Sunday, July 25, 2010

Church History Q&A: Rebaptism in the Early Church

            Many times in the church we develop erroneous social conceptions of corporal and eternal principles. As close knit communities of Latter-day Saints we can sometimes, without doctrinal substance, develop social norms and taboos which can, because of the context in which they were developed, inherit a spiritual or ecclesiastical authority which the principle does not originally embody.  Such practices can be seen as Cultural Mormonism, which is to be contrasted with Doctrinal Mormonism, in which the substance comes from scripture or prophetic council rather than society or interpretation of doctrine. 

            Some examples of Cultural Mormonism could be the abstinence of caffeine, the former apologetic beliefs and justifications of the ban of the Priesthood from the blacks, the former and continuing stance of anti-evolution, the belief that the hill Cummorah is the same hill that Joseph Smith retrieved the plates out of, the belief that to be a “good Mormon” you must be a democrat. These opinions are not, nor were, inherently wrong but they do not come from official Latter-day Saint Doctrine, but rather through cultural influence.

The Doctrine of Baptism
            The doctrine I will discuss today is that of baptism, one of the most essential doctrines of the Latter-day Saints and all of Christendom.  The word “baptism” come from the Greek baptizo meaning to “dip” or “immerse”. For Christianity (and Mormonism) it is the key initiatory event in conversion and acceptance of Jesus Christ.

            For Latter-day saints baptism and confirmation are an inseparable saving ordinance. A saving ordinance in the Latter-day Saint church is a solemn convent made by the individual with God in order to accept Christ more fully into their life and inherit eternal life. Baptism and Confirmation are the first two initiatory ordinances which starts the process of fully accepting Jesus Christ into their lives.

            Preparatory to baptism the person must first find faith in God, His Son, and His Church. Whey must repent for their sins by recognizing them, confessing them, and forsaking them.  They are then prepared to make convents with God through baptism.

            There are five main purposes for Baptism and confirmation in the church:
  1. To be cleansed from the sins that the individual has repented for previous to his or her baptism.
  2. To covenant with God to follow him, and thus take on a portion of Christ name into our hearts, or to accept Christ (to a degree)
  3. As a saving ordinance, it is necessary prior to the entering into God’s presence
  4. To receive the Holy Ghost as a constant companion
  5. To enter into Christ’s Church

            This process and convents are not a “one time” affair, the same process, promises, and covenants are repeated weakly in The Sacrament of the Lords Supper (Also known as communion, sacrament, or the Eucharist). As one properly partakes of the Lords Supper they recovenant and refresh their baptism. It can be seen as a weekly baptism, a scheduled cleansing appointment.

            There is much cultural Mormonism attached to baptism; this is not so much in explicit writings of the doctrines or practices but rather in the underlying traditions and expectations. These range from the trivial matters of the format of the baptism and refreshments after; to the very serious misconception that baptism erases all sins committed by the person baptized to believing that we fully take upon us the name of Christ when we are baptized.[1][2]

            In this publication I am going to discuss an issue that deals with a topic which not only dealt with social misunderstanding but doctrinal.  This is the topic of rebaptism.

Re-baptism: Then and Now
            Today in the church it is unusual to be re-baptized, virtually the only case of rebaptism is for those who have been excommunicated and thus by necessity forfeit the blessings and covenant that were made at baptism. After undergoing the necessary repentance process the individual can re ovenant with god and get rebaptisd; for those who have been excommunicated reinstates the blessings of baptism, and readmits them into Christ church. Other than these circumstances rebaptism does not occur.

            Imagine that next Sunday in sacrament meeting the bishop gets up and announces that to recommit the ward everyone is going to get rebaptized that Saturday at 1:00pm (refreshments will be served after). I would hazard to assume that there would be more than just confusion and a knee-jerk, jaw-dropping surprise but many would see this as an act of blasphemy, undoctrinal, and a form of apostasy.  However this would have not been the case but 120 years ago. In the early church rebaptism was embraced, encouraged, and practiced by virtually everyone in the church.

Was Joseph Smith Baptized Twice?
            A little known fact is that Joseph Smith himself was baptized more than once. As is well known on May 15th 1829AD Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery went to pray on the banks of the Susquehanna River, near Harmony, Pennsylvania received the Aaronic Priesthood under that hands of John the Baptist as heavenly messenger, and was instructed to baptize one another.  Joseph first baptized Oliver in the Susquehanna after which Oliver baptized Joseph. 

            This baptism, although achieving the first three aforementioned purposed of baptism and confirmation, did not however allow entrance into Christ restored church as the Restored church was not yet organized on the earth. The next year, April 6th 1930, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was officially organized and both Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith got rebaptized into Christ church.

Rebaptisms in the West
            Some may point out that the hypothetical situation I posed and the example of Joseph Smith are not analogous as the example of Joseph Smith had a logical and practical reason behind it while the hypothetical situation merely purports baptism as merely a whimsical desire to be more committed to the gospel. This whimsical desire however was a very valid and accepted reason to be rebaptized in the middle to late eighteenth century.

