Who’ll Be a Witness for My Lord?

This week the Church announced changes to the proxy-baptism liturgy, one of which I’d like to focus on: witnesses. Before last week, the baptismal liturgy included two Melchizedek priesthood officers standing by, observing, and certifying that the ritual was performed in accordance to the prescribed form. The introduction of formal witnesses to the liturgy is unclear, but my sense is that is related to Joseph Smith’s letters (now canonized in D&C 127 and 128):

From the September 1, 1842 letter:

And again I give unto you a word in relation to the Baptism for your dead. Verily thus saith the Lord unto you concerning your dead when any of you are baptised for your dead let there be a recorder, and let him be eyewitness of your baptisms; let him hear with his ears that he may testify of a truth, saith the Lord; that in all your recordings it may be recorded in Heaven, that whatsoever you bind on earth may be bound in heaven; whatsoever you loose on earth may be loosed in heaven; for I am about to restore many things to the Earth, pertaining to the Priesthood saith the Lord of Hosts. And again let all the Records be had in order, that they may be put in the archives of my Holy Temple
to be held in remembrance from generation to generation saith the Lord of Hosts

And again in his September 6, 1842, letter:

It was declared in my former letter that there should be a Recorder who should be eye-witness, and also to hear with his ears, that he might, make a Record of a truth before the Lord. Now in relation to this matter, it would be very difficult for one Recorder to be present at all times and to do all the business. To obviate this difficulty there can be a Recorder appointed in each ward of the City who is well qualified for taking accurate minutes and let him be very particular and precise in making his Record, in taking the whole proceeding certifying in his Record that he saw with his eyes, and heard with his ears, giving the date, and names &c, and the history of the whole transaction, nameing also some three individuals that are present if there be any present who can at any time when called upon certify to the same that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. Then let there be a general Recorder to whom these other records can be handed being attended with certificates over their own signatures

And we thus have the introduction of liturgical witnesses. Up to this point, despite the necessity of a record being kept, the church did not keep formal records of who had been baptized, nor were any requirements beyond a priest saying the baptismal prayer and immersion codified. The temple was a different space, however. The Book of the Law of the Lord had reified along with the antecedent Book of Remembrance, sacred time and sacred space. Reading the letters on baptism for the dead, we see Joseph Smith frame sealing and the interdependent hearts of children and fathers in terms of proxy baptism. Soon these concepts comprised the expanded temple liturgy of initiation, endowment, sealing, etc., that constructed the material heaven.

The Temple recorder was a sort of temporal Metatron. And the witnesses were witnesses in the legal sense. They saw what was performed. Now it is unclear how we got from there to where we are at today, but we do have a few bits of data along the way. Witnesses for temple rituals were formalized pretty quickly after JS’s death and with the completion of the temple. Most of the Nauvoo Temple records are not accessible to scholars, but the Baptismal records have been open to the scholars and the “Book of Proxey” is out in the wild. Both list names of witnesses, and in at least in the case of the Book of Proxey, the names are simply listed after stating “In the presence of…” One scholar who analyzed the proxy baptismal records observed that in 1845 Malissa Lott was recorded as a witness. [n1] My sense is that, as in many cases (e.g., offering prayers in General Conference), no explicit priesthood requirement existed, but priesthood officers served in these positions honorifically. So while women like Lott could and demonstrably did serve as witnesses, it was rather rare.

It appears to me that witnesses outside of the temple liturgy, namely baptismal witnesses, grew out of the temple mandate. And by the end of the nineteenth century it was public policy that any church member, male or female, could act as a baptismal witness. [n2] Now, I hate to push my forthcoming book, but one of the main things I get at there is the shift of church liturgy to be located within the expanding priesthood ecclesiology. And I happen to have a brief bit about Baptismal witnesses:

As with many other aspects of church liturgy during the twentieth century, activities that had previously been open to all church members became duties of priesthood officers. There are a couple of important counter examples (female evangelists and women preaching and praying in church), but this trend is really important for understanding Mormon liturgical development.

The formalization of church liturgy was rarely completely linear. With regard to temple witnesses, we see a few really interesting points. Ardis Parshall has a wonderful write up about an exchange between Joseph Fielding Smith and the President of the Cardston Temple in 1959. The formal rules in Cardston allowed for women to act as witnesses of sealings, a practice that Elder Smith found objectionable. However almost a decade later, other temples continued to have women act as witness with the approval of the First Presidency. Per President McKay:

President Tanner mentioned that in the Temple book of instructions in London at least, and perhaps in the other Temples, the statement is made that women may be used as witnesses for Temple marriages. President Buckmiller of the London Temple is asking if women can be used as witnesses for sealings for the dead in the Temple, sealing of children to parents, etc. He said that Elder Hunter says that it is permitted for the living and the question is raised as to whether the same service may be performed by women for the dead.

