetorical approach. The rhetorical significance of the Lord’s Supper becomes apparent after Jesus administers the sacrament. He continues: “And I give you these commandments, because of the disputations which hath been among you beforetime” (3 Ne. 18:34). This passage focuses the larger tension embedded in the Book of Mormon’s rhetorical claims about itself—an ancient document speaking to a modern audience. Christ could not be speaking about Nephite disagreements, since Nephites are being introduced to the sacrament for the first time. The voice of Christ may be addressing Nephites, but the text is anticipating disputations among its nineteenth-century audience. To understand these authoritative pronouncements on the sacraments then, we must recover the disagreements, language, and liturgical forms of Joseph Smith’s day. We can then construct the characteristic way in which the text addresses these matters. This understanding of the nineteenth-century conversation is the first step in considering the continuing relevance for a twentieth-century audience. The liturgical symbolism in the Book of Mormon expresses what it considers a universal understanding of existence.

The Nephites were instructed that their worship should be “after the manner of the workings of the spirit, and by the power of the Holy [p.56] Ghost: for as the power of the Holy Ghost led them whether to preach, or exhort, or to pray, or to supplicate, or to sing, even so it was done” (Moro. 6:9).2 Those who administered the sacraments were to perform them by the power of the Holy Ghost (Mosiah 18:12-13; Moro. 3:4). Most prayers in the Book of Mormon seem to be spontaneous expressions of the spirit. The evil Zoramites all offer the same uniform prayer (Alma 31). The spontaneous and righteous prayer of Alma is juxtaposed to the Zoramite prayer. The implication is that prayer should be a spontaneous expression of the soul in contrast to the fixed and dead prayer of the Zoramites.

The liturgical prayers themselves offer evidence of this same tradition of spontaneity and spirit. The baptismal prayer of Alma at the waters of Mormon appears to be spontaneous. It is much longer than the baptismal prayer in Moroni. The wording is entirely different, although the two baptismal prayers reflect some common theological themes. The same variability can be found in the two eucharistic prayers in Moroni.

O God, the Eternal Father, we ask thee in the name of thy Son Jesus Christ, to bless and sanctify this bread to the souls of all those who partake of it, that they may eat in the remembrance of the body of thy Son, 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, and keep his commandments which he hath given them, that they may always have his spirit to be with them. Amen (Moro. 4:3).

O God, the Eternal Father, we ask thee, in the name of thy Son Jesus Christ, to bless and sanctify this wine 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, that they may witness unto thee, O God the Eternal Father, that they do always remember him, that they may have his spirit to be with them. Amen (Moro. 5:2).

The covenant sections of the two prayers differ. In the prayer over the bread obedience is required in order to have the spirit. This element is missing in the prayer over the wine. There are theological parallels between these two prayers and King Benjamin’s covenant in Mosiah 5, as well as to instructions regarding the sacrament given by Christ in 3 Nephi 18 (cf. Welch 1986). But the conditions and wording of the covenant vary. For example, in 3 Nephi obedience is promised in taking the wine, and the bread signifies remembrance only. These [p.57] are representative examples of variety and spontaneity in the Book of Mormon liturgy.

But after Christ’s appearance a different liturgical concern arises—divine authority. In 3 Nephi 18:16 Christ states how to administer the sacraments: “And as I have prayed among you even so shall ye pray in my church, among my people which do repent and are baptized in my name. Behold I am the light; I have set an example for you.” The eucharistic prayer in Moroni 4:1 is introduced with an eye to establishing a uniform liturgical pattern: “The manner of their elders and priests administering the flesh and blood of Christ unto the church; and they administered it according to the commandments of Christ; wherefore we know the manner to be true.” The proper manner includes the recitation of set prayers.

In 3 Nephi Christ teaches the Nephites “the words which ye shall say” in the baptismal prayer (11:24-25). The fixing of sacramental forms in Moroni did not stop the evolution in Mormon sacraments. We find in Mormonism a history of transformation in baptism, the temple endowment, and the eucharist. To trace the details of this history would depart from the objective of this essay. I simply wish to make the point that spontaneity or modification by the spirit and fixed forms of authority are still competing and unresolved ideals in Mormon liturgical piety and thought. Mormons claim to have the true forms of worship, yet they also claim the power of new revelation to modify the forms to meet changing needs. These two perspectives are not necessarily incompatible. But in the Book of Mormon text and in Mormon thought generally, the two competing principles have yet to be systematically resolved.

In an important sense this tension within the Book of Mormon between spontaneous and fixed forms recapitulates various voices in a larger nineteenth-century conversation about the proper mode of administering sacraments. In the early nineteenth century, a number of churches followed the ideal that prayer (including eucharistic prayers) should allow for the spirit to guide the words. This was the tradition among the free churches, including Congregationalists, Baptists, and Alexander Campbell’s Christians. Other more liturgical churches used fixed prayers and a lengthy and eloquent liturgy for the Lord’s Supper.

One way to account for the liturgy in the Book of Mormon would be to propose that the Book of Mormon presents a position of mediation between the fixed and spontaneous liturgy in the nineteenth century. This would be in line with the thesis of Brigham Young University historian Marvin S. Hill. He suggests that the theology of the Book of Mormon as a whole can be characterized as a theology of mediation between opposing positions (1989, 21-22). Thus he believes that its theological stance regarding human nature is a middling [p.58] position between Calvinism and Arminianism, and its view of the godhead is a cross between belief in one and many gods.

I would describe the impulse embodied in the Book of Mormon in somewhat different terms. For me the term mediation unduly emphasizes compromise. The Book of Mormon is always a rigorous advocate. It advocates believer’s baptism and condemns anyone who advocates the baptism of infants. The same is true of its position on Universalism. In response to the two examples cited by Hill, I have argued elsewhere that the Book of Mormon advocates conservative Arminianism and defends a trinitarian position on the godhead (Thomas 1989; Vogel 1990). But this advocacy should not obscure the Book of Mormon’s commitment to an ongoing conversation or disputation with its own particular perspective.

The nineteenth-century controversy over fixed versus spontaneous prayers reveals an unusual position in the Book of Mormon. We have, as noted, a move from spontaneous to fixed prayers by the end of the book. This is one instance where the thesis of mediation is an appropriate explanation. But the thesis of mediation hides the novel position presented by the book. Prayers in the Book of Mormon are fixed because they rest on the authoritative commands of Jesus. Even Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Methodists modified their fixed eucharistic prayers to match a changing understanding of the sacrament. What is unique about the Book of Mormon is the presentation of a lost scriptural authority on the liturgy. There were various claims among early nineteenth-century Protestants regarding proper prayers and mode of administering the sacraments. It was a commonly held belief among Protestants that all sacraments must ultimately derive from scriptural precedent. But I know of no nineteenth-century work that made authoritative and exemplary claims regarding the sacraments by an appeal to the discovery of the lost prayers and instruction of Jesus. In addition, the sacrament prayers interpret the meaning of the sacramental ritual. Fixing the prayers is therefore the Book of Mormon’s way of providing a final authoritative interpretation.

