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Defending the Faith: Sacrament prayers have ancient origin

Published: Thursday, Feb. 14 2013 5:05 a.m. MST

When Jesus Christ visited the Nephites after his Resurrection, he explained the meaning of the scriptures.

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When they’re not using a printed card, those officiating at the sacrament table commonly turn to Doctrine and Covenants 20:77 and 20:79 for the text of the prayers to be offered. But they can also read from Moroni 4:3 and 5:2.

This is significant, because although we seldom think about it, the prayers we recite and hear virtually every Sunday are very ancient. They’re Nephite prayers, with roots deep in the Book of Mormon.

Toward the conclusion of King Benjamin’s famous speech, his audience affirms that “we are willing … to be obedient to (God’s) commandments in all things that he shall command us” (Mosiah 5:5). The king thereupon tells them, “I would that ye should take upon you the name of Christ, all you that have entered into the covenant with God … (and) that ye should remember to retain the name written always in your hearts” (5:8, 12). “These three specific promises,” John Welch has observed, “are still the essential elements of the sacramental prayers as they eventually appeared in Moroni 4-5 and as they are used today.”

But the most obvious source for the sacrament prayers is 3 Nephi 18, in which the resurrected Christ introduces the ordinance of the sacrament to the Nephites. After the multitude have eaten the bread that he had blessed, he instructs them that “this shall ye do in remembrance of my body, which I have shown unto you.

And it shall be a testimony 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.” (See 18:7.)

Then he administered the wine to them, saying “this doth witness unto the Father that ye are willing to do that which I have commanded you … and 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” (18:10).

While the prayers refer to a third-person plural “they” rather than to the second-person plural “you,” and while Jesus referred to “me” and “my Spirit” whereas the prayers recorded by Moroni refer to Jesus as “thy Son” and to “his Spirit,” the parallels between the passages are unmistakable.

Witnesses to its dictation say Joseph Smith didn’t go back through the manuscript to check what he had done or seek out quotations, so the complex but regular character of the Book of Mormon is impressive. In the current English edition, nearly 300 pages separate Mosiah 5 from 3 Nephi 18. Research demonstrates a dictation speed of 8.5 to 11 pages daily, suggesting that about 30 workdays elapsed between the revelation of those two passages. And approximately 75 pages — or roughly 10 dictation days — divide 3 Nephi 18 from Moroni 4 and 5. Yet here, as in hundreds of other ways, the Book of Mormon reveals itself to be strikingly self-consistent.

Partakers of the modern sacrament might appropriately ponder Christ’s post-resurrection appearance at the Nephite temple in Bountiful, for that appears to be the place and time where our sacrament prayers originate. He visited those who, because of their comparative righteousness, had survived the great destruction that accompanied his crucifixion.

“Arise and come forth unto me,” he told them, “that ye may thrust your hands into my side, and also that ye may feel the prints of the nails in my hands and in my feet, that ye may know that I am the God of Israel, and the God of the whole earth, and have been slain for the sins of the world” (3 Nephi 11:14). Today, we’re also invited to remember his suffering for us. We do it in the sacrament.

And when, as 3 Nephi 18 records, he ascended into heaven, they spent the entire night spreading the word so that, upon his return the following morning, an even larger multitude, having traveled long distances, were there to listen to him. We, too, have been called to take his name upon us, and we, too, are under obligation to pass his message on to as many as we can reach, wherever they are, inviting them to come and partake with us.

Based on John W. Welch, ed., “Re-exploring the Book of Mormon” (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1992), 286-289.

Daniel C. Peterson, professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at BYU, is editor-in-chief of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, founder of MormonScholarsTestify.org,, chairman of "Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture" and a blogger for Patheos.

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