A reader has asked, “Do you have any insight into what happened to the washing of feet? Could the washing of feet have been preparatory to the full ordinance of washing as we now have it in the initiatories?”
The ordinance of washing of feet is still performed in the temple, for it is a restored ordinance, but it is part of the culminating sealing ordinances which are reserved for those who make their calling and election sure through faith. Temple scholar Matthew Brown has offered this:
The Lord mentioned in a revelation on 1 November 1831 that he had granted unto his disciples the authority to “seal both on earth and in heaven” (D&C 1:8). During the same month he indicated that God the Father would reveal to his servants who should be sealed up “unto eternal life” by this power (D&C 68:12). The ordinance of the washing of feet was then introduced by the Lord as the means whereby someone could be rendered “clean from the blood of this generation” (D&C 88:138-141), and when Joseph Smith administered this ordinance, he stated that those who received it were not only “clean” in a ritual sense but were also “sealed up unto eternal life” (HC, 1:323-24; see also MD, 829-32). ((Matthew B. Brown, The Gate of Heaven, 235.))
Indeed, the Prophet Joseph had this to say on the sacred occasion, in language that mirrors D&C 132:26:
On the 23rd of January, we again assembled in conference; when, after much speaking, singing, praying, and praising God, all in tongues, we proceeded to the washing of feet (according to the practice recorded in the 13th chapter of John’s Gospel), as commanded of the Lord. Each Elder washed his own feet first, after which I girded myself with a towel and washed the feet of all of them, wiping them with the towel with which I was girded. . . . At the close of the scene, Brother Frederick G. Williams, being moved upon by the Holy Ghost, washed my feet in token of his fixed determination to be with me in suffering, or in journeying, in life or in death, and to be continually on my right hand; in which I accepted him in the name of the Lord.
I then said to the Elders, As I have done so do ye; wash ye, therefore, one another’s feet; and by the power of the Holy Ghost I pronounced them all clean from the blood of this generation; but if any of them should sin wilfully after they were thus cleansed, and sealed up unto eternal life, they should be given over unto the buffetings of Satan until the day of redemption. ((HC, 1:323-324.))
Dr. Daniel H. Ludlow has also given us some insight:
This ordinance of the gospel has been restored in this dispensation. When the School of the Prophets was organized, the Lord indicated that the members should “be received by the ordinance of the washing of feet, for unto this end [that ye might be clean from the blood of this generation] was the ordinance of the washing of feet instituted.” (D&C 88:139.) The ordinance of washing of the feet has now been incorporated in the ordinances that are revealed to be administered in the Lord’s house. ((Daniel H. Ludlow, Companion to Your Study of the Doctrine and Covenants, vol. 2, 322-323.))
Elder Bruce R. McConkie has also taught:
Washing of feet is a gospel ordinance; it is a holy and sacred rite, one performed by the saints in the seclusion of their temple sanctuaries. It is not done before the world or for worldly people. . . .
As part of the restoration of all things, the ordinance of washing of feet has been restored in the dispensation of the fulness of times. In keeping with the standard pattern of revealing principles and practices line upon line and precept upon precept, the Lord revealed his will concerning the washing of feet little by little until the full knowledge of the endowment and all temple ordinances had been given. . . .
Thus the knowledge relative to the washing of feet has been revealed step by step in this day until a full knowledge is now incorporated in the revealed ordinances of the Lord’s house. Obviously the apostate peoples of the world, being without revelation to guide them, cannot comply with our Lord’s command given on the occasion of the last supper. ((Bruce R. McConkie, Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, vol. 1, 708.))
It is enlightening that originally the traditional church hymn “The Spirit of God Like a Fire is Burning!“, which was sung at the dedication of the Kirtland temple, had these words as one of the verses:
We’ll wash and be washed,
and with oil be anointed,
Withal not omitting the washing of feet;
For he that receiveth his penny appointed
Must surely be clean at the harvest of wheat. ((ibid., 710.))
In Elder McConkie’s excellent 4-volume series, The Mortal Messiah: From Bethlehem to Calvary, this apostle gave one of the most comprehensive discussions on this sacred subject:
After reclining at the Passover table, Jesus and his apostolic friends ate the Passover meal with such portion of its rites and ceremonies as then suited their purposes. Then he introduced the gospel ordinance of the washing of feet. . . . To keep things in proper perspective, however, it is important to emphasize that the washing of feet came in the course of the meal, not at the beginning, and it was not simply an illustration of Godly humility, devised by Jesus to demonstrate his teachings about precedence, but was in fact the introduction of a new gospel ordinance.
