As we drove home the other day, my 12-year-old son Andrew wondered aloud which restaurant his brother Sam might choose for his baptism dinner. Sam’s eighth birthday is more than a year away, but it’s not very often that our whole family eats out together, and Andrew is already looking forward to it. We discussed a few possibilities, from McDonald’s to Sizzler to Famous Dave’s. In the middle of our conversation Andrew had a sudden thought: “Mom, I just realized something awesome. By the time Sam turns eight, Ben is going to be old enough to baptize him!”
“That’s right,” I said. Ben, my oldest son, will turn sixteen a few months before the big occasion.
Andrew paused in thought for a moment, and then his face lit up. “That means I’ll be old enough to baptize Thomas when he’s eight!”
I smiled, but my heart twisted a little bit. “True. You’ll be sixteen by then. But Andrew, we’re not sure if Thomas will be baptized when he’s eight. He might be a little older, or even a lot older.”
His brow furrowed. “How come?”
“Well, you know kids typically get baptized when they’re eight because at that point, they’re capable of knowing right from wrong and they can keep a promise to choose what’s right. To try to choose what’s right, anyway, and to repent when they mess up.”
“But we don’t know if Thomas will be ready for that step when he’s eight. We don’t baptize babies and little kids because they’re too young to understand the covenant, right? The Book of Mormon says we’re not supposed to baptize people who can’t understand for other reasons, either.”
“Like people with Down syndrome?”
“Sometimes. It depends. Some people with Down syndrome might get baptized when they’re eight. Some might need more time to be ready.” I didn’t mention that some never get baptized at all. Instead I explained that the atonement unconditionally saves people who are incapable of sin for whatever reason.
“But what if Thomas really wants to be baptized before he’s ready? What if he can’t understand why he’s not allowed?” Andrew started getting teary.
“I don’t know,” I said, my heart twisting tightly now. “That would be hard. We’ll just have to wait and see how things go for Thomas.”
Andrew thought for a minute. “Okay. But no matter how old Thomas is when he’s ready, I want to be the one who baptizes him. As long as Thomas agrees, that is.”
We both laughed. After four years with Thomas, it’s clear that he cannot be convinced against his will. We traded funny anecdotes about this very determined little boy, and by the time we got home Andrew seemed to be at peace. But I stayed knotted up inside for hours afterward, and part of me is wistful still.
When Thomas was born with Down syndrome, one of the first things Reed and I wondered was what would happen when our son turned eight. We ordered the Church’s “Guidebook for Parents of Handicapped Children,” a well-intentioned but in some ways outdated resource that has since been discontinued. The guidance therein regarding baptism is similar to the current counsel on the Church’s excellent web site, Disability Resources.
Q: What are the guidelines as to whether or not a child with an intellectual disability may be baptized?
A: This is a matter between parents, the child, and local priesthood leaders. If the child has a basicunderstanding of gospel principles and wishes to be baptized, then baptism may be possible.
Now, that’s as good as it gets. I’m grateful such decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, that parents and the child himself are included, and that the authorities involved are those who (hopefully) know the child well. I trust God knows Thomas better than any of us, and that he’ll guide us in making the best decision, and that in the final sense, Thomas’s salvation doesn’t hinge on our decision anyway. And I’m hopeful that such a decision will be a moot point by the time Thomas is eight, or eighteen.
But I know there’s a good chance it won’t be. Thomas has multiple disabilities–Down syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder that further complicates his development, and an auditory dysfunction to top things off. He is bright–eerily bright–in ways we never expected, but his capacity to communicate is profoundly limited. I will not write him off, not now, not ever. Nor will I bury my head in the sand and believe that if we just work hard enough, his disabilities will disappear.
I know it may seem pointless–even misguided–to worry about a baptism that might not even be necessary. For behold that all little children are alive in Christ, and also all they that are without the law. For the power of redemption cometh on all them that have dno law; wherefore, he that is not condemned, or he that is under no condemnation, cannot repent; and unto such baptism availeth nothing. Mormon even calls the baptism of those who cannot sin a “solemn mockery” before God.
But I can’t help but think about the innocent children who partake of the sacrament every week, even my own children who ate the bread and drank the water from the time they could chew and swallow. We do not require them to understand, or even to believe. In this case, it is not a solemn mockery for the sinless to participate in a ritual designed for sinners–the ordinance beautifully signifies the salvation promised to them without condition, the salvation made possible through the sacrificed body and spilled blood of Christ. Watching little children partake of the sacrament reminds all of us whose children they are, and signifies their belonging in our community of saints.
And that is why I’m wistful when I think about Thomas’s baptism, the baptism that might not ever be. I want to see him lowered into the water and raised up again, alive in Christ. I want to see hands placed upon his head and hear him confirmed a member of the Church, and see my brothers and sisters raise their hands to welcome him into the fold. Would it really do any harm? And even if it availeth his soul nothing, wouldn’t it avail ours much?