Consideration of the form of sacramental prayers focuses the usefulness of a nineteenth-century context for understanding the Book of Mormon’s theological perspective. The Book of Mormon contains a post-Reformation, British or American liturgical form for the Lord’s Supper. Most nineteenth-century religionists were engaging on some level a question about the importance of consecration and thanksgiving in the ritual of the Lord’s Supper. Some agreed that consecration, or sanctification through God’s spirit, of the elements was a crucial part of the liturgy. Others used a prayer of thanksgiving only. Still others contained both. It was typical for free churches to offer a separate prayer for the wine and the bread.

[p.59] Only a few examples of spontaneous prayers have survived since they were lost to the historical record. In 1786 the New York and Philadelphia Synod of the Presbyterian Church drafted a set of suggested patterns, combining a prayer of thanksgiving with a consecration on the elements into one prayer, but because of the bias against set prayers, they were never published. This prayer is quite lengthy. I will quote only the main headings that reveal its literary form: “O thou Eternal God! Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: We adore thee as the fountain of being and blessedness … We thank thee for this holy ordinance. We devoutly pray for thy blessing upon us, in our attendance at this feast of love. Bless, O Lord! these elements of bread and wine. May we receive them as the symbols of the broken body and shed blood of our Lord and Saviour JESUS CHRIST. May we by faith eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of God. Let the cup of blessing which we bless, be to us the communion of the blood of CHRIST; let this bread which we break, be to us the communion of the body of CHRIST … Join us to thee in a new and everlasting covenant, and make us one spirit with thyself. May thy continual grace further and assist us in the performance of every duty of the Christian life. Seal unto us the remission of our sins, the gift of the Holy Ghost, and the promise of eternal life” (Ramsey and Koedel 1976).

(I will refer again to this prayer when discussing eating by faith the blood and body of Christ, and when examining covenantal thought.)

Twentieth-century prayers for the Disciples of Christ are probably based on the spontaneous prayers that preceded them. The Disciples have separate prayers for the bread and the wine, and both prayers involve consecration. For example, the prayer on the bread reads in part: “Mercifully grant that thy Holy Spirit and Word may sanctify us and this bread, which thou hast given to be the symbol of the body of our Lord, that it may be for us spiritual food, that by faith we may feed in our hearts on him who is our only Saviour and Lord.” Eucharistic prayers for the descent of the spirit upon the bread and wine or the congregation were common in the Reformed Churches (White 1989, 68). The December 1822 edition of The Evangelical Witness also refers to the recommended Presbyterian prayer as being of this form.

Consecration can also be found in the Episcopal “epiclesis,” which is a prayer for the descent of the spirit upon the tokens of the body and blood or upon the congregation. The epiclesis was important in the British Anglican tradition. The 1790 American version which was used in Smith’s day—and likely the prayer used in St. John’s Episcopal Church in Canandaigua, New York, near Smith’s home—reads as follows: “And we most humbly beseech thee, o merciful Father, to hear us; and, of thy almighty goodness, vouchsafe to bless and sanctify, with thy [p.60] Word and Holy Spirit, these thy gifts and creatures of bread and wine; that we, receiving them according to thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ’s holy institution, in remembrance of his death and passion, may be partakers of his most blessed Body and Blood” (Wigan 1964).

The phrase used for consecration of the elements is “bless and sanctify” by the descent of the spirit. The wording of this particular edition reflects a rejection of the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the elements. The elements are to be taken “in remembrance” only. The lost prayers of consecration of the free churches may have been influenced by the Episcopal prayer. The prayers in the Book of Mormon are compact, concise, and meaningful, and reflect an already existing tradition. It is my belief that the Book of Mormon model was likely from a traditional spontaneous prayer from these so-called “free churches.” The Book of Mormon like the free churches had two separate prayers, whereas the Episcopal church had one consecration prayer for both elements. Neither does the Book of Mormon contain the lengthy liturgy of the Episcopal church. And as I have already argued, the Book of Mormon shows signs of a spontaneous tradition which is frozen near the end of the book to establish authority.

But despite these arguable influences from the spontaneous forms of the free churches, the phrases “bless and sanctify” and “in remembrance” which are shared by Book of Mormon prayers and the Episcopal epiclesis place the Book of Mormon liturgy within a post-Reformation tradition from Great Britain and America.3 Tracing the history and origins of this Anglo-American form of eucharist prayers makes clearer Book of Mormon indebtedness to a post-Reformation tradition and helps tease out related issues concerning the nature and purpose of the Lord’s Supper in the Book of Mormon.

In general prayers and worship in New Testament Christianity were based on Jewish forms (Brilioth 1930, 18-26, 38-39; Lehmann 1961, 3-36). Thus the basic concept in every phrase in the Lord’s prayer by Jesus can be found in roughly contemporary Jewish prayers (Perrin [p.61] 1974, 299; Crossan 1991, 293-94). There has been intense debate in the last one hundred years over whether the Last Supper was a Jewish Passover (as the synoptic gospels claim) or a simple meal (as the Gospel of John claims). Those who believe that the Lord’s Supper contains a historical core now generally agree that the Last Supper occurred within a Passover setting even if it did not precisely follow the outline of Passover events (Von Allmen 1969, 10; Barclay 1982).

Determining a historical core requires sorting through the accounts of the Lord’s Supper in the New Testament. The New Testament narratives describing the institution of the Lord’s Supper are known as the “institution narratives.” There is general agreement that the regular sharing of common meals dates back to the historical Jesus. The challenge becomes determining how much of the institution narratives, which were liturgical texts for early Christians, is historically accurate. Liturgical interests and concerns seem to have molded the accounts (Reumann 1985, 7-23; Heron 1983, 9-16). There are two separate traditions for the institution narratives: the first is in Mark 14 and Matthew 26, the second Luke 22 and 1 Corinthians 11. Some scholars combine the common elements in both traditions and conclude that this is the historical core (Heron 1983). Others conclude that “this is my body” and “this is my blood” are the only historical phrases that we can be certain are historical (Bultmann 1955; Perrin 1974). Still others argue that the institution narratives are not from the historical Jesus at all (Crossan 1991, 360-72).

