Matthew Bowman: Is it time for Latter-day Saints to view the ‘covenant path’ differently?

Some members see it as a to-do list, but there can be more to this popular catchphrase.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) A seated President Russell M. Nelson speaks at General Conference on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022. The church leader has previously told Latter-day Saints that their "commitment to follow the Savior by making covenants with him and then keeping those covenants will open the door to every spiritual blessing.”

After every General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints these days, there’s a lot of chatter on the internet about the phrase the “covenant path.”

President Russell M. Nelson used it in the first sermon he delivered as church president. In General Conferences since, the phrase has been repeated and repeated and repeated again. It seems the most compelling catchphrase to emerge from a General Conference since apostle David A. Bednar pondered on the Book of Mormon term “tender mercies of the Lord” in 2005.

There may be no better metric of that than the number of books with the expression in the title church-owned Deseret Book has rushed to the shelves. And true to what Deseret Book is these days, card games, wall art and calendars, too.

It’s natural, then, that a lot of Latter-day Saints are wondering exactly what the “covenant path” is.

The obvious place to look is at what church leaders have said. Doing a bit of genealogy on the phrase reveals that it seems to have emerged among leaders of the Young Women and the Primary like Elaine Cannon and Rosemary Wixom some 15 or so years ago. It has more recently spread to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, through Jeffrey R. Holland, and now to the First Presidency.

These leaders use the phrase to describe the series of ordinances church members make. Calling ordinances part of the covenant path emphasizes that baptism, the temple endowment and so on place a progressive 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.”

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) A Latter-day Saint baptism in Africa. The ordinance is seen as a step on the "covenant path."

As the flood of covenant path knickknacks one can buy at Deseret Book shows, many Latter-day Saints seem to be moved by the idea. It feels regular and certain and predictable, and that can be empowering.

Others, though, not so much. Comparing the concept of the covenant path to other religious traditions can help the Saints get out of their own frame of reference and imagine what the phrase means in new ways.

For those Latter-day Saints who don’t find the notion of the covenant path compelling, it smacks of control and conformity; the dreary punching of a timecard. It is a mold into which you are expected to press your own individuality, tucking and folding, sucking in your stomach until you look like the sort of person who might appear on recruitment materials for Brigham Young University-Idaho.

The language surrounding the concept — keeping commitments, following commandments, staying on the straight and narrow — has a long history in the church. Most Latter-day Saints have gulped a particularly large dose of the Protestant work ethic, a term sociologists use to describe the association 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 commendable 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 this. The church was founded as a small, new religious movement in a country that assumed non-Protestant religions were dangerous threats. The church has worked hard to distinguish itself from evangelicals who assert human beings are saved by grace alone. Emphasizing work and moral discipline was a way to do this. Just so, the very thing that many Latter-day Saints prize most about their faith, its optimistic view of human potential, its vision of eternal progression, has also fostered a certain degree of exhaustion.

BYU professor Stephen Robinson once told a story about his wife, Janet, who, at one point in their marriage, ceased her church service. When Robinson asked what was wrong, Janet said, “I can’t do 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 get my genealogy done and write the congressman and go to the PTA meetings and write the missionaries. … I cannot keep all the commandments all the time.”

For Janet, the covenant path became a series of things to do. And that is how Latter-day Saints tend to define what it means to be religious: as a job, a to-do list. It’s a sort of practice that works well for some personalities, and less well for others. This way of imagining what the covenant path means might be why some Saints embrace it and others don’t.

But there are other ways to understand the concept, too.

One might be to emphasize the covenant path 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 in puberty. After their bar or bat mitzvahs, held usually at age 13, Jewish children are formally held responsible for understanding the law. All of this is, of course, not unlike how Latter-day Saints understand baptism or the temple endowment. But a rite of passage is as much about growth and an altered place in the world as it is about taking on obligations. One might think of covenants less as a mandate to do something and more as a new way to conceive of one’s relationship with the divine.

Another analogous system might be the Roman Catholic “sacramental economy.” Like covenant path, it is a phrase with roots in scripture. The Apostle Paul uses the word “economy” to describe God’s management of his relationships with humans. Roman Catholics speak of sacraments as covenants, and covenants less as forms of obligation than as varying ways of relating to other people and to God. The sacraments are routes to different sorts of spiritual fulfillment, avenues to distinct qualities of grace, not a set of rods to measure yourself against or a set of tasks to accomplish.

There are, in the end, several ways to think about what a “covenant” is. In the modern legal sense of the term, covenants place mutual obligations on two parties who enter into the covenant freely. This is the sense in which many Latter-day Saints understand the phrase covenant path. You have made a series of deals with God and must work to uphold your end.

But comparing the idea of the covenant path to its analogues in other religious traditions illuminates that there are multiple ways of conceiving what a covenant is and, therefore, of understanding what the covenant path might be. While the way many Latter-day Saint leaders speak about the covenant path today has its roots in the Protestant work ethic and a particular way of understanding what eternal progression might be, that is not the only possible interpretation of the concept.

Matthew Bowman is Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University.

Matthew Bowman is the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University and the author of “The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith” and “Christian: The Politics of a Word in America.”