On baptism

Talk delivered in my ward recently.

In considering the meanings of baptism, I want to reflect on several interrelated elements, including baptism as washing clean, baptism as death and resurrection, and baptism as adoption.

First, though, some history.

In Judaism, the ritual bathing called tevilah was very important. The concept behind this ritual, which took place in a special fresh water font called a mikveh, was that people needed to be washed clean. The world early Jews inhabited was filled with risks for uncleanness. Though they held very different ideas about the ways disease could move from person to person, there are some at least superficial similarities between their worries about contagion and our germ theory of disease. Most important to them was that they stay ritually clean before God, that they did not carry too much of the world with them. It was also a way to imagine that the temple was always present and sacred. It was a place so sacred you had to cleanse yourself before entering it. For modern Jews who must live without an actual temple, these ritual washings may be a way to look forward to the restoration of the temple with the eye of faith.

The group of Jewish sectarians who created a small utopian community on the shores of the Dead Sea and were the source of what we call the Dead Sea Scrolls placed heavy emphasis on these types of cleansing ceremonies. Their scriptures included careful directions for ritual baths in the mikveh. Through them they maintained their status as the Children of Light, separated from the Children of Darkness.
Christians and their Jewish peers lived at a time dominated by Roman society and Roman religion, both in its official version and in what were called mystery religions. In the mystery religions particularly, believers were baptized into the death and rebirth of the patron god of the mystery. Participants saw these ritual cleansings as affecting eternity, as providing them new identity, sealing their association with a powerful God. In these pagan rites, many of us will see hints and echoes of the baptism that Christ revealed to his followers, even as we sense the limitations to these views.

With this historical context in mind, John the Baptist’s ministry is remarkable in several ways. First he taught that baptism was something someone else did to you. In general baptism in the ancient world was something you did to yourself, while John performed baptism on others. The baptism of John was not just a private observance, it was an ordinance that brought you into intimate connection with other people. Second, the baptism of John was something performed once for all. Instead of undergoing baptism every time you became ritually unclean, you were baptized once, effective for all your life. John, as we know, was a forerunner in the Spirit of Elias, preparing the way for the revelation of Christ. Baptism as Jesus revealed it, both through his teachings and those of his apostles, included those elements but added to them the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection. Christ was the head to whom the patron gods of the mystery religions only pointed. He was the consummation of millennia of yearning. We as Latter-day Saints also have access to knowledge about baptism that takes this all one step further.

With this historical context in our minds, now I want to reflect on three clusters of meaning related to baptism. I want to ponder together how baptism shapes our lives and our faith.

I. Baptism as washing clean

For the early Latter-day Saints, baptism meant many things. First, baptism was a rite that certain types of Protestants debated as a point of theological controversy—the Baptists, for example, carried in their very name their protest against infant baptism and the importance of believer’s baptism after childhood. Most, afraid of sounding too Catholic, rejected the possibility that baptism was a sacrament, what we call a saving ordinance. Baptism was seen by most Protestants as fundamental to conversion, though many argued whether it was essentially a marker of conversion.

From the beginning the Prophet Joseph indicated that baptism was a sacred and powerful act. In the Old Testament, the prophet Isaiah spoke about the sacred power of God to cleanse us. In the touching language of the King James Bible (1:18), “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” For many believers as well as the early Saints, baptism was a story about being washed clean.

As the Lord began to reveal the ordinances of the temple to the Latter-day Saints, baptism gained more context. In the 1835-1836 preparations for the dedication of the Kirtland Temple, the Saints experienced several sacred encounters with holy fluids. In a tender ritual recalling interpersonal kindness and the presence of the Savior, they washed each other’s feet. Remembering the power of priesthood within the Old Testament, they anointed each other’s heads with olive oil. In preparation for the sacred experiences of the temple they also cleaned themselves with water and cinammon-infused whiskey. In that era many people feared bathing, particularly with cold water, but the Saints knew that they needed to be clean in order to participate in the ordinances of the Kirtland temple, and they followed the Prophet’s lead in preparing their bodies to enter the temple. We see in these preparations the same attention to cleansing that was present in the Old Testament temple as well as a reminder that these acts of cleansing were subservient to the creation of a society, “a determination that is fixed, immovable, and unchangeable,” as Section 88 suggests. Through their washings the Saints committed to be “friend[s]” and “brother[s]” “through the grace of God in the bonds of love.”

There are two images I want to leave with you in terms of baptism as cleansing. First, the sacred language of Isaiah, the promise that God can heal and purify and make of us something we have never been before. Second, the ways that those cleansing acts serve to bind us together in Zion society.

II. Baptism as death and resurrection.

I am delighted and inspired by the power of baptism to wash clean. To stop, though, with only that image will leave us without a full understanding of this sacred ordinance. One of the contaminations that required cleansing in ancient Judaism was contact with the dead. Yet anointing the body of the dead is central to several encounters with Christ. A woman anoints Christ’s feet with spikenard; he explains that she does so “for his burial”; when Mary comes to the garden tomb to anoint Christ’s now deceased body she finds instead an angel and an empty tomb. Death and anointing are closely associated in the Scriptures.

