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by John Hawkins

Ceremony and ritual are key concepts for understanding religious behavior. In LDS parlance the word ordinance embraces most official observances. Latter-day Saints often use the word "ceremony" in reference to worship in the temple. They speak of temple dedication ceremonies, with solemn assemblies, dedicatory prayers, and the hosanna shout.

In LDS self-awareness, a sequence of ordinances, with temple ceremonies as the apex, constitute the main axis of religious existence. These ordinances are called by Joseph Smith the "rites of salvation," (TPJS, p. 191). They define the character and interactions of priesthood, Church organization, authority, living revelation, family structure, kinship linkages, and moral responsibility.

In the discourse of social science, by contrast, ceremony usually refers to any cultural performance that identifies or changes one's social status. Ceremony that concerns the divine or sacred is called ritual.

Comparative study of diverse cultures and peoples suggest several generalizations on ritual that Latter-day Saints would call ordinances or sacred ceremonies.

First, ritual is symbolic. The central values, premises, and assumptions of a way of life are encoded in ceremony. A whole system of thought may be expressed in a simple gesture, a placement of hands, a posture. For Latter-day Saints the blessing and passing of the Sacrament, beginning with the presiding priesthood authorities, reactivates each member's covenant relationship with Jesus Christ and the entire complex of living prophets, priesthood authority, revelation, and the influences of the Holy Spirit.

Second, it identifies sacred or set-apart space and time and marks fundamental transformations of social relationships. For Latter-day Saints the Sabbath is sacred time when even the preparation of food should be done with an eye single to the glory of God and with "singleness of heart" (D&C 59:13). The temple stands as the epitome of sacred space and time, the place of the divine name and presence, and embodies the enduring covenants of marriage, family, and sealing.

Third, ritual perpetuates the community through sacred drama. It marks and engenders spiritual birth and rebirth. Regular participation regenerates sentiments of attachment. In this view ceremony is to the reproduction of family and community what DNA is to the biological individual. Among Latter-day Saints such ceremonies include the blessing and naming of infants, priesthood ordinations, patriarchal blessings and father's blessings by the laying-on of hands, administering to the sick with consecrated olive oil, and the setting apart of persons to a variety of callings of teaching and service.

Fourth, ritual and other LDS social ceremonies memorialize key events in their historical formation. The historical consciousness of Latter-day Saints is celebrated in periodic commemorations, pageants, dedications, and group memorial services of key events in the restoration (see Centennial Observances; Cumorah Pageant; General Conference; Pioneer Day).

Fifth, ritual is often countercultural, defining and contrasting the principles of the religious community with those of surrounding societies. LDS emphasis on the "gathering" of disciples to a geographic and spiritual Zion, and the ceremonial renewal of responsibilities in periodic testimony bearing enhance discipleship, and are counter-balances to the disruptions of a secular world of increasingly fragile and fleeting relationships.

Sixth, ritual provides moral authority and constancy to cope with rapid change and social upheaval. It is the cement that unites individuals in common cause. As the Church undergoes geometric expansion, it draws together peoples of all backgrounds and provides the basis for communication and trust amid national, cultural, and ethnic diversity.

No society or group exists without both social and sacred ceremony. Among Latter-day Saints the fundamental importance of ceremony, and of divine authority in its performance, are given expression in a unique latter-day scripture: "In the ordinances…the power of godliness is manifest. And without the ordinances thereof, and the authority of the priesthood, the power of godliness is not manifest unto men in the flesh" (D&C 84: 20-21).

(See Basic Beliefs home page; Church Organization and Priesthood Authority home page; Priesthood Organization home page; Priesthood Ordinances home page)


Alexander, Bobby C. "Ceremony." In The Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. Mircea Eliade, Vol. 3, pp. 179-83. New York, 1987.

Morris, Brian. Anthropological Studies of Religion: An Introductory Text. New York, 1987.

Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol. 1, Ceremonies

Copyright 1992 by Macmillan Publishing Company

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