"Mormon Answers" to Questions About Baptism:
Necessary? Biblical? How Is It Performed?
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (sometimes incorrectly called the "Mormon Church") teaches that baptism by immersion is part of the vital process of following Jesus Christ and entering into a covenant relationship with Him. We also teach that baptism must be performed by one who has proper authority from God for this sacred ordinance. Naturally, there are many other views and many questions that people ask about our beliefs in this regard. This page on baptism attempts to deal with some of those questions. It is one of several pages in a suite of "Frequently Asked Questions about Latter-day Saint Beliefs." This work is solely the responsibility of Jeff Lindsay and has not been officially endorsed by the Church. While I strive to be accurate, my writings reflect my personal understanding and are subject to human error and bias.
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I realize that some groups claim that baptism is not essential, assuming that faith alone is the requirement for salvation. The broad issue of the relationship between faith, grace, works, and salvation has been treated on my faith and works page, but I will deal specifically with baptism. First I will show, from my perspective, that the Bible teaches the importance and even necessity of baptism. I will conclude by briefly discussing some of the common arguments used to support the contrary view.
I must explain that baptism does not save us, but is one of the steps required of us to follow Christ and access the grace that He offers us freely. Through baptism, we enter into a covenant with Christ and enter through the gate on the strait and narrow path that leads to life. This is the core doctrine of Christ that Paul refers to in Hebrews 6:1-2:
1 Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God,
2 Of the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands, and of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment.
The Greek in verse 1 does not imply that we should leave the doctrine of Christ, but can be interpreted as "having left behind the beginning of the doctrine..." (Paul has established the basics, and urges believers to advance from that point.) The basic doctrine of Christ that Paul refers to contains several vital concepts:
Compare this to the foundational LDS doctrine given as our Fourth Article of Faith:
We believe that the first principles and ordinances of the Gospel are: first, Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; second, Repentance; third, Baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; fourth, Laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost.
Paul suggests that faith, repentance, and baptism are foundational principles in the doctrine of Christ. He urges us to begin with these and go on to perfection. A few verses later, he has dire warnings for believers who fall away from these principles (v. 4-6), but rather urges believers to be diligent unto the end (v. 11) and through patience inherit the promises of salvation (v. 12-15). But the beginning of this path which leads to eternal life is faith, repentance, and baptism. With this in mind, we can perhaps better understand why Christ and his disciples taught and showed the necessity of baptism, as shown below.
Being baptized is part of what we must do in the two-sided covenant - like a contract - that Christ offers.
Let us first consider the example of Christ, who showed us how to live and how to follow Him on the strait and narrow path (not a broad one!). As he began His ministry, He sought out the prophet and messenger of the Messiah, John the Baptist. John was teaching men to repent of their sins and to be baptized by immersion (that's what the Greek word means) in "water unto repentance" (Matt. 3: 2,11), or, in the words of Mark, John preached "the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins" (Mark 1:4). Though Christ was the Son of God, pure, holy, and without sin, He came to John and asked to be baptized (see Matt. 3:13-17). John refused, knowing who Christ was, but Christ explained that it was necessary "to fulfill all righteousness" (Matt. 3:15). Then John baptized Christ in the river Jordan - apparently by immersion, for then Christ "went up straightway out of the water." It was at this moment where the Holy Ghost descended in the form of a dove and the voice of God the Father spoke from above saying, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased." (By the way, in my view, this scene is easily understood if the three Beings in the Godhead are physically distinct, though one in purpose and heart - cf. John 17:21-23).
Consider the significance of this event. Christ insisted on being baptized to "fulfill all righteousness." If He, the perfect Son of God, felt it was necessary to be baptized, then surely we as sinful mortals, in need of repentance, require baptism all the more, even the baptism of water unto repentance for the remission of sins. Christ set the example, and the Father even spoke at that moment indicating - right after the baptism - that He was pleased with the Son.
Let us further consider the teachings of Christ, who, as I have noted elsewhere, emphasized actions and repentance (e.g., Matt. 4:17; Matt. 9:13; Luke 13:3), not simply believing. Indeed, Christ was twice asked what must be done to inherit eternal life. In neither case did He say belief alone was adequate. Rather, He said "if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments" (see Matt. 19:16,17 and Luke 10:25-37; compare to Matt. 25:31-46; Matt. 24:13; Matt. 16:27; Matt 7:21-23; Luke 5:28,29; etc.). Among the commandments Christ gave, one that He emphasized as essential to salvation was baptism. Listen to His words to Nicodemus in John 3:3-5:
3 Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.
4 Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother's womb, and be born?
5 Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.
Given the symbolism of Jewish ritualistic washings and the related baptism that John the Baptist had been performing, Nicodemus surely knew what Christ meant by being born again, but appears to have been feigning ignorance. Nevertheless, Christ spelled it out explicitly: one must be born again of water (baptism) and of the Spirit (receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost). Being baptized is an essential step. Christ said unless one is born again of water - the rite of baptism by immersion - then one CANNOT enter into the kingdom of God. Baptism is essential for salvation - though it is the grace of Christ that gives it any meaning.
Christ continued teaching people to be baptized (John 3:22) and had His disciples baptize many - even more than John had baptized (John 4:1,2). The commandment to be baptized, given early in his ministry to Nicodemus and others, was emphasized in his final recorded words to his apostles (Mark 16:15-16):
15 And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. 16 He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.
Note those words: he that believes AND is baptized shall be saved. Of course, those who believe will do much more than simply be baptized - and they must, as Christ taught (cf. Matt. 28:18-20; Matt. 24:13, Matt. 25: 31-46; Matt. 7:21-23). On the other hand, those who do not believe will also not be baptized. (Such was the case in Luke 7:30, where "the Pharisees and lawyers rejected the counsel of God against themselves, being not baptized.") Likewise, Paul said that "as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ" (Galatians 3:27). Don't we need to "put on Christ" if we wish to be saved by Him?
