THE PROHIBITION AGAINST BAPTIZING LITTLE CHILDREN CONTAINED WITHIN
THE BOOK OF MORMON IS IGNORED AND CONTRADICTED BY THE LDS TEACHING AND PRACTICE OF BAPTIZING EIGHT-YEAR-OLDS
It would be difficult, indeed, to find a scriptural and doctrinal conflict more starkly defined than the contrast between the teaching in the Book of Mormon against baptizing little children, and the teaching requiring the baptism of eight-year-olds in another volume of Mormon scripture—the Doctrine and Covenants. The prophet Mormon’s condemnation of the practice of baptizing little children is found within Chapter 8 of the book of Moroni in the Book of Mormon. After informing his son in a letter that he has prayed to God concerning this matter, Mormon describes the answer he received:
9 And after this manner did the Holy Ghost manifest the word of God unto me; wherefore, my beloved son, I know that it is solemn mockery before God, that ye should baptize little children.
10 Behold I say unto you that this thing shall ye teach—repentance and baptism unto those who are accountable and capable of committing sin; yea, teach parents that they must repent and be baptized, and humble themselves as their little children, and they shall all be saved with their little children.
11 And their little children need no repentance, neither baptism. Behold, baptism is unto repentance to the fulfilling the commandments unto the remission of sins.
When the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was organized in 1830, its practice in baptizing new members reflected the Book of Mormon teachings set forth above. Baptism was officially stated to be for all those who “humble themselves before God, and desire to be baptized, and come forth with broken hearts and contrite spirits, and witness before the church that they have repented of all their sins, and are willing to take upon them the name of Jesus Christ, having a determination to serve him to the end, and truly manifest by their works that they have received of the Spirit of Christ unto the remission of their sins . . .” See Doctrine and Covenants 20: 37. Verse 71 added: “No one can be received into the church of Christ unless he has arrived unto the years of accountability before God, and is capable of repentance.”
These two scriptures seem to create a consistent, easy-to-defend doctrinal stance. If a student of Mormonism were studying LDS beliefs for the first time, however, she might be surprised to find that the view on baptism of little children from the two scriptures quoted above are not in harmony with a later section of the Doctrine and Covenants—Section 68. Verses 65-67 of this later pronouncement, recorded some nineteen months after the Book of Mormon was published and later canonized, read:
25 And again, inasmuch as parents have children in Zion, or in any of her stakes which are organized, that teach them not to understand the doctrine of repentance, faith in Christ the Son of the living God, and of baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of the hands, when eight years old, the sin be upon the heads of the parents.
26 For this shall be a law unto the inhabitants of Zion, or in any of her stakes which are organized.
27 And their children shall be baptized for the remission of their sins when eight years old, and receive the laying on of the hands.
This new doctrine, purporting to be the first-person words of the Lord himself, seems irreconcilable with the earlier one, since the earlier one from the Book of Mormon doesn’t seem to anticipate the baptism of eight-year-old children, much less making the practice mandatory. The only way the third quoted scripture can be harmonized with the first two is if eight-year-olds are not, by definition, little children. But in the author’s experience, few, if any, Mormons are willing to publicly embrace the notion that eight-year-olds, who have not yet even gone through puberty, nor been exposed to the myriad temptations that adults encounter, and who are not recognized in the law of any American state as competent to enter into legally binding contracts or covenants, are anything other than little children.1
The chasm between the Book of Mormon doctrine and the later one Joseph Smith announced is made wider because Mormons cannot honestly claim that in practice, the LDS church is procedurally careful to determine, before baptism, whether the eight-year-old has prior sins of which she has properly repented, as required by the last-quoted Doctrine and Covenants scripture above.2 Instead, Mormons, whose average family size in North America is larger than non-Mormons, treasure their young children as innocent, as do most people, and are culturally indisposed to think of them as sinful. This is because of the teachings of Jesus throughout the synoptic gospels in the New Testament and in the Book of Mormon, wherein the Lord repeatedly taught that adults needed to become as little children to enter the kingdom of heaven.3 In Mormonism, this teaching regarding the purity of little children is pervasive and heavily emphasized. Despite the practice of baptizing them when they turn eight “for the remission of sins,” Mormons simply do not think of their eight-year-olds as sinful.
Admittedly, defending Joseph Smith’s claimed mandate from the Lord found in Doctrine of Covenants Section 68 to baptize eight-year-olds is made a little bit easier by the fact that that the prophet Mormon in his sermon didn’t specify any age for baptism in his above-excerpted sermon to his son Moroni. Therefore, the term used by Mormon—“little children”—demands definition if the reader is to ascertain when baptism is appropriate and when it’s not. However, the fact that the prophet Mormon deliberately contrasts little children, whom he says shouldn’t be baptized, with their parents, whom he says should be baptized, sheds significant light on this issue. Mormon doesn’t contrast “little” children with “older” children, or with “youths.”4 Instead, he widens the gap, with little children on one side and parents of little children on the other, to make unmistakable the maturity level of the proper candidate for baptism he has in mind. Those who are old enough to be raising their own children are safely within the maturity range of those deemed “accountable” for the keeping of the commandments. Accordingly, they can know they’ve sinned when they break the commandments, feel genuine remorse therefor, and repent of their sins without needing to be told by their elders to do so.
