Six months is an embarrassingly long time to go without a single baptism. So when the Ward Mission Leader (WML) from an adjacent ward invited me (another WML) to attend his baptismal service, I couldn’t pass up his offer. It had been so long, I was beginning to forget how to run the services myself. Best to make an appearance, and see how it’s done. Presumably my own elders would also attend the ordinance. Maybe some magic pixie dust would rub off, and they’d be motivated to find good candidates of their own for a good dunking. It certainly couldn’t hurt.
I entered the baptismal room just before the start of the meeting and surveyed the scene. Up in front sat three investigators in a row, all dressed in white — two men and a woman, whom I’ll call “Peter”, “Paul” and “Mary”. Something about the way these three were sitting, the way they weren’t interacting with each other, their body language — to say nothing of their distinct ethnicities — made it obvious they weren’t a family. These folks clearly didn’t know each other. Here were three totally independent investigators, all of whom happened to be getting baptized on the same day. “Great,” I thought. “My missionaries can’t seem to find a soul; meanwhile, this ward has three separate people joining the Church in one service. How depressing!”
I took my seat near the back as the baptismal service commenced. Everything proceeded smoothly. When the actual ordinance portion of the program arrived, Mary was the first in line. A 30-something blonde with a big grin on her face, she was clearly happy to be there. She slowly entered the font, where an awaiting elder gently took her hand. He briskly lowered her into the water, said a few words, and then up Mary came. She wiped away the water from her eyes, clasped her hands together, looked upward, and then exclaimed in a booming voice: “PRAISE THE LORD!! PRAISE JESUS!! HALLELUJAH!! PRAISE THE LORD!!!” Mary turned to ascend the stairs to her changing room, but a look of pure ecstacy remained on her face. “PRAISE THE LORD!!! PRAISE GOD!!! JESUS BE PRAISED!!!” she screamed. Her outbursts continued, even as she exited into the back room.
I cringed. This wasn’t the sort of reaction I was used to witnessing in the newly-baptized. Oh sure, happiness and smiles were to be expected, but Mary was so effusive, so over-the-top, so thunderously emotional in her outburts, it was downright embarrassing. I wanted to take her aside, and say: “Look lady, this just isn’t how things are done. You’re a Mormon now, and it’s high time you learn to act dignified and reverent and staid in your spirituality. None of this grating, evangelical fervor, thank you very much.” I tried to comfort myself with the realization that in time, Mary would come to unlearn her bad habits, and assimilate nicely into the culture of Mormonism.
But moments later, I starting feeling guilty for my initial response. Who was I to say what was and wasn’t an appropriate reaction to one of the most important religious ordinances in a person’s life? If Mary’s outbursts were genuine and heartfelt, if these were authentic expressions of religious joy, who was I to rain on her parade? Shame on me! She’d have ample opportunity for acculturation later, why couldn’t I just appreciate the spontaneous expression of religious feeling I was witnessing? What an anal-retentive stick-in-the-mud I was!
As I sat in my seat, mulling over my contradictory reactions to Mary’s emotionalism, Peter exited the room and then began his descent into the font. I looked at him, and then I suddenly experienced an odd premonition, a sense of foreboding. As Peter stepped into the water, it dawned on me that there was one big difference between Mary and Peter. Mary (presumably) had never attended an LDS baptismal service before. This was all entirely new to her. She was a blank slate, one who couldn’t possibly know how other investigators have reacted to their own baptisms in the past. But the same couldn’t be said of Peter. He had seen at least one LDS baptism previously — that of Mary, just moments before. “Oh, no!” I thought to myself. “What if …. ?”
My worst fears were realized. Peter arose from the water, and a new round of worshipful shouting began. “Praise Jesus!!! Praise the Lord!!! Hallelujah!! Praise Jesus!!!” Peter turned to exit the font, as Mary had done before him, and continued his verbal barrage: “Praise Jesus!!!” “Praise the Lord!!!” Praise God!!!” Just like Mary …. except not quite. Except for one palpable difference. While Mary had been unquestionably sincere, Peter seemed more like a nervous actor. He was aping Mary’s performance, trying his best to come off as authentic, but not too successfully. This made Peter’s theatrics even more awkward than Mary’s. But it was also kind of sad. Here’s a guy who should have been beaming with pride at his baptism, but all he seemed to be doing was remembering Mary’s reaction and thinking about how best to meet the expectations of his Mormon audience (as he imagined them).
Paul’s turn came next. Do I really need to tell you how it went? I knew what was coming, and braced myself for the worst. Sure enough, Paul repeated Peter’s performance, but with a terrible twist. While Paul’s outbursts were as inauthentic as Peter’s, Paul also seemed fully embarrassed to be playing a part he hadn’t wanted. His “Praise Jesuses” and “Praise the Lords” were uttered reluctantly, and without conviction. His intonation even rose at the end of each utterance, as if he was hesitantly posing questions: “Um, praise Jesus?” Praise the Lord?” Translation: “Um, folks, is this how it’s done? Is this what I’m supposed to say? I didn’t get the memo, so please don’t blame me if I emote incorrectly!”
All in all, a disaster.
* * *
Peter, Paul and Mary’s baptismal service was the most awkward baptismal service I have ever experienced. Three different baptizees, all publicly proclaiming their love for Jesus in decidedly un-Mormon fashion, but two of whom were only doing so out of a mistaken belief that this was how baptized Mormons were supposed to behave. And so I left the service, feeling bad about what I’d witnessed, feeling happy that three new churchmembers were embarking on a new phase of their lives, sure, but lamenting the awkward expressions of inauthentic religious feeling from two of them. And as I reflect back on this experience, I find myself wanting to extract a moral from it, wanting to frame it as a cautionary tale as I advocate for Mission policy X, Ward policy Y, or White Bible rule Z that will ensure nothing like this ever happens again.
Thing is, I can’t. What could the elders have done? What could anyone have done to prevent the investigators from reluctantly following Mary’s unusual lead? Forcing potential new members to attend at least one LDS baptismal service before their own service sounds like a sensible rule, but it isn’t realistic. Most wards and branches in the Church don’t see sufficient quantities of baptisms to make such a rule viable. Asking missionaries or Ward Mission Leaders to thoroughly review the ins-and-outs of baptismal protocol with investigators is perhaps important, but instructing baptizees to react in a certain way would be worse than saying nothing at all. Surely we don’t want to script new members’ reactions to their own joyous religious milestones. Honestly, what else can we do?
So in the end, I’m left with a different set of thoughts. Part of the reason I felt (and feel) for Peter and Paul is that I realize they’re not so unique after all. How many of us go through our religious lives, modeling our conversations, our testimonies, our religious language, after some imagined ideal, mimicking the manner and style of those whom we assume better represent orthodox Mormonism? How many of us feel trapped by confining modes of discourse, or seemingly unwritten rules concerning religiously correct vocabulary that we feel obliged to let direct the content of our testimonies, our comments in Gospel Doctrine class, our conversations with our fellow Saints? How many of us refrain from, say, publicly bearing testimony, out of fear that we will come off as too emotionally detached, or say the wrong things? No, our own experiences as churchmembers are not completely analogous to those of Peter and Paul; these gentleman had no idea what the cultural expectations of the Mormon community were, whereas typical LDS churchmembers know the expectations all too well. Still though, Peter and Paul’s awkward performances serve as a reminder that it’s all to easy to sacrifice authentic religious expression at the altar of community expectation.
I guess, at the end of the day, I wish I’d been able to take Peter and Paul aside beforehand and give them a message we all need to hear: There’s more than one right way to praise the Lord.