The Provenance of Mormon Baptism

Mikveh in Herodium, late Second Temple period, approximately 69 CE. Photo by Deror avi.

Mikveh in Herodium, late Second Temple period, approximately 69 CE. Photo by Deror avi.

This is the second in a series of guest posts by Gerald Smith covering the release of his book Schooling the Prophet, How the Book of Mormon Influenced Joseph Smith and the Early Restoration. Read the first one here.

Fifteen years ago a professor friend of mine at Boston College – a Jesuit Catholic university – walked into my office and asked a puzzling question: Why did the Catholic Church not recognize Mormon baptisms? It recognized the baptisms of other Protestant faiths – Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, etc., but not Mormon. Thus a Methodist converting to Catholicism, for example, would not need to be baptized again; however a Mormon converting to Catholicism would. What could explain this unusual policy? After all some Protestants baptize by immersion just as Mormons do – for example, Baptists or Adventists. The Mormon baptismal prayer invokes the name of Jesus Christ and concludes in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, invoking the Godhead, or Trinity, and the mediating role of Christ at the center of ritual observance. These are foundational doctrines of Catholicism, indeed of all Christianity.

Mormonism emerged from the turbulent “burned over district” of nineteenth century upstate New York – as one modern historian noted: “Americans turned to revived religion with a vengeance in the first decades of the nineteenth century.” This intensely competitive milieu posed a daunting task: to create a religion that could actually survive, one with rites, rituals, and ordinances that distinguished the religion in a compelling way from its competitive religionists. As a new Christian religion, Smith’s church would incorporate rites, rituals, and symbols of the New Testament, similar to other Christian religions. Then again in the burned-over district this would hardly be distinctive.

In his history Joseph Smith describes a visitation from “John, the same that is called John the Baptist in the new Testament . . . he commanded us to go and be baptized, and gave us directions that I should baptize Oliver Cowdery, and afterward that he should baptize me.” Given the competing Christian orthodoxies of conversion and baptism in the burned-over district, this first Mormon baptism seems to have proceeded routinely for Smith and Cowdery. Though they record additional information about authority relayed by the Baptist they seemed to have asked little about how to baptize, what words to say, how to perform the ordinance—should it be preceded by a profession of faith like the Baptists or laying hands on the head or the signing of the cross on the forehead like the Methodists?

According to Smith the genesis of their prayer about baptism to begin with had been inspired by the Book of Mormon, specifically the narrative in Third Nephi of Christ teaching at the temple in Bountiful providing careful protocol about the ritual administration of Nephite baptism. The Book of Mormon documents Christ’s seminal visitation to the Bountiful temple in meticulous detail, a visit comparable in significance to the risen Christ’s appearance to his disciples on the road to Emmaus or in the Upper Room in Jerusalem. The Bountiful temple experience thus provides one vein of historical provenance for Mormon baptismal protocol that suggests rich and distinctive meaning. After completing the Book of Mormon translation project in summer 1829 Cowdery was commissioned to prepare a set of ritual protocols (sacrament, baptism, priesthood) in advance of a new church to be organized in the months to come. By revelation Cowdery was directed to the source book he had spent the last several months writing as scribe – the Book of Mormon: “the things which you have written are true: Wherefore you know that they are true; and if you know that they are true, behold I give unto you a commandment, that you rely upon the things which are written; for in them are all things written, concerning my church, my gospel, and my rock” (D&C 18:3-4). Cowdery used the Book of Mormon to write the first sacred protocols of the Restoration, the 1829 Articles of the Church of Christ, eventually becoming Section 20 of the modern LDS Church, the first revelation canonized by the Church at the first conference in June 1830.

However what was truly distinctive about the innovation of Mormon baptism was its meaning. Catholics and Protestants believe that baptism began uniquely with Christ’s baptism by John the Baptist at the meridian of time, whereas Mormons believe that baptism is much older. The Vatican explained the rationale for their policy: “In their [Mormon] understanding Baptism was not instituted by Christ but by God and began with Adam (cf. Book of Moses 6:64). Christ simply commanded the practice of this rite; but this was not an innovation. . . . According to the New Testament, there is an essential difference between the Baptism of John and Christian Baptism. The Baptism of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which originated not in Christ but already at the beginning of creation, is not Christian Baptism; indeed, it denies its newness.”

