The Latter-day Saint sacrament prayers are part of the founding revelation on Church government—Doctrine and Covenants section 20. These prayers, so vital to our spiritual health and salvation, were restored through the translation of the Book of Mormon. 1 They are, in fact, identical to the Nephite blessings. (Compare D&C 20:77, 79 with Moro. 4:3; Moro. 5:2.)
The reason for this is contained in a manuscript in the handwriting of Oliver Cowdery, dated June 1829, which contains the basic Book of Mormon ceremonies, copied for the benefit of the first members of the restored Church. 2 Oliver Cowdery labeled this compilation “The Articles of the Church of Christ.” 3 As such, the Cowdery document 4 was seen as inspired instruction. Its preface, in fact, indicates a divine direction to “write the words which I shall command you concerning my Church, my gospel, my rock, and my salvation.” 5 This first known priesthood “handbook” fulfills in part the Lord’s promise to Oliver that he would “assist in bringing to light, with your gift, those parts of my scriptures which have been hidden because of iniquity.” (D&C 6:27.) His document included many quotations and paraphrases about the Church from Christ’s instructions to the Nephites and from the great doctrinal revelations of June 1829, now comprising Doctrine and Covenants sections 17 and 18 [D&C 17; D&C 18]. It also included the Savior’s instructions on baptism and the sacrament from 3 Nephi chapters 11 and 18 [3 Ne. 11; 3 Ne. 18] and the sacrament prayers from Moroni chapters 4 and 5 [Moro. 4; Moro. 5].
The Cowdery manuscript was apparently used during 1829 but was superseded by the fuller revelation on doctrine that Joseph Smith completed in connection with organizing the Church. Now known as section 20 [D&C 20], it followed the model of the Cowdery record of Nephite ordinances for the use of the restored Church. Thus, the Nephite sacrament prayer and Jesus’ instructions on it went from Mormon’s abridgment of Jesus’ words and Moroni’s compilation of ancient Church ordinances into the handwritten Book of Mormon manuscript. From there, it went to the Cowdery ceremony summary, then to Joseph Smith’s fuller statement of doctrine and practice in the Doctrine and Covenants.
In this way the Book of Mormon became the Lord’s instrument in restoring the form and words of the sacrament ordinance. But the Book of Mormon did more. It also restored the central purpose of the ordinance. That purpose centers in the concept of covenant.
The concept of covenant is one of the saving doctrines. Indeed, so important is the principle that the Book of Mormon makes the loss of covenants a sure mark of Christian apostasy. (See 1 Ne. 13:26.) The Book of Mormon thus becomes a guidebook for our age largely because it collects and clarifies foundation doctrines and everlasting covenants (see D&C 133:57) lost or changed during periods of apostasy.
The term covenant appears in the Old Testament approximately 250 times and in the Book of Mormon about 100 times. Both books describe covenants as oaths made between private parties, with little distinction in kind between human and divine covenants. In fact, the human agreements of the Old Testament are extremely useful in assessing how God directed Israel’s patriarchs, for his promises are similar to those that the patriarchs made with their peers. In both cases, there were mutual pledges and conditions.
The Latin derivation of covenant indicates it is literally a “coming together,” a contract involving reciprocal obligations. Various Christian theologies struggle with applying such a concept to God. If he is the all-powerful sovereign, can his plans fail because humans fail? If he is all-loving, does he not distribute his blessings without any condition? Protestant explanations tend to emphasize a one-sided covenant—the sovereign giver and the unworthy receiver. But only in a very general sense do God’s promises appear without obligations on our part. In most cases, covenant is used to describe a promise that God makes on condition that the other party (sometimes an individual, but often collectively the house of Israel) will faithfully serve Him.
Much Christian literature rejects such personal responsibility by treating Moses’ revelations as a covenant of works and the New Testament revelations as a covenant of grace—even though the Apostle Paul argued that the Gentiles had to obey strict obligations of faithfulness in order to maintain a covenant relationship with God. (See Rom. 11:17–22.)
