Some members see it as a to-do list, but there can be more to this popular catchphrase.
Today, after every general conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, there is a lot of talk on the Internet about the phrase “covenant path.”
President Russell M. Nelson used it in his first sermon as Church President. Since then, this phrase has been repeated and repeated and repeated in general conferences. It seems to be the most compelling catchphrase to come out of a general conference since Apostle David A. Bednar pondered the phrase “the tender mercies of the Lord” in the Book of Mormon in 2005.
There is perhaps no better measure of this than the number of books with the phrase Church Own Deseret Book in the title that have tumbled onto shelves. And true to what Deseret Book is today, decks of cards, wall art and calendars too.
It is natural, then, that many Latter-day Saints wonder what exactly the “path of the covenant” is.
The obvious place to look is what church leaders have said. A little genealogical research on this phrase reveals that it appears to have appeared among Young Women and Primary leaders such as Elaine Cannon and Rosemary Wixom about 15 years ago. More recently, through Jeffrey R. Holland, it has extended to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and now to the First Presidency.
These leaders use the term to describe the series of ordinances that Church members enact. Referring to the ordinances as part of the covenant emphasizes that baptism, the temple endowment, etc. impose a continuous series of obligations on members. As Nelson said, “Your commitment to follow the Savior by making covenants with Him and then keeping those covenants will open the door to every spiritual blessing.”
As evidenced by the flood of Covenant Path knick-knacks available for purchase from Deseret Book, many Latter-day Saints seem moved by the idea. It feels regular and safe and predictable, and that can be empowering.
Others, however, not so much. Comparing the concept of the covenant path with other religious traditions can help the Saints step out of their own frame of reference and envision in new ways what the phrase means.
For Latter-day Saints who find the notion of the covenant path unconvincing, there smacks of control and conformity; the dreary stamping of a time card. It’s a mold into which you’re supposed to mold your own individuality, sucking in and crunching your stomach until you look like the kind of person who might appear on recruiting materials for Brigham Young University Idaho.
The language surrounding the concept—keeping commitments, obeying commandments, staying on the right path—has a long history in the Church. Most Latter-day Saints have ingested a particularly large dose of the Protestant work ethic, a term sociologists use to describe the connection modern people make between hard work and moral virtue. As the fiery historian, social critic, and BYU professor Hugh Nibley famously wrote of his people: “We think it more laudable to get up at 5 a.m. to write a bad book than to get up at 9 a.m. to write a good one .”
There were reasons for that. The Church was founded as a small, new religious movement in a country that believed non-Protestant religions to be a dangerous threat. The church has worked hard to differentiate itself from evangelicals who claim that people are saved by grace alone. The emphasis on work and moral discipline was one way of doing this. The very thing that many Latter-day Saints value most about their faith, their optimistic view of human potential, their vision of eternal progress, has fostered a degree of exhaustion.
BYU professor Stephen Robinson once shared a story about his wife, Janet, who ended her service at some point in their marriage. When Robinson asked what was going on, Janet said, “I can’t take it anymore. I can’t lift it I can’t get up at 5:30 in the morning and bake bread and sew clothes and help my kids with their homework and do my own homework and do my Relief Society stuff and finish my genealogy and write to the congressman and go to convention PTA meetings and write the missionaries. … I cannot always keep all the commandments.”
For Janet, the covenant path became a series of responsibilities. And this is how Latter-day Saints usually define what it means to be religious: as a task, a to-do list. It’s a type of exercise that works well for some personalities and not so well for others. This way of imagining what the covenant path means may be why some Saints accept it and others do not.
But there are other ways to understand the concept.
One might emphasize the path of the Confederation as a system of rites of passage, a common concept in anthropology. Baptism, temple endowment, marriage, and so on—rites of passage mark transitions from one stage of life, responsibilities, and relationships to another.
Many religious systems have similar systems. Muslim children begin fasting during the holy month of Ramadan during puberty. After their bar or bat mitzvahs, usually held at age 13, Jewish children are formally held responsible for understanding the law. All of this, of course, is not unlike how Latter-day Saints understand baptism or the temple endowment. But a rite of passage is as much about growth and a changed place in the world as it is about making commitments. Covenants might be viewed less as an assignment to do something and more as a new way of understanding one’s relationship with the divine.
Another analogous system might be the Roman Catholic “sacramental economy.” Like the path of the covenant, it is an expression with roots in Scripture. The Apostle Paul uses the word “economy” to describe God’s dealings with His relationships with people. Catholics speak of sacraments as covenants and covenants less as forms of commitment and more as different forms of relating to other people and to God. The sacraments are pathways to different kinds of spiritual fulfillment, pathways to different qualities of grace, not a set of standards by which to be measured or a set of tasks to be accomplished.
Ultimately, there are several ways to think about what a “covenant” is. Covenants in the modern legal sense mutually bind two parties who enter into the covenant voluntarily. It is in this sense that many Latter-day Saints understand the phrase “covenant path.” You have made a number of deals with God and must work to keep your goal.
However, a comparison of the covenant path idea with its equivalents in other religious traditions shows that there are several ways to envision what a covenant is, and therefore to understand what the covenant path might be. While the way many Latter-day Saint leaders speak of the covenant path today has its roots in the Protestant work ethic and a certain way of understanding what eternal progress might be, that is not the only possible interpretation of the concept.
Matthew Bowman is the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University and author of “The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith” and “Christian: The politics of a word in America.”