One of the primary reasons given for the Restoration is the necessity of ordinances performed under the proper authority. This earth is a probationary time (so we are told), and one of its main functions is to give us an opportunity to receive the ordinances of the gospel. These ordinances set us on the path to exaltation, and baptism is the gate.

I feel a deep ambivalence about ordinances (an ambivalence that is probably responsible — at least in part — for the long gap between my last post and this one). On the one hand, the idea that there is something essential about performing certain rites and rituals during our brief time on earth is strange. Although Mormons get around some of the more problematic logical issues with requiring ordinances for salvation by allowing for vicarious work for the dead, this solution comes with its own problems that I’ll talk about in a future post.

There is still something deeply strange about the gospel plan as its been described to us. Speaking of the temple endowment, Brigham Young said:

“Your endowment is, to receive all those ordinances in the house of the Lord, which are necessary for you, after you have departed this life, to enable you to walk back to the presence of the Father, passing the angels who stand as sentinels, being enabled to give them the key words, the signs and tokens, pertaining to the holy Priesthood, and gain your eternal exaltation in spite of earth and hell” (Discourses of Brigham Young, sel. John A. Widtsoe [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1941], p. 416).

I can’t imagine any contemporary member of the Church defending this quote in it’s most literal sense. I don’t think that most members of the Church actually believe that there will be angels guarding the door and checking to make sure you have some arcane knowledge of the ‘key words, the signs and tokens’ necessary to enter the Celestial Kingdom, but this doesn’t seem to prevent us from thinking that the other ordinances of the gospel work in an analogous way.

Is there something supernatural about the fact of being baptized that is so crucial it must be performed vicariously for every person that hopes to receive exaltation? I do find some beauty in the notion that we turn our hearts to our ancestors and bring them one by one through the stepping stones of the gospel path, but at a certain point the logistics get so overwhelming that one begins to wonder.

On the other hand, there is something beautiful about a community of believers coming together to welcome a new soul into their fellowship. The old spiritual says it best: “Shall we gather at the river?/… /Gather with the saints at the river/ That flows by the throne of God.” (see this beautiful rendition).

My favorite scripture about baptism is in Mosiah 18:

[N]ow, as ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light;

Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death, that ye may be redeemed of God, and be numbered with those of the first resurrection, that ye may have eternal life—

Now I say unto you, if this be the desire of your hearts, what have you against being baptized in the name of the Lord, as a witness before him that ye have entered into a covenant with him, that ye will serve him and keep his commandments, that he may pour out his Spirit more abundantly upon you?

The idea that ordinances are ‘outward signs of inward commitment’ is a little cliche, but I think there is real power in it. Being able to point to a particular moment in time when something momentous happened is a powerful motivator (this makes child baptism a little problematic, but that might be a topic for another post).

At its best, baptism represents a turning point in a life, and an initiation into a new community.


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About Brad

I am a rather typical — or perhaps just not atypical — example of a 21st century, “uncorrelated” Mormon. My “Mormon Story” is (I have learned) rather cliche. I was raised by goodly parents, we went to church, followed the letter of the word of wisdom, abstained from the baser elements of the culture, etc. I served an honorable mission, enrolled at BYU, got married in the temple, and never seriously doubted until beginning a PhD program far beyond the Mormon corridor.

2 responses to “Baptism”

  1. Cliff says :

    Brad, Baptism is a topic near & dear to my heart. I sometimes consider myself to be a ‘mystic’ in the Mormon faith, and my _baptism_ is the foundational reason.

    Efficacy of ritual is a specialty topic of enquiry among those who study religion/magickal traditions, and for good reason. Of particular interest are initiation rituals such as baptism. The bottom line is that the more intricate and encompassing a ritual, the more complex steps there are, the more powerful the effect upon the initiate.

    So in the LDS world, we have _authority_. A specific, detailed priesthood line of authority going back to Jesus Christ himself, personally. That’s big.

