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The Repetition of Sacred Ordinances

By: Ardis E. Parshall - October 09, 2008

There appears to be, among some of our people, an inadequate conception of the sanctity attending certain of the ordinances of the Holy Priesthood. True, the ministrations of those in authority amongst us are not attended with the pomp and worldly ceremony that characterize the procedure in other so-called churches, but the fact that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is in possession of the Priesthood is sufficient to make any and every ordinance administered by due authority within the Church an event of supreme importance.

In performing any such ordinance, the one who officiates speaks and acts, not of himself and of his personal authority, but by virtue of his ordination and appointment as a representative of the powers of heaven. We do not set apart bishops and other officers in the Church, with the show and ceremony of a gala day, as do certain sectarians, nor do we make the ordinance of baptism a spectacular display; but the simplicity of the order established in the Church of Christ ought rather to add to than take from the sacred character of the several ordinances.

An illustration of the fact that many do not understand the full sanctity of certain ordinances is found in the desire some evince to have such repeated.

Until within a few years it was a very general custom in the Church to allow a repetition of the baptismal rite to adults before they entered the temples. This custom, first established by due authority, and for good cause (see The Articles of Faith by Talmage, 144-148) finally came to be regarded by many members of the Church as essential, and indeed, “re-baptism” was generally looked upon, though wrongly, as separate and different from the first ordinance of the gospel – baptism – by which alone may one gain entrance to the Church of Christ. But the most hurtful feature of this misunderstanding was the disposition of some to look upon the repeated baptisms as a sure means of securing forgiveness of sins from time to time, and this might easily have led to the thought that one may sin with comparative impunity if he were baptized at frequent intervals.

This condition has been changed in the Church, and at the present time only those who, having been admitted to the fold of Christ by baptism, afterward stray therefrom or are disfellowshiped or excommunicated by due process of the Church courts, are considered as fit subjects to receive a repetition of the initiatory ordinance. These remarks, it must be understood, have no reference to the baptisms and other ordinances performed in the temples.

In the matter of administering to the sick, according to the order and practice established in the Church, care should be taken to avoid unwarranted repetitions. When an administration is made, and when the blessing pronounced upon the afflicted one has been received, the ordinance should not be repeated, rather let the time be given to prayer and thanksgiving for the manifestation of divine power already granted and realized. No limit should be or can be set to the offering of prayer and the rendering of praise to the Giver of good, for we are specially told to pray without ceasing, and no special authority of the Priesthood or standing in the Church is essential to the offering of prayer; but the actual administration by anointing with oil and by the imposition of hands by those who hold the proper office in the Priesthood is an authoritative ordinance, too sacred in its nature to be performed lightly, or to be repeated loosely when the blessing has been gained.

Another ordinance claiming mention in this connection, though somewhat different from those already cited, is that of naming and blessing infants. In accordance with the rule of the Church, children born to members of the church are taken to the monthly fast meetings in the several wards, and are there blessed and named by or under the direction of the bishopric. It is usual on such an occasion for the Bishop to call upon the father of the child, if he be present, and if he be an Elder, in good standing, to take part with the bishopric in the ordinance. This is in every way proper, for the blessing so pronounced is in the nature of a father’s blessing. Record of the ordinance so performed in the ward meeting is made by the ward clerk.

However, a father, holding the higher Priesthood, may desire to bless and name his child at home, perhaps at an earlier date than would be convenient or possible for mother and babe to attend a fast meeting in the ward. Many Elders desire to perform this ordinance within the circle of their own families on or about the eighth day of the child’s life. This also is proper, for the father, if he be worthy of his Priesthood, has certain rights and authority within his family, comparable to those of the Bishop with relation to the ward. Too often amongst us the head of the family, though he hold the higher Priesthood, fails to magnify his calling as the spiritual head of his household. It would be better if every Elder who is a father rose to the dignity of his position, and officiated in his holy office within his family organization. He may call to his aid any others who are worthy holders of the requisite authority in the Priesthood, but it is his privilege to stand as the head of his household, and to perform the ordinances pertaining to his family.

The question arises, and has recently been presented in specific form, If an Elder performs the ordinance of naming and blessing his own child at home, is it necessary that the ordinance be repeated in the ward meting? We answer, No; the father’s blessing is authoritative, proper, and sufficient. But every such case must be promptly reported to the Bishop of the ward, who will direct the clerk to make full and proper record of the matter, entering the name of the child, with date of birth and blessing, and all data as to parentage, etc., on the books of the ward. It is the duty of the Teachers and Priests in their house to house visitations among the people to see that all such reports are fully and promptly made.

The repetition of the ordinance of naming and blessing children tends to diminish our regard for the authority and sanctity attending the father’s blessing within the household.

But let it not be forgotten that if the child be not blessed and named by due authority at home it should be taken to the fast meeting of the ward on the earliest possible occasion, there to receive the blessing and to have its name duly entered on the books of the Church.