I said that I could see no reason why the women could not so serve. President Tanner explained that in England it is very difficult to get enough men to the Temple to take care of this work for the deceased. [n3]

If I had to guess, I imagine that the temple practice of having only Melchizedek priesthood officers act as temple witnesses dates to the same time as requiring them for baptisms outside of the temple, ~1976, but more work is necessary to validate that hypothesis. And then we pick the story back up from last week when Priests became authorized to act as witnesses for proxy baptisms. I have not heard whether this same authorization extends to baptisms outside the temple, but it would make sense if it does. [I just verified that priests became authorized witnesses for living baptisms in 1983.]

Chronology aside, an interesting question to ask is what work the witnesses are doing culturally. If you have read Steve Taysom’s article on exorcism or listened to his episode of the Maxwell Institute podcast, you have a sense of where we can go with such questions. And that is what we should do next.


  1. M. Guy Bishop, “‘What Has Become of Our Fathers?’: Baptism for the Dead at Nauvoo,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 23 (Summer 1990): 95.
  2. Jonathan Stapley, The Power of Godliness (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 94.
  3. Ibid.


  1. J, your link to Ardis’ post is broken. It loops back to BCC.

  2. The question is, what happened that drove this wholesale assumption of all things authoritative in the Church under the auspices of the Priesthood? I’ve read Prince’s McKay biography, Hartley’s essay on the Priesthood and others. I appreciate the influence of certain personalities under Correlation. But are we going to spend the next 100 years unwinding the retrenchment that occurred in the face of a liberalising world during the 20th century? It’s an honest question that I find myself asking as the temple rituals continue to evolve in what often seem to be practical issues and not really doctrinal ones.

  3. “… when Priests became authorized to act as witnesses for proxy baptisms. I have not heard whether this same authorization extends to baptisms outside the temple…”

    According to current Handbook (see HB2:20.3.7) priests may witness baptisms outside the temple. It has been that way for some time.

  4. J.Stapley, every time you do this you just make me want your Power of Godliness. I’m happy to see a date (footnote 2). But thanks for this teaser.

    I have a personal interest in the 1976 date for formalizing the two Melchizedek Priesthood holder requirement. There are a number of seeming irregularities in my history, including that my mother was the sole witness to my baptism (not counting some younger siblings). That was in 1963.

    One “cultural” answer (but probably not what you are asking) is that in 2017 the issue of witnesses is an irritant. An obvious place where women could be more involved but are not. And by all accounts as a matter of policy, not principle or doctrine. It has already become a flash point.

  5. Chelsea Johnson says:

    I’d like to give the church leadership of the past the benefit of the doubt by assuming that their decisions to exclude women from witnessing and participating in other ways were not made to deliberately discriminate against women, but with all the information available now and the changed social/political landscape I would think the current leadership would be particularly devoted to providing as many opportunities for women and girls to participate as possible. I think the feel of the church would change dramatically overnight if all we did was stop excluding the female portion of the church from doing things that are not explicitly explained by doctrine to be male-specific.

  6. Chelsea Johnson, I really like your thought here, and the way you express it. The rhetoric of some or many would go beyond this, but for me, reminders (spoken, eye-rolled, or through being skipped over or turned down) that I’m a burden on the ward because my household doesn’t contribute any men to carry the load tell me that I’m unnecessary and to some degree unwelcome — a consumer rather than a contributor. Removing unnecessary barriers and opening options would go a long way toward brightening the environment — the “feel of the church” — for me. Thanks for starting that chain of thought.

  7. My limited experience is that purpose and intent are devilishly hard to tease out of the historic record, but I do believe that the “expanding priesthood ecclesiology” (J. Stapley’s terminology) is all about securing and reinforcing men in Church roles, viewed as necessary for the growth and success of the institution. And having little or nothing to do with women, for or against.

    Because I believe such a view persists and is still very strong, in conversation about providing opportunities for women and girls to participate (which is just common sense, so far as my personal opinion, but also necessary and right and just) I am aware that there’s a contingency saying or thinking “but only as much as we can do without taking anything away from men’s participation.”

    I don’t agree with the premise so I can be very dismissive in the right (wrong?) mood. But I do think the “don’t take away from men” problem has to be addressed or we will talk past each other.

  8. What about the male and female officiators who sit on either side and also the witness couple in the endowment? No names are taken. Can you have the endowment without them (both)?

  9. Left Field says:

    It’s interesting that the Doctrine and Covenants doesn’t require any witnesses other than the recorder and officiator.

