Dotting the Earth with … Baptismal Fonts

In a day when new temples are being announced by the handful, it’s easy to forget how far we have come in making priesthood ordinances available, convenient, and even non-life threatening.

For the first hundred or more years of the Church’s history, baptisms were performed out of doors, in natural bodies of water: Joseph Smith was baptized in the Susquehanna River. Old residents of Marysvale, Utah, have pointed out to me the spot on the banks of the Sevier River where the bishop would periodically round up all the 9- and 10-year-olds in town who hadn’t yet been baptized to conduct a massive catch-up round. The elders who baptized Tsune Nachie were pleased by the privacy of the day – “[we] were not disturbed or looked at during the service” – while the 1901 New Jersey baptism of a popular Christian missionary convert was followed at a distance by a crowd of newspaper reporters who expressed surprise that polygamy was not discussed during the service.

Sometimes the outdoor services are described as idyllic: a 1939 service at Hemet, California, took place in “a beautiful pool, surrounded by orange and walnut trees.” The reminiscence of a former Idaho farm girl indicates that children in her stake often came to her father for baptism if their birthdays fell during the winter months, because they had a hot spring on their property. Perhaps you have known people as I have who have been baptized in the Israel’s River Jordan, or in some South Seas lagoon.

And then there are the missionary stories of converts of great faith, whose baptisms could only take place after the ice was cleared from the surface of some pond. … brrrr!

Sometime in the late 19th century, in the Mormon Corridor at least, indoor fonts became a feature of some LDS chapels, solving much of the problem of wintertime baptisms (the fonts may have been indoors, but the water wasn’t necessarily heated). Existing chapels, though, were not retrofitted. Even in Salt Lake City few ward chapels had their own fonts; most Salt Lake children went to the Tabernacle for baptism, because a basement had been dug under the building and a font installed there. (My father and brother were baptized in the Tabernacle font in 1964. But alas, that font is no more. In the Tabernacle remodeling of a few years ago, the font was removed, and the basement space converted to the use of the Tabernacle Choir.)

In 1902, President Joseph F. Smith addressed both the need for children to be baptized according to the Lord’s timetable in Doctrine and Covenants 68:25-27 (“And their children shall be baptized for the remission of their sins when eight years old …”) and the state of facilities for performing those baptisms. He wrote:

… Sunday School authorities have … been asked to urge upon the children the necessity of baptism as soon as possible after they reach the age of accountability; and in order that the children may feel the importance of baptism as soon ask they are entitled to it, instruction is given both in a general way to the school and also in the classes.

Parents are to be commended who take proper measures to prepare their children for baptism on their eighth birthday, or as soon thereafter as possible. There has grown up, however, much carelessness among the Saints in regard to the baptism of their children, who often do not receive this ordinance for six months or a year after they are entitled to it. Children may very naturally ask, therefore, if it may be postponed indifferently for two months, why may it not also be postponed six or even twelve months. …

The subject of baptism should be discussed in the homes that children may look forward to it in the spirit and feeling of satisfaction and duty. The ordinance is a most important event in the child’s life, and if the child is made to feel that importance, the ordinance will have a greater effect and the solemnity of the occasion will be impressed upon the youthful mind.

The most common reason for postponing the ordinance of baptism is the inclemency of the weather during the winter season. There are perhaps not more than three or four months of the year when the temperature of the water in our streams makes the ordinance comfortable. Conditions, however, are changing so rapidly that baptismal fonts can be constructed without very great expense, and they are much to be preferred, even during the summer season, over the common practice of baptizing in the open streams. It is to be hoped that the day is not far distant when every town of any considerable size will have its baptismal font, and where there are small towns within a distance of from six to ten miles, a font might be very properly located at a central place for the accommodation of all. Proper dressing rooms can be arranged and conveniences may be had for the performance of the ordinance. Various devices may be arranged for the heating of water and the general comfort of the children who receive the ordinance and of the parents whose duty it is to give it their personal attention. If baptismal fonts were generally provided throughout the settlements of the Church, a day could be set apart each month for the baptism of children.

The Saints are earnestly advised to give this matter their attention, and it is to be hoped that the authorities in every stake will realize the growing necessity of baptismal fonts and construct them at their earliest possible convenience.

What are your experiences with exotic, odd, funny, or dangerous physical facilities for baptisms?

Cross-posted from Keepapitchinin — click here for comments.