Nate Oman recently posted on the “evolution of excommunication.” In his essay, Nate outlined the shift of excommunication from a tool to enforce adjudication to the verdict of adjudication itself. Without reiterating the major points of his argument, I’d like to offer a different reading based on a frequent outcome of ecclesial discipline in the history of the Church: rebaptism.
In the back of many members’ minds, there is nebulous partition, which holds the miscellanea of church belief and practice that isn’t correlated to modern experience. Whether gleaned from a reading of Doctrines of Salvation, Journal of Discourses or from something their grandmother once said, there is often a host of historical bits unconnected to the whole. The idea that Latter-day Saints used to rebaptize is frequently one of these.
Rebaptism in Mormonism was first commonly seen in Nauvoo. One odd apostate described the practice and claimed that “it has been a caution to see the river foam with them on Sundays after meeting in warm pleasant days.”  It is in Nauvoo that we also see the rise of baptism for health;  but most probably remember the mass rebaptisms as the pioneers arrived in the Great Basin. Mass rebaptisms also occurred during the Mormon Reformation and arguably during the dedications of the Endowment House and Utah Temples.
Rebaptism was required throughout the nineteenth century for those who immigrated to the Great Basin, went to the temple, joined a united order, or those who repented of significant sin and wanted or needed by verdict of Church court to renew their covenants. It was thus common for members to be baptized many times during their lives, perhaps even dozens. From our modern perspective, the idea that one would be rebaptized when the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is readily available for such purposes, seems strange. However, this perspective is precisely that – modern.
My non-scientific sampling of the results of Church discipline derived from reading various diaries and correspondence does approximates some of what Nate describes in his post.  The frequent verdict of Church discipline was, if the subjects were penitent, a requirement of rebaptism. For example, in Southern Utah when one particularly belligerent individual had made threats and assaulted some community members, the Bishop asked, “Shall we cut [him] off & throw him away?” After some discussion, a man acting as his councilor wrote the response: ” Bishop Lunt’s decision was the [the subject] should Make a Public acknowledgement & be rebaptized for the remission of sins & begin a New again; this was the feeling of all Presant.” Sometimes, however, the verdict was to be cut-off and then rebaptized immediately. For example, local leaders had “cut off” an adulterous couple; Brigham Young then instructed the leaders to have the one lover who was married be divorced, and then have them both rebaptized, and then married.  Other times, Church Courts were not even held. For example, when one missionary in 1889 was struck with guilt over previously un-confessed sin, he wrote Church President Wilford Woodruff and expected to be relieved of his ministry. However, as the missionary described in his diary, Woodruff erred on the side of mercy:
He empathizes greatly and says he is very sorry that on having received so many blessings [I] should have given way to sin so great. Tells me he sees by my letter I have suffered much remorse and that I have truly repented. Exhorts me to strive the remainder of my life to serve God, and not allow Satan to cause me to feel there is no use. Says to get rebaptized and have all my priesthood and former blessings resealed upon me, but not to be in a hurry in doing so; meantime to apply myself diligently in magnifying my calling as a missionary. 
Though George Q. Cannon’s 1897 General Conference talk is generally viewed as the end of rebaptism, there were similar announcements made earlier and provision for rebaptism made much later. There is no question, however, that during this time there was a dramatic reduction in rebaptisms.  The last First Presidency instruction of which I am aware that called for rebaptism as a verdict of Church discipline was written in the 1910s.
Now, Nate noted in his post that the Church Court instructions in the Church Handbook from 1920-1940 (the first twenty years of material inclusion), stated:
The Penalty – The decision may specify compliance, or acts of restitution required of the guilty party, neglect of which will bring into operation certain penalties; or the penalty may be imposed unconditionally.