But scholars agree that the earliest eucharist centered around thanksgiving prayers. Note how Jesus’s prayer is described as one of thanks: “And as they did eat, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and break it, and gave it to them: and said, Take, eat: this is my body. And he took the cup, and when He had given thanks, he gave it to them: and they all drank of it” (Mark 14:22-23).4 The Jewish evening blessing, also spoken at Passover, was a thanksgiving prayer. A first-century rabbi recorded the wording of the blessing over the cup: “blessed be He who has sanctified the Sabbath day” (Jeremias 1955, 21-22, 58-60; [p.62] Heron 1983, 25). Similar prayers have been used in Judaism down to the present day.

Joachim Jeremias has defended the historicity of the Last Supper by demonstrating that it was a Passover meal, indicated by the Jewish custom of interpreting the meaning of the bread and wine, a “blessing” pronounced over both the bread and wine, the reclining position for eating Passover, and the singing of hymns. For a Jew and an early Christian to bless a meal or to say a blessing over the meal meant to bless God for the wine and bread. A “blessing” was actually a thanksgiving to God. A later misunderstanding of the text led Greeks to misinterpret the blessing in the institution narratives to mean a consecration of the elements (Heron 1983, 63, 113-21; Lehmann 1961, 59-69). This misunderstanding was to have far-reaching consequences in the history of the liturgy.

Richard Anderson, a professor of religion at Brigham Young University, concludes that the gospel texts require us to accept the description of prayers over the bread and wine as prayers of thanksgiving (1990, 29). This creates problems for Anderson, because he defends the Book of Mormon eucharistic prayers as being in the original form outlined by Jesus. In a curious twist of logic, Anderson argues that the eucharistic prayers of thanksgiving were not intended as exemplary for future eucharistic services.5

[p.63] The word used to describe the Lord’s Supper beginning in the second century was “eucharistia,” which means “thanksgiving,” and the element of thanksgiving has never been lost from the liturgy. The earliest written eucharistic prayer is from the Didache or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles. According to Helmut Koester it was written in Syria near the end of the first century. It actually contains two sets of eucharistic prayers. John Dominic Crossan argues that the prayer in Didache 10 is the more primitive, since it contains a title for Jesus as the child (or servant) of God. Joachim Jeremias contends that this title goes back to the earliest Palestinian Christian community. Aaron Milavec states that the prayers in the Didache parallel the oldest Jewish prayers in both ritual and rhetoric (Crossan 1991, 360-67). The eucharistic prayer in chapter 10 begins: “We give thanks to you, holy Father, for your holy name which you have enshrined in our hearts, and for the knowledge and faith and immortality which you made known to us through your child Jesus; glory to you for evermore. …”

The prayer over the cup in chapter 9 of the Didache is: “We give thanks to you, our Father, for the holy vine of your child David, which you made known to us through your child Jesus; glory to you for evermore.” The prayer over the bread is in the same form: “We give thanks to you, our Father, for the life and knowledge which you made [known] to us through your child Jesus; glory to you for evermore. As this broken bread was scattered over the mountains and when brought together became one, so let your Church be brought together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom; for yours are the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for evermore” (Jasper and Cuming 1980, 14-16).

Justin Martyr describes the second-century liturgy used by Christians as a ritual of thanksgiving. He states that the sacrament was presented to the presiding brother who “utters a lengthy thanksgiving because the Father has judged us worthy of these gifts. When the [p.64] prayer of thanksgiving is ended, all the people present give their assent with an ‘Amen'” (Fabing 1986, 158-59). The eucharistic prayer of the third-century priest Hippolytus also began in the form of thanksgiving: “We thank you, O God, through your beloved child Jesus Christ.… We thank you for deeming us worthy to stand before you and serve you” (Fabing 1986, 160-61). Hence we have a consistent body of evidence, only a small portion summarized here, indicating that the original eucharist was a prayer of thanksgiving to God. The form of the Jewish Passover prayers, the descriptions of the form in the institution narratives, and the earliest Christian eucharistic prayers unanimously support this conclusion.

But by the time of Hippolytus, a second kind of prayer derived from Hellenistic religions was beginning to be added to the liturgy. The epiclesis—a prayer for the descent of the spirit—would eventually find its way into the Christian liturgy. We may see the beginnings of liturgical requests for descent of the spirit as early as the second century, but the true epiclesis does not appear until the fourth century in eastern prayers (Heron 1983, 64-66; Brilioth 1930, 60-64). In the east popular piety tended to find expression in materializing the presence of Christ in the elements themselves. In the Clementine liturgy we find: “send down thy Holy Spirit, the witness of the suffering of the Lord Jesus, upon this sacrifice, that he may make this bread the body of thy Christ, and this cup the blood of thy Christ; that all who partake thereof may be confirmed in piety, may receive remission of their sins.” Cyril (a fourth-century bishop in Jerusalem) repeats this notion in his lectures and adds: “for whatsoever the Holy Spirit touched is sanctified and changed.”

An example of the use of both a modified form of the institution narratives as well as an epiclesis can be found in the Liturgy of St. James (ca. 400 C.E.): “he [Jesus at the Last Supper] gave thanks, blessed and sanctified it, filled it with the Holy Spirit, and gave it to his holy and blessed disciples and apostles, saying, And he puts it down, saying aloud: ‘Drink from it, all of you; this is my blood of the new covenant which is shed and distributed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins’ … send down, Master, your all-holy Spirit himself upon us and upon these holy gifts set before you, (aloud) that he may come upon them, and by his holy and good and glorious coming may sanctify them, and make this bread the holy body of Christ, People: Amen. And this cup the precious blood of Christ, People: Amen.”6

Some western churches did not ultimately adopt this eastern version of the eucharistic prayer. The epiclesis was replaced in the Roman [p.65] Mass by the Quam Oblationem. This is a prayer requesting the transformation of the elements. Some of the liturgies of the continental reformers contain prayers for the spirit which were distinct in wording or form from eastern epiclesis (Jasper and Cuming 1975, 111-89).

But Bishop Cranmer of the Church of England was influenced by eastern eucharistic prayers. He rearranged wording from these eastern prayers in creating the epiclesis in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer for the Church of England: “O God heavenly father … we beseech thee; and with thy holy spirite and worde, vouchsafe to bl+esse and sanc+tifie these thy gyftes, and creatures of bread and wyne, that they maie be unto us the bodye and bloude of thy moste derely beloved sonne Jesus Christe. …” Cranmer apparently took the phrase “bless and sanctify” from the St. James narrative quoted above and made it part of the epiclesis. By returning to the fourth-century epiclesis, Cranmer believed he was restoring the original kind of prayer spoken by Jesus.

