Alma 7:14-16 — LeGrand Baker — the many uses of re-baptism

 Alma 7:14-16 — LeGrand Baker — the many uses of re-baptism

Alma 7:14-16
14      Now I say unto you that ye must repent, and be born again; for the Spirit saith if ye are not born again ye cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven; therefore come and be baptized unto repentance, that ye may be washed from your sins, that ye may have faith on the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sins of the world, who is mighty to save and to cleanse from all unrighteousness.
15      Yea, I say unto you come and fear not, and lay aside every sin, which easily doth beset you, which doth bind you down to destruction, yea, come and go forth, and show unto your God that ye are willing to repent of your sins and enter into a covenant with him to keep his commandments, and witness it unto him this day by going into the waters of baptism.
16      And whosoever doeth this, and keepeth the commandments of God from thenceforth, the same will remember that I say unto him, yea, he will remember that I have said unto him, he shall have eternal life, according to the testimony of the Holy Spirit, which testifieth in me.

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This is one of the most powerful statements in the scriptures about the necessity and efficacy of baptism, yet it presents some intriguing questions. In addressing those questions it testifies of the consistency of the Lord’s methods of repairing a wayward church and, more especially, of the need for a living prophet and of the continual necessity that the Saints always follow that living prophet. The reason is that circumstances change, and while the principles of the gospel are an eternal constant, the cultures in which the gospel is taught and practiced are not the same. Consequently, in our living Church, practices have changed as the needs of the Saints and the external cultural norms have changed. This is not only true in this dispensation, but it was also true in earlier dispensations. Our passage in Alma 7 seems to be an evidence of that.

Everything about Alma’s sermon connotes that he was speaking to a temple-worshiping, temple-worthy group of priesthood holders. His repeatedly calling them “my beloved brethren” insists upon that, as does his appraisal of their spirituality in verses 8-19.

For as I said unto you from the beginning, that I had much desire that ye were not in the state of dilemma like your brethren, even so I have found that my desires have been gratified. For I perceive that ye are in the paths of righteousness; I perceive that ye are in the path which leads to the kingdom of God; yea, I perceive that ye are making his paths straight. (Alma 7:18-19)

Those are words one would speak to a congregation of people who have made and are keeping temple covenants. Yet it is in that context that he urges them to be baptized.

The story is that Alma had laid aside his political duties in order to focus his attention on the affairs of the church. What we are seeing here is a reformation within the church, led by its prophet, where people were asked to use the ordinance of baptism as a token of a covenant that they now assert their renewed commitment to living the gospel. Now, to avoid being called a heretic for writing this, I wish to do the following:

A. To show examples of re-baptism as an evidence of re-commitment in this dispensation, and then to show when and why the practice of re-baptism was discontinued in this dispensation.

B. To show other evidences of the practice of re-baptism in the Book of Mormon .

C. To conclude by observing that without a living prophet to direct the affairs of the church, even people who have an understanding of the gospel would have neither the wisdom nor the authority to pass their understanding on to their next generation.

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A. To show examples of re-baptism as an evidence of re-commitment in this dispensation, and then show when and why the practice of re-baptism was discontinued in this dispensation. To do that, I think it is best to simply allow others who have more authority to speak for me.

The first example of re-baptism in this dispensation was on April 6, 1830, the day the Church was organized. The Prophet Joseph and others who had already been baptized for the remission of sins were baptized as members of the church. Since that time, both necessary purposes of baptism are accomplished by a single ordinance, just as confirmation as members of the church and giving the gift of the Holy Ghost are also done in the same ordinance.

Names of the six members of the Church as they were organized April 6, 1830— Oliver Cowdery, Joseph Smith, Jun., Hyrum Smith, Peter Whitmer, Jun., Samuel H. Smith, David Whitmer. Some of these had been previously baptized; but were all baptized on the day of organization. { 1 }

President Joseph Fielding Smith wrote:

After the arrival of the Pioneers in the Salt Lake Valley, and subsequently for a considerable period, all those who entered the valley were baptized anew at the request of President Brigham Young who, with the Council of the Twelve, set the example to the people who were gathering from all parts of the world. { 2 }

The Encyclopedia of Mormonism gives a succinct explanation of re-baptism in this dispensation.

Re-baptism is rare among Latter-day Saints in modern times. Historically, however, many members were rebaptized as an act of rededication. This was first practiced in Nauvoo and was continued in the Utah Territory. Re-baptism served as a ritual of recommitment but was not viewed as essential to salvation. Members often sought re-baptism when called to assist in colonization or to participate in one of the united orders. On some occasions, the Saints were rebaptized as they prepared for marriage or entrance into the temple. Early members also rebaptized some of the sick among them as an act of healing. Because of misuse by some Church members, all such practices of re-baptism were discontinued in 1897. {3}

Elder James E. Talmage explained why the practice was discontinued.

