“We believe that the first principles and aordinances of the Gospel are: first, bFaith in the Lord Jesus Christ; second, cRepentance; third, dBaptism by eimmersion for the fremission of sins; fourth, Laying on of ghands for the hgift of the Holy Ghost.”
Article of Faith #4
Baptism, that act that most of us are at least cursorily familiar with, is one of the seminal acts we are allowed to perform here on earth. In the LDS faith members are baptized at 8 years of age, an age which is viewed as an age of “accountability,” or the age at which humans become accountable to God for their actions. Note the wording in that previous sentence because it is important – we are accountable to God for our actions, especially those actions dealing with our spiritual salvation. We are not in any sense accountable to man for these same actions.
I sat in on the youth program yesterday in church, invited by a good friend who was presenting the lesson. Prior to his lesson I was mourning the prayers which had been audibilized throughout the day on how thankful everyone was for our freedom, and for our soldiers who were fighting to defend freedom throughout the world and how great and blessed we are to live in a land of freedom that is so admirably “defended” by troops throughout the world. What they view as freedom, I view as oppression. What they view as freedom, I view as idolatry. What they view as a “blessed nation,” I view as a cursed nation which will soon (and already is) being visited with numerous scourges as a result of both her and her citizen’s idolatrous ways.
The lesson was on moral agency and our ability to choose while in the flesh. It was a good lesson, and a topic which generally produces thoughts and insights into life. In this discussion, the teacher made an astute comment about how we come to this earth as a way to prove to ourselves what we want to believe and follow in this life. We don’t come here prove ourselves to God (He is God, after all, and can see the beginning from the end), we don’t come here to prove ourselves to our friends, relatives, acquaintances or any other person (including church authorities). The only reason we come here is to prove ourselves to ourselves.
With that in mind, I had made it a point to print off and read a 20-someodd page write-up on the topic of re-baptism and its history throughout the years as a way to pass the time at church. I read it here and there during my lapses into boredom during sacrament meeting and elsewhere. This write-up comes from Ogden Kraut and what I admire most about it, in hindsight, is the legwork that this man must have gone to in order to research the topic. I’m not sure when it was first written, but I do know it was completed long before the advent of the internet and the ability to research the Journal of Discourses or other diaries online, at the touch of the button. The legwork and research that would have gone into this write-up is beyond my abilities and I thank both the author and his son (Kevin Kraut) for making this information available on the internet for others to read at their leisure.
And so it is with that in mind that I broach this subject, at least initially. My first introduction with the topic of re-baptism occurred sometime last year (2009) in some discussions I had with another good friend, which likely occurred shortly after a post on re-baptism (go here for that discussion) or at least that’s where I think this information initially came from. Though I have read the scriptures which discuss this information on more than one occasion, I have evidently done so without the requisite understanding or insight I needed to grasp what it was that I was reading. I was, and still largely am, the epitome of ignorance in this and may other regards. Much of what I write will be a re-hash of Kraut’s beautiful work, but written from my viewpoint and opinion. The benefit I see in these write-ups is that (a) I gain a better understanding of the idea through the mental give and take and (b) it may, peradventure, reach the screen of some other wanderer on this journey for truth who may need and yearn for the information. Such was my case several months back. I guess this is a form of “pay it forward,” if you will.
The best place to start, with any discussion, is in the scriptures. This topic of re-baptism is discussed in the Book of Mormon, the New Testament and through the annals of Church History up until the late 1890s and early 1900s. Only then did this idea and doctrine become entirely lost to later generations and that because of, in my opinion, a misinterpretation of one statement.
In the Book of Mormon we read of elders, priests and teachers being baptized. Though the scripture doesn’t explicitly state that these people were re-baptized, one is left to interpret the scripture as an example of re-baptism. Else, how could these people already be “elders, priests, and teachers”? Likewise, Alma, upon leaving his perch in the chief seats of King Noah’s court, was re-baptized along with 200+ others. Additionally, there are examples in 3 Nephi which evidence such a practice.