The inclusion of the epiclesis had important consequences for the Christian ritual. With an emphasis on consecration, it is natural to focus in turn on the nature and purpose of the elements of the eucharist. During Cranmer’s time many bishops believed in Luther’s doctrine that the real presence of the body and blood were in the elements. There were also those who believed in the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. This latter doctrine proposed that the elements are changed into the “essence” of the body and blood and only maintain the “accidents” of bread or wine (color, shape, and so forth).

Cranmer’s position concerning the elements in the eucharists is a matter of considerable debate. Some claim he followed Zwingli, others Calvin. Zwingli believed that no external element could purify the soul. The sacraments were a seal of the covenant (a notion that would continue into the nineteenth century). Zwingli’s emphasis was on the community receiving the elements. Luther was more traditional in focusing on the elements as literally the body and blood of Christ. Calvin sought a compromise position. He believed that the body of Christ was in heaven and not in the elements. Yet material objects impart spiritual things, and the soul can partake of the body and blood of Christ through the descent of the spirit.

Whether Cranmer resembled Zwingli or Calvin, he certainly rejected the notion of real presence in the elements during his later years. Still the elements were more than mere symbols for Cranmer. The souls of those who partook were blessed with the full effects of the Atonement as if they had virtually taken the body and blood. Hence Cranmer’s position has been labeled “virtualist” (Stone 1909; Brooks 1965).

Whatever his personal beliefs, Cranmer wrote the epiclesis and [p.66] other portions of the British liturgy in a manner vague enough to allow moderate interpretations of real presence in the elements. This was a political move designed to win over those who disagreed with his position. In the next edition of the Book of Common Prayer, Cranmer modified the epiclesis following the suggestion of Martin Bucer to more explicitly reject any suggestion of real presence. The elements were a memorial—to be taken only “in remembrance” of the body and blood (following the institution narratives). Bucer like Calvin believed that only the soul partook of the body and blood. The body and blood were not in the elements themselves.

These trends deemphasizing a literal interpretation of the elements were underscored when the British tradition moved to America. In 1688 an internal schism forced some of the most capable bishops out of the British clergy when they refused allegiance to James II. These “Nonjurors” influenced the thought that led to the American edition of the Book of Common Prayer (Stone 1909, 474-86). They believed that the invocation of the holy spirit upon the elements causes the faithful to receive the body and blood of Christ in some mysterious fashion. Thus in the 1790 American epiclesis, which the Book of Mormon prayers echo, the elements are taken in remembrance and not as the real body and blood.

Protestantism developed various ways of understanding this spiritual eating of body and blood. The importance of this notion was underscored by the discussion in John 6, where Jesus declared himself to be the bread from heaven. At one end of the spectrum was the belief that the notion of eating Christ’s body was purely symbolic. But most churches searched for a more substantive way of conceiving how the participant partakes of the body and blood of Christ. The distance between pure symbolism and a notion of some kind of spiritual partaking of Christ’s body can be found by attending to a recurring language which emerges about the “soul” partaking of the flesh and blood of Jesus. We saw an example of this in the 1786 Presbyterian prayer quoted above.

The 1534 First Confession of Basle represents Swiss theology, characteristic of Bucer, regarding the soul’s nourishment through the eucharist. According to the Confession, “Christ Himself is the food of believing souls to eternal life, and that our souls through true faith in the crucified Christ are given the flesh and blood of Christ as food and drink, so that we, the members of His body our only Head, may live in Him, and that He may live in us. … But we do not adore Christ in the signs of bread and wine, which we commonly call the Sacraments of the body and blood of Christ, but in heaven at the right hand of God the Father, whence He will come to judge the living and the dead” (Stone 1909, 48). Zwingli likewise emphasized “the spiritual feeding of [p.67] the soul on Christ” in conjunction with the eucharist. By this he meant nothing more than the soul exercising faith. The elements were a mere memorial. For Calvin the soul partaking of body and blood was the quickening of the spiritual life by the Holy Ghost (Stone 1909, 51-54).

The British Reformation also adopted this language figuring the soul’s feast in the Lord’s Supper. A minority of British Protestants believed that consecrating the elements brought the spirit, which in turn transformed the elements into the body and blood of Christ. For these Christians, it was through the elements that the effects of the Atonement came to the soul. The emblems were vehicles for grace and spirit. However, a more common belief portrayed the elements as an outward sign of a spiritual nourishment effected by the reception of spirit to soul.

American Episcopalians likewise emphasized that the elements were taken “in remembrance” only and similarly adopted the language of the soul partaking of the body and blood of Christ by the descent of the spirit. Daniel Waterland was one prominent eighteenth-century liturgical theologian whose work influenced American Episcopalians in the nineteenth century. Waterland rejected the real presence in the elements; the elements were taken in remembrance only. But Waterland believed that the spirit descended on the audience, and the spirit transmitted the effects of the Atonement. The presence of Christ is not his natural body. Rather, according to Waterland, “the real presence of Christ’s invisible power and grace [are] in and with the elements of bread and wine as to convey spiritual and real effects to the souls of such as duly receive them. … to eat and drink spiritually is a figurative expression, and signifies the feeding upon Christ’s body with our heart by faith. … the consecrated elements are both called and made the body and blood of Christ so verily indeed to all intents and purposes as to convey to the faithful receiver whatever grace and blessing Christ hath annexed to the due performance of those holy rites which he hath ordained as pledges of His love and for our joy and comfort” (Stone 1909, 509).

This notion that the soul eats the body and blood was not confined to the Church of England. Those churches in America following the Westminster Confession read in Article 29 that the worthy receivers of the eucharist “feed upon Christ crucified, and all the benefits of his death.” Yet the body and blood are received “spiritually” not “corporally.” Various American confessions of faith borrowed this language from the Westminster Confession.

But it is likely that these American churches viewed eating the body and blood even less literally. By the nineteenth century rationalism had made inroads into eucharistic thought. The eucharist was seen less as an encounter with God and more of a symbolic [p.68] expression—as commitment to inspire obedience and as a memorial. Many nineteenth-century Lutherans were saying that Luther was wrong in stating that the elements contain the real presence. Similarly some Methodists had abandoned Wesley’s sacramental views. For Wesley the eucharist was a pledge of obedience to keep the commandments and a memorial. But it was much more. It was a means of transporting grace to participants and spiritual food (Borgen 1972, 92). Some followers had replaced these views with more symbolic notions (Lehmann 1961, 135-65; Clarke 1824, 245-56).

