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History of Baptism/Mikvah

The history of baptism is quite interesting, and much more complex than most people know.

Baptism seems to be related to the ancient Jewish rite called “mikvah”, which was/is used for conversion to Judaism, ritual cleansing (Law of Moses type things, childbirth, women’s menstruation, and other things.) If you go to this link at Wikipedia, you can see a contemporary Mikvah font which look quite similar to a modern-day Christian baptismal font (at the bottom of the article.)

It seems that during Christ’s ministry, baptism became an important part of conversion. Yes he certainly was baptized at 30. Prior to that, there is no evidence that he embarked on starting a religion. I think one could make a case that if he had started his ministry at a younger age, he probably would have been baptized at a younger age. His baptism is one of the first events (if not the first) of the organization of his church.

One of the first questions among earlier followers of Jesus was the question of when to baptize. Now the Emporer Constantine (Appx 350 AD) often gets a bad rap for waiting until his deathbed to get baptized. However, it was a very common practice for early clergy to support this position. So Constantine was actually following the spiritual advice of the clergy of his day.

Now, while Constantine’s baptism was by no means unusual for the day, the whole topic of when to baptize was by no means uniform. It is unclear when infant baptism was first performed, but it could date to this early church period also.

There were 2 main thoughts on baptism during this period. One line of reasoning said that it should be put off as long as possible, in order to wash away all sins. Because if one didn’t wait until deathbed, and one later sinned, there could be no forgiveness of sins.

So using this logic, Constantine’s baptism makes perfect sense. However, it is not always easy to predict when death will occur, so some people erroneously waited too long, which was also a problem.

Since infant mortality was also a big problem, it made sense to baptize infants. The doctrine of original sin was being developed in this early time period also. Of course, people who subscribed to infant baptism felt that sins could be forgiven as long as they weren’t “major” sins, such as sacrificing to pagan gods, adultery, fornication, or a few other sins.

Then there were some who said a major sin could be forgiven just once. The dispute on this doctrine became quite contentious.

So, as you can see, when to baptize is not an easy question to answer, and really isn’t addressed well in early christian history.

From that point of view, the Book of Mormon position is quite unique. Now, is 8 years old the appropriate age? According to revelation in the D&C, it is. I don’t have a problem with the age of 8.

I can understand some people’s position, that “an 8 year old can be manipulated to believe anything.” I think that this is a reasonable position, but I don’t think that “9 year olds are in trouble if they die.”  From an LDS point of view, I think the sin of the 9 year old would be “answered upon the heads of the parents” for not teaching the child properly. I really don’t think God is going to come down hard on a 9 year old for refusing baptism.

Is 8 years old too young? I can appreciate why some people think so, but it is not really that big of a deal to me. I think infants are too young for sure.

All devout christians teach religion to their kids, and want them to join their church. There has never been a consensus on the appropriate age to baptize, so I respect any christian religion’s right to specify an appropriate age.

I know this is not testimony meeting, but since I believe Joseph was a prophet, I have no reason to call either the BoM or D&C into question regarding this matter. (I know others do question LDS scriptures, but please show some respect.)

From a spiritual point of view, I believe it is an inspired doctrine. From a logical point of view, I have no qualms about it. And from a historical point of view, the matter is open to debate.

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10 comments on “History of Baptism/Mikvah

  1. I am speaking from the logical point of view only, so I have nothing to say about the doctrines spiritual origins.

    It seems like a lot of these discussions share this premise:

    Participation in religious rituals are proper only if they are freely adopted by autonomous individuals.

    I think it is pretty clear that 8 yr olds are not autonomous and thereby not self-determining. Does that mean it is improper to baptize them? I think not.

    Baptism at age 8 seems no more wrong to me than having children take the sacrament, being educated within a specific faith tradition, or even the blessing of a baby . It also follows that infant baptism is also an acceptable practice.

    It is the presupposition that religious rites must be chosen autonomously that is suspect.

  2. Very interesting comments, my gnostic friend. I’m sure there are some who will disagree with you, but I find your examples interesting.

