Sacrament Prayers and the Doctrine of Christ

I am always interested in seeing how ideas grow, develop, and take shape of the years.  I suppose that is part of why I find the study of theology so interesting.  As I was studying the “Come, Follow Me” curriculum this last week, it struck me how the sacrament prayers seem to have developed and formulated alongside the Doctrine of Christ in the Book of Mormon.

Early in the Book of Mormon, the prophetic triumvirate of Lehi, Nephi, and Jacob propose a controversial change to the traditional Hebrew religion, a change based on their revelations and their understanding of Isaiah that they called the Doctrine of Christ.  Towards the end of his record, Nephi summarizes this doctrine as follows:

Wherefore, my beloved brethren, can we follow Jesus save we shall be willing to keep the commandments of the Father? … Wherefore, my beloved brethren, I know that if ye shall follow the Son, with full purpose of heart, acting no hypocrisy and no deception before God, but with real intent, repenting of your sins, witnessing unto the Father that ye are willing to take upon you the name of Christ, by baptism—yea, by following your Lord and your Savior down into the water, according to his word, behold, then shall ye receive the Holy Ghost; yea, then cometh the baptism of fire and of the Holy Ghost; and then can ye speak with the tongue of angels, and shout praises unto the Holy One of Israel.[1]

There is the nucleus of the future sacrament prayers in Nephi’s summary—the requirements to “keep the commandments of the Father” and “follow the Son, with full purpose of heart” as well as to witness that “ye are willing to take upon you the name of Christ” with the promise that in return, “ye receive the Holy Ghost.”  Thus, while John W. Welch traces the development sacrament prayers back to the time of King Benjamin, they may ultimately be rooted in Nephi’s explanation of the Doctrine of Christ.[2]

That is not to say that King Benjamin’s contributions to the development of the sacrament prayers should be overlooked.  After the main section of Benjamin’s sermon, the response of Benjamin’s people invoked the language of covenant: “We are willing to enter into a covenant with our God to do his will, and to be obedient to his commandments in all things that he shall command us, all the remainder of our days” (Mosiah 5:5).  Given that “they all cried with one voice” and that “these are the words which king Benjamin desired of them” (Mosiah 5:2,6), their words may have been a pre-scripted or ritual response.  Benjamin expounds on this covenant by stating that: “I would that ye should take upon you the name of Christ, all you that have entered into the covenant with God that ye should be obedient unto the end of your lives” and that “I would that ye should remember to retain the name written always in your hearts” (Mosiah 5:8, 12).  Here we find the further development of ideas included in the sacrament prayers—covenants made with God to be obedient to commandments, take on the name of Christ, and remember to retain the name of Christ in their hearts.

We also see the promised blessings of the Holy Spirit and some covenants like those King Benjamin and his people made with God come together in the Nephite baptism ritual carried out by Alma the Elder.  Although Nephi discusses baptism as a requirement of the Doctrine of Christ, our first time seeing baptisms performed in the Book of Mormon comes at the Waters of Mormon.  In Alma’s words, baptism is performed “in the name of the Lord, as a witness before him that ye have entered into a covenant with him, that ye will serve him and keep his commandments, that he may pour his Spirit more abundantly upon you” (Mosiah 18:10).  Alma’s baptismal covenant falls in line with the previous understanding of the Doctrine of Christ presented by Nephi and parallels the covenants presented by Benjamin, though it is interesting that Alma’s words lacks the commitment to take on the name of Christ.[3]

These three texts or events exerted an influence on Nephites for generations to come.  For example, Alma seems to have had access to the small plates of Nephi, quoting Lehi’s words in 1 Nephi 1:8 in Alma 36:22.  It seems likely that he and other Nephite religious leaders were aware of Nephi’s section about the Doctrine of Christ towards the end of 2 Nephi as well.  As for King Benjamin, John Welch pointed out that: “Benjamin’s words were influential among the Nephites down to the time of Christ.  Thus it is impressively consistent that Benjamin’s three main covenantal phrases should reappear in Moroni 4 in ways that show continuity with the old covenant pattern as well as sensitivity to the newer revelation at the time of Christ’s appearance.”[4]  It’s not clear if Alma was following a pre-prescribed pattern for baptism or introducing a new one.  Regardless, given that Alma would go on to organize the church of God and his descendants continued to lead that Church for the next several generations, it seems likely that Alma’s understanding of baptism became standard among the Nephites.[5]  Thus, Nephi, Alma, and Benjamin would have likely been seen as respected Church Fathers in the Nephite religion at the time Christ came.

Given all of this, it isn’t surprising that the resurrected Christ drew upon the words and covenants articulated by earlier leaders of the Nephite religion when he instituted the Sacrament among the descendants of Lehi, fusing those words together with his own words at the Last Supper.  First, he broke bread and then explained that: “This shall ye do in remembrance of my body, which I have shown unto you.  And it shall be a testimony unto the Father that ye do always remember me.  And if ye do always remember me ye shall have my Spirit to be with you” (3 Nephi 18:7).  After distributing wine, he explained that baptized and repentant individuals who partake of the wine do so to “witness unto the Father that ye are willing to do that which I have commanded you” and “that ye may witness unto the Father that ye do always remember me.  And if ye do always remember me ye shall have my Spirit to be with you” (3 Nephi 18:10-11).  I suspect that his wording was chosen (or at least recorded) the way that it was in order to use language that was familiar to the Lehites while transforming it to serve a new purpose in blessing the sacrament.