Paul characteristically quoted Jeremiah’s prophecy: Because Israel broke the covenant of the Exodus (see Jer. 31:32), God would give a “new covenant” (Jer. 31:31). Israel would be forgiven, and Israel would truly “know the Lord.” (Jer. 31:34.) Yet Jeremiah was not promising a change in relationship but rather foreseeing a time when the children of Israel would live up to their obligations, accepting the Lord’s law in their hearts. (See Jer. 31:33.) In other words, the covenant relationship would not change in the latter days; rather, Israel would finally keep God’s requirements.
This concept of the conditional covenant is also central in the New Testament. Covenant appears about thirty times in the New Testament. The word not only summarizes God’s relationship with the Church, but it is also prominent in connection with the most frequent early Christian public ordinance—the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.
The New Testament Sacrament Covenant
Christ clearly established the sacrament, since three of the four Gospels and also Paul’s letter of 1 Corinthians contain concise reports. First Corinthians is of particular interest because it preceded the Gospels. Its date is about A.D. 57, some twenty-five years after Christ instituted the sacrament in the Upper Room. 6 In the letter, Paul repeated what he had reliably learned, introducing the account with these words: “For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you.” (1 Cor. 11:23; italics added.)
Luke said that his own information was from eyewitnesses. (See Luke 1:1–4.) The reports in Matthew and Mark were similarly based: The early Christian historian Eusebius relayed very early information that Matthew originally collected Christ’s words and that Mark reported Peter’s experiences. 7 Each of these four accounts has individuality, showing that no writer simply copied another. Yet all agree on the basics. Significantly, each author quoted Jesus as saying that the cup represents the new “testament.”
Today testament suggests “a solemn declaration” or “a formal witness.” However, the technical meaning of Christ’s “new testament” is “new covenant,” 8 as the footnotes to Matthew 26:28 [Matt. 26:28] and Luke 22:20 in the LDS edition of the King James Version clarify. In Acts and in Paul’s epistles, Old Testament verses using the Hebrew word for “covenant” (berith) were translated into the Greek diatheke, which was consistently used as meaning “covenant” in the Septuagint, the pre-Christian Greek translation of the Old Testament.
Early Christian writings suggest no change in the ancient idea of covenant. The two-party promises between God and his people still took place. What had changed was the type of sacrifice that put the covenant into effect. Instead of the blood sacrifices of Abraham and Moses that prefigured the ultimate sacrifice of the Son of God, the Atonement itself became the operative reality. This is a summary of the argument in the last part of Paul’s letter to the Hebrews, where half of the New Testament uses of the Greek word for “covenant” appear. There the Apostle speaks of a “better testament” (Heb. 7:22) or a “better covenant” (Heb. 8:6) because Jesus is superior to all former sacrifices.
This continuity is shown in the opening scenes of each Gospel. In Luke’s Gospel, for example, John the Baptist comes to announce the Messiah’s mission to reinstate God’s compact with the patriarchs:
“To perform the mercy promised to our fathers, and to remember his holy covenant;
“The oath which he sware to our father Abraham,
“That he would grant unto us, that we … might serve him without fear,
“In holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life.” (Luke 1:72–75.)
“Holiness and righteousness” were Israel’s responsibilities under the covenant, and John single-mindedly preached that first-century Israel must repent individually to have their relationship with God restored.
Jesus, too, made his “new covenant” a vitalizing of the old by reapplying the language of the Mosaic covenant in instituting the sacrament. At the beginning of Exodus, Moses was called to remember the covenant of Abraham and to lead Israel out of bondage. At Sinai, Jehovah’s law was given only after Israel had promised to meet prerequisites. They would be a treasured, holy people, but Jehovah stipulated a major condition: “If ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant.” (Ex. 19:5.) Here are mutual promises, and it is irrelevant that the covenant is not an agreement between equals. Of course God’s majesty and glory are on one side, and Israel’s fallible abilities on the other. Nevertheless, the covenant is contingent. Eternal blessings came only as the children of Abraham committed themselves to obedience.
