Excommunication as a function of rebaptism

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.” [1] It is in Nauvoo that we also see the rise of baptism for health; [2] 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. [3] 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.”[4] 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. [5] 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. [6]

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. [7] 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. [8] 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.”[9] 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. [10]

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. [11] And while the types of cases engaged by Church courts shifted, so too did the type of possible judgements.


  1. 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.
  2. See Stapley and Wright, “‘They Shall Be Made Whole’: A History of Baptism for Health,” Journal of Mormon History 38 (Fall 2008): 69-112.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. William B. Smart, Mormonism’s Last Colonizer: The Life and Times of William H. Smart, (Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 2008), 67.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. Diary Excerpts of J.D.T. McAllister, March 6, 1885, in New Mormon Studies CD-ROM.
  10. See for example the case of John Q. Cannon as described in the Spring 2009 Journal of Mormon History.
  11. 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).


  1. Interesting. It sounds like disfellowshipping didn’t exist so much back then as a separate end to a disciplinary council.

  2. Interesting. Of course, in the early days, rebaptism was common and encouraged as a sort of renewal, no? When it was part of discipline, it appears to have included an acknowledgment of sin or misbehavior. Good stuff as always, Stapley.

  3. Great stuff, J.

  4. Matt, while I would have to do some digging to determine what exactly it meant back then. Disfellowshipping did occur (see, e.g., fn9).

    Margaret, you are correct. It appears that of all the rebaptisms done in the nineteenth century, those that grew from repentance were probably much less common than those done for other reasons.

    Cheers, Ben.

  5. Interesting stuff as always, J.

  6. As a ward clerk, I am kinda glad we don’t do all those rebaptisms today. MLS couldn’t take it.

  7. “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.”

    Uh, OK [scratching head].

  8. Didn’t mean anything negative by the above. With the cobwebs this morning, I am having difficulty wrapping my brain around anything other than layman’s terms.

    Nice post.

  9. I have heard Oliver Olney described variously, but never more aptly than “one odd apostate.”

    Thank you for this helpful piece J.

  10. Stephanie says:

    Used this way, rebaptisms remind me of doing penance.

    For example, Brigham Young instructed local leaders in one case of adultery, to have the lovers be divorced from their spouses, cut off, rebaptized, and then married.

    Forgive my confusion, but did the adulterers marry each other or back to their original spouses?

  11. Stapley, I love everything you do. Great stuff.

  12. At a disciplinary council I attended, I once heard the deciding priesthood leader state that the reason he had decided on excommunication was because he had, while praying about he decision, had a vision of the person’s coming again out of the waters of baptism as a cleansing for his sins.

    It is too bad that the current structure of Church discipline disallows immediate rebaptism as a symbolic remedy, and requires instead a minimum period of one year during which theoretically the previous baptism and gift of the Holy Ghost are considered revoked (along with, for a much longer period, all temple covenants and blessings for the individual).

    There is a school of thought that during this period of ordinance revocation, the peninent person is even “delivered to the buffetings of Satan”–that this is the result of losing the gift of the Holy Ghost and having revoked the previous baptismal remission of sins. This, of course, is not an official Church teaching (the buffetings of Satan theory), it is not supported by anything in current handbooks or current correlated materials.

    But I think it is commonly believed in the Church either (1) that an excommunicant’s sins become unremitted upon excommunication and his or her sins cannot be forgiven until rebaptism, and (2) that an excommunicant is cut off from regular contract with God’s spirit because of the revocation of the gift of the Holy Ghost.

    I personally perfer the Catholic view that excommunication may severe one’s relationship with the church, but not the relationship with God. That one’s baptism remains intact.

  13. Stephanie, the adulterers were instructed to marry each other.

  14. Stephanie [and others], please note that I just changed the original post to better reflect the source. I was going from memory and just looked up the page number of the material and didn’t re-read it carefully. I have fixed that, but it changes a bit the details of the situation.

  15. Stephanie says:

    I should probably try to read the original source because I am so uncomfortable with that. Have an affair, divorce your spouse, get rebaptized, get married, and all is hunky dory? I wouldn’t mind a little more hell-fire-damnation from BY on that one.

  16. Stephanie, there is plenty of Youngian hellfire and damnation to go around on that topic. I also think it is important not to project our current conceptions of sociality onto nineteenth century Utah.

  17. Stephanie,
    Read anything from Young for J.M. Grant between late 1855 and the summer of 1857. That should fill all of your fire and brimstone needs–and then some!

  18. Very cool. As always.

  19. aloysiusmiller says:

    Priesthood bureaucratization? What does this mean? Did the church used to be truer than it is now? Did we change from revelation to administration?

  20. Well done, Staples. “angry psychotic” is another possible epithet for Olney. (This is the guy who robbed a store and then said that the Ancient of Days put him up to it–Adam starting his food storage maybe?)

  21. aloysiusmiller, if you really want to answer those questions, as a start check out Alexander’s Mormonism in Transition, Smith’s dissy in the last footnote, Hartley’s articles on the priesthood reform movement.

  22. aloysiusmiller says:

    That doesn’t seem to be an answer to me. What do you think?

  23. It actually is an answer. But a short response is that I do not think that the Church is, as you say, less true now.

  24. He could also read a little Max Weber

  25. Good one, J. The Woodruff:Snow -> JFS -> HJG period deserves much more study.

  26. aloysiusmiller says:

    24 I could but I am not smart like that.

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