At the beginning of His mortal ministry, during His mortal ministry, and after His mortal ministry, Christ showed and taught the necessity of baptism. It is an essential ordinance if we are to follow Christ and receive the salvation that He offers us through His grace and Atonement. He taught that the gate is strait and narrow (Matt. 7:13-14); that we must do His will to be saved (Matt. 7:21-23); that we must keep His commandments if we are to inherit eternal life (Matt. 19:17), and that we must follow Him and His example (Luke 18:22; John 10: 27-28; Matt. 11:28-30). By way of commandment and example, He taught us the necessity of baptism. Who has authority to repeal that sacred truth?
The apostles and prophets who Christ established to guide his Church clearly understood what He had taught. They knew that baptism was essential. Recall the events on the day of Pentecost, when the power of the Holy Ghost was manifest as the apostles and others were gathered. Many came to witness the miracles that were occurring. Peter then preached boldly, teaching of Christ and salvation. Touched by the power of the Spirit, many in the crowd began to believe. Let's read Acts 2:36-38:
36 Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ.
37 Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do?
38 Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.
Peter did not simply say that belief was all that was necessary for salvation (cf. 2 Peter 1:4-10). He told these new believers to do three things: 1) repent, 2) be baptized for the remission of sins, and 3) receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. We then read in Acts 2:41 that "they that gladly received his word were baptized," adding about 3000 souls to the Church. In verse 47, we read, "And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved." Baptism in the name of Christ for the remission of sins is part of the path that leads to salvation.
Some try to argue against Peter's teachings in Acts 2, saying that his command to be baptized for the remission of sins only applied to those present at the day of Pentecost. However, immediately after that instruction in verse 38, Peter's next words (verse 39) spell out the universal scope of what he had said:
For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call.
All mankind has need of the remission of sins, and thus we all need baptism unto the remission of sins (though such is of no value without first having true faith). As Paul wrote, God "commandeth all men every where to repent" (Acts 17:30), and if we all must repent and be born again, it is paramount that we all receive the divinely appointed ordinance of baptism by immersion for the remission of sins, which is part of the process of being born unto God.
Peter, the chief apostle, did not change his views on baptism with time. In Acts 10, we find him commanding the new gentile convert, Cornelius, to be baptized (v. 48), even though Cornelius had shown faith in Christ, had been ministered to by an angel, and had obviously had the power of the Holy Spirit fall upon him. Yet he still needed baptism. Later still, in 1 Peter 3: 18-21, Peter discusses how Christ preached the Gospel to souls that were dead (Christ did this during the three days between his death and resurrection) and specifically mentions those who had died at the time of Noah, when only 8 souls, those on the ark, "were saved by water" (1 Peter 3:20). Noting how Noah's flood was a symbol of baptism (baptism by immersion, of course), he writes in verse 21: "The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us...." Peter notes a link between baptism and salvation. Of course, it's not baptism per se that saves us or cleanses us, but Christ. Yet we need proper baptism to bring us into the covenant of grace that Christ offers.
Paul also taught that baptism was an essential ordinance, necessary for salvation. In Titus 3:5, he links baptism to the grace of Christ - a vehicle by which we receive of the saving grace of Christ. This is logical, for baptism is an expression of our desire to enter into a covenant with Christ and receive the remission of sins that He offers through grace. Here is the passage in context (Titus 3:4-7):
4 But after that the kindness and love of God our Saviour toward man appeared,
5 Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost;
6 Which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour;
7 That being justified by his grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
In verse 5, Paul teaches that God saves us in His mercy (and through His grace) BY the washing of regeneration (baptism - being born of water, cf. John 3:3-5), and BY renewing of the Holy Ghost (receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost, being born of the Spirit). Baptism is not viewed as a dead work done to vainly show our righteousness, but as a way of humbly turning to Christ to receive of His grace. Baptism by immersion for the remission of sins is all about receiving the forgiveness and grace that Christ offers us. It is part of the process by which we receive that grace and are saved.
Paul's views on baptism are further clarified in Romans 6:3-8:
3 Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death?
4 Therefore 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.
5 For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection:
6 Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin.
7 For he that is dead is freed from sin.
8 Now if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him:
9 Knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him.
10 For in that he died, he died unto sin once: but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God.
11 Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord.
The symbolism of baptism, which Paul likens to death (going under the water) and resurrection (rising out), is based on baptism by immersion. In verse 5, Paul says that our resurrection can be in the likeness of Christ's resurrection - i.e., we can have eternal life - IF we have been baptized by immersion. He explains that baptism is part of the process of being born again, crucifying, in effect, our old man (or woman) of sin and resulting in a new creature. Compare Romans 6 to John, 1: 11-13; "as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: which were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God." At least part of the process of being born of God is to show forth the death and resurrection of Christ, by baptism by immersion for the remission of sins. This is an essential ordinance.
In case after case in the New Testament, we find those that accept Christ also accept baptism. It was a necessary ordinance, being the only way (John 3:3-5) that Christ has given to enter into His kingdom. We also find those that have been baptized properly also receive the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying of hands - with both ordinances being performed properly only when done by someone with authority and power from Christ, such authority and power being the priesthood power that is conveyed from one authorized servant to another by the laying of hands - but this is a topic for later.