Few Mormons would quibble with this interpretation of a belief in pre-Christian baptism, but where did this idea come from? None of Smith’s religious exposure to Methodists, Presbyterians, or Baptists in the 1820s prompted this view. Yet somewhere amidst the conversion furor of the burned-over district, there emerged an innovative insight about the theological meaning of baptism—baptism was timeless, going back millennia into ancient Hebrew history, indeed to the beginning of time. The Book of Mormon record had documented the practice of pre-Christian baptism for many centuries prior to Christ. In the sixth century bc, Book of Mormon priest Jacob taught of baptism as a distinctly ancient Israelite, even Jewish, practice associated with the Messiah (see 2 Nephi 9:1–2, 23). In the second century bc Alma instituted baptism as the way to enter his newly organized church of Christ (Mosiah18:10-17). The Book of Mormon makes sixty references to baptism prior to the advent of Christ. This provenance of a Mormon understanding of timeless baptism provided the seedbed for further revelation to Smith on the baptism of Adam (Moses 6:52-66), to an 1840 change in a biblical text quoted in the Book of Mormon now documenting ancient baptism in Israel and Judah (1 Nepehi 20:1, quoting Isaiah 48), and to the doctrine of baptism for those deceased to make salvation available to all – whether living before or after Christ.

Did baptism in fact originate in the New Testament, or is there evidence of its practice earlier in time, consistent with Book of Mormon protocol? Though the word baptisma is Greek, in fact the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) describes at least three clear forms of Israelite washings, one of which was an early form of washing for remission of sins. In Psalms (51:1-2, 7) King David seeks a washing for a cleansing of his sins (with Bathsheba), consistent with the meaning of New Testament baptism. “According to rabbinical teachings, which dominated even during the existence of the Temple (Pes. viii. 8), Baptism, next to circumcision and sacrifice, was an absolutely necessary condition to be fulfilled by a proselyte to Judaism,” said the Jewish Encyclopedia. Biblical scholar Jonathan Lawrence comprehensively documents the use of miqva’ot, ritual immersion pools or cisterns, during the Second Temple period centuries before Christ. Usually these miqva’ot cisterns were rectangular shaped and plastered and had steps leading down into the pool. They were located near distinctly Jewish religious sites such as the temple, synagogues, and cemeteries. According to Lawrence, “many archaeologists and other scholars have linked Second Temple [ritual] bathing practices to an origin with the Tabernacle [of Moses] . . . as if they were part of one continuous tradition. . . . [Scholar] Aryeh Kaplan traces the practice of immersion back to Abraham (Gen. 18:4), placing the origins of immersion even further back in history.”

Let me bring this post to a close. The idea that ritual protocol and prayers used by the Prophet in the early restoration were the same as those recorded anciently in the Book of Mormon challenges belief, as if Smith had written them into the Book of Mormon translation for his own use in the modern day. But such a view ignores the richness and complexity of the provenance imbued on Mormon ritual from ancient sources and settings. This is precisely the paradox asserted by the Book of Mormon and its translation. While translating the book’s textual storyline narrative, Smith simultaneously recorded liturgical innovations that defined precisely how ordinances, in this case baptism, should be observed – but also documented a historical setting that infused Mormon baptism with new and distinctive meaning and new veins of provenance. The entire process suggests that Smith had unusual confidence in the substance and correctness of these innovations, trusting their forms, expressions, and meanings as stemming from a vetted, reliable original source—in this case ancient scripture similar to the Hebrew Bible, but written by the hand of Mormon, Nephi, or Moroni. Smith was so confident of these ritual innovations that he instructed his scribes and assistants to use them verbatim in the emerging liturgy of the new church.

17 comments for “The Provenance of Mormon Baptism

  1. Clark Goble
    February 1, 2016 at 2:30 pm

    The relationship of miqvaot baptisms and Christian baptism is still somewhat controversial. Not that there isn’t a connection but rather the question of how much innovation there was. Where did John get his ideas? There’s no clear history on the subject that I can see. Lots of people have opinions (as you noted) but there seems little data to back it up. From what I can tell Book of Mormon baptism seems more Christian than a Jewish miqvaot ritual. So there’s an evolution there as well – perhaps different from what produced John’s baptism.

