Baptism and restoration in the Book of Mormon (part 3)

I have written previously here about the practice of baptism among the Lehites (see here and here). To briefly summarize:

— About 50 years after leaving Jerusalem, both Jacob and Nephi1 teach about the universal need for baptism, though the record doesn’t talk about them actually baptizing anyone.

— For the next 400 years, there is no further mention of baptism at all in the Book of Mormon record as we have it (recognizing that we’re missing the Book of Lehi) — either as a doctrinal subject or as actually being practiced.

— After that 400 years, Alma1 reintroduces baptism among the Nephites, at the same time establishing a “church of anticipation” (called by the Lehites “the church of God”) that appears to be quite distinct from the kingly reign implementing the law of Moses that appears to have dominated among the Nephites during those 400 years. Note that it is never clear where Alma gets his authority to baptize; he is one of the unrighteous priests appointed to their positions by King Noah, so it’s unclear where his priesthood authority to administer baptism comes from[1].

— Baptism is then actively practiced among both Nephites and Lamanites for over 180 years right up until the destruction that occurs at the time of the Savior’s crucifixion, with Nephi3 leading the way up to the end and ordaining others to baptize as well.

Now comes the curious part. The great destruction occurs, the survivors gather at the temple at Bountiful (including Nephi3 and other disciples), the Savior appears — and He reintroduces baptism. The Savior explicitly states that he is giving Nephi3 and others “power that ye shall baptized this people when I am again ascended into heaven” (3 Nephi 11:18-22). The Savior goes on to explain the exact procedure by which baptism should occur and even gives the words of the baptismal prayer (3 Nephi 11:23-28), twice stating that “there shall be no disputations among you” regarding baptism (see verses 22, 28).

This immediately raises a few questions:

— Why did the Savior feel it necessary to give Nephi3 and others the authority to baptize, when they had clearly been baptizing prior to His appearance in the New World? Were there questions (either legitimate or merely apparent) about the actual authority that Nephi3 and others held? Or was the Savior simply seeking to emphasize to those assembled — in a very direct and dramatic form — that it was indeed His church, and that all authority came from Him?

— Had errors in doctrine and practice crept in among members of the church of God during those last few decades before the destruction and the Savior’s appearance, or for that matter during the period between the destruction and the Savior’s appearance[2]?

Adding to the possible ideas of (a) a clean break with the past and/or (b) errors and authority issues having crept in is the fact that — starting with Nephi3 and the other chosen discipleseveryone has to be baptized. It is safe to assume that Nephi3 — and likely most of the other 11 disciples chosen by the Savior — had been baptized well before the destruction and the Savior’s visit, since (as noted above) they were baptizing others, and yet re-baptism appears to be required of everyone.

It may be worth noting that the baptismal prayer used by Alma1 is different from that given by the Savior. Here’s the prayer used by Alma1:

And when he had said these words, the Spirit of the Lord was upon him, and he said: Helam, I baptize thee, having authority from the Almighty God, as a testimony that ye have entered into a covenant to serve him until you are dead as to the mortal body; and may the Spirit of the Lord be poured out upon you; and may he grant unto you eternal life, through the redemption of Christ, whom he has prepared from the foundation of the world. (Mosiah 18:13)

The Savior, on the other hand, gives quite a different baptismal prayer (one nearly identical to that used in the LDS Church today):

And now behold, these are the words which ye shall say, calling them by name, saying: 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. (3 Nephi 11:24-25)

One possible explanation of the differences is that there is no mention of any form of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper among the Lehites until the Savior Himself establishes it (3 Nephi 18:1-11). The baptismal prayer used by Alma1 encompasses much of the covenant language used by the Savior in establishing the sacrament among the Lehites (see 3 Nephi 18:1-11 again), which in turn is echoed in the sacramental prayers for bread and wine recorded by Moroni and given again (identically) in the Doctrine & Covenants.

For much the same reason, it may be worth considering whether John the Baptist used the same baptismal prayer that the Savior established during His ministry in the Old World. The Savior states that baptism is to be done “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (Matthew 28:19); there is no indication of what language John used to baptize, particularly before he baptized the Savior Himself. There are some hints in the New Testament of differences between “John’s baptism” and that practiced by Jesus and His apostles; see John 3:22-30 and especially Acts 19:1-5[3].

Getting back to the Book of Mormon, it appears that baptism — as established by the Savior — was actively practiced after His visit (see 3 Nephi 26:17, 21; 3 Nephi 27:1; 3 Nephi 28:18; 4 Nephi 1:1). However, over a period of a few hundred years, wickedness sets in among all the Lehities — both Lamanites and Nephites — and the church of Christ appears to become just a tiny faction (4 Nephi 1:26-49).

In the middle of the 3rd century AD, Mormon is commanded to preach repentance and baptism to the Nephites and to have them “build up again my church” (Mormon 3:1-4), but without much response. It is unclear whether this refers to an actual restoration of the church of Christ or simply an effort to expand a church that has survived intact (if shrunken) through the past 300+ years. If the former, it could well be that Mormon was raised up as a restoring prophet much like Joseph Smith; there are even some interesting parallels between Mormon’s story and Joseph Smith’s story[4].

In any case, it is clear that a very small church of Christ, whether restored or surviving, exists during the time of Mormon and Moroni2. Baptism is clearly practiced (see Moroni 6), though there are doctrinal “disputations” among them regarding infant baptism (see Moroni 8). The church of Christ effectively vanishes with the destruction of the Nephite people (Mormon 8:5-11); Moroni preserves information regarding baptism, as well as other ordinances and church practices, for the descendants of the Lamanites (see Moroni 1-6).