Numerous early Christian doctrines indicate that they clearly understood baptism to be essential. The early Christian church clearly put great emphasis on baptism, knowing that Christ had said, "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved" (Mark 16:16). For example, Cyril of Jerusalem, a prominent bishop and one of the "Doctors of the Church" who lived from about A.D. 313 to 386, said that rituals such as baptism were necessary. "If any man receive not Baptism, he hath not salvation" [Catechetical Lecture III, 10, in the translation of Schaff and Wave, 1978, Vol. 7, p. 16, as cited by Daniel C. Peterson and Stephen D. Ricks, Offenders for a Word: How Anti-Mormons Play Word Games to Attack the Latter-day Saints, Aspen Books, Salt Lake City, UT, 1992, p. 145].
Tertullian (ca. 150-240 A.D.) in his book De baptismo ("On Baptism") attacks those who reject baptism and "is equally concerned with denouncing heretical baptisms, as well as the claim that it is faith, not baptism, that matters. He also attacks the rather novel practice of baptizing infants." [Robert M. Grant, Augustus to Constantine, Barnes and Noble Books, New York, 1970, pp. 188-189]. Tertullian begins his book with the statement, "Happy is our sacrament of water, in that, by washing away the sins of our early blindness, we are set free and admitted into eternal life!" (Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo: The Christian Literature Publishing Company, 1885-1896), 3:669, available online at the Early Church Fathers Site of Wheaton College). Further, Tertullian stated that "the prescript is laid down that 'without baptism, salvation is attainable by none.'" (ibid., 3: 674-675).
In the Clementine Recognitions, a document first mentioned by Eusebius in the fourth century, we read that baptism is essential in Book 6, Chapters 8 and 9:
Chapter 8 - Necessity of Baptism
But now I lead you to understanding by the same paths. For you see that all things are produced from waters. But water was made at first by the Only-begotten; and the Almighty God is the head of the Only-begotten, by whom we come to the Father in such order as we have stated above. But when you have come to the Father you will learn that this is His will, that you be born anew by means of waters, which were first created. For he who is regenerated by water, having filled up the measure of good works, is made heir of Him by whom he has been regenerated in incorruption. Wherefore, with prepared minds, approach as sons to a father, that your sins may be washed away, and it may be proved before God that ignorance was their sole cause. For if, after the learning of these things, you remain in unbelief, the cause of your destruction will be imputed to yourselves, and not to ignorance. And do you suppose that you can have hope towards God, even if you cultivate all piety and all righteousness, but do not receive baptism. Yea rather, he will be worthy or greater punishment, who does good works not well; for merit accrues to men from good works, but only if they be done as God commands. Now God has ordered every one who worships Him to be sealed by baptism; but if you refuse, and obey your own will rather than God's, you are doubtless contrary and hostile to His will.
Chapter 9 - Use of Baptism
"But you will perhaps say, What does the, baptism of water contribute towards the worship of God? In the first place, because that which hath pleased God is fulfilled. In the second place, because, when yon are regenerated and born again of water and of God, the frailty of your former birth, which you have through men, is cut off, and so at length you shall be able to attain salvation; hut otherwise it is impossible. For thus hath the true prophet testified to its with an oath: 'Verily I say to you, That unless a man is born again of water, he shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Therefore make haste; for there is in these waters a certain power of mercy which was borne upon them at the beginning, and acknowledges those who are baptized under the name of the threefold sacrament, and rescues them from future punishments, presenting as a gift to God the souls that are consecrated by baptism. Betake yourselves therefore to these waters, for they alone can quench the violence of the future fire; and he who delays to approach to them, it is evident that the idol of unbelief remains in him, and by it be is prevented from hastening to the waters which confer salvation. For whether you be righteous or unrighteous, baptism is necessary for you in every respect: for the righteous, that perfection may be accomplished in him, and he may be born again to God; for the unrighteous, that pardon may he vouchsafed him of the sins which he has committed in ignorance. Therefore all should hasten to he horn again to God without delay, because the end of every one's life is uncertain.
Other examples can be found in Barry Robert Bickmore's book, Restoring the Ancient Church: Joseph Smith and Early Christianity (Ben Lomand, CA: Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research, 1999, available at Amazon.com), and on his Website, "Mormonism and Early Christianity."
The modern downplaying of baptism and ordinances in general is the result of apostasy and misunderstanding, not a return to the original teachings of Christ.
Our understanding of baptism is greatly enhanced by the plain and precious teachings found in the Book of Mormon and in modern revelation as well. Here is one sample, a passage from the scene in the Book of Mormon where the resurrected Christ personally ministers to some people in Central America and teaches His Gospel to them. I quote from 3 Nephi 11: 21-30:
21 And the Lord said unto him: I give unto you power that ye shall baptize this people when I am again ascended into heaven.
22 And again the Lord called others, and said unto them likewise; and he gave unto them power to baptize. And he said unto them: On this wise shall ye baptize; and there shall be no disputations among you.
23 Verily I say unto you, that whoso repenteth of his sins through your words, and desireth to be baptized in my name, on this wise shall ye baptize them--Behold, ye shall go down and stand in the water, and in my name shall ye baptize them.
24 And now behold, these are the words which ye shall say, calling them by name, saying:
25 Having authority given me of Jesus Christ, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
26 And then shall ye immerse them in the water, and come forth again out of the water.
27 And after this manner shall ye baptize in my name; for behold, verily I say unto you, that the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost are one; and I am in the Father, and the Father in me, and the Father and I are one.