  2. February 1, 2016 at 3:16 pm

    Gerald, thanks very much for explaining the innovation of Mormon baptism and what the context was. I hadn’t quite understood the Catholic position, but it makes much more sense now. It seems to me that Catholic writings about Mormonism typically do a much better job than other outsider treatments of clearly stating the issue and drawing logical conclusions, rather than relying on us-versus-them to answer every question. I’m looking forward to your next post.

  3. JKC
    February 1, 2016 at 3:47 pm

    I’ve always heard the Catholic position explained in terms of differences over the trinity. Basically, since LDS godhead doctrine is so different from the traditional trinity doctrine, LDS baptisms are not even done in the name of the trinity, and therefore not valid, even though on the surface, they are done in the name of the father, son, and holy ghost. The explanation that it is a “different baptism” because LDS believe that baptism was instituted before Jesus’s mortal ministry is new to me.

    The interesting thing about this explanation is that if LDS believe that baptism was instituted before Christ, does that really mean that LDS believe that it wasn’t “instituted by Christ”? I wonder what keeps the Vatican from inquiring into whether, according to LDS doctrine, it was in fact Christ that instituted baptism before his mortal ministry. I mean, the Moses passage cited explains pretty clearly that the baptism it describes is an expression of faith in the Son of God and his sacrifice. It seems like an odd basis on which to conclude that LDS baptisms are more akin to the baptism of John than the baptism of Christ.

  4. February 1, 2016 at 4:12 pm

    Here’s the entry for baptism from the contemporary Encyclopedia Britannica (1798)
    “Spencer, who is fond of deriving the rites of the Jewish religion from the ceremonies of the Pagans, lays it down as a probable supposition, that the Jews received the baptism of proselytes from the neighbouring nations, who were wont to prepare candidates for the more sacred functions of their religion, by a solemn ablution; that, by this affinity of sacred rites, they might draw the Gentiles to embrace their religion, and that the proselytes (in gaining of whom they were extremely diligent) might the more easily comply with the transition from Gentilism to Judaism…. Among foreign nations, the Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, Romans and others, it was customary that those who were to be initiated into their mysteries, or sacred rites, should be first purified by dipping their whole body in water…. In the last place, he observes, that Christ, in the institution of his sacraments, paid a peculiar regard to those rites which were borrowed from the Gentiles: for, rejecting circumcision and the paschal supper, he adopted into his religion baptism and the sacred cup; thus preparing the way for the conversion and reception of the Gentiles into his church.” 2:789

    So people were aware that such rites predated Christ, and those who believed in prisca theologia believed that pagan truth came from the patriarchs (ie Adam, then to Abraham then to the Egyptians then the Greeks). Not orthodox Protestantism, but these ideas were around.

  5. February 1, 2016 at 4:16 pm

    This post explains one of the three principal reasons that the Catholic Church does not recognize LDS baptism. The principal issue is the trinity and nature of deity. The third is original sin.

    From the source reference above –

    Difference of views: Mormons hold that there is no real Trinity, no original sin, that Christ did not institute baptism

    Summing up, we can say: The Baptism of the Catholic Church and that of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints differ essentially, both for what concerns faith in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in whose name Baptism is conferred, and for what concerns the relationship to Christ who instituted it. As a result of all this, it is understood that the Catholic Church has to consider invalid, that is to say, cannot consider true Baptism, the rite given that name by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints.

  6. Clark Goble
    February 1, 2016 at 6:39 pm

    JKC (3) That’s how I’ve typically heard the Catholic position explained too, although I don’t know enough to even know if there is an official explanation. I’d never heard the John vs. Jesus explanation before.