Summing up this and my previous posts, then, it appears that baptism is introduced three — and possibly four — times during the Lehite history (all dates simply citing the Book of Mormon page notes):

— By Jacob and Nephi around roughly 550 BC, with no mention of its practice or doctrinal necessity during the next 400 years;

— By Alma around 147 BC, with continuous practice up until the destruction in 34 AD;

— By the Savior around 34 AD, with a new baptismal prayer, authority newly given to those who had been previously baptized, and all coming into the church of Christ required to be baptized, even those who apparently had already been baptized;

— By Mormon sometime between 350 and 360 AD, after a general (and apparently complete) apostasy among all the Lehites by the early part of the 3rd Century AD, but with all authority and practice apparently vanishing within a few decades with the destruction of the Nephite people.

We in the LDS Church tend to assume that because baptism is essential, it was always practiced — and practiced as we know it today — at any time when there wasn’t a complete apostasy. This leads, for example, for some Latter-day Saints to claim that the Jews practiced covenantal baptism under the Law of Moses, based on (a) the existence of the lavers and the molten sea in the Tabernacle, First Temple, and Second Temple; (b) the Jewish practice of mikvah (ritual cleansing, including for Gentile converts to Judaism); and (c) the existence of immersion (mikvah) pools at Qumran, which some have sought to cast as baptismal fonts. Howver, I have seen no credible, scholarly evidence that Jews practiced covenantal baptism unto repentance until John introduces it as a forerunner to the Savior’s mortal appearance.

Likewise, some Latter-day Saints tend to assume that baptism was practiced continuously throughout the 1000-year Lehite history in the Book of Mormon — not because of textual evidence, but because the belief that “it must be so, therefore it is.” The text itself shows no mention of baptism for at least 400 years of Lehite history. Its absence in King Benjamin’s speech (Mosiah 2-6) is especially noteworthy; Benjamin discusses the Savior, His life and His atonement in great detail without ever mentioning either Christ’s baptism or our own need to be baptized. It is only when Alma1 shows up a few years later — after Benjamin’s death and during the reign of his son Mosiah2 — that baptism and the church of God appear to become established among the various peoples in the Nephite/Mulekite/Lamanite sphere. Likewise, there may have been problems with authority and/or form of baptism during the years leading up to the great destruction in 34 AD, and there may also have been a loss of authority (with a necessary restoration) right near the end of Nephite history.

And, of course, there is no mention of baptism at all among the Jaredites during their two- to three-thousand year history.

My purpose in these three posts is not to argue that baptism is not an essential ordinance for salvation; quite the contrary. I think the reason why baptism for the dead has such an emphasis for our dispensation and will have an even greater emphasis during the Millennium is precisely because there have been vast periods of time when baptism was not being practiced, including among groups of God’s covenant people.

Instead, my analysis over these three posts has led me to wonder if God establishes baptism actively among the living, for the living, for a few specific reasons:

— in anticipation of great destruction and judgment, giving us a chance to repent beforehand (cf. Enoch and Noah; Alma1 through Nephi3; John the Baptist; the Savior in the Old World; Mormon and Moroni2; Joseph Smith);

— to build up a Zion people, either prior to destruction (Enoch; Joseph Smith) or in the aftermath thereof (the Savior in the New World).

It is a pattern that shows up in the Pearl of Great Price, the Book of Mormon, the New Testament, and the Doctrine & Covenants.

Feedback, of course, is always welcome.  ..bruce..



[1] My best guess: Alma1 had one or more private meetings with Abinadi during the two years between Abinadi’s first and second ministries to the people of King Noah. Alma1 records in careful detail Abinadi’s rather lengthy final speech before King Noah and his priests (Mosiah 12-16), which suggests that Alma1may well have known ahead of time much or most of what Abinadi was going to say.

[2] For example, S. Kent Brown (among others) argues that the time gap between the destruction and the Savior’s appearance to the gathered Lehites was on the order of months; see “When Did Jesus Visit the Americas?”, From Jerusalem to Zarahemla (S. Kent Brown, Religious Studies Center, BYU, 1998, pp. 146-156).

[3] That latter passage echoes the rebaptism practiced in the Book of Mormon after the Savior’s visit:

And it came to pass, that, while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul having passed through the upper coasts came to Ephesus: and finding certain disciples, he said unto them, Have ye received the Holy Ghost since ye believed? And they said unto him, We have not so much as heard whether there be any Holy Ghost.  And he said unto them, Unto what then were ye baptized? And they said, Unto John’s baptism. Then said Paul, John verily baptized with the baptism of repentance, saying unto the people, that they should believe on him which should come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus. When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. (Acts 19:1-5)

However, it is most likely that these disciples were baptized by someone other than John the Baptist, since they have no clue about the Holy Ghost, which John clearly preached.

[4] We find the following striking parallels between Mormon and Joseph Smith:

— Sacred historical and religious records are hidden up unto the Lord by a prophet of God (Ammoron) (4 Nephi 1:48-49)

— Mormon, at age 10, is “a sober child, and … quick to observe.” (Mormon 1:2)

— Mormon is instructed concerning the existence and location of the buried plates (Mormon 1:3-4)

— There is a complete apostasy, with corresponding loss of authority, faith, and miracles (Mormon 1:13-14, 16-19)

— Mormon is visited by Jesus Christ at age 15 (Mormon 1:15)

— Several years after first being told about them, Mormon retrieves the buried plates and, under inspiration, creates a volume from them (Mormon 2:17-18)

— Mormon appears to be the prophet/leader of the church of Christ during his life (cf. Moroni 7, Moroni 8)

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