28 And according as I have commanded you thus shall ye baptize. And there shall be no disputations among you, as there have hitherto been; neither shall there be disputations among you concerning the points of my doctrine, as there have hitherto been.
29 For verily, verily I say unto you, he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another.
30 Behold, this is not my doctrine, to stir up the hearts of men with anger, one against another; but this is my doctrine, that such things should be done away.
31 Behold, verily, verily, I say unto you, I will declare unto you my doctrine.
32 And this is my doctrine, and it is the doctrine which the Father hath given unto me; and I bear record of the Father, and the Father beareth record of me, and the Holy Ghost beareth record of the Father and me; and I bear record that the Father commandeth all men, everywhere, to repent and believe in me.
33 And whoso believeth in me, and is baptized, the same shall be saved; and they are they who shall inherit the kingdom of God.
34 And whoso believeth not in me, and is not baptized, shall be damned.
35 Verily, verily, I say unto you, that this is my doctrine, and I bear record of it from the Father; and whoso believeth in me believeth in the Father also; and unto him will the Father bear record of me, for he will visit him with fire and with the Holy Ghost.
36 And thus will the Father bear record of me, and the Holy Ghost will bear record unto him of the Father and me; for the Father, and I, and the Holy Ghost are one.
37 And again I say unto you, ye must repent, and become as a little child, and be baptized in my name, or ye can in nowise receive these things.
Good question. To be brief, I'll just give the answer I would give to another LDS person (a youth, perhaps) and skip all the background explanations that ought to be included (but see my discussion above).
One of the many things revealed to the Prophet Joseph Smith was that ordinances such as baptism must be done with priesthood authority from God, not from men or graduate schools, in order to be valid and "sealed in heaven," so to speak. Sent as a messenger from heaven, John the Baptist appeared to Joseph Smith and another witness, Oliver Cowdery, and ordained them to the Aaronic Priesthood and gave them the priesthood keys (the proper divine authority) for baptism - keys which had to be restored after having been lost for centuries. (Other priesthood keys were restored later when three of the original Apostles, Peter, James, and John, as angels, visited Joseph Smith and ordained him to the higher priesthood, called the Melchizedek Priesthood.)
Baptisms performed without the true authority of the priesthood, however sincere, are insufficient - not by our interpretation of scripture, but by the plain teachings of God to Joseph Smith (e.g., Section 22 of the Doctrine and Covenants). The question, then, is not whether we agree with that doctrine, but whether Joseph Smith was a true prophet or a fraud. To me, the key is the Book of Mormon - i.e., determining for ourselves if it is true (i.e., the word of God, translated from an ancient, sacred document) or if it is a fraud. The Book of Mormon also teaches about the importance of baptism and authority - and it was such passages, encountered during the translation, that led Joseph and Oliver to prayerfully inquire of the Lord about the issue of baptism. The result was the miraculous restoration of priesthood authority, as mentioned above, and the full restoration of the ordinance of baptism by immersion for the remission of sins.
Acts 19:1-6 provides a Biblical example showing that a second baptism may be needed. Paul encountered some "disciples" in Corinth who had been baptized. Paul asked them if they had received the Holy Ghost, and they answered that they had heard nothing of this. Since the early Church taught openly of baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost, Paul might have been surprised and asked, "Unto what then were ye baptized?" They said "Unto John's baptism," apparently meaning that they were baptized in the manner that John taught (by immersion). Paul then explained that John had taught the people of Christ who would come after him. These disciples were then baptized again, and then received the Holy Ghost after Paul laid his hands upon them. Why were these disciples baptized a second time? Here's my view: the fact that they had not been taught about the Holy Ghost shows that improper instruction had been given. If they were improperly taught, they may also have been improperly baptized - possibly by someone who meant well but lacked authority. Paul resolved any doubts about the validity of their baptism by having them baptized a second time, but in the proper manner, which is by one having authority.
The importance of proper authority for ordinances is also made clear in several passages about the related ordinance of giving the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands. See, for example, Acts 8:12-29, where we read of new converts hearing the preaching of Philip and being baptized (presumably by Philip) and of the apostles Peter and John later giving them the Holy Ghost. Simon wanted to buy this power - priesthood power - with money, but was condemned for thinking that this sacred power could be obtained in such a way. Peter and John received their authority from Christ. And how did Philip receive the priesthood power that he had? In Acts 6:5,6 we read that Philip was ordained by the Apostles, who laid their hands on his head and prayed, the same manner in which priesthood authority was restored to Joseph Smith and has been given to others throughout the restored Church, with this priesthood authority being traceable back to Christ himself.
Many still ask why baptism is needed if we are saved by grace, not by works (Eph. 2:8,9). If you are not familiar with the covenant nature of Christ's grace or have not understood that we must truly follow Christ to access the grace He offers us, then please read my detailed and lengthy discussion of scripture on my page about Faith, Works, and Grace and see the accompanying list of scripture references to study.
Just as no man has the right to change the words that God has his prophets write (Rev. 22:18,19), no man or church has the right to change the ordinances that God gives to man. God can change things as he will, but men without authority from God may not. This applies to the ordinance of baptism. As John and Christ and the early Christians taught and practiced baptism, it was done in water (see Matt. 3, John 3:3-5, Romans 6, etc., see also John 3:22 and John 4: 1,2). The very word means immersion, derived from the Greek word for immersion, and typically refers to immersion in water. Receiving the Holy Ghost comes after baptism by water (the gift of the Holy Ghost, given by the laying on of hands, as described in Acts 8:17, is yet another sacred ordinance requiring authority on the part of those who perform it). The washing of our sins (by baptism) and the regeneration of the Spirit (by the Holy Ghost) in Titus 3:5 are two different but related things - and both are essential. Further, baptism was for those who believed and wished to receive a remission of their sins (Matt. 3:2,11; Acts 2:37,38; Mark 1:4).
