The Value of Mormon Liturgical Theology

Liturgy is prescribed or ritualized forms of public worship.  For instance, the LDS Sacrament (= the Eucharist) is a Mormon liturgical practice.  The question I pose is as follows: to what extent is Mormon liturgical practice appreciated in the development of Mormon theology?  That is, how does the Sacrament ritual, hymn singing, the standardized Sacrament Meeting routine, traditional baptismal services, normative forms of public prayer, etc., reflect and inform the creative efforts of (modern) Mormon theologians?  Since public worship of deity is of central religious importance to Mormonism, it would seem that such living communal practices among the body of believers could be as useful for theological creativity (as well as spiritual formation) as are, for instance, the Scriptures, the sermons or writings of modern General Authorities, or statements from Joseph Smith or Brigham Young. But what are the limitations of Mormon liturgical practice for informing its theology, since, for example, Mormon liturgical practice has been, and still is, subject to modification, and much of it has not been “canonized” (if I may be allowed to borrow the term) like the Standard Works have been?  Further, the non-public rituals of the Temple cannot be fully incorporated. Nevertheless, it still seems strange to ignore this body of public religious practice in Mormon theologizing since it is so pervasive and seems so essential for individual spiritual formation, as well as for both individual and collective religious identity.  Moreover, an emphasis on Mormon liturgical practice in the creation of theology could be beneficial for clarifying LDS beliefs and attitudes on certain subjects vis-a-vis the teachings or doctrines of other social or religious groups when traditional methods of engagement (Scripture, philosophy, etc.) have proved inconclusive or fruitless. How, then, do you understand the value of liturgical practice in Mormon theologizing, and how do you think it could be incorporated more effectively into that project?

10 Replies to “The Value of Mormon Liturgical Theology”

  1. In that Mormon Liturgy is separated into “Lower Worship” (3 hour block) and “Higher Worship” (Temple Liturgy) I’d say the “Higher Worship” informs the theological boundaries much more so than the “Lower Worship”, which is ultimately informed by the standard works and religious practices of the day.

  2. I think Asad’s formulation is significant: he argues that embodied ritual shapes theology. In this vein, I would argue that ritual changes in healing, as Wright and Stapley demonstrate, actually shape healing theology. For example, the prohibition on baptism for healing, I suspect, led to an uncoupling of sin and sickness in Mormon thought.

  3. Sadly, I don’t Mormon liturgical practice is appreciated at all. We have a minimal liturgical foundation during our communal worship services which, in my opinion, does little to foster a sense of Adoration or a communal praise tradition within our wards. The Temple does have a much stronger liturgical tradition but it is off limits to non-members and most members.

    There have been many discussions on the Bloggernacle concerning ‘high-church’ / ‘low-church’ traditions and the fear exhibited by the Church as well as many members in incorporating any type of liturgical refinement into our worship. We do well in emphasizing the “certainty” of our testimonies and in preaching the need to Emulate the attributes of our Saviour but we are seriously lacking in Adoration and in creating a communal sense of worship focused on the Redeemer. Those of us who converted from other faith traditions feel the lack of such communal liturgical practices most profoundly.

    I believe that we have reached a point where serious consideration is warranted in re-evaluating our communal worship traditions. There are many that believe in keeping it simple and they see no need for change. They would argue that Adoration and Praise are better handled in the family setting. However, the Church now has a majority of its membership outside the traditional family structure. Many do not have a family setting which would facilitate such practices.

    There are also a number of converts from Catholicism or Evangelical traditions where the services are more focused on Christ and the Eucharist. One of the most shameful items is our purposeful ignoring of Holy Week and the Sacred Easter Celebration. Even within the Temple ceremonies, there is not enough emphasis on the Saviour. We spend no more than 10 minutes on distributing and partaking of the Sacrament with little context into which such a practice should be placed. Compare that to a Catholic mass wherein the whole service focuses on Christ and culminates in partaking of the Eucharist.

    Current LDS Church services seek to help parents raise children. If I was a straight married parent with three children, the services would be a godsend. They provide a ready-made culture in which to raise strong children. However, such a culture does not do very well in providing deep spiritual nourishment and long-lasting conversion to a life of discipleship. Especially for those from broken homes, singles, or unconventional family situations. New converts get lost quickly in such a setting.

    I believe that much of the loss being experienced in membership is due to the old model no longer meeting the needs of those seeking a deeper connection to Christ. If we are to seek such a connection only in our own bedrooms, why do we have Sunday communal services? Why do we have to sit through boring, non-nourishing meetings in order to enter the Temple and participate in the deeper ceremonies?

  4. I hesitated to mention this early, but what the heck. This week, I have two papers out: “Last Rites and the Dynamics of Mormon Liturgy” in BYU Studies and “Adoptive Sealing Ritual in Mormonism” in JMH that engage theology among other things through the lens liturgy.

  5. Nice post.

    Alasdair MacIntyre has a very nice account of social practice which suggests a helpful approach to this question. Kelvin Knight has an excellent article discussing this here (the paper can be downloaded at the link, vol. 30 of Analyse & Kritik).

  6. To Michael at no.5:
    I was born and raised LDS, but because of contact over many years with Lutherans, Catholics, and especially high-church Anglicans, I have come to appreciate and long for a richer corporate worship experience among the Latter-day Saints. Just the simple act of standing to sing the hymns (which we used to do until sometime in the 1940s) would be a tremendous improvement imho.

  7. davidr,

    Thank you for your support. I agree about standing for the hymns. I found it very disconcerting and confusing when they eliminated the standing during the Endowment sessions a few years ago. It seemed to take away a respect and dignity to the covenants and other items and, imo, was unnecessary. I still feel it makes the ceremony too much like a night at the movies instead of a religious observance.

  8. J. Stapley,

    I condone – nay encourage – shameless self-promoting. Carry on, carry on, carry on! 🙂

    I have grouped a number of your posts and scholarly articles together for myself for future reading. Thanks for pointing out some of it for me.

    Sorry it took so long to reply.

    Best wishes,


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