    AND we have the example of Jesus Christ — GOD HIMSELF — leading the way, receiving the initiation from John the Baptist, another huge _authority_ figure. AND the justification that it was to “fulfill all righteousness”. This whole paricope is laden with intricate detail, order and back-story. And that’s just the beginning, taking into account the Jewish tradition of ritual washings in Mikva’ot, which provides millenia old back-story, with such intricacies as the requirement of immersion in “living water”. Whew!

    Then there’s the whole ‘death’ metaphor involved in the baptism ritual. Re-birth. New life. In some traditions this includes a NEW NAME.

    Add to that the whole ‘baptism of fire’ tie-in. I was reading John Meier’s second volume (over 1,100 pages!) in his “A Marginal Jew” series — the first chapter is all about John the Baptist’s life and involvement in Jesus’ story. He wrote four pages just on the baptism of fire alone — just to conclude that historians have no idea what the heck it means.

    (insert smug private grin here — _I_ know what it means, baby.)

    So. Baptism is HUGE. And it’s extra-Christian, too.

    All these things matter. They matter because they add to, they build up, our faith and belief. The psychological support these things add to the confidence and trust and belief in our minds is incalcuable. And in a sense, infinite, or at least potentially so. And what’s totally awesome is that these effects work on EVERYBODY– the informed, as well as the ignorant. All that is required is belief.

    Here is my baptismal experience.

    Growing up, I always knew the church was true. I always had this deep feeling inside that it was just true. When I turned eight, I had my bishop’s interview and it went swimmingly. I remember thinking “God, I want to follow Jesus. This is my way of proving my desire.”

    You get taught about baptism through primary, and pretty heavily that year that you turn eight. It’s a pretty heavy dose of teachings regarding baptism. And they talk about the first four principles of the Gospel, and all the Articles of Faith. So we’re taught faith, baptism, repentance, and the gift of the Holy Ghost. And we’ve read the scriptures, so we know, the doctrine is pretty well understood. And I don’t discount my cognitive abilities at the age of eight. I knew that it was true. And I knew that I wanted to follow Jesus. And I knew that I wanted to be more involved as part of the church. So it was an easy decision, though it was not a mindless decision. I made the conscious decision that this was something I wanted to do.

    So I got baptized. And the baptism itself was pretty ordinary. But my confirmation resulted in what I call the first pillar of initiation into the mysteries of Godliness. I actually borrowed that phrase from Jean Dubuis, a famous Alchemist. I didn’t come up with that label all on my own. My baptism was ordinary, but my confirmation was not. So my experience that I’m about to relate is what is called by those who study this sort of thing a “rare initiation”. Just by way of context, every ordinance of the gospel has two aspects to it.

    Every ordinance has its external and its internal component. So for baptism, the external component is being immersed in water physically and brought back out again. That is the death initiation ritual, which exists in many, many cultures throughout the world. And Christianity is just one of many of these. So that’s the external.

    The internal, is the spiritual fulfillment of that. So in other words, anyone can get baptized. I mean, let’s say you go through a baptismal interview and you lie about either your ‘worthiness’ or your reasons for being baptized. You can still go and get baptized, even though you lied. Is that going to be the gateway to the Celestial Kingdom simply by virtue of the priesthood physical ordinance? I think not. I think if you’re not sincere, if you’re not repentant, and if you’re not internally agreeing to live and abide by the covenant of baptism, then it’s meaningless for the most part. But the church can’t determine that, can’t necessarily know if you’re lying. It’s a physical thing, the church writes it down, it’s got witnesses, it was done by the proper authority and boom, you’re baptized, and it’s recorded as such. But the efficacy of that baptism is an internal realization that comes after the fact or, rarely, at the moment. If it happens at the exact moment, then that’s called a “rare initiation”.

