The Mormon Sacrament Throughout Life
Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints expose their children to the ritual of taking the sacraments from a very early age. It is one of the few rituals Latter-day Saints regularly participate in throughout their lives. Male Saints especially grow into a role of blessing and passing the sacrament emblems, so we can easily apply developmental perspectives to their education. They will go through a series of ordinances that roughly coincide with the developmental stages proposed by Piaget and Erikson. Accordingly, male development will be the focus of this essay. Females are not ordained to any priesthood, and their education will follow a different track.The ritual itself is simple enough. Before the meeting begins, bread and water are placed on plates, taken to the stand, and covered with linen. While the congregation sings the sacrament song, two Melchizedek priesthood holders break the bread into bite size pieces. When this is finished, an elder kneels and says a ritual prayer. This prayer must follow the proper wording exactly, or the elder must start again. The elder gives the bread to several Aaronic priesthood holders, who pass the bread throughout the congregation, starting with the bishop. The boys take the leftover bread back to the stand, where the elders cover it for later disposal. Another elder pronounces the appropriate prayer for the water, which must also follow the formula exactly. The Aaronic priests similarly distribute the water through the congregation.In the earliest years, a Mormon child is likely to have reverence stressed. Generally, this means remaining quiet throughout the service, especially during the blessing and passing of the sacraments. Early Sunday School teaching includes singing songs about reverence. As early as two or three years of age, parents will feed the emblems to their children. According to Piaget, the child is in a pre-operational stage of cognitive development. It is doubtful the child knows why he is eating and drinking, or that the bread and water are any different from what he normally consumes at home. Sometimes, the child tries to take the bread or water himself. This is in keeping with Erickson’s early childhood stage, where the child is trying “to gain self-control and act independently.” Erickson would probably say that to allow the child to take the sacraments on his own will help him at this stage of his development.At the age of eight, the child is officially baptized into the Church. In the Mormon Church, the sacraments represent a symbolic renewal of covenants made, with baptism being the first. They will impress the child with the importance of baptism and the meaning of the sacrament during these years. This matches well with Erickson’s thought that this is the time when adults begin systematically instructing children in the ways of the religion. Church instruction at this age tends to be noncompetitive, avoiding the crisis posed when children learn others are better then them at certain skills. According to Piaget’s schema, the child is also thinking logically about things, but he still thinks in concrete terms. Connected as the sacrament emblems are to Jesus Christ’s suffering, it is possible that the child thinks they are literally the body and blood of Christ. As a remembrance of one’s covenants, the water may be especially important and connected concretely to the memory of his baptism.Male children are also being prepared to receive the Aaronic priesthood during this period. Typically, ordination occurs at the age of twelve, as the boy is entering the Piaget’s formal operational stage. He can think more abstractly, connect the sacrament to the covenants he made at baptism, reflect upon his spiritual life, and think of the future. The first office the Church ordains a boy to is that of a deacon, which enables him to pass the sacrament through the congregation. In theory, having watched this happen often, he needs little in the way of formal training. Passing the sacrament consists of giving the plate to the first person in a pew, receiving it from the last person in another, and moving on to the next row. When the congregation has taken the sacrament, the deacons serve each other before returning with the plates. Though taking the sacraments are likely becoming more routinized for the boy, they take on an additional dimension as a sacred responsibility. As the boy enters adolescence, ordination and responsibility for the sacrament help prepare him for breaking with his parents and seeking his own identity, an important stage in Erickson’s theory.As the male continues to grow, the Church will ordain him to higher offices in the Aaronic priesthood. During this time, teaching about the sacrament continues to emphasize remembering one’s covenants. However, he also receives additional instruction preparing the Aaronic priest for receiving the Melchizedek priesthood. The adolescent male will start receiving heavy encouragement to go on a mission, prepare for temple covenants, and marriage. He may start taking the sacrament not only to keep in mind the past, but also the future. Erikson would likely say that these growing responsibilities and preparation for future help the boy’s development by solidifying his identity and preparing him for adult life.At least for males, religious education in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints follows developmental stages remarkably well. A Mormon boy learns about the sacraments from his earliest days. As he grows, he receives instruction about the sacraments and growing responsibility toward them. Once he is fully mature, he will have gained a deep appreciation for the various meanings associated with this ritual. He is well prepared to pass that knowledge on to succeeding generations.
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