John alone records such portions of what transpired relative to the foot-washing ordinance as have come down to us from biblical sources; our more extended knowledge relative thereto comes from latter-day revelation. . . . And the two ordinances about to be revealed—those of the washing of feet and of the partaking of the emblems of his flesh and blood—these two become an eternal manifestation of the grace and goodness and love of the Lord for the Twelve and for all who believe and obey the gospel, thereby making themselves worthy to receive each of these ordinances. . . .
. . . He riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself. After that he poureth water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded.”
This appears to be a general summary of all that transpired. What then follows are some of the particulars. As to these particulars, John says: “Then cometh he to Simon Peter: and Peter saith unto him, Lord, dost thou wash my feet?” Jesus replied: “What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter.” That is: ‘You assume that I am acting only as any slave or host might, which is far from the case. I am about to perform a sacred ordinance, the meaning of which I will explain, and in due course you will know its true meaning.’ Still impulsive and reticent, the Chief Apostle said: “Thou“—our Master and Lord!—”Thou,” of all people, “needest not to wash my feet.” ‘Even though it be a sacred ordinance, let someone else do it instead!’ . . .
Jesus then said: “If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me.” Catching a partial glimpse of the cleansing power of the new ordinance, Peter, ever impetuous, ever desiring to do all and more than need be, exclaimed “Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head.” Jesus replied: “He that has washed his hands and his head, needeth not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit; and ye are clean, but not all.”
At this point, with reference to the ordinance itself, John explains: “Now this was the custom of the Jews under their law; wherefore, Jesus did this that the law might be fulfilled.” The full significance of this is not apparent to the casual reader, nor should it be, for the washing of feet is a sacred ordinance reserved to be done in holy places for those who make themselves worthy. It is evident, however, that the Jews also had sacred ordinances performed in their temple, a knowledge of which has not been preserved, nor could it be, in any literature that has come down to us.
What had he done? He had instituted—nay, reinstituted, for “the order of the house of God has been, and ever will be, the same” — he had reinstituted one of the holy ordinances of the everlasting gospel. Those who have been washed in the waters of baptism, who have been freed from sin and evil through the waters of regeneration, who have come forth thereby in a newness of life, and who then press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, keeping the commandments and walking in paths of truth and righteousness, qualify to have an eternal seal placed on their godly conduct. They are thus ready to be endowed with power from on high. Then, in holy places, they cleanse their hands and their feet, as the scripture saith, and become “clean from the blood of this wicked generation.” (D&C 88:74-75, D&C 88:137-41.) Then, as the scripture also saith, they receive anointings and washings and conversations and statutes and judgments. (D&C 124:37-40.) Then they receive what Jesus here gave the Twelve, for as the Prophet said: “The house of the Lord must be prepared, . . . and in it we must attend to the ordinance of washing of feet. It was never intended for any but official members. It is calculated to unite our hearts, that we may be one in feeling and sentiment, and that our faith may be strong, so that Satan cannot overthrow us, nor have any power over us here.” (Commentary 1:709.). . . .
It should be clear to all, however, that just as the act of immersion in water only hints at the true significance and power of baptism, so the act of the washing of feet is far more than the cleansing and refreshing of dusty and tired pedal extremities. It is an eternal ordinance, with eternal import, understood only by enlightened saints. That it might be continued by those having divine authorization to perform it, Jesus said:
Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you.
Verily, verily, I say unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord; neither he that is sent greater than he that sent him. If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them. . . .
And in conclusion, well might we ask: If true disciples are to wash each other’s feet, where among the sects of Christendom is this done? And how could it be done except by revelation? Who would know all that is involved unless God revealed it? Is not this holy ordinance one of the many signs of the true Church? ((Bruce R. McConkie, Mortal Messiah: From Bethlehem to Calvary, vol. 4, 36-41.))
“And in conclusion, well might we ask: If true disciples are to wash each other’s feet, where among the sects of Christendom is this done?”