            After the martyrdom of Joseph Smith, the succession on Brigham Young, and the forced exodus out of Nauvoo Illinois the Saints headed west eventually to end up in the Great Salt Lake Valley. As the church settled into the Rockies a decision to emphasize rebaptism was made. This was done for two main reasons. The first reason was that the records of the church were somewhat scanty as the time and there was some uncertainty about the validity or existence of Baptisms or Baptismal Records, thus a mass rebaptism effort would allow for security in baptism and a chance to document and redocument baptismal records. The second reason as described by the prolific journalist and future President of the church Wilford Woodruff:

On this day the Twelve were re-baptized. Why? Because the Church, having broken old ties in the East was, in a way, experiencing a new birth. Because, owing to conditions of life on the plains, regular Church routine could not always be observed. For this reason for non-observance of certain regulations were made by the people and accepted by their leaders. But now those who stood at the head of the Church wanted a gesture of support to themselves and a sign that willing obedience would be given to the rules of the Church. This was affected by re-baptism.
(Wilford Woodruff Journal, August 6, 1847.)
            On August 6th 1847, Brigham Young, The Twelve Apostles and the First Presidency lead the way into this new age by setting the example and getting rebaptized as a sign of commitment to the ideals of the church and to Jesus Christ himself.

            Rebaptisms continued to be preformed not only as a sign of recommitment but also in preparation for major life commitments or spiritual experiences such as marriages, temple endowments, temple dedications, or entering into the United Order. At one point there were rebaptisms preformed for those who were in failing or poor health in faith that they would be healed. Rebaptism became so common that the Ward Membership Forms placed a section for rebaptisms in 1877.

            The practice was heavily endorsed by the church to the point that Joseph Fielding Smith in 1878 gave instructions to bishops regarding those being endowed that “No person, male or female, should be recommended for these ordinances, unless they have first renewed their covenants by baptism.”[3]

            Baptisms in this manner are just as effectual in it’s purpose as is the taking the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.  If we wished to we could be baptized every week at church, and every time we would be baptized all of the sins that we had truly repented of would be washed away.  Baptism and the Sacrament of the Lords Supper are essentially one and the same, the only difference is that the Sacrament it only effectual to those who have already been baptized and made those covenants with God, while those who are not baptized are encouraged not to partake in the covenant-ordinance. As Paul taught to the Corinthians:
Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.
(KJV, Holy Bible, 1 Corinthians 11:27-29)
            The practice of rebaptism in the early west became struck by cultural Mormonism. Although rebaptisms are a good doctrinal idea, and could provide a greater, more dramatic, more public sign or repentance the idea of rebaptism ceased to be thought of as a sign repentance and opportunity to receive forgiveness and it became in the minds of the people a form of repentance and the act of forgiveness. Just because one gets baptized does not mean that they have repented, nor does it mean that they are cleansed from all their sins.

            This idea of baptism persists to this day in cultural Mormonism.  I have been to many baptisms, particularly baptisms of those who are young, where a member of the church in a talk proclaims that the baptized is now totally clean of all their since, or that they are the cleanest person on earth. While to a extent this can be true baptism does not guarantee total forgiveness any more than the sacrament guarantees it. Baptism without repents in ineffectual and hallow, void of reason or meaning.

            For this cultural misinterpretation the practice of rebaptisms, rebaptisms was later discouraged and eventually against official policy. In the Church History in the Fullness of Times manual for the formal religious education of the church (The Church Educational Services (CES)) it explains this period of time:
Church leaders also discontinued the long-standing practice of rebaptism. Oftentimes Latter-day Saints had been rebaptized in conjunction with important milestones, such as marriage or entering the United Order or sometimes for improvement of health. These rebaptisms were recorded on Church membership records. The First Presidency grew concerned that some members were substituting rebaptism for true repentance. In 1893, stake presidents were instructed not to require rebaptism of Saints wishing to attend the dedication of the Salt Lake Temple, and in 1897 the practice of rebaptism was discontinued altogether. As President George Q. Cannon explained, “It is repentance from sin that will save you, not rebaptism."
(Salt Lake City, Utah : Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1992, 1989.)

            Rebaptisms are now against church policy and the history is generally unknown and un-understood. I am not suggesting that we reinstitute rebaptisms as it is against policy, but to understand that rebaptisms of these kinds were and are still valid and effectual. The policy may have changed but the principle has not. Similar cases where policy has been changed but not doctrine would be the doctrine of the Law of Consecration (the United Order), or the doctrine of polygamy.

            Although in my original hypothetical situation there was great (theoretical) opposition to the idea of rebaptism, this animosity was not based on church doctrine or even on church policy but on a cultural Mormonism knee jerk. The issue in this problem is giving authority to cultural norms particular to the Latter-day Saints which do not warrant such authority by the doctrines of the church.  We need to introspectively ask ourselves of our motives and reasons for our beliefs so as to get closer to the “trunk” of the gospel, closer the essence of the gospel and further away from the flimsy branches of opinion, culture, and speculation.

[1] Legrande Richards, A Marvelous Work and A Wonder, Deseret Book Co, 1976,  
[2] Dallin H Oaks, Taking upon Us the Name of Jesus Christ, Ensign, May 1985, 81
[3] Joseph F. Smith to Frederick Kesler, 4 Dec. 1878, in papers of Frederick Kesler, Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

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