In Doctrine and Covenants 88:139, the Lord set forth a special ordinance as part of the School of the Prophets, known as the ordinance of the washing of feet:
And ye shall not receive any among you into this school save he is clean from the blood of this generation; And he shall be received by the ordinance of the washing of feet, for unto this end was the ordinance of the washing of feet instituted.
What is this ordinance? Is it still performed today? Let’s take a closer look at the scriptures and modern-day revelation.
Jesus Washed the Disciple’s Feet
Most Christians are well-acquainted with the washing of feet described in John 13. During the Last Supper, where Christ instituted the ordinance of the sacrament, He also washed the feet of His disciples. John 13:5 describes, “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.” It is also important to note that the Joseph Smith Translation adds the following statement to verse 10: “Now this was the custom of the Jews under their law; wherefore, Jesus did this that the law might be fulfilled.”
This pattern set by Christ helps us understand that the washing of feet is an act of obedience, humility, and unity. He called on His disciples to serve others as he had served them. As an act before the divine teachings on the sacrament, it also shows us the need for cleanliness and preparation before receiving truth from God. Outside of the Latter-day Saint tradition, other denominations continue to perform this act of charity, such as when Pope Francis washed the feet of 12 prisoners.
Joseph Smith & the School of the Prophets
The call for the ordinance of the washing of feet came as the School of the Prophets was organized. The school was designed to be a place both of spiritual and secular learning and many early church leaders attended in the small room set aside above the Newel K. Whitney Store in Kirtland, Ohio. The School of the Prophets was also a place of preparation as the gospel of Jesus Christ continued to unfold. In January 1831, the Lord had promised when they went to Ohio the Saints would receive His law “and there you shall be endowed with power from on high.” Indeed, the School of the Prophets prepared the Saints for the forthcoming temple ordinances to be revealed in later years.
The ordinance was first performed during the school’s first session in January 1833 to fulfill the Lord’s instruction to “not receive any among you into this school save he is clean from the blood of this generation.” The elders would first wash their hands and face and Joseph would then wash their feet. Joseph shared an experience of performing the ordinance from that time in the History of the Church.
He wrote, “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 which I was girded. Among the number, my father presented himself, but before I washed his feet, I asked of him a father’s blessing, which he granted by laying his hands upon my head, in the name of Jesus Christ, and declaring that I should continue in the Priest’s office until Christ comes. 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.”
These washings would continue as a preparation for the solemn assembly held in the Kirtland Temple and as part of the assembly itself. The act denoted the elders becoming clean and purified while uniting each other through an act of symbolic service.
In his journal, Joseph recorded his remarks to the elders of the ordinance, stating, “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 over throw us, nor have any power over us.” He also stated the importance that the “official members…must be clean every whit.”
The Washing of Feet Today
As with all temple ordinances, the original ritual of the washing of feet has evolved over time. In fact, at least two distinct ordinances now exist from the original teaching of washing. First, washings and anointings continue in the temple as part of the initiatory ordinances in preparation for the endowment. All worthy members of the Church who qualify have access to these ordinances for themselves and their kindred dead.
In the second volume of his book Companion to Your Study of the Doctrine and Covenants, Dr. Daniel H. Ludlow, the editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia of Mormonism and professor of religion at Brigham Young University, stated, “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.”
However, the specific ordinance of washing of feet still exists and serves as what one might call a crowning ordinance. It is highly sacred in nature and not authorized for the general body of the Church at this time. The power of the ordinance hearkens to the teachings of Joseph Smith, who made mention that by the washing of feet the person was “sealed up unto eternal life.” The ritual of washing feet is also present in other sacred ordinances not generally available at this time, some of the past and some still reserved for selected persons under the direction of the Lord.
When referring to these highly sacred ordinances, Elder Bruce R. McConkie taught “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.”
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