At the height of my cognitive dissonance, church ordinances topped my list of concerns with the LDS Church. I had been taught that ordinances are of the utmost importance because they’re necessary for salvation and exaltation in the celestial kingdom. For example, baptism by immersion, performed by a person having the proper priesthood authority, is the gateway that everyone must pass through if they wish to get onto the path that leads to the celestial kingdom (see 2 Nephi 31:17–18), and there is no other way. As a consequence of such teachings, and as a faithful member of the Church, I felt that I had no choice but to view ordinances as being of inestimable value.
Before I get into the meat of this posting, I want to show that ordinances are more than just a door into another room, or a permission slip, if you will. They’re full of necessary symbolism and have wording that must be spoken precisely by the person officiating. To show what I mean, I have two examples:
- Baptism by immersion: If for any reason the person being baptised isn’t completely immersed in the water, then the ordinance must be performed again. So the symbolism of the death, burial, and resurrection of the Saviour is vital and needs to be correctly represented. Not even a strand of hair can be above the waterline.
- Sacrament prayer: A priesthood holder blesses the bread and the water using words that are specific to that ordinance (see D&C 20:79). There should be no deviation from the script. In the background, carefully listening, is a presiding authority to see that every word spoken is correct and, if an error is made, he will indicate that the prayer should be repeated.
In the first example, it’s clear that symbolism is an important and necessary part of an ordinance. It’s not something that can be dismissed and overlooked. Something is being taught which needs to be observed if important knowledge and understanding is to be passed on to the baptismal candidate. The symbolism in this example should be obvious to almost anyone. The person being baptised is to put off the old man, to paraphrase Paul the Apostle (Eph. 4:22), and be raised up a new man in the likeness of the Saviour. This symbolism is lost if it’s not strictly adhered to, and so is the efficacy of the ordinance. Or why else would it have to be performed so precisely?
In the second example, the fact that the priesthood holder has to say the prayer exactly indicates that, for the ordinance to produce the intended result, the words are mightily significant. They’re not to be spoken lightly. A word out of place, or a misspoken word, would mean that the blessing is null and void.
So, in some degree, this is how I viewed church ordinances as a devoted Mormon, and despite having a large list of questions relating to doctrinal inconsistencies that I wanted answers to, nothing seemed more vital to understand and gain a perspective on, than the issues I had with the ordinances of the Church.
To Mormons, there is no more sacred part of their faith than the ordinances of the temple. But these ordinances, in particular, have been subject to massive changes over the years. As a believing Latter-day Saint, this was something that weighed heavily on my mind because of what Joseph Smith had taught about ordinances:
“Ordinances instituted in the heavens before the foundation of the world, in the priesthood, for the salvation of men, are not to be altered or changed.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 308)
This teaching contributed significantly to my cognitive dissonance. I was troubled by its implications. Smith appeared to be unequivocal on the issue. Despite having what I considered to be a strong testimony of the truthfulness of the Church, I couldn’t ignore what Mormonism’s foundational prophet was saying – that the ordinances “are not to be altered or changed.” The truth of the matter was that the ordinances had been changed, and greatly so. Some ordinances, like the law of adoption, had completely vanished from Mormon temples. It was all very disconcerting.
After wondering if I should just accept the alterations made to the ordinances without question, which would definitely have been the easier option, I somewhat begrudgingly reasoned to myself that if anyone knew the truth of the matter, then it would be Joseph Smith. So, I continued studying what he had to say on the issue, and I found that he definitely had more to say!
“Now the purpose in Himself in the winding up scene of the last dispensation is that all things pertaining to that dispensation should be conducted precisely in accordance with the preceding dispensations… He set the temple ordinances to be the same forever and ever and set Adam to watch over them, to reveal them from heaven to man, or to send angels to reveal them.” (Joseph Smith, History of the Church, vol.4, p. 208)
I read this, and the words “conducted precisely” and “the same forever and ever” jumped out at me. It corresponded very well with what Smith said in the other quote. It seemed that he envisioned such uniformity in church ordinances that any ordinance performed in this dispensation should precisely imitate ordinances performed in other dispensations. In the same way that genealogical records of ancestors are connected to other ancestors, there should be an uninterrupted line of unmodified ordinances all the way back to when ordinances were first instituted in the heavens, before the foundation of the world. Any alteration or change would, of course, make such a thing impossible. Even the slightest modification would negate precision.