Rationalism was a common feature of what James White (1989) calls “Frontier Worship.” This was a common mode of worship among Baptists and Christians in western New York, as well as among the unchurched. White states that in frontier worship the Lord’s Supper was seen as a memorial to a past event rather than a present reality. The message of the Lord’s Supper was exhortation to righteousness.

It is clear from Book of Mormon prayers that the elements do not contain the real presence but are a memorial to be taken “in remembrance.” Yet it is also true that they are more than mere symbols. The bread and wine are blessed and sanctified to the souls of those who partake of it. The term “soul” in the Book of Mormon can mean either “person” or “spirit” as opposed to “body.” The phrase itself (“to the souls of those who partake of it”) contrasts “souls” to “those who partake of it.” Therefore the understanding of “soul” here is “spirit.” 3 Nephi 20:8-9 elaborates on the notion of the spirit eating the body and blood: “he that eateth this bread, eateth of my body to their soul, and he that drinketh of this wine, drinketh of my blood to their soul, and their soul shall never hunger or thirst, but be filled. Now when the multitude had all eat and drank, behold they are filled with the spirit …” In short, the elements are blessed to be memorials for the participants. Yet at the same time the soul of the participant partakes of the body and blood.

James White in discussing the Mormon prayers within a nineteenth-century Protestant context correctly emphasizes that the elements are blessed as memorials. But he goes too far in equating the Book of Mormon’s stance with the rational sacramental views in western New York (White 1989, 171-81). Nephites in the Book of Mormon see the elements as more than signs. According to the Book of Mormon, those Nephites who partook of the Lord’s Supper were referred to as being “filled” or filled with the Spirit numerous times (3 Ne. 18-20). The promise is also given by Christ to those who partake of the sacrament that they shall never hunger or thirst but shall be filled.

This language can be usefully juxtaposed to the Nephite version of one of the beatitudes, “And blessed are all they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled with the Holy Ghost” [p.69] (3 Ne. 12:6). This juxtaposition suggests that considering the function of the Holy Ghost in the Book of Mormon is a necessary first step in understanding the nature of its work in the ritual of the Lord’s Supper. The Holy Ghost serves extremely important functions in the Book of Mormon. It is a source of spiritual knowledge. It is the epistemological base for certainty. It encourages good works and calls preachers to preach. It is the source of charismatic gifts. In some contexts being filled with the spirit implies a granting of miraculous powers.

Being filled with the spirit in the context of the Lord’s Supper seems to imply the experience of joy, comfort, strength, and spiritual sustenance (see Alma 22:15; 31:24-38; Moro. 8:25-26). The distinction made between hungering and being filled with the spirit suggests that the soul’s eating of the Lord’s body and the descent of the spirit refer to a state of being and an experience. Since the Lord’s Supper is a renewal of the covenant at baptism, the descent of the spirit may also include forgiveness of sin (see 3 Ne. 12:6; 18:4-9; 20:8-9). In other words, the Book of Mormon does not propose a purely rationalist understanding of the sacrament but an experiential memorial bearing joy, comfort, strength, and possibly forgiveness. The elements are more than mere signs. Yet they do not operate objectively. They require the worthiness and participation of the partaker and the descent of the spirit to make the sacraments efficacious.

This experiential memorial is expressed in the theme of “remembrance” in the Mormon prayers. Understanding the concept of remembrance helps clarify its use in the eucharist prayers. And since, as we have seen, other Christians took the elements of the eucharist “in remembrance” of the body of Christ, a closer consideration of the Book of Mormon notion is significant.

The importance of remembering comes up frequently in the Book of Mormon. For example, King Benjamin addressed an audience: “I would that ye should remember, and always retain in remembrance, the greatness of God and your own nothingness, and his goodness and long suffering toward you unworthy creatures, and humble yourselves even in the depths of humility, calling on the name of the Lord daily, and standing steadfastly in the faith of that which is to come, which was spoken by the mouth of the Angel; and behold, I say unto you that if ye do this, ye shall always rejoice, and be filled with the love of God, and always retain a remission of your sins” (Mosiah 4:11-12).

To “remember” is to grasp the significance of one’s position before God. That understanding leads to a state of humility, love, and remission of sins, according to King Benjamin. On board the ship to America, Laman and Lemuel exhibited sinful behavior because “they did forget by what power they had been brought thither.” Often the Book [p.70] of Mormon exhorts remembrance of God’s commandments or covenants.

“Remembrance” or memory implies a state of being, a religious experience which conduces to righteous behavior. Thus memory in the Book of Mormon—and by extension the “remembrance” enjoined by sacramental prayers—is a religious and emotional experience and not just a cognitive recollection (see 1 Ne. 2:24; 2 Ne. 3:25; Mosiah 2:40; Alma 4:29; Hel. 12:3). To remember is to participate in works of righteousness.

This expression of “remembrance” as experiential memorial appealed to evangelicals in the early nineteenth century. These evangelicals believed in subjective religion. They described their religion as “experimental religion.” What they meant by this was a religion the individual experienced. Emotion was often seen as a manifestation of God. In an 1827 sermon in Troy, New York, the famous evangelical, Charles Finney, defended the extreme emotions evoked in his revivals. For Finney the difference between heaven and hell was not in what one believed intellectually. It was rather in one’s “state of the heart or affections” (Finney 1827, 3-7). An evangelical expression of remembrance as experiential memorial can be found in a eucharistic hymn by Charles Wesley (Whaling 1981):

Come, thou everlasting Spirit,
Bring to every thankful mind

All the Saviour’s dying merit,
All his sufferings for mankind;

True Recorder of his passion,
Now the living faith impart,

Now reveal his great salvation,
Preach his gospel to our heart.

Come, thou Witness of his dying
Come, Remembrancer Divine,

Let us feel thy power applying
Christ to every soul and mine;

Let us groan thy inward groaning,
Look on Him we pierced and grieve,

All receive the grace atoning,
All the sprinkled blood receive.

Remembrance is a central theological feature in Mormon eucharistic prayers. A second major feature is covenant. The idea of the Lord’s Supper as a covenant dates to the institution narratives themselves. There the cup is the “cup of the new testament” (Matt. 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25). As was the case in considering controversies about form of liturgy, an overview of historical developments in covenantal thought can help in sorting out what is at stake in the [p.71] conversation about covenant in the nineteenth century.

