In reading the President Veazey’s “Counsel to the Church” in anticipation of the Community of Christ’s next general conference, I reflected on the general approaches to church governance represented in this document as well as our own tradition. Specifically, I was intrigued by the CoC’s apparent move to accept the baptisms of other Christians (noting that confirmation is still required). My gut reaction was incredulity. Rebaptism was central to early Mormonism. However, our tradition has equally diverged from early practice and so I think it is instead a great opportunity to look at how our own praxis evolves.
Despite the recent writings of George D. Smith, derogatory comparisons to the Munster Anabaptists have historically been targeted at Baptists in all their flavors. Vitriol by the wagon load. Baptists weathered the criticism fairly well, but by the time of the Restoration, there was still tremendous theological resistance by those who rejected rebaptism. The earliest Mormon engagement in the debate is fascinating.
Ten days after the organization of the Church, “a Revelation [was] given to Joseph the Seer[.] Some were anxious to Join the Church without Rebaptism & Joseph enquired of the Lord & he received as follow”:
Behold I say unto you that all old covenants have I caused to be done away in this thing & this is a New & an everlasting covenant even the same which was from the beginning wherefore although a man shouldest be baptized an hundred times it availeth him nothing for you cannot enter into the strait gate by the law of Moses neither by your dead works for it is because of your dead works that I have caused this last covenant 
It is fascinating to me that the voice of the Lord appears to associate non-Mormon baptism with the Law of Moses, something that is a valid, though no longer complete, mode of righteousness (see this interesting discussion as well). And the missionaries preached this new covenant of baptism and associated laying on of hands with priesthood authority with great success (also note that rebaptism was a significant controversy among the Campbellites). Parley P. Pratt, in his Voice of Warning used baptism as the means by which we become citizens of the Kingdom of God and his heirs through the law of adoption. Baptism had many meanings.
In Nauvoo repeat baptism of church members became common. While in Utah, rebaptism occurred upon emigration to the Great Basin, as a prerequisite to the temple rituals, before joining a united order, and after Church discipline (among others), in Nauvoo it appears to have been a practice of generally piety and recommitment. Additionally in late 1841, along with Baptism for the Dead, Joseph Smith revealed a new healing ritual – Baptism for Health. He preached at the following spring General Conference: “baptisms for the dead, and for the healing of the body must be in the [temple] font, those coming into the Church, and those re-baptized may be baptized in the river.” 
However, unlike his first five years when Joseph Smith committed his revelatory innovations to writing , Smith generally left all of his Nauvoo revelations orally. Expanded cosmology, the Quorum of the Anointed, the Council of Fifty, Rebaptisms, and more. It was not until Orson Pratt trolled through the History of the Church in the 1870s in order to bring the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants up to speed that Nauvoo era materials were canonized.
Throughout the nineteenth century, rebaptisms were quite common. Though both rebaptism for the renewal of covenants and baptism for health were performed outside the temples as well as in, the temple records provide a wonderful window in which to view the practices. The following are charts included in Kris’s and my history of baptism for health :
As you can see, rebaptism was generally ended in the last decade of the twentieth century (though it lagged on for a couple of decades) and baptism for health ended during the great liturgical reforms of the Heber J. Grant administration in the 1920s.  While the move away from rebaptism was controversial in some quarters, baptism for health ended with no significant comment. As the debates surrounding these forms of baptism in the governing quorums show, however, Church authorities did not know where the practices came from. When Pratt updated the Doctrine and Covenants, he was neither critical nor exhaustive.
Furthermore, whereas the Reorganization went back to the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants and continued to expand it textually, the Utah church continued in Joseph Smith’s later tradition of not committing revelatory changes to text. Joseph Smith had no problem simply ignoring past revelation to make room for the new. The Utah church grew to be more conservative than that, but the result was that the living voice of God perpetually trumps all (though in recent years there is also a significant impulse to emphasize Joseph’s early revelations that are recorded). There is a tremendous flexibility in this non-cannonization mode of revelatory leadership.
I’m not at all familiar with the current Community of Christ and how the move toward ecumenical baptism and open communion will be accepted. In their early rejection of Nauvoo theology, they also used rebaptism as a sign of the Brighamite apostasy. They accepted the baptisms of all Restorationist believers. Perhaps this perspective facilitated the current ecumenical shift.
- Jensen, et al., Manuscript Revelation Books, 35 [D&C 22].
- Joseph Smith, “Conference Minutes,” Times and Seasons 3 (April 15, 1842): 763.
- I can’t recommend Robin Jensen’s recent Master’s thesis enough on this topic. “‘Rely upon the Things which Are Written’: Text, Context, and the Creation of Mormon Revelatory Records” (MLIS thesis, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 2009).
- Jonathan A. Stapley and Kristine Wright, “‘They Shall Be Made Whole’: A History of Baptism for Health,” Journal of Mormon History 34 (Fall 2008): 69-112.
- See ibid., for the most complete account of both.