Sadly, the plain and pure practice of baptism by immersion in water for penitent believers was corrupted by men after the rejection and loss of the Apostles during a process we call the Apostasy. Separated from the rock of revelation from Christ to apostles and prophets, committees of men argued and reasoned on their own, concluding that if baptism was necessary, as the Bible teaches, then infants better get it or be damned - totally misunderstanding the mercy and justice of God, and totally misunderstanding that baptism is for those who are accountable for their sins and can believe and choose to enter into a covenant with Christ.
One of the vestiges of the Apostasy is the belief that baptism isn't really important or can be done in a metaphysical or metaphorical sense. Baptism without immersion in water is a corrupted ordinance, changed without authority from God. I don't care how nice one can make it sound, it's wrong. The call of God to man has not changed: "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost" (Acts 2:38). May you also do so and enter into a joyous covenant with Jesus Christ in His Church, the only Church with the same authority given to Peter, built on the rock of revelation from God, and practicing sacred ordinances with authority from God, in the way He commanded. This is something you don't want to miss!
It's a popular misconception that baptism was unknown before the time of Christ. Ritual washings go way back in Jewish tradition. When John the Baptist came on the scene, no one asked, "What's this strange ritual called baptism?" Immersion or washing as a covenant-making ritual was nothing new. As the quickest example I could pull out of a nearby book here in my basement, I refer you to pages 230-231 of Robert Eisenman and Michael Wise, The Dead Sea Scrolls Uncovered, New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1992, describing a passage from the ancient Dead Sea Scrolls:
"On the heels of this text, we come upon a series of fragments related to baptism. By baptism, of course, the reader should realize that the proponents of this literature did not necessarily mean anything different from traditional Jewish ritual immersion. The terminologies are synonymous, though the emphasis on baptismal procedures at Qumran is extraordinary. This can be seen not only in texts such as the one represented by these fragments and the well-known Community Rule, iii, 1-4, which in describing baptism makes reference to 'the Holy Spirit', but also the sheer number of ritual immersion facilities at the actual ruins of Qumran - if these can be safely associated with the movement responsible for this literature.
"Once again, one is confronted with the vocabulary of 'Glory', this time in terms of 'a law of Glory' (4.3), as well as, if our reconstruction is correct, 'the purity of Righteousness' or 'Justification' (4.4). There is reference to 'making atonement for us', being 'cleansed from pollution' as one 'enters the water', and the usual 'Laws of your Holiness' and 'Truth of Your Covenant'."
Probably from the first century A.D., the text reflects more ancient traditions and shows that the concept of baptism was well established and part of long-standing Jewish tradition.
Update: - The story is much better than this. I refer you to Michael Ash's article on allegedly anachronistic baptism in the Book of Mormon. He documents that evolution of knowledge: in Joseph's Smith day, any pre-Christian baptism was denied, making the Book of Mormon utterly ridiculous, hardly the sort of thing Joseph would make up to fool a Christian world. Later, evidence mounted that ritual immersion was important in Jewish practice before the time of Christ, but this was explained away as being somehow different from the "unique" Christian baptism of John the Baptist and Christ. Then came the Dead Sea Scrolls, with overwhelming evidence that baptism was performed before the time of Christ, filled with meaning once thought to be uniquely Christian. As has been the case in so many other areas, Joseph Smith's naive and idiotic Book of Mormon baptism mistake in 1827 has become compatible with serious modern scholarship once the scholars dug deeper. Now just how did he do that?
Here is one of many similar messages I have received on this topic:
In reading the story of Jesus in the Gospels, one meets with the most important "sermon" of his ministry. The thief on the cross acknowledged his own sinful life, but then he told Jesus "I believe in your kingdom--will you remember me?" Did Jesus ask "Are you a member of the church? Have you been baptised?" No, of course Jesus simply replied, "Because of your faith, today thou wilt be with me in paradise." Yes, of course there are other statements in the Bible to the contrary, but this one impresses me as a very important sermon on that question.
What about the thief on the cross? Does this story really show that salvation can come instantly without conditions, without covenants, without baptism, without knowledge of the Gospel and without striving to obey Christ? To the thief who asked the dying Lord to remember him, Christ did say, "Today shalt thou be with me in Paradise" (Luke 23:43). But two days after this, when Christ was resurrected and had taken up a glorious, tangible body, he appeared to Mary and told her, "Touch me not, for I am not yet ascended to my Father; but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father and your Father; and to my God, and your God" (John 20:17 - one of many passages, by the way, showing that God the Father and Christ are separate Beings). If Christ had been in paradise but had not yet ascended to heaven where the Father dwells, then what is paradise? It is obviously some other place besides heaven and appears to be a place where the spirits of the dead await the time of resurrection.
