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The LDS Sacrament: Mormons and the Lord’s Supper

The LDS Sacrament: Mormons and the Lord’s Supper

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Some of the religious activities of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are in many respects similar to the activities of most Christian churches. They meet every Sunday (as we will discuss in the next chapter) and have a religious service lasting a little over an hour followed by Sunday school classes. The service typically includes the singing of hymns from a hymnbook, a congregational prayer, baby blessings (similar to baby dedications in many Protestant churches), and teaching (though usually shorter talks by two or three members rather than a lengthy sermon by a pastor).

"One would think that members of a religion that seems to go out of its way to distance itself from the rest of Christianity in everything from the doctrine it teaches about God to the elements it uses in the sacrament would not take offense when Christians take notice of that distance."

The centerpiece of the service is “the sacrament,” the LDS preferred name for their weekly observance of what Christians variously call the Eucharist, Communion, or the Lord’s Supper. In fact, the weekly service is called a sacrament meeting (D&C 46:4-5). In some important respects, Mormons view the sacrament much the same way that most evangelical Protestants do. The elements represent Christ’s body or flesh and his blood (D&C 27:2). The essential function of the sacrament is a regular reminder or remembrance of Christ’s sacrificial death. (Despite the LDS use of the term sacrament, Mormons do not have what is traditionally called a “sacramental” view of the Lord’s Supper, in which the bread and wine are thought to be in some way Christ’s literal body and blood. Rather, they view it as a symbolic memorial or reminder of Christ’s suffering and death.) Members of the congregation are expected to prepare themselves before partaking by examining themselves and repenting of their sins, reflecting reverently and gratefully on Christ’s atonement.

While acknowledging these substantial similarities between traditional Christian and LDS views of the Lord’s Supper, we should also recognize some important differences. We will highlight two such differences here:

  1. Mormons claim that only they have the priesthood authority necessary to administer the sacrament validly.
  2. Mormons use water as an element of the sacrament on the grounds that Christ supposedly revealed that they should not use wine.

A. Priesthood Authority and the Sacrament

The LDS Church claims that it alone has the authority to administer the sacrament properly and validly. “The sacrament is administered by those who hold the necessary priesthood authority” (Gospel Principles, 135). The observance of the sacrament in traditional Christian churches, regardless of their theological understanding of its significance, is viewed as invalid. Joseph Fielding Smith, writing about the 1830 organization of the LDS Church, expressed this idea explicitly in a curriculum series for the Melchizedek priesthood in the 1940s:

“On the occasion of the organization of the [LDS] Church and after other business had been attended to, the little group partook of the Sacrament. This was the first time, since before the apostasy, hundreds of years ago, that the sacrament had been administered acceptably and with divine approval and in accordance with the manner which the Lord had revealed” (Church History and Modern Revelation, 1:94).

In previous installments of this study guide (see especially chapters 13, 14, and 16) we have explained why the LDS doctrines and claims concerning its “priesthood authority” are unbiblical. With regard to the sacrament, the New Testament says nothing to indicate that any special priesthood authority or ecclesiastical office is required to administer this or any other ordinance (such as baptism). The New Testament refers to the sacrament in only four places (Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:15-20; 1 Corinthians 10:16-22; 11:20-34), and none of these passages says anything about who is to “administer” the sacrament.

This silence of the Bible is not, as Mormons sometimes argue, evidence that the Bible is “unclear” about the matter. Rather, the Bible’s silence is evidence of the indifference or unimportance of the matter. What God does not legislate or dictate in his Word is left for us to decide on the basis of general principles of wisdom and Christian values. For example, if God does not command the observance of certain days or festivals, then Christians are free to observe them or not to observe them (Romans 14:5-6; Colossians 2:16-17). In the very context of discussing the sacrament, Paul emphasizes that where God gives no law or command, Christians should do things that honor God and build up the faith of others (1 Corinthians 10:23-33). Thus, Christian churches are free to administer the sacrament in any way that seems appropriate to them as long as they do not violate biblical principles or disobey biblical teachings.

B. Water Instead of Wine

The most noticeable, visible difference between the sacrament in LDS practice and that found in most traditional Christian churches is that Mormons use water instead of wine or grape juice. Gospel Principles explains that “in a latter-day revelation He [Christ] has said that it doesn’t matter what we eat and drink during the sacrament as long as we remember Him (see D&C 27:2–3). Today, Latter-day Saints drink water instead of wine” (135).

It is not my intention here to dispute whether the substitution of water or some other drink in the sacrament is ever appropriate. The Bible does not actually specify that a particular beverage must be used. All three of the parallel Gospel passages refer to the drink that Jesus passed to his disciples as “the fruit of the vine” (Matthew 26:29; Mark 14:25; Luke 22:18), and Paul refers to it only as “the cup” (1 Corinthians 10:16, 21; 11:25-28). While it is reasonable to conclude that in Jesus’ cultural setting at the Passover meal the fruit of the vine was consumed in the form of wine, the Bible is not that specific and does not mandate the use of a particular drink. Of course, the deep red coloration of both wine and grape juice makes these beverages particularly suitable to represent symbolically the blood of Christ. For this reason, Christians historically have consistently used these grape-based liquids in the observance of the sacrament except where they were impractical or unavailable, and we should be hesitant to abandon this historic practice without good reason.