We should remember that waters were not just for cleansing in the ancient Near East. They were often also indications of chaos and darkness. We who inhabit a world with excellent plumbing do not necessarily understand the omnipresence of unsafe, brackish, or saline water, but it was clear to these people that water could be both “living” and dead. Beyond the dangers of unsafe water, there is the specter of drowning even in pure water. Accidents in rivers or lakes, the sinking of a ship were all too familiar examples of the ways that water could engulf a world. Water carries within it the specter of death.

Water also, though, mediates between the worlds of the living and the dead as we transition from life within our mothers to life in the outside world. We float in amniotic fluid nourished through our navels by our mother’s blood, and with a rush of water and some maternal misery, we draw breath into our lungs, changing ourselves from something like fish to something like humans. Immersion in water carries with it these ancient images and associations with life and death, with birth and passage.

Christ’s ministry brought these elements together in a brilliant splash of eternal light. Paul clarified beautifully to the Roman church the power of baptism as integration into Christ’s life death, and resurrection.

3Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? 4Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. 5For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection: 6Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. 7For he that is dead is freed from sin. 8Now if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him: 9Knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him. 10For in that he died, he died unto sin once: but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God. 11Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Paul is not always easy to understand, but he has a relatively straightforward point to make here. Christ’s death and resurrection are meant to be models to us; his resurrection is a symbol and guidepost to us of our new lives as Saints. And the astoundingly physical act of being buried in water—that medium without which we die and within which we also die—is a ritual that aligns our own feeble bodies with the beautiful and saving grace that resides in Christ.

The image I want you to remember from this brief discussion of water and death is the marvelous image of rebirth, of dying with Christ only to be resurrected with him.

III. Baptism as adoption

Many scholars have commented on the differences between Christian baptism and the baptisms of Judaism and pagan religion. They draw attention to the fact that by and large the ritual cleansings were something you performed upon yourself, while the baptism into Christ was something performed for you by someone else. There is in Christian baptism something to my eye profoundly interhuman. In this respect the ordinance of baptism stays true to the meaning of priesthood, which is at its very core relational.

There is another very clear sense in which baptism is communal, one that the prophet Joseph expanded dramatically during the Restoration.

In Paul’s letter to the Romans come some of my favorite lines of scripture.

14For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God.15For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. 16The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: 17And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together.

Paul is teaching the Romans that the old segregation of people based on their lineage, the restriction of God’s blessings to only the people of Israel, has been obliterated. Through Christ we are all adopted into the chosen family of heaven; through Christ we become the heirs of God.

According to the Prophet Joseph, the ordinance associated with sacred adoption was baptism. In baptism for the dead, the meaning of baptism for the living became clear. As Joseph wrote in his now-canonized 1842 letter to the church clarifying the meaning of baptism for the dead,

Herein is glory and honor, and immortality and eternal life—The ordinance of baptism by water, to be immersed therein in order to answer to the likeness of the dead, that one principle might accord with the other; to be immersed in the water and come forth out of the water is in the likeness of the resurrection of the dead in coming forth out of their graves; hence, this ordinance was instituted to form a relationship with the ordinance of baptism for the dead, being in likeness of the dead. Consequently, the baptismal font was instituted as a similitude of the grave, and was commanded to be in a place underneath where the living are wont to assemble, to show forth the living and the dead, and that all things may have their likeness, and that they may accord one with another—that which is earthly conforming to that which is heavenly

Attend carefully to the language here, the fact that baptism is an act of dying implies strongly that baptism would be performed for the dead as well as the living. And baptism for the dead is the method by which we will form a chain of belonging in which we are all bound together with our ancestors. In baptism stands the promise that we all can be members of the body of Christ, children in the family of heaven.

From this section, what I want you to remember is the concept that through baptism we are adopted into the family of God.

Epilogue: Things that happen once in our lives

In closing I want to reflect for a few moments on what it means for baptism to happen once in our lives. Scholars of ancient religion emphasize repeatedly that what distinguished Christian baptism from its antecedents in the ancient world was that it was performed once, for all time, rather than repeatedly every time an infraction had occurred. What does it mean that it happens once? What else happens “once for all” in our lives?

I believe that baptism as adoption helps to clarify this concept. The fact that baptism occurs once also represents the earnest hope that a relationship will be enough to save us. Baptism reminds us that we are forever the children of God and it is an ordinance in which we acknowledge, even embrace our status as members of that family. Just as we are born physically only once, so are we born again only once.

In a related sense, baptism is a reminder that faith is a kind of remembering, a way of holding fast to the divine vision, to the awareness of our family ties. It also, I think, reminds us that we live our lives directionally, that there is—however convoluted our paths may seem—a place where we may end up. As part of this awareness, baptism which happens once for all reminds me that God is not keeping a tally of every single slipup. I am not baptized every time I am petty or careless or unkind. Because those failings of mine are absorbed into our relationship, because what God wants from me is my sonhood.