The Nephite sacrament prayers preserved by Moroni seem to have been adapted from the words that the Christ spoke when instituting the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper among the Nephites.  The prayer on the bread includes the hope that participants “may eat in remembrance of the body” of Christ and as a “witness unto thee, O 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” (Moroni 4:3).  We find the language of remembering the body of the Lord and witnessing or testifying to the Father that those partaking of the bread remember the Christ with the promise to have the Holy Spirit with them as a result, just as the Lord said in 3 Nephi 18.  Similar comparisons can be made between the prayer for the wine and the Lord’s words.  The major addition to the sacrament prayers not found in the Christ’s explanation of the sacrament (though found in the covenants of King Benjamin) is the expression of willingness to “take upon them the name of [the] Son.”  That being the major exception, the sacrament prayers seem to be based on the Christ’s words in 3 Nephi 18.

Thus, the sacrament prayers we use in the Church today seem to be steeped in the sacred history of the Lehite peoples.  Their nucleus came from Nephi’s summary of the Doctrine of Christ, with added layers coming from the sermon of King Benjamin and the baptism ritual practiced by Alma.  Those words were woven into the introduction of Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper by the Lord Jesus Christ when he visited the Nephites after his resurrection.  His words, in turn, were used as the basis of the sacrament prayers used in the church in Moroni’s days.  It would be interesting to see if the prayers had developed differently in a different context.  A possible example are the prayers for early Christians recorded in the Didache, which focus much more on gratitude for the figure of Christ rather than covenants: “We give thanks to thee, our Father, for the Holy Vine of David thy child, which, thou didst make known to us through Jesus thy Child; to thee be glory for ever.”[6]  Regardless, our sacrament prayers were preserved in the Book of Mormon and adopted by the Church in the modern day, being included in the Articles and Covenants (D&C 20) to designate them as the official prayers we use as we worship in our sacrament meetings.

 

Footnotes:

[1] 2 Nephi 31:11-13.  Note that there are some parallels in this formula to a part of Joseph Smith’s summary of our religious beliefs in the Wentworth Letter (now Articles of Faith 3 and 4, see “Church History,” 1 March 1842,” p. 709, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed March 6, 2020, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/church-history-1-march-1842/4), which itself has parallels among other 19th century Protestant summaries of the requirements of the Gospel.

[2] John W. Welch, “Our Nephite Sacrament Prayers,” in Reexploring the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT and Salt Lake City, Utah: FARMS/Deseret Book, 1992), 286-289. https://archive.bookofmormoncentral.org/node/231

[3] Note that Zeniff’s colony left from Zarahemla prior to King Benjamin’s speech and Alma likely did not have access to a record of King Benjamin’s words.

[4] Welch, “Nephite Sacrament,” 287.  He points to Helaman 5:9; 14:12 and Mosiah 3:8 as examples of Benjamin’s influence on later Nephites.

[5] See Mosiah 25:18-24.

[6] The Didache 9:2-4. http://www.thedidache.com/

5 comments for “Sacrament Prayers and the Doctrine of Christ

  1. William
    March 9, 2020 at 9:25 am

    Great post, Chad! It makes you wonder whether the Sacrament prayers could conceivably change? I think the answer has to be yes given changes in other ordinances over the years. An interesting follow up is what are the guiding principles of what should be in the sacrament prayer?

    Our sacrament prayer serves as a reminder of our covenants. We promise certain things to God (keep his commandments, take upon ourselves the name of Christ, and always remember Him) and God promises us certain blessings (remission of sins and the constant presence of the Spirit).

    I don’t see any reason to change anything about our current sacrament prayer, but it’s interesting to think about the purpose behind including the words that are currently in there.

  2. Chad L. Nielsen
    March 9, 2020 at 2:27 pm

    Thanks William! I agree that the wording of the sacrament prayers could theoretically be different. Like you said, I don’t think they should change, but it’s interesting to think about.

    It would be an interesting thought experiment to come up with alternative prayers though, if only to give voice to ways to capture the meaning of the sacrament, perhaps adapting the words that the Lord spoke at the Last Supper in the New Testament.

  3. IDIAT
    March 9, 2020 at 3:05 pm

    I thought really hard about the different prayers for the bread and water this last weekend. Bread — take upon us the name of Christ, remember him, keep His commandments. Go back to the original Passover in Exodus, then read how it changed over time under “Feasts” in the Bible Dictionary, then consider the fact that Christ instituted the sacrament at Passover. Water — only remember him. Not take upon us the name of Christ nor keep His commandments. I think there is symbolic meaning and difference between the body (bread) and blood (water) of Christ. I just don’t know how to articulate it quite yet.

  4. Keith
    March 9, 2020 at 4:54 pm

    This is relevant (text available on transcript link) : http://www.byui.edu/devotionals/elder-and-sister-dale-g-renlund

  5. Michelle Rowell
    March 10, 2020 at 3:01 pm

    Keith,

    Thank-you for the link! Elder and Sister Renlund powerfully teach the doctrine of Christ and how it includes the blessed ordinance of the sacrament.

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