In the New Testament, the book of Revelations contains an account of the saints at Ephesus. The saints at Ephesus were known for their diligence at keeping the word pure, at being able to recognize false teachers and apostles from miles away. In chapter 2 of Revelations, we read of these saints being reprimanded for leaving their first love (Christ) because of their diligence and attention to the law. They were so preoccupied with pointing out falsities, that they lost their love of Christ. In so doing, they were called to repentance and admonished to “repent, and do the first works… .” What are the first works, if not faith, repentance and baptism, as shown in the 4th Article of Faith?
Doctrine of the Restoration
The examples of re-baptism in the early annals of church history are nearly limitless. It would be impossible, to lay them all out in this short write-up. As such, I will focus on only a few. Returning to the New Testament, there is an account in the Millenial Star of some of the early saints using Revelations 2 to advocate the practice of re-baptism. Martin Harris, once upon a time, was taught the doctrine and upon hearing it, stated that it was “new doctrine” to him. The full account reads:
“Brother Harris was taught the necessity of being re-baptized. He said that was new doctrine to him. Revelations 2nd Chapter was explained, that those who had lost their first love and had fallen into evils and snares, were called on to “repent and do their first works,” and that re-baptism was a part of the gospel. He claimed that he had not been cut off from the Church, but said if that was required of him it would be manifest to him by the Spirit. Soon after his arrival in Utah he applied for baptism, saying that the Spirit had made known to him that it was his duty to renew his covenant before the Lord.” (Life of Martin Harris, Millenial Star 44:87)
In May 1829 Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery were visited by John the Baptist. Joseph Smith wrote that the following happened during that visit:
…he commanded us to go and be baptized, and gave us directions that I should baptize Oliver Cowdery, and that afterwards he should baptize me. Accordingly we went and were baptized. I abaptized him first, and afterwards he baptized me—after which I laid my hands upon his head and ordained him to the Aaronic Priesthood, and afterwards he laid his hands on me and ordained me to the same Priesthood—for so we were commanded.* (JS-H 1:70-71)
Later, in 1830, the church was officially organized and those first members were baptized. Among these people (nine in all) was Joseph Smith. The Desert News states:
…Joseph Smith and those who had been baptized prior to April 6, 1830, were again baptized on the day of the organization of the Church. (Deseret News, March 30, 1935, page 6.)
Funny, don’t you think, that in spite of already having been baptized at the request/commandment of John the Baptist, Joseph goes ahead and gets baptized a 2nd time in less than a year without much statement or fanfare. He had been baptized at the request of John the Baptist – the same who was described in Luke as “there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist” – of all people. And there he was, getting re-baptized 11 months later. It just happened. And yet, as a speaker in church mentioned that the practice of getting re-baptized “twice” was just something that happen. As history overwhelmingly presents, this was a practice that is much more than something that just happened “twice,” or was restricted to fringe groups. It was as mainstream as the young men or women program is today in the LDS church.
Indeed, with the example of Joseph Smith getting rebaptized from the get-go, so began a history of re-baptism that lasted for nearly 70 years. During these 70 years, rebaptisms were completed as a way to renew covenants, to heal the sick, to initiate the “Reformation” of 1856-57, to enter into the United Order, to get married, to accept church leadership positions (i.e. bishops, stake presidents, apostles, etc.), to obtain a remission of sins and several other ways. Indeed, the reasons for re-baptism were many and certainly not limited. That is until 1897.
Curtailment by Default
By the late 1890s, no doubt re-baptism was a “mainstream” doctrine and practice among most of the church. As our “mainstream” beliefs and practices evidence, these beliefs and practices can and do lack the “power” they once had. People take advantage of the practice, forget its intended meaning and over time the practice loses it’s meaning in the “mainstream.” Today, this can be seen in many ways. Then, there is no better example than the doctrine of re-baptism.
For some reason that I have not yet been able to hammer down, the church leadership began to debate the efficacy of the practice and the continued “approval” from the hierarchy. In 1897, during the October general conference, George Q. Cannon stated, “We hear a good deal of talk about re-baptism, and the First Presidency and Twelve have felt that so much re-baptism ought to be stopped.” Why such a decision was reached is unknown to me. Nevertheless, because of a feeling (“have felt”), the hierarchy ends the practice of a sublime doctrine. Perhaps the intention was not to curtail the practice entirely, as evidenced by the wording, “so much re-baptism ought to be stopped,” but rather to slow the practice and re-focus on the meaning of the doctrine. Temple records of 1896 allegedly show “thousands of rebaptisms for renewal of covenants and for health reasons.” Whatever the reason for slowing the process, the effect was one of a total curtailment. And here we stand, some 110 years later, with little to no knowledge or understanding of the subject. It is amazing how so much insight can be lost in the span of less than 4 generations.