There is also in baptism the hope that our adoption into the family of God means that we can participate, however tentatively, in his timelessness. My wonderful daughters teach me many things. One thing I love to have learned from them is their utter disregard for the internal structure of the past. Any prior time period is “the ‘nother day.” “Do you remember, Daddy, how I liked to stick out my tongue when I was born the ‘nother day?” “Do you remember how you promised that we could go to Hogwarts on the ‘nother day?” Our baptism can hover over our pasts and inform our presents in the same way, occupying a favored place in our histories. Each time we sing the familiar and much loved song “I am a Child of God,” we remember and invoke the sacred relationship sealed in the waters of baptism.

Because this was a sacrament talk, I have not footnoted sources or done much by way of revision or polishing. Something about baptism may make its way into the devotional volume I have on the backburner.


  1. Kevin Barney says:

    Outstanding. You’ve got a lucky ward, Sam.

    As I read this, I had the thought that were I an investigator who happened to be in attendance that day, I would be much more motivated to consider baptism by this talk than by the normal platitudes we toss around about it. It’s a vital sacrament, and deserves an explication with some actual heft to it.

    This kind of hit home for me, because on FB Tracy posted pictures of her Bean being baptized, and so I thought of him being adopted into the family of God, and it was a such a lovely thought.

    Another thought I had as I read this was, what would have happened if the second speaker thoughtlessly went way over his assigned time, as too often happens? The ward would have missed out on much of this carefully crafted and beautiful sermon. To absorb the majority of the last speaker’s time is beyond thoughtless; it’s just plain rude.

    (Personal to Sam: I put your death book on my Christmas wish list, and since there are only three items on the list I’m highly confident that Santa-Sandra will have a copy under the tree for me on Christmas morn.)

  2. fashypants says:

    I love the thought “what God wants from me is my sonhood”. If I could focus on this idea, rather than focusing on checking off a list of things I should be doing daily, I would be more apt to pray and read because it would be for the sake of the relationship. The whole talk was very insightful. Yes, your ward is lucky.

  3. Sharee Hughes says:

    This was absolutely beauiful. Thank you for posting. Want to come to my ward and give it?

  4. Great stuff, Sam. Do you think that the introduction of rebaptism back in the day was concious of the ancient antecedents?

  5. Thank you for this Sam. I baptized my twins yesterday. This particularly means a lot to me today.

  6. Stapley, I was thinking of you the whole time but felt like my sacrament meeting was not the time[1] to talk about the practice of rebaptism in the early Church. I think early LDS liturgy was in dramatic flux, and as they assembled the fragments of ancient religion, sometimes they sounded more pre-Christian than Christian. The decision to end rebaptism certainly brought them more clearly into the Christian tradition on that point. The question of how to integrate the multiplicity of baptism for the dead (limited only by time, imagination, and the genealogical record) and the singularity of baptism per se I think is a potentially fruitful one that I did not pursue.

    [1] If I’m reading the tea leaves correctly, this means that I have not “come clean” about early LDS liturgy and therefore am an obscurantist, which is a calling to which I have always felt drawn.
    [2] Thanks for the kind words, Kevin
    [3] Baptizing my firstborn a year ago was a spiritual highlight for me.

  7. This is fabulous. It’s one of the best explanations of baptism I’ve seen. Thank you for sharing.

  8. Hurrah.

  9. Steve Evans says:

    Sam, how do we know that “the baptism of John was something performed once for all”?

  10. TP, your jokes on the climate change thread are so good that I feel honored to have your salutation here.
    Steve Evans, that’s pretty much dogma in the scholarly literature I consulted.

  11. Excellent stuff. Would that General Conference or the Ensign could capture some depth like this.

  12. I missed church today due to illness. Thanks for giving me a spiritual sabbath uplift.

  13. Would be nice to see you expand this thought although I realize in a talk your time constraints are limited. One question though, by starting with the history you seem(?) to imply baptism as an evolution of ancient rites rather than ancient rites seemingly being derrived from fallen and lost notions of baptism (see J.S teachings on baptism in every dispensation). It would also love to see you weave in the notions of baptism found in the BoM particularly the waters of mormon and pre date Christ by 150 years or so. I appreciated this as a read and I wonder how others in the ward felt about it as a sacrament talk.

  14. @chris, great feedback. The account you provide goes by many different names but I think it’s most usefully evoked with the terms “prisca theologia,” and I try to make sure that my accounts are compatible with either a prisca theologia view or an evolutionary view (on the p.t. view Judaism and mystery religions had “corrupted” versions of ancient baptism rather than their own independent baptisms). I will be sure to reread the Book of Mormon accounts as I refine this for publication. As for reception, my ward puts up with me and are great, so they seemed pleased with the talk, but I of course don’t know anything except what they tell me.

  15. Very nice Sam. Thanks for sharing. Obscurantist I’m not, but I can appreciate the position. I wonder if the panorama of Mormonism is shrinking on prisca theologica (an interesting appropriation). Hope not. But then I wonder.

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