I don't know what Aramaic word Christ may have used, but according to my non-LDS Greek Bible Lexicon, the Greek word for paradise can mean "the part of Hades which was thought by the later Jews to be the abode of the souls of pious until the resurrection: but some understand this to be a heavenly paradise." This agrees well with what Joseph Smith said that Christ meant: "This day thou shalt be with me in the world of spirits: then I will teach you all about it and answer your inquiries" (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p.309). Indeed, Peter explained that when Christ was dead, he went as a spirit to preach the Gospel to those who had died (1 Peter 3:18-20; 1 Peter 4:6). Christ was not offering instant salvation to the thief, who knew little of the Gospel and had not covenanted through baptism to follow Christ. He was simply telling him that they would be in the same place that day, in the world of spirits. There, the thief could learn of the Gospel of Christ and accept it. He would still need to accept baptism, which the early Christians and modern Latter-day Saints offer vicariously to the deceased via the sacred ordinance of baptism for the dead.
So many people have misunderstood the story of the thief on the cross, thinking that it shows deathbed repentance is all it takes to get into heaven without baptism or anything else. Remember, though, that Christ did not offer instant salvation or heaven to the thief, but only promised that they would be in paradise that day. It would be at least two days after that before Christ ascended to heaven.
Yes, the Book of Mormon teaches that baptism was known in the Americas. Baptism by immersion was known among believing Nephites and Lamanites, though by 400 A.D. the practice of baptizing infants had crept in among the remnants of believers, whose location appears to have been in Mesoamerica (the region of southern Mexico and Guatemala), based on a modern understanding of the Book of Mormon text and the associated geography. Since baptism was known in that part of the world, one might wonder whether any traces of it can be found among Native American rituals in that region. And in fact, there were some very distinct traces of that practice that survived long enough to be observed by the Spaniards. I learned of this after I purchased a book on Mesoamerican religion on something of a whim while I was grazing in a bookstore in Washington, DC, less than a month before the terrorist attack on the Pentagon. Later, while exploring the book, I was surprised to find an entry on the topic of baptism. The book is An Illustrated Dictionary of the Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya by Dr. Mary Miller and Dr. Karl Taube (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1993). Dr. Taube is a professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Riverside, and a leading scholar of Mesoamerican writing and iconography. Dr. Miller is a professor of the History of Art at Yale, and has published a book on Mesoamerican art. Here is an excerpt from their entry entitled "Baptism" (p. 44):
When the first Spanish priests arrived in New Spain, they were surprised to find native forms of baptism, in this case the ritual bathing of infants and children. In Yucatan, according to Diego de Landa, a native priest sprinkled male and female children of approximately three years of age with water from a serpent-tailed aspergillium. In addition, one of the principal citizens of the community anointed the children with water from a moistened bone. Landa notes that this rite cleansed and purified the children, an important function of baptism.
Book 6 of the Florentine Codex provides detailed descriptions of the ritual speech and rites associated with Aztec baptism. In contrast to the Yucatec ceremony, baptism took place soon after birth. However, the Aztec rite was also associated with purification, to remove any pollution acquired from the parents. During the ritual bathing, the infant was named and presented with the tools necessary for adult life.
These practices are consistent with Book of Mormon teachings. These Mesoamerican practices could have been rooted anciently in true baptism by immersion for cleansing and purification, later corrupted by man-made doctrines that evolved toward baptism of infants to wash away the sins of parents. The Priesthood ceremony of blessing and naming infants could have been combined with corrupted infant baptism to yield the practice of the Aztecs or the Mayans in Yucatan. Or these practices could have developed independently of what the Nephites and Lamanites did. But it's absolutely incorrect to assert that baptism was unknown to Native Americans. Forms of it were known that are at least consistent with the Book of Mormon.
2002/2003 Update: The eminent scholar of the Maya, Michael D. Coe, also notes the existence of baptism in his book, The Maya (4th edition, London: Thames and Hudson, 1987, p. 158):
Immediately after birth, Yucatecan mothers washed their infants and fastened them to a cradle. . . . As soon as possible, the anxious parents were to consult with a priest so as to learn the destiny of their offspring, and the name which he or she was to bear until baptism.
The Spanish Fathers were quite astounded that the Maya had a baptismal rite, which took place at an auspicious time when there were a number of boys and girls between the ages of three and twelve in the settlement.
I recently stumbled upon the English translation of Diego de Landa's book about the Mayans at a book sale. Much of what we know about Mayan culture - which is still precious little - derives from the writings of this friar, who persecuted the inhabitants of the Yucatan and burned many of their records that could have told us much more. Here is an excerpt describing baptism in the Yucatan, taken from Yucatan Before and After the Conquest, translated by William Gates, New York: Dover Books, 1978, pp. 42-45 (translated from Relación de las cosas de Yucatan, written 1566, first published in English in 1937 as Publication No. 20 of the Maya Society, Baltimore):
Sec. XXVI. Method of baptism in Yucatan; How it was celebrated
Baptism is not found anywhere in the Indies save here in Yucatan, and even with a word meaning to be born anew or a second time, the same as the Latin word renascer. Thus, in the language of Yucatan sihil means 'to be born anew," or a second time, but only however in composition; thus caput-sihil means to be reborn. Its origin we have been unable to learn, but it is something they have always used and for which they have had such devotion that no one fails to receive it; they had such reverence for it that those guilty of sins, or who knew they were about to sin, were obliged to confess to the priest, in order to receive it; and they had such faith in it that in no manner did they ever take ft a second time. They believed that in receiving it they acquired a predisposition to good conduct and habits, protection against being harmed by the devils in their earthly affairs, and that through it and living a good life they would attain a beatitude hereafter which, like that of Mahomet, consisted in eating and drinking.