Further evidence that neither Mormon nor Christ contemplated children being baptized at the age of eight is shown by the fact that the commandments Jesus gave the Nephites—the breaking of which would constitute the kind of sin a person would need to repent of to qualify for baptism—are not the kind of commandments that apply to a person of such a young age. In other words, Jesus doesn’t seem to anticipate his audience consisting of any children. In Matthew 5-7 and in 3 Nephi 12-14, the principles of righteous living Jesus sets forth refer exclusively to situations that occur in the lives of persons older than prepubescent children. He speaks of being “in danger of the council” for insulting one’s brother; of being “cast into prison” for not agreeing quickly with one’s adversary; of being cast into hell for lusting after a woman not your wife; of being guilty of adultery for divorcing a morally clean wife; of being sued at the law, etc., etc. These things don’t now, and didn’t then, happen to eight-year-old children.
Furthermore, lest Jesus leave any doubt that he’s talking exclusively to adults, he speaks these words:
Or what man is there of you, who, if his son ask bread, will give a stone? Or if he ask a fish will he give him a serpent? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father who is in heaven give good things to them that ask him? 5
Thus Mormon in his Moroni 8 sermon does the opposite of what Joseph Smith later did in claiming the Lord required baptism at the age of eight—he rules out little children as old enough to be baptized but leaves it a discretionary determination based on the individual’s maturity level and ability to repent of adult sins. It is indisputable that to Mormon, there is not one universally-applicable age of accountability, but if there were, it would be nowhere near as young as eight years old, when one can accurately be described as still a “little” child.
Also illuminating is the fact that the man Mormon shows himself, in his account of his own life, to be someone who pays attention to the ages at which significant things happen. It’s therefore hard to fathom that since he was sermonizing about the very subject of when a person should be baptized, he wouldn’t state the age at which it would happen if there were a mandated age as Doctrine and Covenants 68: 65-67 suggests. Mormon is a man who not only pays much attention to historical dates throughout his Book of Mormon narrative, but specifically mentions in the first chapter of his own brief autobiographical book that Ammaron noticed him to be a “sober child” when he was “about ten years of age”; that he was instructed to write the Nephite history he had observed when he became “about twenty and four years old”; that when he was eleven, he was “carried by [his] father” to the land of Zarahemla; that he considered himself “somewhat of a sober child” at the age of fifteen; and that “notwithstanding [he] being young” he led an army of the Nephites into battle in his sixteenth year.”6 Mormon doesn’t mention when he himself was baptized, but Jesus of Nazareth, who was a spiritual child prodigy at the age of twelve, wasn’t baptized until he “began to be about thirty years of age.”7
A final, but certainly not minor, scriptural argument weighs against baptizing eight-year-olds. But it is so obvious, it tends to be overlooked: If God wanted his church to baptize eight-year-olds, wouldn’t Jesus have taught it to the Jews or Nephites in the Bible or Book of Mormon, since he so frequently addressed the subject of little children? Indeed, wouldn’t his apostles and disciples have mentioned its importance somewhere in all their writings? Wouldn’t there be, at least once in all of ancient scripture, some account of a child being baptized, given the centrality of baptism to the gospel message? The New Testament and Book of Mormon are full of teachings about baptisms, and accounts of actual baptisms, but never mention children being baptized.
It is apparent that at least some LDS leaders have noticed the conflict described above between the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants. Accordingly, in the past those leaders assigned to the committee in charge of writing the chapter heading in the Book of Mormon have attempted to partially obscure the starkness of said conflict. Prior to 1981, the LDS church’s heading preceding Moroni 8 in the Book of Mormon accurately and simply read: “Mormon’s epistle to Moroni—Little children have no need of repentance or baptism.”8 The church changed the wording and focus of the heading in the 1981 edition of the scriptures to read: “Infant baptism is an evil abomination—Little children are alive in Christ because of the atonement—Faith, repentance, meekness and lowliness of heart, receiving the Holy Ghost, and enduring to the end lead to salvation.” (Boldface added)9 Of course, Moroni 8 does not mention infants, and doesn’t mention any age of children other than those covered by the general term “little.” This misleading characterization of Mormon’s epistle in the heading (which appeared to have been an attempt to characterize Mormon’s epistle as pertaining only to the Roman Catholic-like practice of baptizing infants instead of all those whom we might classify as little children), only remained for 32 years until 2013, when the church published yet another edition of the Book of Mormon. This latest edition reworded the caption once again, replacing the phrase ‘Infant baptism” with “The baptism of little children.”10 That the misleading language has been removed is commendable, of course. But the LDS Church has never explained why the heading was made misleading in the first place, and the answer will seemingly always be awkward to provide. One might ask, how can the Church justify going out of its way to mislead the reader about the contents of the chapter, when the contents are clear to begin with? Even if such an explanation could be made, the bigger question of why the doctrinally contradictory verses of D&C 68 remain canonized scripture will, and should, persist. (There are other doctrinal errors in Doctrine and Covenants 68 which aren’t discussed in this chapter).