Exodus gives a priceless close-up of how important covenant making is to salvation. Moses received the Ten Commandments and inspired explanations, wrote this body of revealed law in a sacred record, and then read it to the people, who entered into a ceremonial commitment:
“He took the book of the covenant, and read in the audience of the people: and they said, All that the Lord hath said will we do, and be obedient.
“And Moses took the blood, and sprinkled it on the people, and said, Behold the blood of the covenant, which the Lord hath made with you concerning all these words.” (Ex. 24:7–8.)
These events were Israel’s constitution, and Jesus extended that covenant by quoting or paraphrasing Moses’ words when he instituted the sacrament. If Jesus had intended to present religious concepts different from the divine pattern delivered to Moses, he would not have used the words of Exodus. Repeating Moses meant repeating or renewing the covenant—offering full grace to Israel on condition of obedience. Thus, Jesus did not revoke the ancient covenant, he restored it as the “strait and narrow way” to the full blessings of his all-powerful atoning suffering. The level of progression is different from the Old to the New Testament, but saving ordinances have similar foundations.
There are three profound contacts between the divine covenant given at Sinai and the new covenant instituted in the Upper Room. As just discussed, the first is the powerful repetition of Moses’ cry, “Behold the blood of the covenant.” Since the King James testament is really covenant, we hear the Savior tersely telling the full meaning of Moses’ words as he raised the cup: “For this is my blood of the new [covenant], which is shed for many for the remission of sins.” (Matt. 26:28; see footnote.)
Although the Christian consensus regards new as meaning “changed,” its correct sense is “renewed covenant.” Interpreters regularly assume that Christ envisioned an era of unconditional grace, but this avoids the plain meaning and prophetic history of divine covenants. Israel’s duty to live up to the Sinai covenant was not only Moses’ major theme, but the constant reminder of the prophets for the next thousand years. Indeed, Jehovah’s covenant was periodically reenacted, like the Christian sacrament, through personal and public renewals of the divine pact. Through these rites, God promised spiritual blessings on his “holy people” as they renewed their promise “to walk in his ways, and to keep his statutes.” (Deut. 26:17.)
The miraculous meal is the second parallel between the Exodus covenant and the covenant delivered in the Upper Room. When personal vows were exchanged, the patriarchs ate and drank as a sign of friendship. (Gen. 26:28–30; Gen. 31:44–54.) Similarly, as soon as Israel witnessed its obedience before God and was purified in the sprinkling of blood near Sinai, an amazing revelation followed. Jehovah himself called Moses and Israel’s leaders to a sacred meal as a sign of the covenant just made: “Also they saw God, and did eat and drink.” (Ex. 24:11.)
The third parallel between the first sacrament and Israel’s wilderness covenant is the commitment of obedience required to receive the promised blessings. As discussed, God first called Moses to the mount, revealed the Ten Commandments, and explained their basic applications, all of which became the “book of the covenant” that Israel heard read aloud and agreed to obey. (Ex. 24:7.) Following the same pattern, Jesus taught repentance and baptism, gave the Sermon on the Mount, and applied its principles in public illustrations and private conversations with the Twelve. It was in this gospel context that Jesus pledged the Apostles to obedience immediately after instituting the sacrament.
This latter event is not described by Matthew, Mark, Luke, or Paul—only by John. But their record of the first sacrament remains only partial without the Last Supper sermon John reported. Eusebius had earlier sources that indicated that John wrote last, that he approved of earlier Gospels, but that he keenly felt that a fuller story should be told. 9 Thus, John, who paid close attention to Jesus’ teachings, filled in much that the other Gospel writers had overlooked. In this case, John picks up the Last Supper narrative where the other writers had left off—right after the sacrament but before Jesus and the eleven Apostles leave the Upper Room. We know this because the end of John 13, where the prophecy about Peter’s denial appears, coincides with the conclusion of the first sacrament as described in the other Gospels. Apparently John wants the reader to know that the teachings that immediately follow were also given in the Upper Room, for John 14 ends with Jesus’ sharp punctuation, “Arise, let us go hence.” (John 14:31.)