In the Middle Ages, the eucharist was commonly viewed as a sacrifice by the congregation or priest—a kind of good work in itself. In some cases the eucharist became a mechanical exercise to achieve results from God. Masses were held for the dead, to find lost property, to obtain good weather, and so forth. Just prior to the Reformation, it was not unusual for Catholics to see the eucharist as a repetition of the Atonement (Clark 1960).

Reformers revolted against the eucharist as a sacrifice or a good work. There is no doubt that they unfairly attacked Catholic eucharistic notions. But they did so because of a fundamental theological difference: salvation is by grace and not good works. Hence Luther explained the notion of covenant in the institution narratives as a last will from Christ. It was not seen as a contract or agreement but as a gift or unconditional promise. Since salvation could not be earned, the eucharistic covenant was God’s assurance of salvation by grace. Only secondarily was a sacrament a pledge of obedience.

Zwingli also objected to Catholic teachings but differed from Luther in his sacramental views. Salvation was a gift from God. But Zwingli defined sacrament as a covenant sign or pledge of obedience. He compared the sacraments to a military oath (Holifield 1974, 6-8). In Calvin’s and other early reformed liturgies, the Lord’s Supper is referred to as a covenant (Thompson 1961). Calvin, elaborating on Patristic themes, stated that all we have to offer God is praise and thanksgiving. Hence a sacrament is not a contract but rather God’s guarantee to us (Brilioth 1930, 44-45; Heron 1983, 143-45).

Covenant as an explicit topic became the focus of religious discussion in seventeenth-century Protestantism in Europe and America with the popularity of “federal theology” (from the Latin foeder meaning compact or covenant). This covenant theology distinguished between the covenant of grace and the covenant of works. God entered into a covenant of works with Adam in the Garden of Eden. But when this covenant was broken, a new covenant was established with the human race. This is the covenant of grace.

But in federal theology there was a new understanding of covenant. The shift was from a notion of covenant as promise to covenant as contract emphasizing human activity. Even the covenant of grace was perceived as a contract in some fundamental way. This new idea of covenant as contract influenced both theological and political thought (Torrance 1970; 1981), and often turned the eucharist into a sacrament of penance or morality instead of a seal of grace.

E. Brooks Holifield discusses at length the different covenantal options presented by Puritans in England and New England. Puritans commonly imagined the sacraments as seals of the covenant (Holifield [p.72] 1974). Most Puritans held to Calvin’s sacramental idea that the Holy Ghost conferred spiritual benefits, but a surprising variety of views on the sacraments coexisted within a group accepting salvation of the elect by grace. Some saw the sacrament as a seal of a conditional covenant. For others it was a seal of absolute divine promise.

A variety of understandings regarding the nature of covenant existed in the nineteenth-century churches in America. The influence of federal theology continued into the nineteenth century. The distinction between the original covenant of works with Adam versus the present covenant of grace can be found among Baptists, Methodists, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians. Discussions of the sacraments as covenants were commonplace, if the language about the nature of these covenants tended to remain ambiguous. The 1786 Presbyterian prayer describes the eucharist: “Join us to thee in a new and everlasting covenant, and make us one spirit with thyself. May thy continual grace further assist us in the performance of every duty of the Christian life.” The covenant is thus a request that God’s grace will assist “in the performance of every duty” (Ramsey and Koedel 1976).

The 1822 Evangelical Witness refers to those who partake of the eucharist as “Covenanters.” Despite evangelical allegiance to salvation by grace, this discussion states that the purpose of the Lord’s Supper was “remembering him in the renewal of their vows” of obedience to God’s system. Samuel Smith, not related to Joseph Smith, was a proponent of the “covenant of grace” (Smith 1816). But for him the Lord’s Supper “is an active service; and contains an active pledge of our having embraced the covenant, and of our fidelity to all its conditions.” Those conditions include “external deportment.” John Gill, an influential eighteenth-century American Baptist, characterized the eucharist as a symbol commemorating the death of Jesus, a sign of grace by faith but also a commitment to refrain from sinning (Straughton 1810). James Haldane argued that the Lord’s Supper was for professing faith in the Atonement, expressing union with other Christians, remembering the merits of Christ’s death, and resolving to be obedient. The eucharist was a “Witness” or sign from God of his salvation which comes through grace. Haldane complained against those who believe the Lord’s Supper was a sign of salvation through works (Haldane 1812).

But there are indications that the Reformers’ ideal of covenant as promise of grace still remained alive in early nineteenth-century New York. Wesley had seen the sacraments as covenant renewal of grace and commitment to “diligently keep his commandments” (Wesley 1810). The 1813 official Methodist Doctrine and Discipline emphasized the sacraments as signs of strengthening and confirming grace. Real presence is denied in this document. Rather the body of Christ is received “by faith” and not through the elements themselves of the [p.73] sacrament. Still Wesley and early American Methodists were conservative Arminians and could mix their discussion of works and grace (although grace was always officially presented as prior to good works). Humans were free to choose salvation despite innate depravity. Such Arminian notions and New Haven Calvinist doctrines were gaining ground through the revivals of the early nineteenth century. Thus the claim of human freedom and a greater emphasis on works began to increase in the early nineteenth century. Faith and repentance began to be seen as expressions of good works to win salvation.

The Book of Mormon presents an extreme version of this trend toward emphasis on good works. It describes the sacramental covenant as a contract. A covenant of grace is never mentioned, although the general notion of covenant as promise can be found in the Book of Mormon. But even those promises are conditional. Within the nineteenth-century context of ambiguous statements about the eucharistic covenant, the clarity of the Book of Mormon on this issue is striking. With its emphasis on covenant as a contract of works, it makes a clear break with the Reformation idea of covenant as an unconditional gift from God.

Richard Anderson, in his article “The Restoration of the Sacrament,” thus correctly summarizes the major theological themes in the Book of Mormon prayers as remembrance and covenant of obedience (Anderson 1992). He is also correct in contrasting these themes with the Reformation ideal of salvation by grace. However, Anderson does not acknowledge how characteristic the themes of remembrance and obedience were in frontier worship of western New York. Anderson’s silence on these matters may be strategic, since he claims that the Book of Mormon prayers restore the ancient form by bringing back a lost covenant of obedience, even though the institution narratives contain no such covenant. By ignoring the complexity of the nineteenth-century context, and by extrapolating the incomplete New Testament record, Anderson can argue that remembrance and obedience could have been restored in the Book of Mormon after being lost for nearly two millennia. Anderson characterizes the Protestant notion of covenant as an exclusively unconditional gift. But I have argued here that federal theology made contractual notions important in Protestantism.