Repeated baptisms of the same person are not sanctioned in the Church. It is an error to assume that baptism offers a means of gaining forgiveness of sins however oft repeated. Such a belief tends rather to excuse than to prevent sin, inasmuch as the hurtful effects may seem to be easily averted. { 4 }

Elder Melvin J. Ballard explained why it is no longer necessary

If there is a feeling in our hearts that we are sorry for what we have done; if there is a feeling in our souls that we would like to be forgiven, then the method to obtain forgiveness is not through re-baptism, it is not to make confession to man, but it is to repent of our sins, to go to those against whom we have sinned or transgressed and obtain their forgiveness, and then repair to the sacrament table where, if we have sincerely repented and put ourselves in proper condition, we shall be forgiven, and spiritual healing will come to our souls. It will really enter into our being. You have felt it. I am a witness that there is a spirit attending the administration of the sacrament that warms the soul from head to foot; you feel the wounds of the spirit being healed, and the load is lifted. Comfort and happiness come to the soul that is worthy and truly desirous of partaking of this spiritual food. Why do we not all come? Why do we not come regularly to the sacrament service and partake of these emblems and perform this highest worship we can give to our Father in the name of his beloved Son? It is because we do not appreciate it. It is because we do not feel the necessity for this blessing. Or it is because, perhaps, we feel ourselves unworthy to partake of these emblems. { 5 }

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B. To show other evidences in the Book of Mormon of the practice of re-baptism.

In the above instances of re-baptism in our present dispensation, the re-baptism was not for the remission of sins—only the person’s initial baptism was for that. Their subsequent baptisms were tokens of their re-commitment to live the principles and covenants of the gospel, and to support the Saints and the Kingdom of God. There are several evidences of re-baptism in the Book of Mormon and some are much stronger than the one in Alma 7. One is in Third Nephi. Rodney Turner observed:

Following their rebaptism in water, the Nephite twelve were, in like manner, “filled with the Holy Ghost and with fire. { 6 }

This is the rationale that supports his conclusion:

Baptism appears to have been a common practice among the Nephites before the Saviour came. An example is that those who were converted by Samuel the Lamanite were baptized by Nephi Heleman’s son. (Helaman 163-4) Later, Nephi’s son, Nephi, also baptized persons who had repented for the remission of their sins. (3 Nephi 7: 24-26) However, when the Saviour came, he called that same Nephi from the congregation, “and the Lord said unto him: I give unto you power that ye shall baptize this people when I am again ascended into heaven. (see 3 Nephi 1:18-28) Still later, we learn “that Nephi went down into the water and was baptized. And he came up out of the water and began to baptize. And he baptized all those whom Jesus had chosen.” (see 3 Nephi 19: 9-13)

One cannot tell whether this re-baptism was a reaffirmation that those baptized would keep their covenants, or if it was an act of joining the new church the Saviour had established with the twelve disciples at its head, just as those who had already been baptized were rebaptized on April 6, 1830. My opinion is that it was the latter.

Four hundred years later, Moroni was clearly describing a re-baptism. The telling thing about this passage is its second sentence: he wrote: “Behold, elders, priests, and teachers were baptized; and they were not baptized save they brought forth fruit meet that they were worthy of it.” There, the people who are being baptized are”elders, priests, and teachers.” That is, they are people who had already received the priesthood. Since persons who have not been baptized cannot be ordained to the priesthood, it is understood that these priesthood holders must already have been baptized once before, and that the baptism Moroni was writing about was a token of re-commitment.

1   And now I speak concerning baptism. Behold, elders, priests, and teachers were baptized; and they were not baptized save they brought forth fruit meet that they were worthy of it.
2   Neither did they receive any unto baptism save they came forth with a broken heart and a contrite spirit, and witnessed unto the church that they truly repented of all their sins.
3   And none were received unto baptism save they took upon them the name of Christ, having a determination to serve him to the end.
4   And after they had been received unto baptism, and were wrought upon and cleansed by the power of the Holy Ghost, they were numbered among the people of the church of Christ; and their names were taken, that they might be remembered and nourished by the good word of God, to keep them in the right way, to keep them continually watchful unto prayer, relying alone upon the merits of Christ, who was the author and the finisher of their faith. (Moroni 6:1-4)

It appears to me that the baptism at the Waters of Mormon was the same sort of thing. King Noah’s apostasy had not been around long enough corrupt everybody. It was still in its first generation when Abinadi taught Alma. It seems likely that many of their contemporaries would have been baptized by proper authority for the remission of sins, before Noah tried to enforce his own new standards and rules. After escaping an attempted assassination, Alma had been given authority to organize a new church, had taught others what Abinadi had taught, and those who were ready to become members of Alma’s church were gathered at the Waters of Mormon to be baptized into that church.

What Alma was doing was not just extraordinary, it was downright revolutionary. We know virtually nothing about the organization of the Church in Old Testament times. The only reference to a church in pre-exilic Israel is where Nephi says of Zoram, “And he, supposing that I spake of the brethren of the church, and that I was truly that Laban whom I had slain, wherefore he did follow me.” The writers of Kings and Chronicles tell us almost nothing about the organization of the people whom they call “the prophets,” though it is apparent from the stories of Elijah and Elisha that there was some sort of organization. Jewish synagogues did not come into existence until during or soon after the Babylon captivity. Most scholars believe that before the Babylonian captivity, the formal organization of religion was under the direction of the king. That is, that the ruler held the joint office of king and priest—he was the person responsible for both the physical and spiritual well-being of his people. But during king Noah’s reign, this new ruler who was supposed to be the spiritual leader of his community had become blatantly and brazenly apostate.