Mystery and History
Much as resurrection was a mystery to Alma, rebaptism (and, no doubt, many other “lost” doctrines) is a mystery to us in the year 2010. With that very brief history in mind, I want to go back and share some of the more “precious” insights into this doctrine, as shared by early church members.
Though the following statements have been rewritten in history – which is eerily similar to George Orwell’s statements in his book, 1984, on the re-writing of history to reflect the view you want others to have – Brigham Young once shared an interesting insight into rebaptism:
“In the first place, if you were re-baptized for the remission of sins, peradventure you may receive again the Spirit of the Gospel in its glory, light and beauty; but if your hearts are so engrossed in the things of this world, that you do not know whether you want to be re-baptized or not, you had better shut yourselves up in some canyon or closet, to repent of your sins, and call upon the name of the Lord, until you get His spirit.” (Brigham Young, J.D. 1:324)
“I know that in my traveling and preaching, many a time I have stopped by beautiful streams of clear, pure water, and have said to myself, “How delightful it would be to me to go into this, to be baptized for the remission of my sins.” When I got home, Joseph told me it was my privilege. At this time, came a revelation, that the Saints could be baptized and re-baptized when they chose, and then that we could be baptized for our dear friends.” (Brigham Young, J.D. 18:241)
It’s amusing, if not saddening, to note the contrast in language between what Young stated and what Cannon professed in the 1897 general conference. Whereas Cannon and the first presidency “felt” that so much re-baptism should be stopped, Young claimed “revelation” that members of the church “could be baptized and re-baptized when they chose.” A revelation versus a feeling? Tough choice. Perhaps it’s mere differences in lexicon and they mean the same thing, or, perhaps, one group of people were too caught up in curtailing a practice which was being abused by some. No matter the result, the main question is how does this affect me, or you, or us, today?
In a day that desperately needs another Reformation, no doubt much more than the change that was needed during the Reformation of 1856-57 (a mere 25 years after 1830), this practice and doctrine of re-baptism is one way to bring about the needed change. Indeed, with this thought in mind, perhaps it is best to again turn to Brigham Young’s words on the subject:
“I have heard some of you cursing and swearing, even some of the Elders of Israel. I would be baptized seven times, were I in your place; I would not stop teasing some good Elder to baptize me again and again, until I could think my sins forgiven. I would not live over another night until I was baptized enough to satisfy me that my sins were forgiven. Then go and be confirmed, as you were when you first embraced the religion of Jesus. That is my counsel.” (Brigham Young, J.D. 2:8-9, emphasis added.)
Think long and hard on that statement. There is light and truth contained therein.
In conclusion, I was reminded of a conversation I had with another friend on this subject. In it, this friend was discussing the “false doctrine” that states how when we partake of the sacrament we’re “renewing” our baptismal covenants. Turns out this is false. We don’t renew our baptismal covenants when we partake of the Sacrament.
In reality, what we’re doing in partaking of the Sacrament is its own covenant separate and apart from baptism. To further study this idea, research the covenants the people make in both Mosiah 18 and Alma 7. In those examples, the act of re-baptism is a witness on behalf the person getting re-baptized that they’re making a covenant. The baptism itself isn’t the covenant, but a simple witness of a separate covenant. This simply means that instead of placating yourself by professing to change and follow a new course in life (words/intentions only), in this instance you also do an act, a physical act which demonstrates in deed those words you’re intending to live by. With the act, the words are not empty (as so many of our words tend to be). The baptismal (and re-baptismal) covenants we make, therefore, are to (a) keep the commandments and (b) serve God. The covenant occurs when we turn around and repent. We then prove our willingness to actually give more than lip service by walking down in the water and re-entering the waters of baptism.
It is June 1st, 2010. The weather is generally warm across America and in many other places. Read Kraut’s work on this topic, and take advantage of the good weather to seek a remission of sins and utilize the beautiful simplicities of the gospel that are in front of us.