To set the stage, I’m going to quote a number of relevant entries from my mission journal. These entries are from my time in Grand Junction, Colorado, in 1978. I have changed all names:
[6/29] I challenged Debbie Bell today. We didn’t get a commitment, but she didn’t say no, either.
[7/5] We committed Debbie Bell today. She’s really good–just a slight problem with coffee. Unfortunately, she’s living in a common-law marriage, so we’re not sure we can dunk her. Jones dunked Tricia Turner in Fruita, though, and she was living in a common-law marriage, so I think maybe we can do it. Cross your fingers.
[7/6] I went with Elder Stone to interview Debbie. She had had an abortion, so we had Pres. Samuels interview her tonight, and she passed! I’ll be performing the baptism. It’s cool.
[7/8] Well, I baptized number 13 today. In order for a marriage to be common-law, the people have to be using the same last name, and I was afraid Debbie wouldn’t let us do that, but as it turned out, she didn’t care. I got it on the first try, so I still haven’t blown one (of course, she’s only the fourth person I’ve ever dunked).
[7/9] We attended Executive Priesthood meeting at 7:15 a.m. Bishop sort of got on our case about the marriage being common-law, but I expected that.
That doesn’t sound like much, but as it turns out there was a lot going on behind the scenes that I didn’t know about at the time. We had had the ZLs ask the MP about the common-law marriage situation, and after checking with legal counsel he gave us a list of requirements that had to be met for a common-law marriage under Colorado law. Debbie and her boyfriend lived together and had a child together. They didn’t consider themselves to be married, but as it turned out they met the requirements and so we got the go-ahead to perform the baptism.
The bishop’s reaction directly to us sounds pretty tepid from my journal entry, but I later found out that the local leaders were furious that this baptism was allowed. In their view they now had a baptized member who immediately upon baptism was still living in sin with a man. The uproar became so dramatic that the MP ended up pulling both of us out of that area, transferring us to different areas and (temporarily) closing that area, which was kind of a big deal because it included the downtown portion of the city together with the Redlands. It’s not a ward where missionaries would normally have been pulled out, but for the scandal of Debbie’s baptism.
As you can tell from my journal entries, at the time I just wanted the baptism to happen and was thrilled when it did. There was a time after my mission when I sympathized with the local leaders, and saw this baptism of a woman living with her boyfriend as a symptom of the baptize-at-all-costs culture we had. But then later I sort of reversed course and sympathized with the MP; if Debbie were legally married under Colorado law, why should it matter whether that marriage was formally effected or common-law?
So what do you think about this? Was the MP in the right to greenlight this baptism? Were the local leaders justified in being [really] upset about it? (In retrospect, I’m glad that I was just a lowly missionary at the time and this drama was all taking place above my pay grade.)