This instruction appears to summarize the working policy for many decades preceding its formalization. For example, when some boys in Cardston, Alberta were caught stealing in 1891, the offenders were subject to discipline and were directed to be rebaptized. However, before the ritual, the boys were commanded to make restitution.  I imagine that non-compliance would have resulted in severe action (because the larceny involved gentiles, the youth were compared to MMM perpetrators in their ability to skew perceptions of those outside the faith). Sometimes, repentance was not easy; as when one individual who had a drinking problem was disfellowshiped in 1885. As an observer wrote, the individual later “called on us went to the Bishops had a talk concerning his being disfellowshipped. a meeting was called at 5 O. Clock. He…made a statement. very good remarks in regard to his drunkeness and asked to be forgiven. on motitun the vote was unamous to forgive him. his baptism for the renewal of Covenants was set for tomorrow.” It is also important to note that Church Courts also observed the last sentence of the 1920-1940 instruction; especially in prominent public cases, individuals were excommunicated regardless of their degree of penance. 
After the death of Joseph F. Smith, the availability of rebaptism as possible verdict of Church Discipline disappeared. With Heber J. Grant’s ascendance to the Presidency, the church experienced a dramatic process of formalization and codification. Beyond the questions of authority and what it meant to be excommunicated, it appears to me that the absence of rebaptism as a viable signifier of recommitment to the Church led leaders to look to the formal punishments of disfellowshiping or excommunication as being necessary for certain individuals to make full penance. Nate suggests that this transition reached a major shift with the publication of Widtsoe’s Priesthood and Church Government. This work was the crystallization of the new priesthood bureaucratization.  And while the types of cases engaged by Church courts shifted, so too did the type of possible judgements.
- Oliver H. Olney, The Absurdities of Mormonism Portrayed (n.p., ca. 1843), 8. Many decades later, Brigham Young described Joseph Smith telling him that the revelation that authorized baptism for the dead, also authorized rebaptism. Brigham Young, Sermon, June 23, 1874, Journal of Discourses, 18:241 . Various denominations engaged the idea of rebaptism at the time of Joseph Smith, including the Reformed Methodists, Campbellites and the Dunkers. Mormon rebaptism has a character that is fairly distinct from these groups, however. Sam was the guy that originally pointed out the Olney account – thanks Sam.
- See Stapley and Wright, “‘They Shall Be Made Whole’: A History of Baptism for Health,” Journal of Mormon History 38 (Fall 2008): 69-112.
- Note that while I have archived a significant number of rebaptismal accounts, I didn’t consult them for this post, which uses examples that I remembered and seemed pertinent. It consequently shouldn’t be viewed as definitive.
- Robert Glass Cleland and Juanita Brooks, eds., A Mormon Chronicle: The Diaries of John D. Lee, 1848-1876, 2 vols. (San Marino, Cal.: The Huntington Library, 1955), 2:22.
- Fred C. Collier, The Office Journal of President Brigham Young, 1858-1863, Book D, (Hannah: Collier’s Publishing Co., 2006), 113. I think it is somewhat important to contrast this softer side of Brigham against the blood-atonement-spouting caricature.
- William B. Smart, Mormonism’s Last Colonizer: The Life and Times of William H. Smart, (Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 2008), 67.
- Stapley and Wright, “‘They Shall Be Made Whole,'” includes the most complete discussion of the end of rebaptism to date. Rebaptism was not the core of the paper, and consequently there is yet much to be written.
- Donald G. Godfrey and Brigham Y. Card, eds., The Diaries of Charles Ora Card: The Canadian Years 1886-1903, (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1993), 180-1.
- Diary Excerpts of J.D.T. McAllister, March 6, 1885, in New Mormon Studies CD-ROM.
- See for example the case of John Q. Cannon as described in the Spring 2009 Journal of Mormon History.
- The process of bureaucratic modernization that was initiated under JFS burgeoned into a reform of liturgy and church law under Grant. From 1920 to 1940, and in response to claims of authority by schismatic polygamist groups (which also evidenced the declension of rebaptism for the case of institutional apostasy), Church leaders began to more fully associate priesthood with ecclesial bureaucracy. Consequently, excommunication from the Church also was reformed to signify a complete and total break with all godly authority. On the interaction of fundamentalism, priesthood and Widtsoe’s volume, see Daymon Mickel Smith, “The Last Shall Be First and the First Shall Be Last: Discourse and Mormon History” (Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania, 2007).