    Brian (5) Is that document official in some ways? It’s interesting since I think this is playing fast and loose with how the Trinity is understood. That is I’m not sure the are representing Mormon doctrine nor its ambiguities well. So far as I can tell the main differences Mormons have aren’t over the Trinity but over creation ex nihilo and the embodiment of the Father. There’s nothing in Mormon doctrine denying three persons in one ousia. Indeed Orson Pratt’s theology was a rather odd materialist formulation of just that. The issue of whether the persons can be called gods seems a silly semantic issue and not a substantial one. Although a semantic issue that is long standing in discussions about the Trinity.

    Admittedly they do touch on the creation ex nihilo issue and the issue of substantial unity with more persons than the three. That seems a fair point of discussion but isn’t really part of the Trinity formally that I can see. But they embrace a kind of meaning holism where the meaning of “in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost” can’t be separated from these issues. Of course the typical Mormon rejoinder would simply be prior to the later theological debates clarifying those issues as doctrine no one baptized with those theological meanings in mind.

    Their point about time and when God became God seems more misleading and certainly isn’t Mormon doctrine although it is a commonly believed theory. But it’s probably a bit much to ask them to not only understand Mormon doctrine but distinguish between what doctrines/teachings are official versus merely widely believed. Heck, even Mormons have trouble with that!

    Not that it matters mind you. We don’t recognize their baptism although for us it’s primarily about authority not semantics in the prayer.

  7. JKC
    February 1, 2016 at 10:55 pm

    Yeah, Clark, I thought that exclamation seemed to butcher LDS doctrine, and to seem entirely ignorant of the difference between canonized doctrine and uncanonized theory–though, to be fair, no more than is common within the church.

  8. JKC
    February 2, 2016 at 12:24 pm

    It is an official explanation. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued that explanation back in around the year 2000, I think (I was on my mission at the time and remember hearing about it). Normally, the CDF operates, I think, in an advisory role to the Vatican, but in this case, if I remember correctly, I think Pope John Paul II ratified the decision on LDS baptism.

    As I said above, I’m inclined to cut them some slack for not really getting what is canon and what is non-canonized teachings. But on the other hand, these are trained theologians, so dealing in obscure nuances and fine details of what is canon and what is just teaching should be their bread and butter, so maybe it isn’t too much to ask that they try to understand how those issues play out in Mormonism before rendering a decision that relies on those issues. Particularly not where the decision is one that they believe affects the eternal salvation of millions of people.

  9. February 2, 2016 at 2:45 pm

    Regarding official explanations and canon/non-canon, I’m aware of 20th century (pre-CDF official explanation) conversations within the Catholic church about recognizing Mormon baptism, including at least one that led to recognizing a Mormon baptism in a particular circumstance. In that case the considerations included how the individual understood things, so that (for example) her own–some might argue idiosyncratic–understanding of the Trinity trumped LDS canon.

  10. JKC
    February 2, 2016 at 5:54 pm

    christian, I’m no expert, but as it was explained to me by a catholic that I assume was knowledgeable, the approach before the CDF ruling was to examine whether the individual person at the time of the baptism held a view of the trinity that was christian. It could still be heretical, but if it was close enough to trinitarian to be considered christian, it was okay. But what the catholic church thought the LDS official teaching was was just too weird to even be considered heretical christianity. I’m not sure how they drew the line between “heretical christian” and “not christian.”

    (Of course I would dispute that what they think is LDS doctrine really is mandatory doctrine, on the basis of canon/non-canon, and would emphasize that the Book of Mormon itself is pretty darn close to orthodox trinitarianism, and certainly well within the bounds of heretical christianity. And I would argue that the Book of Mormon should be the most important source for determining canonical LDS doctrine. Certainly more authoritative than TJPS or Encyclopedia of Mormonism, at any rate. But that’s another discussion.)

  11. Clark Goble
    February 3, 2016 at 12:25 pm

    Part of the problem is that Mormons just don’t have creeds the same way most other Christians see key creeds as defining acceptable Christianity. Even things that come closest to a creed, such as the Articles of Faith, really don’t function like a creed. While I think those who think Mormons don’t really care about theology are exaggerating, there is a strong sense in which we just don’t see it quite the way that say Catholics do. That is we tend to view it more as a theory with varying degrees of evidence rather than a set of statements we have to assent to. When theology becomes a problem it’s less the theology proper than either setting oneself up as authority or other more political issues. Almost always the theology is secondary.