There is also another point in this connection to which attention may profitably be drawn. It is the too frequent use in the ordinary conversation of the Saints of the titles “Prophet, Seer and Revelator,” “Apostle,” etc. These titles are too sacred to be used indiscriminately in our common talk. There are occasions when they are quite proper and in place; but in our everyday conversations it is sufficient honor to address any brother holding the Melchisedek priesthood as Elder. The term Elder is a general one, applying to all those who hold the higher priesthood, whether they be Apostles, Patriarchs, High Priests or Seventies; and to address a brother as Apostle So and So, or Patriarch Such-a-one in the common talk of business and the like, is using titles too sacred to be in place on such occasions. It, in a lesser degree, partakes of the character of that evil of which we are so often warned – the too frequent use of the name of that Holy Being whom we worship, and of His Son, our Redeemer. To avoid this evil the saints in ancient days called the holy priesthood after the great High Priest Melchisedek, while the royal and correct title is, “The priesthood after the order of the Son of God.” The use of all these titles continuously and indiscriminately savors somewhat of blasphemy, and is not pleasing to our Heavenly Father.

[Joseph F. Smith, “The Repetition of Sacred Ordinances,” Juvenile Instructor, 1 January 1903, 18-20.]



13 Comments »

  1. This is a pretty important editorial, and very worthy of highlighting, Ardis. While JFS was solidly a traditionalist when it came to liturgy, this is one of the first steps towards the dramatic rationalization of the liturgy under the Grant administration.

    With regard to re-baptism, Kris and my paper in the next issue of JMH gets at a lot of new information and traces this transition. Also look for the acknowledgments section (grin).

    As far as repeat administration to the sick. This is really groundbreaking. Administering to a sick person several times a day over days was a staple of nineteenth-century practice and persisted well beyond this editorial.

    On the debate of baby blessings at home or at Church, I once wrote briefly on that here. One of these days, I’d like to write more on the eighth day blessings.

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 9, 2008 @ 8:37 am

  2. The part about blessing babies caught my eye. Sortly after one of our children was born, we travelled to an adjoining state to celebrate Christmas with the grandparents. I informed the bishop of our intention to bless the baby at the grandparents’ home because other family members would also be there. I later regretted telling him, becaues he only allowed it to go forward on the condition that a member of the high council in the grandparents stake be present when the blessing took place who could certify that it was done correctly. I felt sorry for whoever it was who had to leave his own family on Christmas day to drive across town to witness a blessing among people he didn’t even know.

    Comment by Mark Brown — October 9, 2008 @ 9:01 am

  3. J., I knew this was trampling into your territory, but went ahead with it because I knew it couldn’t be more than one part of the larger patterns you’ll be discussing. I hope I haven’t trespassed too far. I’m especially glad you have already written about the baby blessing debate. The other three points JFS discusses (baptisms, administration to the sick, and the use of titles) are noncontroversial and mostly worth reading for understanding the transition between what we’re aware was the 19th century pattern and what we know as today’s practice. On the other hand, the baby blessing issue might be controversial. (Will you be on call if I get in over my head with this?)

    I had written that before seeing Mark’s comment, which addresses one of the controversies concerning baby blessings. I understand some of the issues, especially that local authorities hold the keys (is that too strong?) for official priesthood ordinances within their areas, but I expect someone to come right back with “What about a newborn believed to be dying in the delivery room? Would the stake president insist on the same procedures then?”

    The part of this I find the most interesting is the tendency recognized by JFS that some people were falling into the trap of multiple rebaptisms as a routine escape from sin, almost as if people sinned casually knowing they could be rebaptized! I wonder what related tendencies we might have today, if any?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 9, 2008 @ 9:13 am

  4. Ardis, never fear about territory; would that all wonderful sources received such attention! I just mentioned our work in the case that folks are interested.

    I think the local push for oversight is born of a desire to keep unworthy individual, non-priesthood holding males and women from participating in the rituals. As we can see, there wasn’t so much of an issue back then (especially regarding women). As Mark stated, in most cases regarding babies, if you know that you are worthy, it is probably better to ask forgiveness.

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 9, 2008 @ 9:19 am

  5. I agree completely with J. Stapley about the concern to ensure the home blessings are performed by a worthy Priesthood order in the correct manner. I used to live in an area where that was a real and legitimate concern.

    The re-baptism issue is a fascinating one – kind of like the Mormon version of regular confession allowing someone to sin without worry. I know that’s not the way confession is viewed by the Catholic Church officially, but it’s certainly the way some members came to see it. The parallel in JFS’s words (what it says about human nature) is striking to me.

    Comment by Ray — October 9, 2008 @ 9:35 am

  6. Regarding the question in number three about a baby which may not survive, my husband looked into this question last year. The bishop consulted the handbook and told us that in such a case, the baby is blessed in the hospital at the discretion of the father without having to refer to the bishop for authority.