The arguments above inevitably raise the question of whether the mandate to baptize eight-year-olds contained in Doctrine and Covenants Section 68 is in actuality a revelation from God, or something else altogether, originating with someone other than the Lord. As has been argued above from the Book of Mormon and Bible, baptisms of such young children appear to be contra-indicated. But in determining what’s from God and what isn’t, the reader is also invited to consider, from his or her own experience, whether eight-year-olds are wise and mature enough to appreciate the ramifications of committing the rest of their lives to Christ. Would the reader recommend children of similar age selecting a marriage partner, or choosing a lifelong occupation, or running for the City Council, or entering the military? If the reader is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, would she favor the baptism of eight-year-olds if it were not taught by said Church to be God’s will? If you don’t remember your own baptismal interview, or having repented of your sins, or having well understood the baptismal covenant you made when you were baptized at that age, does this influence your thinking as to whether baptizing eight-year-olds is inspired of God? Does it seem relevant that millions of LDS children were baptized at eight years old but later became inactive in the church and never returned? Does the reader believe those baptized as 18-year-olds, for example, fall away from the Church at the same rate as those baptized at eight?
In the final analysis, the reader will determine for himself whether the evidence is compelling enough to conclude that the practice of baptizing children at the age of age is an inspired practice. The author’s views on this question are likely easily discerned from the above arguments. (And here is a humorous view of the practice with which the author agrees, written by a well-known Mormon columnist.) But if this doctrinal issue is difficult for the reader decide, isn’t it the prospect of reversing many years of tradition and unquestioned beliefs that makes it so?
1. In fact, in the author’s more than half a century in the LDS church, not only has he never seen eight-year-olds treated as anything other than little children, but even the most orthodox of Mormons refer to them as such. However, if the orthodox Mormon realizes that the topic under discussion is the LDS doctrine of whether eight-year-olds should be baptized, he or she is likely to retreat to a modified position and argue that eight-year-olds do know enough to understand God wants them to be baptized. Therefore, although they are definitely “little,” this tendentious reasoning goes, they could not be the kind of “little children” Mormon was referring to in his Book of Mormon sermon in Moroni Chapter 8—he had to be referring to children much younger. Otherwise, Joseph Smith would have had to promulgate a non-divinely inspired revelation, which orthodox Mormons deem unthinkable.
2. The author was baptized as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints at the age of eight, but does not remember being interviewed by a local church leader to determine his readiness, much less what was said if the interview even took place. Anecdotal evidence from the author speaking to dozens of adult LDS church members about their respective baptismal interviews at the age of eight would suggest their experiences were not materially different from the author’s; only one among all of them has yet been discovered who remembers anything about whether he even had said interview. And what that one individual remembers is only that the bishop asked him, with his father present, whether he wanted the bishop or his father to baptize him. He chose the bishop, thinking that was the proper response, and the bishop told him it was better to be baptized by his father.
3. For example, in Matthew 19:14, he famously said about children, “. . .of such is the kingdom of heaven,” and in the Book of Mormon, 3 Nephi 11: 37, 38 he instructed that to inherit the kingdom of God, a person must repeatedly repent “and become as a little child.”
4. It may justifiably be pointed out that the terms “prepubescent”, “post-pubescent”, “teenager” or “youth” [to denote a person, as opposed to denoting a time when one is young] to differentiate between ages of children might not have used by Mormon because they weren’t in his vocabulary, or because they weren’t terms in the Early Modern English vocabulary into which the Book of Mormon was translated. This would explain, in turn, why he didn’t use such terms to declare the proper age, or age grouping, when a child might be baptized. However, it’s also clear that Mormon intentionally avoided specifying the age of baptism, which would have been the easiest way to resolve the issue if God had actually mandated a particular age. So, it stands to reason that even if he’d possessed such words in his vocabulary, he wouldn’t have used them. Instead, he’d have used numbers like he did to chronicle events in his own life, and would have left it to the reader to figure out for himself that no one with the maturity or wisdom of a little child should be baptized.
5. See Matthew 7: 9-11, 3 Nephi 14: 9-11.
6. See Mormon 1: 2, 3, 6, 15 and 2: 1-2.
7. Luke 2: 40-49; 3: 21-23.
8. The Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 1968).
9. The Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City:The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 1981).
10. The Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 2013).