For me the surprising feature of the Book of Mormon presentation of the eucharist is the entirely personal nature of the covenant. This covenant is spoken of as a contract between the individual and God. I say surprising because the Book of Mormon promotes such a strong sense of community and social justice.

However, the ideal of personal covenant in the Book of Mormon echoes Protestant thought in 1830. By then the ideal of covenant between a community and God was dying out. Earlier the Puritans in [p.74] America took their models of covenant from the ideals of Old Testament social covenant. But by the time of Jonathan Edwards, the eucharistic covenant was typically seen as a covenant between the individual and God (Adams 1984, 113-25). Covenants between groups and God are presented in the Book of Mormon, but the liturgy of the Lord’s Supper contrasts with this social model and presents instead an individualistic one. If somewhat atypical within the book, it is certainly typical within a nineteenth-century context.

The elements of the covenant in the Book of Mormon are a pledge then of remembrance and obedience. The final element is profession of Christ, a willingness to “take upon them the name of Christ.” In the early nineteenth century, to “take upon the name of Christ” meant to identify oneself as a Christian. This seems to be the Book of Mormon’s understanding of the phrase (Thomas 1983). It was a common Protestant notion that the eucharist was the profession of one’s Christian discipleship. Charles Chauncy stated that the eucharist was “a badge of christian profession” which distinguished people as Christ’s followers and through which one received comfort, grace, and confirmation by the descent of the spirit (Chauncy 1816, 29-31). Conversely one author claimed that whoever neglected the sacrament could not be called a Christian (Haldane 1812, 11). Timothy Dwight taught that it was through baptism that Christians originally “take his name upon them” (Dwight 1828, 560). In the early nineteenth century, primitivists expanded this notion to include the belief that the church itself must “take upon the name of Christ” or be called by Christ’s name (Thomas 1983). These same notions are found as part of the covenant in the Book of Mormon. And of course the Mormon church was originally known as the Church of Christ.

The Book of Mormon addressed several additional issues which were matters of question and dispute among Christians in the nineteenth century. These included questions about how often the eucharist should be administered, the manner in which it should be administered, and who should participate.

By the end of the Middle Ages, the laity only participated in the eucharist once per year. This was for practical reasons and because the eucharist was seen as holy, even terrifying. Most Protestants down through the nineteenth century advocated more active participation. Luther and others suggested three or four times per year. Some Baptists in the 1820s suggested three times per year. Presbyterians generally celebrated the sacrament two to four times a year. Most New England churches celebrated the Lord’s Supper once per month. Other churches, including Alexander Campbell’s Christians, suggested once a week on Sunday. But some feared that weekly communion would destroy the solemnity of the event (Haldane 1812; Straughton 1810, [p.75] 567-71; Lehmann 1961, 140; Adams 1984, 16, 72, 80-83, 101-109). James Haldane argued against those who objected to weekly communion. He interpreted 1 Corinthians 11:25 (“this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me”) to mean that we ought to partake of the eucharist often (Haldane 1812, 7-11). Similarly the Book of Mormon rephrases 1 Corinthians 11:25 in such a way as to advocate frequent communion: “and they did meet together oft to partake of bread and wine, in remembrance of the Lord Jesus” (Moro. 6:6).

Another controversy in the nineteenth century concerned the manner of receiving the sacrament. Some churches, including the Methodists, advocated that the administrator and the congregation kneel while the prayer was said. Some advocated kneeling when receiving the eucharist. Others ridiculed kneeling because they believed it implied worship of the elements. They advocated instead either a standing or sitting position. The Book of Mormon advocated a solution similar to that of the Methodists: the congregation and those offering the eucharistic prayer should kneel: “And they shall kneel down with the church, and pray to the Father in the name of Christ, saying …” (Moro. 4:2).7

Other disputes addressed by the Book of Mormon turned on who should receive the sacraments. In the late eighteenth century, Presbyterian ministers would “fence the table” prior to distributing the eucharist. This fencing constituted outlining the qualifications in belief and behavior that would qualify one to partake of the sacrament. “Fencing the table” could take up to an hour or more (Ramsey and Koedel 1976, 210). In the eighteenth century Solomon Stoddart started a more open eucharistic movement, which gained wide acceptance. He believed that the Lord’s Supper was a means of grace, not just an outer sign of grace. Thus he advocated the eucharist as a way of converting sinners. Evangelicals disagreed with Stoddart and declared that only the converted should participate (Ahlstrom 1975, 213, 359-60). Such restriction was an attempt to protect the holiness of the sacrament and the purity of the believers. Certain Baptists denied communion to anyone who had not been baptized by immersion. Methodists generally denied communion to those who were not Methodists.

Jesus states in the Book of Mormon that “ye shall not suffer any one, knowingly, to partake of my flesh and blood unworthily” (3 Ne. 18:27-29). He paraphrases 1 Corinthians 11:28-29 to state why only the righteous should participate in the sacrament, then goes on to say that [p.76] although sinners may be denied the eucharist, they should not be denied access to places of worship: “nevertheless ye shall not cast him out of your synagogues, or your places of worship, for unto such ye shall continue to minister; for ye know not but what they will return and repent. …” This Book of Mormon position of allowing all to attend addressed the concerns of some churches who resisted letting outsiders even attend their meetings. At least some Baptists in the 1820s would not admit anyone to their meetings who was not worthy of baptism and the eucharist. Early American Methodists allowed outsiders and sinners to visit their meetings and love feasts once or twice. But if they were not converted, they were no longer allowed to attend. In fact one needed a preapproved ticket to get into classes (Crowther 1813, 194, 203-39).

By focusing on the individual nature of the eucharistic covenant, contemporary Mormons allow believers and outsiders alike to partake of the elements of the sacrament, while excluding only unrepentant “sinners.” This underscores the individual covenant of works and emphasis on morality inherent in Mormon understanding of the eucharist. The Book of Mormon thus, through its commitment to a covenant of works, established one of the core elements of Mormon religiosity: obedience or morality.

But beside the moral element we find important liturgical symbolism in the Book of Mormon. These liturgical symbols resist modern notions of symbolism. The understanding of the spirit partaking of the body and blood demonstrates that the ritual is more than a visual sign or cognitive transmission, even though the symbolism avoids the idea of God’s real presence in the elements. By eating the tokens of a dead body and drinking the representation of spilt blood, one experiences new life through the descent of the Spirit. The Mormon sacraments are thus a reenactment and participation in the processes of salvation. The sacraments transmit the spiritual realities they portray. I believe this notion of symbolism, or ritual, as participation is an idea with enduring importance.