Smith also said:
“If there is no change of ordinances, there is no change of Priesthood.” (TPJS, p. 158)
“Where there is no change of priesthood, there is no change of ordinances….” (TPJS, p. 308)
“It signifies, then, that the ordinances must be kept in the very way God has appointed; otherwise their Priesthood will prove a cursing instead of a blessing.” (TPJS, p. 169)
Reading these quotes brought about an even greater confusion in my mind. It appeared that any changes made to the ordinances, and there were many, were indicative of a “change of priesthood”. I wasn’t totally sure what that meant, though I had learned by attending the temple that Satan had false priesthoods. Anyway, I knew that it was serious, and it forced me to question the validity of the Church. Consequently, I was faced with more questions, but very few answers.
Eventually I came across church teachings, like this one from Brigham Young, which seemed pertinent:
“It is said the Priesthood was taken from the Church, but it is not so, the Church went from the Priesthood, and continued to travel in the wilderness, turned from the commandments of the Lord, and instituted other ordinances.” (Brigham Young, J.D. 12:69)
I started to wonder if the LDS Church had fallen away from the truth. It had apparently happened in the past, hence the need for a restoration of all things, so why couldn’t it happen today? This seemed to me to be a perfectly reasonable question to ask. Therefore I began to consider this a possibility, more so than accept that the Church was an out and out lie made up by Joseph Smith. I wasn’t ready to lose my faith, so I studied church ordinances in this light in order to keep a modicum of faith. I thought if I could find changes of a “serious” nature, then it would surely add weight to my suspicion that the Church had apostatised.
I looked into church ordinances in more depth, to ascertain what had been changed and if it mattered at all. In my reading of Joseph Smith’s teachings, I learnt that every person “must be saved on the same principles” (TPJS, p. 308). So I used this teaching as a benchmark to measure against any changes I found, and I discovered that there had been a lot of alterations of a serious nature made to the ordinances, more than I initially realised when I started out on this journey.
It was all deeply troubling to me. I didn’t like what I was finding, as it chafed against the can-do-no-wrong image I had of the Church. I wondered if the present-day church thought that Smith had got some parts of the ordinances wrong, and so were rectifying his mistakes. This didn’t sit well with me, though. I was really surprised to find that there are even ordinances that are completely obsolete in the modern-day church, namely, re-baptism (for healing the sick), the law of adoption, the mother’s blessing and prayer circles in the homes of church members. Why? The fact that the Church had done away with some ordinances completely undermined the need for them to be restored in the first place.
One of the reasons that I shared the two examples at the beginning of this post was so that I could show the antithetical messages that the Church puts out to its membership, and why it’s not surprising at all that some members suffer from bouts of cognitive dissonance. Bearing in mind what I said about the absolute need for correct symbolism and wording, consider the following:
- Temple initiatory ordinances: In the Nauvoo Temple there were big baths into which patrons would bathe naked and have consecrated oil poured over their heads from a horn and the oil would run down and cover their bodies. Afterwards they would be given a special garment to wear. At some point, this was changed. The baths were removed and the patrons would instead be touched with water and anointed with oil on parts of their body mentioned in the wording of the ordinance – the forehead, ear, eye, nose, lips, neck, shoulders, back, breast, stomach, arm, hand, hip, leg and foot. Then an officiator would help them into a garment representing the coat of skins given to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. In 2005, this ordinance was changed yet again. Now the officiator touches the patron’s forehead and pours a small amount of oil on their head. Twice in the process, the person officiating puts his/her hands on the patron’s head and says the words specific to that ordinance, and it’s interesting to note that before any of this happens the patron is already wearing the symbolic garment. It’s not put on later, as it was previously.
- Endowment ceremony: There’s a lot of wording in this ordinance that has changed or been completely removed altogether, far too much to cover in detail here, though I may write about it in another post. Anyway, here’s a few examples of how the wording of the ceremony has changed:
- No longer do women covenant to obey their husband as he obeys God.