    For some time, back in the ’80s and thereabouts, temple ordinances were recorded directly into computers. There was a computer in each sealing room, one at the font, and one in the confirmation room. If my memory serves (and on this it might not), patrons would swipe their recommend in a magnetic reader at the end of endowment sessions. For baptisms, the recorder was required to enter the names of the proxy, the baptizer, the recorder, and both witnesses. Confirmations required entering the names of the proxy, the confirmer, assistant confirmer, and recorder. (Also, the computer didn’t allow a different proxy for confirmation than for baptism, or for a deceased person to be confirmed before being baptized.) Sealings required the names of the proxy, sealer, and both witnesses. This of course in addition to the name of the person(s) for whom we were acting.

    This required quite a bit of typing on computers every time witnesses, recorders, officiators, etc. rotated positions. Also, it would have required a bunch of extra computer memory. For every person taken through the temple ordinances, I count something like twenty names of living persons that were being recorded. I believe now, they only record the fact of each ordinance being performed.

  10. It’s always Joseph Fielding Smith, isn’t it?

  11. Chelsea Johnson says:

    Sorry if this is a duplicate! I tried posting this comment earlier but couldn’t see it.

    Ardis, your consumer\contributor illustration is interesting and wrenching–I haven’t felt that particular side-effect of our current state of affairs since I am surrounded by males in my family, but I certainly feel barricaded–thanks for adding to my awareness. Christian, I pre-ordered J. Stapley’s book because I am ravenous for more historical details pertaining to gender, power, and the relationship between culture and doctrine. If it’s true that male-dominated organization is perceived to be necessary for growing and sustaining the church, I think it’s important to consider the possible trade-offs. One may be that, even if it does effectively strengthen and extend the church abroad (perhaps in part because the model is delivered to cultures already heavily patriarchal and discriminating of women), I think it alienates some established members at home. I am troubled by the possibility that our church is most appealing to people who are entrenched in and\or suffer from considerable power inequities between the genders. For example, in Sister Eubank’s 2014 FAIR speech entitled “A Woman’s Church,” she shares the following genuinely heartwarming story:

    “I am going to tell you a story, and it actually happened to Lillian DeLong, a friend of mine. She served on a Relief Society board years ago. And she was assigned to go to Ghana. And she had her husband with her. And they were in a very rural part of Ghana. So, they did their training. She was there to do Relief Society Training. And it is a very simple structure and they were in different rooms, and her husband was in Priesthood and she was in Relief Society and they did their training. After it was over, a woman came up to her, in her beautiful Ghanaian church dress, and she shook her hand and she kept saying “This is a woman’s church.” She’s just crying and tears are just streaming down her face. She kept saying, “This is a woman’s church.” Lillian didn’t really know what she was talking about. And she’s smiling and saying, “Yeah.” But the woman just kept pumping her hand and saying over and over again, “This is a woman’s church.” And finally Lillian said, “What do you mean, ‘This is a woman’s church?’” And she said, ‘We have just been in the marvelous Relief Society that teaches us not only spiritual things but temporal things about how to make our lives and our children and our families better. And at the same time your husband is in the Priesthood room and he is teaching our husbands that the culture of the church does not allow for them to beat their wives and their children’” (https://www.fairmormon.org/conference/august-2014/womans-church).

    I am so glad this woman is seeing improved treatment of women in her life and community because of the influence of the church–most of the world is considerably more plagued with female mistreatment than the United States–but at least one reason for her relief and comfort appears to be the stark contrast between her cultural and religious experience as a woman. Women in America go to church and experience a contrast–but in the opposite direction. I recognize many American female members are not pained by the male-oriented nature of the current church, but I for one walk in to church and feel nearly suffocated by culture shock–utter shock at how little women are utilized, recognized, conferred with, and so on. I don’t want the church structure to feel like something a woman ultimately outgrows once she finally recognizes and honors her true worth. It’s wonderful that the church is helping men in third-world countries learn it’s not acceptable to beat women and children with their fists, but women still feel beat up by “patriarchy” in the capital state of our religion.

  12. J. Stapley says:

    Thank you for the excellent comments. I’m not able to fix the link to Ardis’ post from where I am, but I’ve asked the powers that be to help us out. That should be remediated quickly. Here it is again, just in case:


    Niklas, thanks for pointing that out. I dropped the ball there. I just verified that priests have been able to be witnesses since 1983. I’ll hopefully add a correction to the post.

  13. I am looking forward to your book as well. Thanks for the great info.

  14. Thank you for the information. I was under the impression women had never been allowed to act as witnesses for any church ordinance. Too bad the right was lost, along with so much else during the crazy times when the leadership seemed to see the Equal Rights Amendment everywhere. I shall never forget my bishop’s comment to the sisters when we were on our way to a conference and experienced a flat tire. He asked how we would feel to be the ones having to change that tire if the ERA passed. I was going to volunteer to change the tire and then ask if he would then vote for the ERA, but did not want to embarrass my husband. Of course, neither the bishop nor my husband volunteered to help with the flat, but who wants to split hairs?
    So much time wasted. So many lives flattened.

%d bloggers like this: