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.