A History of Baptism for Health

Three years ago, I sat in a nice café with Kris and her husband John. By the end of the dinner, it was evident that Kris and I shared a complimentary passion for Mormon history and an interest in its particulars. This week, the first fruits of our (if I may say) fabulous collaboration hit my mailbox in the form of the Fall 2008 issue of Journal of Mormon History. I am planning to do a non-critical review of the issue in the near future; but I thought I would throw up a brief outline of “‘They Shall Be Made Whole’: A History of Baptism for Health.”

After a cool 1890 account of a baptism for health in the St. George Temple, we highlight the relative lack of discussion of baptism for health in the scholarly literature. We point out the biblical healings associated with washing and briefly the post biblical baptism for health rites and cultural associations of Baptism with healing. Healing was a particular evidence of the Restoration and it was common for people to be healed during their baptisms or confirmations.

Nauvoo: Ritual Formalization
Joseph Smith viewed the temple as a specific space for healing and as he adapted baptism on behalf of the deceased, at the same time, Church leaders announced baptism for health as a discrete healing rite. Church leaders preached about it and led the way by example. Though Joseph Smith taught that baptism for health was reserved to the temple font, he soon started doing it outside the temple. Several variations of the ritual emerged.

Exodus and Early Utah
Latter-day Saints used baptism for health wherever they went and it was so common that details were frequently left out of contemporary accounts.

Return of the Temple Font and Utah Temple Practice
While Mormons continued to baptize for health outside of their temples, with the Endowment House font, they again went to their sacral sanctuaries to participate in healing. Loads of fun examples. Specific policies were formulated for temple healing and there are some interesting things about several aspects of ritual healing as a bonus. Temples kept statistics of baptisms for health, which we show in fun charts.

Rebaptism and Baptism for Health
Lots of folks have heard about rebaptism. I believe this is the most complete account of its end currently published and we show how that affected baptism for health.

Controversy and Cessation, 1910-1922
As the section title indicates, this shows how and why things ended…but I don’t want to spoil it.


Thanks for indulging a giddy author. Also, consider joining the Mormon History Association to get the journal mailed to you every three months.

Congrats Kris.


  1. Mark Brown says:

    Congrats Kris and J. I can’t wait for my copy.

  2. My hearty congratulations to you both, J. and Kris.

  3. This is just tremendous stuff. Almost thou dost convince me to subscribe, J.

    So is there a connection between temple washings/anointings and baptisms for health? Clearly the initiatories have much to do with promises of health and strength, both physical and spiritual, but “baptism” as an ordinance seems different to me from “washings.”

  4. John Mansfield says:

    This is happy news for you and a benefit to all of us.

  5. Thanks, all.

    Steve, that is a good question. Baptism for health was announced in 1841, before the Nauvoo temple rites had been delivered. However, like baptism was adapted to healing, temple rituals from both Kirtland and Nauvoo were adapted to healing pretty quickly. So you see washings and anointings for health the same time the Temple opens. Those continued as well into the 20th century as well. Kris and I get into the details of this ritual development in our next paper (which will hopefully be published within the year) called, “The Forms and Power: The Development of Mormon Ritual Healing to 1847.”

  6. Aaron Brown says:

    Sounds interesting! And now I suppose I need to subscribe to yet another Mormon journal that I say I’m going to read religiously, but that I surely won’t. Sigh.


  7. Congrats, J & Kris; I can’t wait to read it.

  8. Mad props, Stape. I look forward to reading the completed version.

  9. Congratulations, J. and Kris. I’m looking forward to reading it.

  10. Congrats! I’m looking forward to reading it.

  11. Here’s hoping for efficient postal service. It looks like a great article.

    Do y’all attempt to correlate changes in BfH with changes in medical knowledge/practice? More particularly, do you detect a retreat from faith-based healing or is it simply a shift in form, i.e., saying that annointing and laying on hands is as efficacious as BfH?

  12. There is what Kris and I call a formalization and rationalization of Latter-day Saint liturgy, in the 20th century generally. JFS and Lund kept the Church with the old ways to a surprising extent, but the post-Lund Grant administration was transformative. Healing is a really great test case for this.

    The modernization of medical science was a big impetus, I believe, in this rationalization. You see it in the shedding of practices that seemed more and more magical, e.g., the therapeutic use of oil.

  13. Congrats to both. Awaiting my copy of JMH. Glad to see more work on liturgy and the body.

  14. Big time congratulations to you both!

  15. Congratulations J. This is a great contribution.

  16. Kevin Barney says:

    Sounds great, J. Congrats to you both. It’s always fun to see one of your authored babies make an appearance in your mailbox!

  17. At this point you’re supposed to autograph the offprints with a cute little message and send them to your friends.

  18. This is really interesting. I subscribed to the Mormon Journal just now so I hope I am privileged to receive this particular issue!

  19. Congrats to you both. The first I’m sure of several quality contributions.

  20. That sounds like a lovely article.

    I’m looking forward to reading that!

  21. So fascinating…that I just subscribed!

  22. Just saw this post after being away for a few days and it made me smile, Jonathan. Thanks to all our blog friends for being excited for us.

  23. It may be of interest that the Apostolic United Brethren still allows Baptism for Health, although it is not a very common practice, it does still occur.

    Is anyone aware of any other Mormon group that still does this?

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