The weakness of the symbolism is perhaps its lack of emphasis on community. These prayers do not support a notion of covenant expressing the strong Mormon communitarian ideal. Above all else the Mormon sacraments ought to be an expression of the life of the church as a whole. Giving food and taking food establishes and defines human relationships and spiritual bonds from the time of childhood. Meals are a means of establishing community. It is the community that must ritually conquer death and guilt. Communion of the followers of Christ was among the earliest conceptions of the Lord’s Supper in early Christianity, and this ideal of community certainly fits Mormon theology.

[p.77] Mormonism claims to restore primitive Christianity. It is within the context of restoration that we can grasp the full intent of Mormon liturgical claims. Mormon liturgy is clearly not a restoration of ancient words in any literal sense. But just as sacramental elements are memorials of the body of Christ, so restoration must be conceived and experienced in symbolic terms. Mormonism presents a symbolic restoration consisting of remembering, a professing identity, and committing to moral ideals. Restoration represents ritual participation by a community in the lost ideal. Restoration expresses an experience of loss and despair that finds hope through participation in the ancient rituals of salvation.

In this essay I have tried to interpret the eucharist in the Book of Mormon from a rhetorical perspective. The eucharistic prayers themselves are in the form of a post-Reformation epiclesis containing a covenant. Some readers may conclude that this points to a nineteenth-century historical setting for the writing of the Book of Mormon. Others may conclude that rhetoric was such a central concern of the ancient authors and/or Joseph Smith that they shaped both form and content of the book to address nineteenth-century issues. Or perhaps there are many areas of common concern between ancient Nephites and early nineteenth-century Americans. Regardless of the origin of the book, understanding its rhetorical features can clarify its messages and help today’s readers enter into a dialogue with the book that challenges our understanding of sacramental symbolism.


1. Good introductions to rhetorical criticism are Booth 1961 and Corbett 1969.

2. Unless otherwise indicated, all versification is from the current LDS edition and all quotes are from the 1830 edition.

3. Hugh Nibley (1989, 415-28) has tried to prove the antiquity of the prayers in the Book of Mormon by comparing them to the Gospel of the Twelve Apostles published by Revillout in 1904, in which the elements are blessed. There are several ancient references to a Gospel of the Twelve Apostles, but the one quoted by Nibley is, according to Montague Rhodes James, “a collection of sixteen Coptic fragments … of late date, arbitrarily grouped under a fictitious title” (Apocryphal 1924, 10; Hennecke and Schneemelcher 1963, 262-71). Thus Nibley tries to prove that the Book of Mormon is ancient by using a late document, then hopes to demonstrate (in the face of contrary opinion from competent scholars) that the late document must be ancient because it matches the Book of Mormon. One is left to wonder how Nibley would account for the fact that the closer we get to the time and place in which the Book of Mormon appeared in 1830, the closer we get to the theological and literary parallels to the Book of Mormon.

4. According to Matthew, Jesus took the bread and “blessed it.” The “it” is in italics. Nineteenth-century biblical commentaries knew that the translators of the King James Version added italicized words to indicate that the word was not in the original text. The parallel of “bless” over the bread and “thanks” over the wine in both Matthew and Mark indicates that the “it” was an inappropriate addition. The Revised English Bible provides a more accurate translation: “Jesus took the bread, and having said the blessing. …” The knowledge of this questionable translation helped fuel early nineteenth-century debate over whether the proper eucharistic prayer was a consecration or a prayer of thanks (Clarke 1824, 5:251). The Book of Mormon repeats “and blessed it” in the 3 Nephi 18 narrative among Nephites. This fact along with the form of the prayer itself indicates that Joseph Smith believed the original prayer was a consecration of the elements.

5. The methodology proposed by Anderson is flawed. He intends to demonstrate that the prayer in the Book of Mormon restores the “ancient covenant forms” of the early Christian sacramental prayers as established by Jesus. But since the evidence in the biblical text itself, in Judaism, and in earliest Christianity points to a different form, he cannot reach his conclusion by examining the evidence of the form itself. He therefore turns to New Testament theological discussions to discover the literary form. Liturgical forms and theology are certainly related, because literary form often reveals theological understanding. But it is inappropriate to attempt to derive a literary form from random theological discussions. Anderson claims that every major theological point concerning the eucharist in the New Testament is reflected in the form of the Book of Mormon prayer. We can demonstrate inadequacy of the methodology by applying it to the baptismal prayer in Matthew 28, where the disciples are told to baptize “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” Theological discussions regarding baptism in the New Testament center around issues of repentance, death and resurrection, and so forth. If we were trying to ascertain the liturgical form from the theological discussions, we would be nowhere near the prayer in Matthew 28.

But let us assume for the sake of argument that Anderson’s methodology is appropriate. We could then compare a summary of the major eucharistic themes in the New Testament with Book of Mormon prayers. We could choose any number of competent scholars to present such a summary of New Testament eucharistic thought; our conclusion would not differ greatly. Let us take a recent important contribution in the work of John Dominic Crossan. Crossan’s work has been praised as a balanced, fair, and important contribution to the subject of the historical Jesus. By combining historical, anthropological, and literary tools to analyze the New Testament text, Crossan concludes that there are several distinct stages of eucharistic thought in first-century Christianity.

First was the radical social equality expressed in the common meal. (Paul continued this theme in his discussion of eucharistic communion in 1 Corinthians 10.) A second early eucharistic theme is apocalyptic, evident in the prayers of the Didache and in 1 Corinthians 11:26. The Lord’s Supper is taken in anticipation of the coming of the Lord. It is apparent that these earliest eucharistic themes are not reflected in the Book of Mormon prayers. The Mormon prayers are between the individual and God, and reflect no social content. And they contain nothing apocalyptic in nature. If Anderson’s methodology were viable, we would be forced to conclude that Book of Mormon prayers do not fit the setting of the first generation of Christianity. But Anderson does not rigorously or consistently apply his own methodology. His approach is actually little more than finding prooftexts and interpreting them to match his thesis. An important contribution of Anderson’s work is its realization that the wording of John 14 may have influenced the wording in the covenant section of the Book of Mormon prayers.

6. For specific liturgical prayers, see Jasper and Cuming 1975; Thompson 1961.

7. The 13 June 1901 entry in the diary of Rudger Clawson, housed at the Marriott Library, University of Utah, states that the meeting of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve on that day decided “to establish uniform procedure throughout the church” by mandating that only the party officiating should kneel.


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