No longer are the Saints required to “covenant and promise that you will pray, and never cease to pray, Almighty God to avenge the blood of the prophets upon this nation, and that you will teach the same to your children and your children’s children unto the third and fourth generations.” This was referred to as the Oath of Vengeance.
No longer do temple patrons covenant to have their throats slit, their hearts ripped out, or their bellies torn open for revealing the signs and tokens.
There’s a huge irony in the Church’s removal of so much of the symbolism associated with the initiatory ordinances. Such a loss of symbolism is absolutely comparable to changing baptism from total immersion to a light sprinkling; a thing that the LDS Church frowns upon and says is a tell-tale sign of apostasy. LeGrand Richards commented that churches “have changed many of the ordinances. For instance, they no longer baptize as Jesus was baptized when he went to John to be baptized of him” (“The Things of God and Man,” Ensign, Nov. 1977, p. 21).
Well, there is no doubt in my mind that the LDS Church has changed many of the ordinances too. For starters, they no longer perform initiatory ordinances in the way that the early Mormon Church did, instead they dab recipients with a little water and oil as opposed to washing their whole bodies with water and pouring oil over their heads and allowing it to run down and cover their bodies. The Church today is guilty of the same things it accuses the early Christian church of doing and, as far as I was concerned, the alterations made to this particular ordinance were damning evidence that the Church has lost its way. At least, that’s what I told myself when I was struggling to keep hold of my faith. Now I know different.
With regards to the script of an ordinance, the Church is sending out a mixed message to the Saints. On the one hand, it’s essential to get the wording of an ordinance right or efficacy is lost, while on the other hand, the wording can be changed – multiple times in the case of the endowment ceremony! – or removed altogether, and the efficacy apparently remains. This made no sense to me when I was trying to cling onto my belief-system. If anything, I was becoming more and more confused. You’d think that a temple ordinance would be just as unlikely to change as the sacrament blessing, if not more so due to its sacred nature.
On the topic of script change, something that caused me even more cognitive dissonance was the 1921 change to priesthood conferrals. It seemed that under Heber J. Grant’s administration there had been some debate among the authorities of the Church on the issue of conferring the priesthood. Specifically, how it should be done. Charles W. Penrose commented:
“We have been making a mistake in ordinations. We have been conferring the Priesthood, and it ought not to be done. If we confer the Priesthood on a man, we give him all the offices and callings in the church. We should ordain directly to the office in the priesthood. There is only one man that holds the Priesthood.” (1st counsellor to H. J. Grant, Stake Quarterly Conference, Provo, Utah Stake, 1921)
So it was decided that conferring the priesthood and then an office was unnecessary. All that needed to be conferred on a person was an office within the priesthood, and that’s what happened. But 36 years later, David O. McKay reversed the change, without explanation, and once again the priesthood was conferred upon an individual and then he was ordained to an office in the priesthood.
Discovering this, I wondered if anyone who had been ordained to an office in the priesthood in those 36 years actually had the priesthood at all. This caused me much consternation, because the ramifications of such a mistake are huge. I imagined thousands of men conferring the priesthood on other men while not having the authority to do so, and those newly ordained, thinking they had the priesthood, conferring the priesthood on yet more men. The implications are staggering.
These are just some of the issues I had as a questioning, but faithful, Latter-day Saint. I laugh now, when I think about how much all of this stuff bothered me. It was really difficult losing my religion, but with hindsight I can see how ridiculous it all was.
Anyway, I wrote this post because of a quote I came across recently. I’d read it before, but it was many years ago. Joseph Smith comments that the “order of the house of God has been, and ever will be, the same, even after Christ comes…“ (TPJS, p. 91), and this caused me to think about how untrue his statement is. There is absolutely no order in the House of the Lord. The so-called sacred ordinances are subject to change at any given time, often due to nothing more than social pressure. Mormons conveniently call such changes “continuing revelation” to help smooth the transition from old ways to new ways. So whatever the authorities of the Church come up with, the members are going to feel good about it. But really, the Church is nothing more than a product of its time, and has shown that it will continue to change because of expediency.