Their custom of preparing for baptism was as follows: the Indian women raised the children to the age of three, placing for the boys a small white plaquet, fastened to the head in the hair of the tonsure; the girls wore a thin cord tied very low about the waist, to which was attached a small shell over the private parts; to remove these two things was regarded among them as a sin and disgraceful, until the time of the baptism, which was given between the ages of three and twelve; until this ceremony was received they did not marry.
Whenever one desired to have his child baptised, he went to the priest and made his wish known to him, who then published this in the town, with the day chosen, which they took care should be of good omen. This being done, the solicitant, being thus charged with giving the fiesta, selected at his discretion some leading man of the town to assist him in the matter. Afterwards they chose four other old and honored men to assist the priest on the day of the ceremony, these being chosen with the priest's cooperation. In these elections the fathers of all the eligible children took part, for the fiesta was a concern of all; those so chosen were called Chacs. For the three days before the ceremony the parents of the children, as well as the officials, fasted and abstained from their wives.
On the day, all assembled at the house of the one giving the fiesta, and brought all the children who were to be baptized, and placed them In the patio or court of the house, all clean and scattered with fresh leaves; the boys together in a line, and the girls the same, with an aged woman as matron for the girls, and a man in charge of the boys. . . .
[Landa then describes how the priest purifies the house and casts out demons, and refers to the priest carrying a hyssop made of a short stick and the tales of serpents like rattlesnakes (the aspersarium).]
The chacs then went to the children and placed on the heads of all white cloths which the mothers had brought for this purpose. They then asked of the largest ones whether they had done any bad thing, or obscene conduct, and if any had done so, they confessed them and separated from the others.
When this was done the priest called on all to be silent and seated, and began to bless the children, with long prayers, and to sanctify them with the hyssop, all with great serenity. After this benediction he seated himself, and the one elected by the parents as director of the fiesta took a bone given him by the priest, went to the children and menaced each one with the bone on the forehead, nine times. After this he wet the bond in a jar of water he carried, and with it anointed them on the forehead, the face, and between the fingers of their hands and the bones of their feet, without saying a word. The liquor was confected out of certain flowers and ground cacao, dissolved in virgin water, as they call it, taken from the hollows of trees or of rocks in the forest. . . .
The fiesta then ended with long eating and drinking; and the fiesta was called em-ku, which means 'the descent of the god.'
Fascinating! A major Mayan ritual was associated with being born again, purification, cleansing from sin, confession of sins to a priest, changing one's nature to be a better person, and gaining salvation in the afterlife - all very LDS and Christian concepts (at least early Christianity - some of these concepts have been lost in some parts of modern Christianity). It was readily recognizable as a Native American form of baptism by a Catholic friar in the sixteenth century. The ritual, like Christian baptism, was performed by a priest, to whom candidates for baptism confessed their sins, if serious sins were present - again similar to the restored Christian practice in LDS religion. White cloth was associated with the ritual, as in the LDS practice (though for LDS baptism, the candidates dress completely in white.) Though sprinkling was done rather than immersion, Christian baptism went a similar route in the centuries after the loss of apostles, and the Book of Mormon records that baptism was becoming corrupted in the fourth century among the Nephites, when infants were being baptized (presumably by sprinkling). Unlike the Aztecs, though, the Yucatan form of baptism is for children in the range of 3 to 12 years. And, as in Christian baptism, the ceremony is associated with "the descent of the god" - akin to the description of baptism in Romans 6, where Paul explains that it is a symbol of the death and resurrection of Christ.
Could the three days of fasting of the adults before the baptism ritual be associated with the symbolism of Christ being in the grave for three days? Perhaps. Later in Landa's book (p. 50), there is a reference to the troubling practice of human sacrifice: "At times they threw the victims alive into the well at Chichen Itza, believing that they would come forth on the third day, even though they never did see them reappear." The three-day concept could be tied to ancient lost knowledge of the death and resurrection of Christ.
And after baptism, the baptized people were anointed with sacred water, being anointed on the head and elsewhere, a practice which could very well have derived from knowledge of anointings in the ancient temple.
Related to de Landa's account of baptism in Mesoamerica is the later account of Mexican-born Spaniard, Mariano Veytia (1720-1778; full name: Mariano Fernandez de Echevarria y Veytia), who recorded what he learned from native Mexicans about their ancient history. His writings, which were not even printed in Joseph Smith's day and only recently have been translated to English, are available in the book Ancient America Rediscovered, translated by Ronda Cunningham, compiled by Donald W. Hemingway and W. David Hemingway (Springville, Utah: Bonneville Books, 2000). The following excerpt from Veytia is taken from pages 167-169 of Ancient America Rediscovered:
Other customs and rites were still found among these peoples at the time of the arrival of the Spanish, which, because of being more particular and characteristic of Christianity, prove more effectively that the person who introduced them was an apostle or disciple of Jesus Christ. Baptism is the first sacrament necessary, without which there can be no salvation, and therefore they rightly call it the door of the Catholic Church, to which no one can enter except by it; and it is evident that throughout this country a type of baptism was found to be established. Although it varied in the ceremonies according to the places, substantially they all agreed on this bath of natural water, saying upon the baptized person some forms such as honors and prayers and putting a name upon him, and this they observed as a rite of religion, preserving the memory of Quetzalcohuatl's having taught it to them. Father Remesal affirms that the first Spanish who arrived at Yucatan found that those natives used a type of baptism, to which they gave a name in their language which in our language means being born again. An expression more in agreement with that of Christ in the Gospel cannot be given. They had (he says) so much devotion and reverence for it that no one failed to receive it. They thought that in it they were receiving a pure disposition to be good and to not be harmed by the devils, and to attain the glory that they were hoping for. It was given to them from the age of three years up until twelve, and without it no one got married. They would choose a day for it that was not one of their tragic days, the fathers would fast for three days beforehand and would abstain from the women, the priests would handle the purification of the home, casting out the devil with certain ceremonies, and once these ceremonies were over the children would go one by one, and the priests would give them a little corn and ground incense in the hand, and they in a brazier, and in a cup they would send wine outside the town, with an order to the Indians not to drink it or look back, and with this they believed that they had cast out the devil. The priest would come out dressed in long, solemn clothing with a hyssop in his hand. They would put white cloths on the heads of the children, they would ask the big ones if they ha done any sin, and in confessing they would remove them to a place and bless them with prayers, making movements as if to strike them with the hyssop, and with certain water that they had in a bone, they would wet the forehead and the features of the face and between the toes and the fingers, and then the priest would get up and remove the cloths from the children, and certain notifications being done, they were thus baptized and the festival would end in banquets, and in the nine following days the father of the child was not to approach his wife.