Mormons claim they do have such a good reason: Christ supposedly told Joseph Smith not to purchase wine for the sacrament. This revelation came to Joseph in August 1830:

For, behold, I say unto you, that it mattereth not what ye shall eat or what ye shall drink when ye partake of the sacrament, if it so be that ye do it with an eye single to my glory—remembering unto the Father my body which was laid down for you, and my blood which was shed for the remission of your sins. Wherefore, a commandment I give unto you, that you shall not purchase wine neither strong drink of your enemies; Wherefore, you shall partake of none except it is made new among you; yea, in this my Father’s kingdom which shall be built up on the earth. (D&C 27:2-4).

The rationale here has nothing to do with LDS scruples against drinking wine, which arose later in the 1833 revelation known as the Word of Wisdom (D&C 89, which we will examine in our response to chapter 29 of Gospel Principles). Joseph’s revelation explains that the Saints should not purchase alcoholic beverages from their “enemies” and therefore the use of wine will need to wait until the Saints make it themselves in the kingdom of God—which the early Mormons expected to see established in their lifetime (e.g., D&C 84:1-5). Although this revelation does not specify what the Saints should drink instead of wine, the uniform practice is that “water is now used instead of wine in the sacramental services of the Church” (preface to D&C 27).

Normally, it would be difficult to give any reason or evidence to show that a revelation of this type was not from God. How would one go about testing Joseph’s claim that the Lord had said these things to him? In this case, however, we have some surprisingly clear evidence that this was not a revelation from the Lord Jesus Christ. The foundational “revelation” of the LDS Church is D&C 20, dated April 1830—just four months before the revelation in D&C 27. In D&C 20, Christ supposedly told the new restored Church the exact words to say when administering the sacrament. Thus, Gospel Principles asserts, “Jesus has revealed the exact words for both sacrament prayers” (135). Yet these “exact words” refer explicitly to wine as the drink consumed in the sacrament:

    It is expedient that the church meet together often to partake of bread and wine in the remembrance of the Lord Jesus;
    And the elder or priest shall administer it; and after this manner shall he administer it—he shall kneel with the church and call upon the Father in solemn prayer, saying:
    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 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 has given them; that they may always have his Spirit to be with them. Amen.
    The manner of administering the wine—he shall take the cup also, and say:
    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. (D&C 20:75-79, emphasis added).

Gospel Principles is not alone in claiming that these are the exact words that the Lord commanded the LDS Church to use in its administration of the sacrament. For example, Dallin H. Oaks stated in General Conference:

To avoid distracting from the sacred occasion, priests should speak the sacrament prayers clearly and distinctly. Prayers that are rattled off swiftly or mumbled inaudibly will not do. All present should be helped to understand an ordinance and covenants so important that the Lord prescribed the exact words to be uttered. All should be helped to focus on those sacred words as they renew their covenants by partaking. (“The Aaronic Priesthood and the Sacrament,” Ensign, Nov. 1998, 37, emphasis added)

The Encyclopedia of Mormonism concurs: “For some ordinances, such as baptism and administration of the Sacrament, the scriptures prescribe exact words” (3:1033).

The problem here is obvious. If the Lord took the trouble to dictate the “exact words to be uttered” in the sacramental prayer, one would think that he would not have included a reference to “this wine” in that prayer had he intended a mere four months later to tell Joseph Smith not to use wine. After all, this language is more specific than any found in the Bible, so it was certainly unnecessary to refer specifically to wine. Yet D&C 20 refers to wine three times, including in the sacramental prayer itself. Clearly, someone made a mistake. Since we may safely assume that Jesus did not make a mistake, the most reasonable conclusion is that Joseph did. One or both of these revelations in D&C 20 and 27 is evidently flawed.

Once again, we find that the LDS Church abandons a biblically based, historic Christian practice—in this case, the use of “the fruit of the vine” in the Lord’s Supper—on the basis of a dubious revelation. It does so while also denying that any church other than itself has the authority to administer the sacrament. Yet Mormons take great offense if anyone suggests that the LDS Church’s doctrine and practices might not be authentically Christian. One would think that members of a religion that seems to go out of its way to distance itself from the rest of Christianity in everything from the doctrine it teaches about God to the elements it uses in the sacrament would not take offense when Christians take notice of that distance.

Questions for reflection:

  • If priesthood authority is necessary to administer the sacrament, why doesn’t the New Testament mention this in any of the four books that discuss the sacrament? If your answer is that this teaching was lost or removed from these texts, how do you explain the fact that researchers keep finding earlier and earlier manuscripts of the New Testament (from a variety of locations) and none of them have this supposedly missing material?
  • If God gives no specific instructions in Scripture on how to do something, what is the better conclusion: that something is wrong with Scripture, or that God has left us free to handle the matter in whatever way seems right to us?
  • Is there any good reason not to use “the fruit of the vine,” say in the form of non-alcoholic grape juice, in the sacrament?
  • Why would Christ tell Joseph not to buy wine for the sacrament specifically from non-Mormons, if according to Christ his people should not drink wine regardless of who makes it?
  • Why would Christ refer explicitly to wine when dictating the exact words to say in the sacrament if he was planning to reveal just four months later that the Saints should not use wine in the sacrament? If it was so important to get the words exactly right, why didn’t Christ get the words exactly right?
  • Why should traditional Christians view the LDS Church as a legitimate church when it denies the validity of all ordinances other than its own and of all churches other than itself?