    I’d been taught that the confirmation was the baptism of fire. So there’s water and fire, right? The whole talk to Nicodemus that Jesus gave. And I understood that. But what I didn’t understand was the fact that there was an external and internal component. And when I was confirmed a member of the church, I had that weight of hands on the crown of my head and the words are spoken, “Receive the Holy Ghost.” Well at that very instant, I felt a burning, tingling sensation right at the crown of my head. And in slow motion, that tingling burning feeling moved and expanded. It expanded, because it didn’t ever leave the crown of my head. It stayed there and continued flowing on through my entire body. From the crown of my head on down through to the soles of my feet. At the end of the process, when my feet were tingling with this fire, my entire body was filled with it. It was basically an ineffable experience, but if I try to describe as well as I can using the symbols of language we have available to us in the English language, which is the only language I speak, it was tingly, burning, electric, firey, hot, but not uncomfortable. It was truly like a warm blanket on a freezing night. It was a beautiful warmth. It was a burning warmth that didn’t hurt. And electric maybe. Tingling. I now refer to it as living fire. That’s my favorite way to describe it now, but that’s hard to understand for someone who hasn’t already experienced it. So that’s why I break into these other words trying to describe what is an ineffable experience essentially.

    At the same time that I was experiencing this, and I have to characterize this as a physical experience, truly it was hot, truly it was tingling. I have to describe it as a physical experience because of those sensations that I had throughout my body. But there was another component to it, which was more of an emotional or mental process, I guess. And that is that I was immersed in this absolutely profound, deep knowledge that everything was true. I received at the same time that this fire was spreading through my body, I was also absolutely convinced, without any possibility of doubt, I knew, as much as I knew I lived life itself, that it was all true. And for me that was a confirmation of my faith that the church was for real and it was proved. That was an experience that was totally overwhelming.

    Thanks for your thoughtful blog posts, Brad. Keep thinking. And I’ve got a lot to say about vicarious work for the dead, too.

  2. Cliff says :

    “… the idea that there is something essential about performing certain rites and rituals during our brief time on earth is strange.”

    Perhaps from a post-modern, secularized viewpoint I can see the strangeness. But that’s not where these rites come from. If you look at them from a cultural or historical or anthropological (or, dare I say, religious) viewpoint, it all looks a lot more ‘normal’. People perform rites. As far back as we know, we as humans have done this. And I doubt we’d do it, if it didn’t make a difference to people in the here and now — not so much in the distant future, particularly when looking at the next life, of which we know (now and back then) practically nothing.

    So when I hear Brother Brigham’s statement about sentinels and tokens, I’m grateful I know something about where that comes from. It does seem to come out of nowhere, doesn’t it? Something that’s good to know about Brother Brigham is that he was not an innovator, except in the case of extreme pragmatic need. He said something to the effect that he did not teach new doctrines – that everything he taught came from Joseph Smith. Polygamy. Adam-God. Endowments. Adoption.

    My opinion is that your quote about sentinels also originally came from Joseph, who probably — Ok, undoubtedly — got it from Jewish mysticism. It’s also known as Kabbalah. Some call it Cabala or Qabala. As you press forward to return up the tree of life to the presence of the Father (Adam Kadmon!) each Sephira on the path is guarded by an angel. And this angel requires things of you, if you are to continue on the journey. You must qualify yourself.

    But that’s not really the point I’d like to make. The point is where and when these odd things become useful. They become useful as they cause us to seek for understanding. The endowment is gift and a puzzle. It is an enabler. So are baptism, priesthood, the sacrament and washings and anointings. Among other things.

    The heart & soul of Mormonism is not authority, not new scripture nor doctrine nor living prophets (well, sort of it is on that last one). Joseph Smith even said that the heart of ultimate Mormonism is … The Gospel of Jesus Christ, that He was born, lived a sinless life, was crucified for our sake and rose the third day.

    So yes, I agree — it really is the heart of it all. But then again, perhaps the muscle & bone of it all is … continuing revelation. Yep. The rock.

    Well this is getting to be a book. I really do think there are spirits in the afterlife that can make good use of the temple rites we perform. But I think far, far more useful is the repetition that we get, here in this life. Maybe someday, with enough repetition, we’ll actually understand that the endowment is teaching us something we need to use TODAY.

    And it all has to do with living up to our privileges and getting for ourselves the keys to asking and receiving — the facility of continuing revelation.

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