  3. i think latter-day saints (and christians in general) have largely missed a huge point of being baptized – a metaphysical confusion. so much emphasis has been placed on the forgiveness of sins that baptism has been turned into a sort of magical ritual that somehow washes away those dreaded sin-stains.

    i think baptism needs to be more understood as a ritual cleansing of sins, not by magical ritual and incantation, but rather as part of joining a community. as sin is contrary to community, a ritualization of joining a community is a mark of seperation and deliverance from sin.

    i think this is especially evident in the bofm’s account of the waters of mormon where baptism was much more about creating a community than simply promoting one’s individual salvation. in fact, this may explain why alma went down in the water himself when he baptized the first person at the waters of mormon – it takes two to start a community.

    going back to your post, john dominic crosson (in his jesus: a revolutionary biography) points out that the jordan river was symbolic in christ’s time as a starting point for acts of rebellion against the roman empire. playing off of the jewish tradition of passing through a body of water before claiming the promised land, the jewish rebels would march their pathetic ‘armies’ through the river before attempting to storm and free jerusalem. unfortunately, roman guards would be waiting on the other end to squash the rebellions.

    what john the baptist did that was so different was that he would still apply this notion of passing through water before establishing the kingdom, but he would do it one by one – slowly building the community of rebels non-violently. jordan wasn’t just a body of water, but was THE body of water for this sort of ritual.

    after john’s murder, christ and his disciples took up this ritual, but then applied it to the broader kingdom that christ was establishing.

    so back to the issue of the age of children. if we look at it from this perspective, i think 8 is just fine. sure, the kid may not be making this decision entirely of her own. and sure, she may really not be accountable until she is 18. but, at least from my experience, she is probably well aware that she is joining something. in fact, from my mission this was the way i saw most of my baptisms. in most cases, it seemed that the whole forgiveness of sins thing came secondary to the joining the community of the church. unfortunately though, most of the ward members did not see it the same way anymore and helped in quickly ignoring the new converts and from a distance watched those who were so excited to join the community fall into inactivity.

  4. Narrator,

    I’m not sure what you meant by your first sentence. Is baptism a metaphysical confusion, or are christian perspectives a metaphysical confusion?

    You bring an interesting point about baptism being a part of joining a community, and I agree that there should be more emphasis on it. Unfortunately, I think mormons overemphasize “being perfect”, which is why forgiveness of sins is also overemphasized.

    I’m glad to hear you quote John Dominic Crossan. He’s one of my favorite biblical scholars! I haven’t read any of his books, but he is quoted frequently on the Mysteries of the Bible series (from A&E) and The First Christians (on PBS.) I find his analysis quite intriguing.

  5. i think somewhere along the line ‘repenting of and being forgiven of sins’ went from denoting the actual turning away from sin and embracing a new life contrary from those sins into denoting the literal wiping away of either metaphysical sin-stains or some list of sins filed away in god’s cabinet. i think the latter are confusions that depart from the original intent and ultimately create more problems.

    if you like crosson, you should also read marcus borg. they’ve co-written a few books as well.

  6. Thanks narrator. I enjoy your perspective, and I tend to agree with you. I haven’t heard of Marcus Borg, but I’ll definitely be on the lookout.

  7. MH

    Very interesting post.

    Addressing your topics of baptism I have the following thoughts:

    I think that 8 years old is just fine. However, I think if a child feels they don’t want to be baptized they should have the choice. It should be a clear choice to be baptized. In the church I think we too often see parents that practically force their kids to be baptized and it doesn’t mean as much to the kid. Per haps the parents feel that there is some type of “metaphysical” change that takes place and one needs to be baptized in order to receive more guidance from the spirit. Personally I feel that one doesn’t necessarily need to be baptized to feel the spirit more abundantly. The scriptures state that one needs to want to repent and conciously make the decision to enter into the kingdom of God. If at 8 the child is ready for this commitment then that’s great. If not, let the kid live and learn.

    The history of baptism is very interesting. Thanks for sharing. It makes a lot of sense that there would be this type of transition from Jewish tradition to Christianity. I think this is similar to temple worship, but that’s another topic.

  8. Ama,

    Thanks for stopping by. I highly recommend you check out the Mormon Insights link above as well. He has some amazing information regarding baptism/mikvah as well.

  9. My wife and I have always seen the Age of Accountability as the *minimum* age anyone should even consider being baptized, not the age everyone born into the Church *must* be baptized. So now that our oldest child is turning 8 this April, we’ve been emphatic with him that *he* decides whether and when to get baptized. I really mean it when I say that my wife and I will be fine with whatever he chooses, since it’ll be his choice, and we’ve taught him as well as we knew how. I realize that not everyone will see it this way, which is totally fine, but that’s what we decided after lots of careful consideration and prayer. 🙂

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