  12. JKC
    February 3, 2016 at 2:10 pm

    I agree with that, Clark. I would say that the thing that functions most like a creed in the sense of defining the bounds of acceptable faith for the LDS church is arguably the temple reccommend questions, but even with those questions there is a lot of room for interpretation. Probably by design.

    LDS theology is more ad hoc. We get answers to specific questions as limited to a particular time and place, which may or may not extend beyond their original context, or may apply to different contexts in different ways. Nate Oman’s analogy to civil law vs. common law jurisprudence is, I think, probably the best analogy to understanding the difference.

  13. Clark Goble
    February 3, 2016 at 2:20 pm

    Yes, a lot of the temple questions are vague with their meaning left to the member. Admittedly things like the Nicene Creed are almost like that except that they are statements that in some ways we’re not supposed to understand. (Which seems much more problematic in my view – especially given the nature of the Nicene Creed) However there’s really not much, if any, theology in temple questions. One might debate the meaning of a prophet I guess but that’s about it. The emphasis in the temple questions really also seems practice even in things that at least brush with being theological like whether Pres. Monson is a prophet.

    Nate’s analogy is good, although I think it breaks down somewhat for a variety of reasons.

  14. James Olsen
    February 5, 2016 at 9:49 am

    Gerald, really enjoyed this.

    I know Matt Grey has written about the relationship between Jewish proselytizing baptisms and Christian baptism. Rather than transmission from one to the other, he sees them as sibling rituals descending from the parent ritual of priestly washing ceremonies from the First Temple period.

  15. Clark Goble
    February 5, 2016 at 12:07 pm

    James, are you thinking of this article from when he was a student? (Page 63) Or something more recent? It’s a pretty interesting analysis as he notes that rebirth ritual is tied to washings and anointing as well. The text he finds from Gaul on washings should sound very familiar to Mormons for instance.

  16. RJH
    February 6, 2016 at 5:35 am

    Great post.

    I used to be annoyed by the Catholic policy but I’m less so now. Ultimately, I think the two baptisms have different functions. Mormon baptism is the gateway into Mormonism, all other Christian baptisms are the gateway into the church universal. A Roman Catholic, Anglican, Baptist, or Methodist baptism are all Christian baptisms and free of denominational specificity. A Mormon baptism is a Mormon baptism.

  17. JKC
    February 9, 2016 at 12:37 pm

    Ronan, that’s true, but only because Mormonism doesn’t really recognize a christian church (at least not in a sacramental sense) outside of the LDS church. To Mormons, the church universal and the LDS church are one and the same. Put differently, Mormon do believe that baptism is a gateway to universal Christianity, rather than to a specific denomination, it’s just that we think universal Christianity at least in a sacramental sense, is found only in the LDS church. That’s a really fine distinction, I realize, but I think it’s a real one.

    I think it also has a lot to do with notions of authority. Catholic doctrine, if I’m not mistaken, prefers that a priest perform a baptism, but recognizes baptisms performed by unordained persons. Mormons of course don’t. Our rejection of Catholic baptisms (as well as all other denominations) boils down, I think, to authority and nothing more.

    Of course, at the same time, you could make a case within Mormonism, based on section 35 verse 3, that other denominations’ baptisms, though not valid as a “saving ordinance” immediately preparatory to receiving the holy ghost, are nevertheless valid as a formal sign of a repentant heart and a commitment to follow Christ. Maybe this is not much more than saying that it other baptisms might be valid as a gateway to the universal church and our baptism operates as a gateway to our denomination, but I think there’s more going on here than just denominationalism.

    I’m not losing any sleep over the catholic policy. I mean, they can do what they want with it and they don’t need to convince me. I’m not planning on becoming a Catholic, so it’s not like I even have any standing to object. And if I were trying to become a Catholic, I can’t imagine that I would object to being rebaptized, so in one sense, it’s kind of moot. So I agree with you that I’m not really annoyed by it. But I do think the reasoning is unconvincing even on it’s own terms, and it appears to be based on a misunderstanding of my faith. I wish if they were going to take that policy, they would at least do it based on a better understanding of what I actually believe.

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