    That being the case, our youngest was blessed by his father and grandfather the morning after he was born but before he had major surgery. There were no worries about how to hold the baby, as he could not be lifted for the blessing, and no fretting about the outfit he would be blessed in, since he could not wear clothing due to all the lines keeping him alive. There was also no congregation to think one thing or the other about my mothering skills based on whether the baby was crying during the blessing! There was also no need for the brand new mother to arrange a large family gathering after church.

    Sometimes the cultural trappings and expectations overwhelm the actual event. This one was beautiful and simple.

    The blessing was reported to the ward, and they provided us with a certificate.

    In our case, I’m glad that we didn’t have to wait for a Fast Meeting to bless the baby. It was two open heart surgeries and the better part of a year before he was able to attend church.

    Baby blessings are a different sort of event from baby baptisms in other faith traditions, but other parents who find themselves in this sort of situation make arrangements for their priest or pastor or even the hospital chaplain to perform the service before the surgery. Some of them hold a ceremonial event at the church after the baby is stable, some of them do not.

    Comment by Researcher — October 9, 2008 @ 10:07 am

  7. Thank you, Researcher — the voice of someone to whom these questions have been so much more than theoretical.

    This branches out beyond anything mentioned by JFS, but your remark that “Sometimes the cultural trappings and expectations overwhelm the actual event. This one was beautiful and simple” bring to mind counsel to keep wedding receptions simple and to focus on the gospel at funerals rather than holding elaborate wakes.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 9, 2008 @ 10:15 am

  8. I would also add that, regarding baptism, that I really haven’t found much evidence that people were baptizing “for every little thing,” as George Q. Cannon once said. Rebaptism was required for people moving to Utah, people who were attending the temple for the first time, people who were entering a united order community, and subjects of Church discipline. I am not certain, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the idea that people wanted to be baptized for every little thing were more potent than the actual frequency of such excess.

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 9, 2008 @ 10:16 am

  9. Just a comment about keys. (And sorry to detract from the level achieved by Researcher’s comment–her comment underscores what really matters.)

    Some ordinances must be done under the direction of one holding keys. Others may be done without such direction. In the first class of ordinances are those essential for salvation, such as baptism, confirmation, ordination, the administration of the sacrament and the temple ordinances. In the second are blessings for healing, comfort, etc., and the blessing of infants. None of these in the latter category are necessary for salvation, and only the naming and blessing of infants is recorded by the church. That it’s not necessary for salvation is evidenced by the practice in the church when a person joins the church as an adult–no “naming and blessing” is required. Where an adult convert has young children, they may be named and blessed if the parent wishes.

    Comment by Mark B. — October 9, 2008 @ 10:38 am

  10. Mark B echoes what I was going to say about keys and naming and blessing of infants. It is not a saving ordinance, and as such, even if we are active members, the worst that can happen if the ordinance is not performed is that the ward clerk has a little extra information to gather when the child is baptized at age 8.

    A note regarding multiple blessings for the sick. My mother had multiple chronic illnesses throughout her life, and was in and out of hospitals on a regular basis. Some of those stays were for weeks at a time, and often included months of recuperative rest at home. She asked her bishop about multiple blessings during those extended illnesses. Her wise bishop told her that usually, one blessing is enough, but if something changes, as in a new problem develops, or a complication arises after surgery, she was more than welcome to have a new blessing from my Dad and my brothers and I when she felt it was warranted. I have heard others echo that sentiment. I don’t have easy access to the CHI, but I believe it may speak to some similar advice.

    Comment by kevinf — October 9, 2008 @ 2:08 pm

  11. Kevin, I think that is an accurate characterization of the modern Church’s policy. By contrast, at the time of this editorial, it was not uncommon for Church leaders to administer half a dozen blessings in 2 or 3 days to the same individual.

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 9, 2008 @ 2:26 pm

  12. Ardis:

    Great post, as always. As others have noted, I appreciate your focus on early 20th century Mormonism and tracing the myriad of transitions, small and large, that marked this period. I’m always reminded of two definitions from Orson Scott Card’s Saintspeak:

    radical — Before the Presidency of Heber J. Grant, what all Mormons were perceived by nonmembers to be. AFter all, they practiced polygamy, despised capitalism, insisted on equal rights for women under the law, and believed that the government had no right to interfere with people’s private sexual practices.

    conservative — After the presidency of Heber J. Grant, what all Mormons were perceived by nonmembers to be. (See radical.)

    Heh. ..bruce..

    Comment by bfwebster — October 9, 2008 @ 2:35 pm

  13. The part at the end about titles was interesting to me, the idea that “elder” is a non-sacred title that is useful in place of the sacred titles “apostle” and “patriarch.” These days, “elder” is too sacred a title to be applied to the bulk of those who hold the office, and is applied only to apostles, seventies, and missionaries. We say that all the apostles hold the keys to lead the Church, but only one exercises them. It seems that elders of the Church mostly hold that office in reserve. It’s a really good thing if every family can have an elder leading it, but the Church has far more Melchizedek priesthood than there is any use for.

    Comment by John Mansfield — October 10, 2008 @ 6:04 am

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