Latter-day Saint rebaptism was practiced from the time of Joseph Smith until the 1910s. Members of the church would often be baptized multiple times, frequently to commemorate significant events or to recommit to a life of discipleship during the Mormon Reformation. In this interview, historians Jonathan Stapley and David Grua explain more about the unique practice.
Read the article by Jonathan Stapley and David Grua, “Rebaptism in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
Table of contents
- How it was Introduced
- Christian Covenant
- Significant Events
- Ending the Practice
- Still Practiced
What is rebaptism?
Rebaptism is a term that has shifting meaning depending on the context. For example, in Western Christianity, there has been a very long tradition of asserting that only one baptism is necessary, regardless of the denomination in which it was performed.
However, there have consistently been groups that, for example, reject infant or child baptisms. These groups have “rebaptized” converts or adult believers who were baptized when they were little. Early Latter-day Saints figured into these debates, as they baptized all converts, even those who were baptized as adults in other denominations.
Specifically, within the Restoration there are additional meanings to rebaptism. During its first decades, the Church not only rebaptized converts, but also rebaptized Church members. There were many purposes for these rebaptisms. Unlike other churches, Latter-day Saints required excommunicated members to be rebaptized in order to return to full fellowship. This is a practice that exists today, though we now use the term “withdrawal of church membership” instead of excommunication.
Rebaptism as a sign of repentance and renewal wasn’t limited to excommunication. Many people who experienced church discipline were rebaptized without being cut off from the Church. And many people who were in good standing also sought out rebaptism “for the remission of sins.”
Though not discussed in the referenced article, Joseph Smith introduced the practice of baptism for health—a form of rebaptism used as a healing ceremony along with anointing and blessing. Lastly in Utah, Brigham Young introduced rebaptism “for the renewal of covenants.”
How was rebaptism introduced into the Church?
There are different types of evidence for the various types of rebaptism. That all converts needed to be baptized to join the Church was featured in Joseph Smith’s earliest revelations. That excommunicants needed to be rebaptized appears in the historical record without much explanation.
Minutes, letters, and diaries all describe the practice from the earliest years. In Nauvoo, Joseph Smith delivered several sermons advocating for rebaptism for “the remission of sins” and “for health” and the practice is widely documented. And several individuals kept journals describing Brigham Young’s introduction of rebaptism for “the renewal of covenants” when the Vanguard Pioneer Company arrived in the Salt Lake Valley.
How common was rebaptism during the 19th century?
Latter-day Saints in good standing often were rebaptized at least five or six times at a minimum throughout their lives. Some experienced it many more times. For example, a member in Nauvoo might have been rebaptized:
1. When it was widely introduced;
2. Then again when they arrived in the Great Basin;
3. During the reformation of 1857;
4. When they were endowed in the Temple;
5. When they were sealed in the temple; and
6. When they joined a United Order.
In addition, church leaders instructed administrators of rebaptism to adapt the canonical baptism prayer now found in Doctrine and Covenants 20:73 to reflect the purpose of the rebaptism.
How did it contribute to a unique understanding of covenants?
The practice of “covenant renewal” in the Church was first mediated through rebaptism. Brigham Young introduced baptism for the renewal of covenants upon arrival in Utah, and it was the primary method to renew covenants throughout the nineteenth century.
Today, covenant renewal is an important aspect of Latter-day Saint religious life. However, instead of rebaptism, it is the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper that mediates that work.
How does our use of “covenant” align with other Christian faiths?
Latter-day Saints generally speak about covenants differently that other Christians. In the Bible, covenants were a way to create a kinship relationship, and they are, for example, the foundation for God’s relationship with Abraham and then the nation Israel in the Hebrew Bible. God then attached to the covenant specific obligations or commandments.
In Nauvoo, Joseph Smith adapted the language of covenant and applied the term to each religious promise or vow made in the temple. Since that time, Latter-day Saints have come to identify these promises as the primary covenants of their religion. This is essentially distinctive among Christian religions. Other Christians make religious vows or promises, but they don’t use covenantal language to describe them.
How were significant religious events connected to rebaptism?
When Brigham Young introduced the idea of covenant renewal and implemented rebaptism as the method to effectuate it, the practice became very prominent. And that makes sense: even the best people struggle to live up to lofty Christian ideals. Life is frequently a protracted series of failures, large and small. The impulse for renewal is easily understandable. Who doesn’t want to start fresh?
Consequently, Church leaders viewed baptism for the renewal of covenants and as not only appropriate, but required, in moments of reform and commitment.
Thus, church members were rebaptized before religious events like going to the temple or joining United Orders.
When did the practice of rebaptism begin to be reconsidered?
Church leaders approached various elements of rebaptism in the 1880s, but it is really in the 1890s that we see them debating the practice systematically. For example, it was in this decade that leaders moved to no longer require it before going to the temple.
Why did leaders of the Church say they ended the general practice of rebaptism?
Different Church leaders had different perspectives, but it was clear that they all viewed the practice as becoming too commonplace. They removed the requirement for new emigrants to be rebaptized, and those going to the temple in the 1890s.
Reform of the practice did not happen overnight, and it endured in some cases into first decades of the twentieth century, with Church leaders largely limiting it to cases where people were penitent for serious sin.
It was also at this time that Church leaders reconsidered the propriety of using non-canonical baptism prayers, instead urging administrators to only use the language found in Doctrine and Covenants 20:73.
What role did James E. Talmage play?
We know James Talmage as a very intelligent and prolific apostle. During the 1890s, however, he didn’t have a major church calling. He was a prominent educator in geology and chemistry.
He also worked to systematize Latter-day Saint teachings and beliefs, which during the pioneer era had taken some interesting turns. He had prepared and delivered a series of lectures on theology that had been so popular that he worked with Church leaders to publish them as Articles of Faith.
This book became an instant classic. As he was working on the book, he took several questions to his apostolic advisers and ultimately to the First Presidency.
It is quite clear that Talmage was not a fan of rebaptism. His diary accounts of meeting with the First Presidency suggests that Church leaders did not see rebaptism as “as a regularly constituted principle of the Church.”
His published volume completely deprecated the practice. Church leaders, however, do not appear to have not been as entirely against the practice as Talmage indicated, explaining why rebaptism persisted into the 1910s.
How did some rebaptism aspects shift to the sacrament?
While a lot has changed since Brigham Young entered the Salt Lake valley over 175 years ago, the human yearning for renewal has not abated.
But whereas those early Saints immersed each other to renew their covenants, today Church members across the globe eat the bread and water of the Lord’s Supper to find their covenant renewal. This shift in concept largely occurred at the turn to the twentieth century.
Are there any types of rebaptism still practiced in the Church today?
Technically there are two. First, Latter-day Saints still rebaptize converts who have been baptized in other Christian denominations. There are other churches that do this; it is not entirely unique.
Second, Latter-day Saints also rebaptize people who have had their membership withdrawn (previously known as excommunication). This appears to be entirely distinctive in the broader Christian community.
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About the interview participants
Jonathan Stapley is an award winning historian and scientist. Jonathan received his Ph.D. from Purdue University and has been active in the field of Mormon History for over a decade. You can read some of his publications here. He also writes for the academic history Juvenile Instructor blog, and at By Common Consent, a Mormon blog.
David Grua is a historian and documentary editor for the Joseph Smith Papers in Salt Lake City, Utah. He is interested in Native American/Western history and collective memory. He received a Ph.D in American history from Texas Christian University in 2013.
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