If treason is, by definition, actively defying one’s king, and trying to set up an opposing kingdom in his place, then every true prophet might be called treasonous, because every true prophet represents a challenge to the kingdoms of this world. Noah did not send an army to the Waters of Mormon because he didn’t agree with Alma’s preaching. He sent them because Alma asserted that Noah had abdicated his royal religious prerogatives by his own apostasy. That, in the eyes of Noah, was treason, and the penalty for treason is death. As Benjamin Franklin observed to those who voted for independence: “Gentlemen, if we do not hang together, we shall surely hang separately.” That was equally true of Alma and those who were gathered with him at the Waters of Mormon.

Noah’s apostasy was of his own making. That is, it was still in its first generation when Abinadi challenged the king’s authority. So it is likely that many people in the kingdom (perhaps even young Alma himself) had already been baptized for the remission of their sins by someone with proper authority. Alma was youthful prince (Mormon makes a point of that when he introduced him by telling us that he was royalty: “he also being a descendant of Nephi.”) What the young man did was assert his own rights to the royal religious leadership; and, under authority given him by God, organize a church that was independent from the control of the apostate king. It appears to me (still my opinion) that the account of the events at the Waters of Mormon is about the formal organization of Alma’s church, and (as in the story of the organization of the church in 1830) that the baptisms performed there were a token of covenants that related to membership in that church. This seems all the more likely since the doctrine of remission of sins was neither a part of Alma’s sermon, nor was it mentioned in the unique and explicit words of the baptismal prayer. Alma asked his friends:

8   Behold, here are the waters of Mormon (for thus were they called) and now, 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;
9   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. (Mosiah 18: 8-9)

He then explained the covenant associated with the baptism:

10   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? (v. 10)

The words of the baptismal prayer were:

13  Helam, I baptize thee, having authority from the Almighty God, as a testimony that ye have entered into a covenant to serve him until you are dead as to the mortal body; and may the Spirit of the Lord be poured out upon you; and may he grant unto you eternal life, through the redemption of Christ, whom he has prepared from the foundation of the world. (v. 13)

It is my opinion that these baptisms at the Waters of Mormon were also re-baptisms, not for the remission of sins, but for entrance into the Church of Christ that Alma had been authorized to establish.

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C. To conclude by observing that without a living prophet to direct the affairs of the church, even people who have a knowledge of the gospel would have neither the wisdom nor the authority to pass it on to the next generation.

If my analysis of the accounts of re-baptisms in the Book of Mormon is correct, then it seems to me that it invites two conclusions: first, the prophets in the Book of Mormon understood that baptism was necessary to salvation, and second, that they also understood that authorized baptism could be used to represent a number of different covenants—and that leads to a third, and very important conclusion: that even an ordinance as fundamental as baptism can be confusing. It has much symbolism (new birth, death, burial, resurrection, adoption, cleansing, remission of sins, to fulfill all righteousness), can also have many purposes (the remission of sins and formal acceptance of the blessings of the atonement, taking upon ourselves the name of the Saviour, entrance into the church, and the variety of other uses we have discussed here). Thus, precedent alone cannot teach one the meaning of baptism: therefore (and this is the whole point), although baptism for any purpose may be an essential part of the framework for salvation, it must be performed under the direction of one who holds the keys, by one who has the proper authority, and in the proper covenantal context. Given the complexity of its great spectrum of meanings and purposes, one must conclude that without the guiding hand of a living prophet, even the best intentioned people could make a muck of the whole concept of baptism without the controlling hand of a living prophet. The first of the Beatitudes in the Book of Mormon reads:

1  Blessed are ye if ye shall give heed unto the words of these twelve whom I have chosen from among you to minister unto you, and to be your servants; and unto them I have given power that they may baptize you with water; and after that ye are baptized with water, behold, I will baptize you with fire and with the Holy Ghost; therefore blessed are ye if ye shall believe in me and be baptized, after that ye have seen me and know that I am. (3 Nephi 1:1)

Baptism and every other principle and ordinance of the gospel moves on that single hinge: “Blessed are ye if ye shall give heed to the brethren.” Take that away and there is nothing left at all.

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ENDNOTES

{ 1 } Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 vols., introduction and notes by B. H. Roberts (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1951), 1:76 footnote.

{ 2 } (Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, 3 vols., edited by Bruce R. McConkie (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954-1956), 2: 333.

{ 3 } (Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 1-4 vols., edited by Daniel H. Ludlow (New York: Macmillan, 1992, p. 1194.)

{ 4 } (James E. Talmage, Articles of Faith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1981), 130.

{ 5 } Melvin J. Ballard, Improvement Era, 1919, Vol. Xxii. October, 1919 No. 12.

{ 6 } Rodney Turner, “The Three Nephite Churches of Christ” in Paul R. Cheesman, ed., The Book of Mormon: The Keystone Scripture (Provo: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1988. “Rebaptism” is italicized in the original.), 114.

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