Hey again! It is I, your favorite polemicist! I once brought to you the notion that the way you might be ending your talk or testimony is wrong, and today, I come to you with the earth-shattering news that our sacramental prayers—actual scripture—are grammatically incorrect.
Before you think I’m here to tear down holy writ, I’m not. The scriptures have undergone several revisions for clarity over the years, many for purposes far more serious than minor grammatical errors. Also, we update scripture translations into languages other than English in order to correct meaning. Just ask anyone who read the original translation of Mosiah 2:17 into Spanish, which effectively said that “when ye are in the bathroom of your fellow beings you are only in the bathroom of your God.” Even just a few years ago, the Church updated the sacrament prayers in French to better align the meaning of a verb.
Point is, we update stuff, even scripture, and yet, our sacred sacramental prayers in English are written incorrectly! Let’s read them as they stand:
Blessing on the Bread
O God, the Eternal Father, we ask thee in the name of thy Son, Jesus Christ, to bless and sanctify this bread to the souls of all those who partake of it, 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 has given them; that they may always have his Spirit to be with them. Amen.
Blessing on the Water
O God, the Eternal Father, we ask thee in the name of thy Son, Jesus Christ, to bless and sanctify this water to the souls of all those who drink of it, that they may do it in remembrance of the blood of thy Son, which was shed for them; that they may witness unto thee, O God, the Eternal Father, that they do always remember him, that they may have his Spirit to be with them. Amen.
(As a quick aside, I happened upon these from the ASL versions of the sacrament prayers on the Church’s website, and it still read “wine” instead of “water,” which is baffling in 2019.)
The blessing of the water is essentially fine. The prayer over the bread, however, has one primary, if ultra-picky error: …and keep his commandments which he has given them…. Why is this an issue? We’re dealing with a that/which confusion that has never been corrected. Since we often use that and which interchangeably, if erroneously, in our common speech, this naturally doesn’t come off as wrong when we hear it. However, what’s at play here is a conflict between what are called defining clauses and non-defining clauses. Let’s dive in.
A defining clause offers information that is essential to the meaning of the sentence. In our sacrament case, the sentence would be altered to read like this:
…and keep his commandments that he has given them; that they may always have his Spirit…
Writing it this way tells the reader that there are more commandments other than the ones the Lord has given them. If you were to remove “that he has given them,” it would change the meaning of the sentence.
But we’re probably not changing the meaning of the sentence, since commandments, by definition, come from God.
So let’s explore non-defining clauses. In this example, we retain which but add a comma for clarity:
…and keep his commandments, which he has given them, that they may always have his Spirit…
A non-defining clause doesn’t limit the way a reader understands a sentence. Removing it might erase detail from a sentence, but the essential meaning remains unchanged. In this case, we know that the Lord has given us the commandments, so it’s not an essential detail, but it’s one of interest that colors the language. (I also removed the semicolon after “them” and replaced it with a comma, but doing so might actually slightly alter the meaning of the clause, even if it makes it match the prayer on the water.)
The problem is that the prayer over the bread, as written, uses neither a correct defining nor non-defining clause; it uses something that doesn’t exist. Which in the form of a defining clause, i.e. without a comma, is grammatically incorrect and has no place in the English language.
For its part, the blessing of the water actually contains a correct non-defining clause: “…that they may do it in remembrance of the blood of thy Son, which was shed for them.” Using the clause in this way give us additional detail, that Christ’s blood was shed for us, but it is still not essential to the overall meaning of the sentence.
Of course, it’s important to bear in mind that scripture is often poetic, even lyrical, which lends itself to a certain accepted bending of the rules. Would correcting the language in the sacrament prayer lead to a better understanding of it? Not really. And is our experience taking the sacrament and renewing our covenants hampered in any way because of the error? No. Would that experience be improved by correcting the error? Doubtful.
It’s also important to remember that our scriptures, as divine as they are, were authored by humans. Joseph Smith translated the early chapters of Moroni that were later codified as revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants, itself a volume of revelation as interpreted through the mind and mouth of Joseph. It is for this reason we should not take issue with correcting such errors nor view a criticism of them as an attack on the Divine. The original translation of the Book of Mormon, for example, was full of grammatical issues that were later rectified, but that does not make it any less correct.
Our faith should never be rooted in such finicky analyses, yet it is interesting to take the text as written and dissect its literal or intended meeting, all in an effort to improve ourselves as disciples and our understanding of God. So the next time you hear the priest in your ward clearly not pause in front of that particular “which” because no comma is written (and we know if there were a comma, it would cause the priest to provide the most pregnant of pauses prior to continuing the prayer), just think to yourself what could have been in a more perfect world!