What, then, did Jesus stress right after administering the first sacrament? The eyewitness John answers: “keeping the commandments”—the same commitment required from Israel after hearing the reading of the “book of the covenant.” This attentive Apostle first reports Christ’s assurance that by leaving he would prepare for the Apostles’ entrance into the Father’s kingdom (John 14:1–4), then he records Jesus’ explanation of the nature of the Father and of the divine power that would continue with the Apostles (John 14:5–12). The second half of John 14 is essentially further exposition on the sacrament. In the name of the Father, Jesus makes specific promises. On earth his true disciples would have the special relationship that ensures answers to their deepest prayers. (John 14:13–14.) On earth they would have the peace and instruction of the Holy Ghost. (John 14:16–17, 26–27). On earth they might have visions of the Father and Son and enjoy their presence in the hereafter. (John 14:18–23.)
Is all this given by totally unmerited grace? To the contrary, God required the identical condition of the covenant at Sinai: “All that the Lord hath said will we do, and be obedient.” (Ex. 24:7.) That same commitment was required by the Lord to validate the sacrament: “He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me” (John 14:21); and “If a man love me, he will keep my words” (John 14:23). Jesus not only paralleled Moses’ words in speaking of the “blood of the new covenant,” he also required the same pledge of repentance of the ancient covenant. Through Christ there is indeed a “miracle of forgiveness”—extended to those who seriously seek to know and follow his teachings.
Christ’s Words and the Nephite Sacrament Prayer
Like the Old Testament, the Book of Mormon records Hebraic treaty-covenants, but its overarching covenant is that of God with his people. In America, this covenant was under constant threat. As John the Baptist reminded Judah, a nation’s covenant with God could continue only so long as its individuals kept a true relationship with God. One of the reasons the Book of Mormon brings us nearer to God than any other book 10 is because no other book more specifically ties the Christian ordinances of baptism and the sacrament to the covenant concept. No book does more to bring the national covenant down to a matter of individual responsibility.
That baptism and the sacrament are companion covenants is plain in the language of the ordinances presented in the book of Moroni, which compiles Nephite ceremonies authorized by the Lord. The baptismal covenant is summarized in Moroni 6:3, which declares that disciples take upon themselves “the name of Christ, having a determination to serve him to the end.” That commitment is paralleled in the sacrament promise to “take upon them the name of thy Son, and always remember him.” (Moro. 4:3. [Moro. 6:3])
When Moroni recorded the sacrament prayers, he left no doubt as to their source: “They administered it according to the commandments of Christ.” (Moro. 4:1.) Moreover, the Nephite sacrament prayers clearly incorporate the words Jesus used when he gave the sacrament covenant in America. The Savior unfolded the meaning of the bread and wine that should be administered “unto all those who shall believe and be baptized in [his] name” (3 Ne. 18:5); then he said: “Ye shall do it in remembrance of my blood, which I have shed for you, 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 Ne. 18:11; see also 3 Ne 18:7.)
The New World disciples were to witness through the symbols of his body and blood that they would remember the Savior. But their thoughts were also to be translated into righteous acts. Jesus said that the sacrament was not only a fulfilling of his commandments, but also a “witness unto the Father that ye are willing to do that which I have commanded you.” (3 Ne. 18:10.) By entering into this covenant, they were promised that the Lord’s Spirit would be with them.
So each phrase of the Nephite sacrament prayer has an exact equivalent in Christ’s words of institution in 3 Nephi 18. [3 Ne. 18] Moroni, in fact, insists that “the manner,” or form, of the prayer is “true,” meaning specifically that it was authorized by Christ. (Moro. 4:1.)
The format of the prayer over the bread is: remember/keep the commandments. This same admonition was delivered to ancient Israel, as witnessed in the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy by the constant theme of remembering the hand of God. Deut. 5:29, for example, states that the Lord desired of Israel, “Fear me, and keep all my commandments always.” Deut. 11:1 says, “Therefore thou shalt love the Lord thy God, and keep … his commandments, alway.” In this way, the Nephite sacrament prayer continued the basic relationships in the Old Testament covenant, though its language almost totally reflects Christ’s words in America.