In the territories of Texcoco, Mexico, Tiacopan, Culhuacan, and other regions there were certain festivities in which the ceremony was solemnly done of bathing the children and putting names upon them; but when these festivities were not immediate, it was a custom to bathe the children seven days after they were born, standing them on their feet and throwing water on them from the top of the head, and at the same time they would put the name upon them. If it was a boy, they would put an arrow in the right hand and a target in the left, and if it was a girl, in one hand the spindle and in the other the shuttle, or a broom; and two months after birth (which was after forty days), because each month of theirs was twenty days long, the mothers would take them to present them at the temple, where they were received by one of the priests who was the one who was in charge of keeping the count of their calendar or ecclesiastical chart. This priest would present the child to one of their gods as it seemed right to him, and as a surname would give the child the name of that deity, to whom he did certain honors, and they amounted to asking him to give that child a good and peaceful nature, that it not be hard for him to learn what he should learn, for him to be happy in war, for him not to suffer travails and need, and other similar things.
In some towns their bath was not until the tenth day after birth, and in others it was not by infusion but by immersion, submerging the children in ponds, rivers, springs, or fonts full of water; but in all parts they gave them a name in doing this ceremony of the bath; and although in some parts the remembrance had already been lost of the one who introduced these ceremonies or many of them among them, and among the better educated people, as I have said, the knowledge was found that it was Quetzalcohuatl who taught them this ablution or bath of natural water and to give the children a name at the time of performing it; and it seems natural that being an apostle or disciple of the Lord he would carry it out that way, to fill the commandment that the Lord gave to all his apostles when he commanded them to preach the Gospel throughout all the world and to every creature, baptizing them in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, promising eternal salvation through faith and baptism: Whosoever believes and is baptized shall be saved. . . .
No less remarkable is the custom that they found established of confessing to the priests, declaring to them those things that they had as sins, and accepting the penitence that the priests would impose upon them; and the obligation that the priests had, not to reveal the sins that were confessed to them, was so rigorous that if they violated this confidentiality they were severely punished even with the penalty of death.
Some may question how well Veytia understood Mesoamerican legends and whether what he heard or what he wrote was tainted by an effort to find contrived parallels between Mesoamerican legends and the Gospel, but much of what he writes on the topic of baptism is supported by other sources and appears credible. (On the other hand, he may have relied heavily on de Landa in his description of baptism, so I cannot say how valuable Veytia is here as an independent witness of Mesoamerican traditions.) But in any case, the parallels between Mesoamerican baptism and Christianity certainly are consistent with the Book of Mormon.
Mesoamerica - the best candidate for the setting of the Book of Mormon - was a very pagan and wicked place in the sixteenth century, with no help from the terrible cruelty of the Spanish conquerors. But the native practices reflect some elements that could very well have derived from knowledge of ancient Christian ceremonies such as baptism, though in a pagan and corrupt form.
If the Book of Mormon account is pure fiction, how do we explain that in the one region that can be a plausible candidate for Book of Mormon geography, we also find a culture that had baptism, legends of a Great White God who visited them and promised to return, the presence of sacred writing systems in a continent otherwise devoid of writing, elaborate temples, and many other elements consistent with the Book of Mormon?
FairMormon.org: Is Baptism Essential by Scott and Cheri Gordon.
Is Baptism Essential? - an excellent article by Michael Griffith, with insights offered by early Christian leaders and writers.
"Maximus Nothus Decretum: A Look at the Recent Catholic Declaration regarding Latter-day Saint Baptisms" - an exellent article by Alonzo Gaskill from FARMS Review of Books, Vol. 13, No. 2, 2001, pp. 175-196.
Questions about the Dead - do they live as spirit beings or are they just unconscious (or nonexistent)? Raymond Woodworth answers these questions.
Baptism for the Dead in Ancient Times - an early, groundbreaking article by Hugh Nibley. More evidence has been found since this scholarly exploration, but Nibley provides many exciting leads.
Baptism for the Dead: The Coptic Rationale -- a scholarly review by Dr. John A. Tvedtnes dealing with the early Christian practice of baptism for the dead, as understood by Coptic Christians. This paper was presented at a 1981 symposium in Jerusalem, sponsored by the L.A. Mayer Memorial Museum of Islamic Art and the Israel Ministry of Education and Culture and later published in Special Papers of the Society for Early Historic Archaeology, No. 2 (September 1989). The Jerusalem symposium marked the opening of an exhibit of Coptic art at the museum, where Dr. Tvedtnes one of two American scholars invited to speak.