The answer is, in many of them. You’ll find a good overview here:
Interesting. I think an important part of Elder McConkie’s quote is the second part: “And how could it be done except by revelation? Who would know all that is involved unless God revealed it?”
Although it appears that some other Christian sects have a foot washing practice, it does not explain why they do it. It seems to be cited as an example, a pattern, an ordinance, and a hospitality custom, but it does not cite why the practice was performed other than following the example of Jesus in the scriptures. As with many of the ordinances of the gospel, many seem to be confused as to how this ordinance should be done, who administers it, where it is performed, and who should receive it, and what is means. Do they know what they are doing? Do they know the meaning behind the ordinance? Do they know why Christ did it? Do they have the authority of the priesthood to administer it? No. Their claim to authority to administer the ordinance comes from the pattern they read in the scriptures. But authority doesn’t come from words on a page, it comes from God.
Anyone may follow a written pattern, but it takes revelation through prophets and apostles to establish ordinances as efficacious officiations, performed through the authorized priesthood, recognized by God, and with meaning and symbolism for the recipients. Even this Wikipedia article mentions the effects of the apostasy on this ordinance – “After the death of the apostles, the practice was gradually lost.” The practices of the Christian sects seem to have been established many centuries after the apostolic era, in an effort to “restore” or “revive” a practice that they saw in the scriptures, but without revelation or authority to do so.
The washing of feet that Joseph Smith instituted was a restoration of this ancient ordinance, but was revealed anew from heaven to a prophet, under the authority of the recognized priesthood, so that those who are worthy of it may be made clean, every whit, and sealed unto eternal life. It is Jesus Christ who revealed the particulars of this practice again in this dispensation, and commissioned His servants to perform it. Said the Master:
Very interesting, Bryce. Thank you.
I will admit that this a difficult doctrine/ordinance for me. I suppose that is why it is shrouded in sacred silence. Pearls before swine and all that. (And in some respects, some of us members, who are unprepared, are the swine, as I am in this case.) I’m appreciating what I’m learning but it will take a little more reading (and rereading your posts on the topic) until I get even a rudimentary comprehension.
Thank you for the information and, more importantly, for keeping sacred things sacred. It’s wonderful to be able to read and learn.
You are welcome Muslihoon. As with many of the ordinances of the gospel, this one is to be “understood only by enlightened saints,” and “for those who make themselves worthy,” as Elder McConkie so phrased it.
Many Christians do practice the washing of feet, indeed. But their comprehension of it is entirely different. For them, it’s a reminder of equality in the Kingdom of God and of service. But what it means, and how it is done, in this Dispensation few really know. Most Christians, for that matter, dispense with the importance or rite of washing feet entirely. It’s nothing important to them.
Interesting how feet are so important. Another rite, often talked about surreptitiously, is dusting the feet.
Over the years, several times, I have been speaking in the cultural hall after church with a deacons or teachers priesthood leader. And they shared what they did in class that day. They had the group wash each others feet, following the biblical example.
It has been interesting to try to explain to them and others why this practice in not appropriate in a classroom setting.
Symbolism of the feet is interesting; I’ll have to think more about that.
It did bring something to mind. . . Allen J. Fletcher in his book, A Study Guide to the Facsimiles of the Book of Abraham, mentions that all the people in Abraham: Facsimile 3 are midstride, walking (feet) toward Abraham (Osiris) on the throne (Abraham is demonstrated to be a true representative of God, posessing the true priesthood and the right to rule as king). This facsimile is a simple form of common depictions of an initiate entering the presence of God. More complex depictions show that the initiate’s heart is weighed on a scale, balanced against truth, and the result is recorded. The initiate also demostrates to all the gods that he has kept the laws and covenants. The initiate is led further to the veil, separating the chamber of Osiris from the world. As I understand it, Facsimilie 3 jumps to the chamber scene.
I’ve also come accross the washing-of-the-feet-for-youth-activities discussion.
Great website about Mormon temples. We need to teach about it more and more to dispel many misconceptions among friends of other faiths.
Very interesting article. Where could I learn more about the symbolism of this ordinance???
Great question Will. I have cited some of the best references that are available, that I know of, in the post above. I’m sure there are other references that talk about it, but they are few and far between.
Dennis L. Losse
Thank you! Each morning I read your written efforts to make material easier to understand. As a current Ordinance Worker I’ve come to realize how significant my efforts are each week.