Since the Savior established the sacrament on both hemispheres, the elements of the American consecration prayer can be tested by the Gospels. Though fragmentary, the New Testament accounts support the phrases of the ancient American blessing on the bread: “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 hath given them, that they may always have his Spirit to be with them.” (Moro. 4:3.)
Like the Nephite prayer, remembering Christ is the first purpose stressed in the Bible accounts of Luke and Paul. The American prayer follows “remembrance” by a recommitment: “they are willing to take upon them the name of thy Son.” The Bible follows a similar pattern. Soon after handing the Apostles the bread and cup at the Last Supper, Jesus explained that as he was in the Father, so are “ye in me, and I in you.” (John 14:20.) Neither here nor in the subsequent prayer recorded in John 17 is the individuality of any believer compromised. As in John 6, the act of eating suggests total acceptance of the Lord. Likewise, the Nephite prayer underlines the meaning of the act of eating: as the elements are within the believer’s body, the name of the Lord is upon and within the believer’s soul.
Another parallel between the Book of Mormon and John’s Gospel is the repeated instruction to “keep my commandments” (John 14:15), which John recorded as spoken while the Apostles lingered in the Upper Room. That is the exact sequence in the American ministry. After eating and drinking, Nephite Christians were told by the Savior that their act was a commitment to keep his commandments. (See 3 Ne. 18:10.)
The challenge to love and keep the commandments occurred just before the promise of the Holy Spirit. John 14:15 records the commitment: “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” That is followed in John 14:16 by the assurance that the Comforter would be given, “that he may abide with you for ever.” In the Nephite sacrament prayer the sequence is the same: revered remembrance, commandment keeping, with the reward “that they may always have his Spirit.”
These Bible and Book of Mormon correlations are the more impressive because they are not superficially obvious. Close verbal parallels might suggest surface copying, which is not the case here.
Instead, they come not only with the slight differences that one would expect when teachings move through language and cultural barriers, but also with the profound conceptual parallels that survive such barriers. Jesus’ thinking is found in every element of the Book of Mormon sacrament prayer. Likewise, each petition is mirrored in Jesus’ instructions in the Upper Room. In the ancient American prayer of consecration, given anew to us in these latter days, we indeed hear the Savior’s voice urging us to partake of his ancient and everlasting covenant.
This article was adapted from Richard Lloyd Anderson’s “Religious Validity: The Sacrament Covenant in Third Nephi,” in By Study and Also by Faith, vol. 2 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co.; and Provo: Foundation of Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1990), pp. 1–51. A companion piece, discussing the loss and restoration of the sacrament, appeared in the January 1992 issue of the Ensign.
Manuscript in Church Archives.
For a transcript, see Robert J. Woodford, “The Historical Development of the Doctrine and Covenants,” 3 vols., Ph.D. dissertation, Brigham Young University, 1974, 1:287–90.
Similar manuscript copies may also have included the sacrament prayers. For example, in his old age David Whitmer remembered that in the year 1829 “the Book of Mormon was still in the hands of the printer, but my brother, Christian Whitmer, had copied from the manuscript the teachings and doctrine of Christ, being the things which we were commanded to preach.” David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ (Richmond, Missouri: David Whitmer, 1887), p. 42.
Woodford, 1:288 (spelling and punctuation modernized).
For the dating of 1 Corinthians, see Richard L. Anderson, Understanding Paul (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1983), pp. 95, 395.
See Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3.39.14–16.
Covenant is used by all major translations in the sacrament accounts, though new is absent in their versions of Matthew and Mark. However, it is present in manuscripts of Luke and 1 Corinthians, the latter as authoritative as the Gospels because of its early date. New also appears in the sacrament accounts in the majority of manuscripts of Matthew and Mark. Even if not in several early manuscripts here, new may have been edited out to conform to Jesus’ obvious use of the Mosaic wording of Ex. 24:8. Yet, as far as meaning, few question that Jesus intended the reality of a “new covenant.”
Ecclesiastical History, 3.24.7–13.
This well-known statement of Joseph Smith was recorded in Wilford Woodruff’s journal and then incorporated into Joseph Smith’s History of the Church, 4:461.