At the center of Christ’s teachings was the admonition to be “born of water and the Spirit.” Jesus highlighted the importance of baptism not only in His words, but also in His actions, as he opened His ministry by seeking out John the Baptist in order that He could be baptized Himself. Clearly there is something essentially important to this sacred ordinance, an importance that virtually every Christian denomination recognizes.
But while the importance of baptism is not in dispute, the manner of (and authority for) performing such baptisms is a different matter altogether. Despite the Apostle’s Paul characterization of Christianity as “One Lord, one faith, one baptism,” (Ephesians 4:5), in practice Christians are all over the map on what the ordinance looks like. The proper mode of baptism became a matter of great concern for Joseph Smith during his translation of the Book of Mormon, and his inquiries into that subject led to some of the most important revelations of what Mormons refer to as the “restoration” of Christ’s original church.
Mormon belief regarding baptism starts from the premise that baptism is one of the “essential” ordinances of the gospel. It is the gateway into Christian discipleship and membership in the Church. The Book of Mormon echoes and amplifies the New Testament’s directive that we are to demonstrate our commitment to Christ by being baptized. But our approach to baptism–coming from the Book of Mormon and revelations given to Joseph Smith–is unique in many important aspects.
Requirements for Baptism
In order to be baptized as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, you have to meet certain minimum qualifications. These include being at least eight years old, having a testimony of Jesus Christ and of the restored gospel, having repented of wrongdoing, and being committed to live God’s commandments going forward. A “child of record” baptism, which means the baptism of children of members of the Church, typically takes place soon after the child’s eighth birthday. The child is interviewed by the bishop (the leader of a local congregation or “ward”) to ensure that the child has an understanding of the nature of the ordinance and genuinely desires to be baptized. A convert to the Church will participate in a series of discussions from our full-time missionaries, which cover the basic doctrines and practices of the Church, and then will be interviewed by a more senior missionary to ensure that the person has a desire to be baptized and that there are no special circumstances that would require particular attention (such as serious criminal offenses, living with a partner outside of marriage, or other matters that usually have been addressed during the course of the discussions). Such circumstances aren’t about denying baptism to anyone. It is more about making sure that if people have been involved in serious transgressions they have engaged in sincere repentance.
The Manner of Baptism
Mormons perform baptism by immersion, which means we go completely under the water. (Which brings to mind a person on whose door I knocked early in my mission. He was not interested in joining the Church, but offered to give us his ex-wife’s contact information if we promised to baptize her “until the bubbles stop.” Something told me that their separation had fallen short of being amicable). Baptisms are performed by someone holding the Aaronic priesthood (I’ll get to that in a minute), and are witnessed by two other priesthood holders to ensure that the baptismal prayer is said correctly (“Having been commissioned of Jesus Christ, I baptize you in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost”) and that the person is completely immersed. If it isn’t done correctly, then it has to be done again. I had to dunk one of my daughters three times until someone suggested that I stand on her foot so that she didn’t keep poking a toe out of the water. Ten years later, she still complains about it.
The Authority to Baptize
The LDS Church believes that, in order for a baptism to be recognized by God, it must be performed by someone holding the correct authority. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the New Testament, as Christ and His apostles were careful to give authority to baptize to specific people. This priesthood authority is a centrally important doctrine for Mormons, who believe that the priesthood was lost from the earth sometime after the death of the original apostles and was restored through heavenly messengers to Joseph Smith. We believe that the authority to perform baptisms is part of the Aaronic priesthood, which we believe was restored to Joseph Smith by John the Baptist. I won’t go into the details of the organization of the priesthood in the LDS Church here, but suffice it for now that the person performing the baptism previously must have been ordained to the Aaronic priesthood. Even if a person has been baptized in another church, Mormons require re-baptism because of our belief that other churches do not hold the proper authority to baptize.
The Importance of Baptism
We believe that baptism is an outward manifestation of our inward commitment to follow Christ. We come to baptism having repented of our sins, and through the ordinance we are laid down in the waters in symbolism of death, and we are raised up as new people, taking upon ourselves the name of Christ and committing to live as He would live. Following baptism we are “confirmed” members of the Church and receive the gift of the Holy Ghost through the laying on of hands. The confirmation is performed by someone holding the “higher,” or Melchizedek, priesthood.
These two ordinances are the first essential ordinances that put us on the path of following Christ. The covenants we make–to take on the name of Christ, always remember Him, and keep His commandments–are so essential to us living a Christlike life that we renew those covenants each week by partaking of the Sacrament (the term we use for what many other Christians refer to as “Communion”). Thus, even though we enter into baptism in our Christian infancy, we revisit and renew that covenant every week during our mortal journey, constantly taking measure of where we are versus where we should be and promising once again to try to be more like the Master. In this way, the waters of baptism should ripple throughout our lives and influence all that we say and do.