“Right Arm to the Square” Isn’t Stipulated in Scripture

Why is raising the “right arm to the square” part of the Mormon baptism ritual? It’s not stipulated in the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, Book of Mormon or D&C. However, on LDS.org we read the steps required for valid baptism into the church. The priesthood holder,

“Under the direction of the presiding authority, a priest or Melchizedek Priesthood holder may perform the ordinance of baptism. To do so, he:

    1. Stands in the water with the person to be baptized.

    2. Holds the person’s right wrist with his left hand (for convenience and safety); the person who is being baptized holds the priesthood holder’s left wrist with his or her left hand.

    3. Raises his right arm to the square.

    4. States the person’s full name and says, “Having been commissioned of Jesus Christ, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen” (Doctrine and Covenants 20:73).

    5. Has the person hold his or her nose with the right hand (for convenience); then the priesthood holder places his right hand high on the person’s back and immerses the person completely, including the person’s clothing.

    6. Helps the person come up out of the water.

We’ll leave the issue of the D&C changing from baptismal prayer as it appears in the Book of Mormon for another time, but for a baptism to be valid, the baptizer must raise his right arm to the square.

I’ve searched the historical record and to date I haven’t found a description of baptisms performed in Kirtland, Independence, Far West or Nauvoo. A search of “arm to the square” on the Joseph Smith Papers website yielded no results. I’ve searched through personal and journal accounts and haven’t found anything.

What do the scriptures prescribe? Not much. If we consult the Book of Mormon passages on baptism we find,

“And now it came to pass that Alma took Helam, he being one of the first, and went and stood forth in the water, and cried, saying: O Lord, pour out thy Spirit upon thy servant, that he may do this work with holiness of heart. 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…” (Mosiah 18)

“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. 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. 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. And then shall ye immerse them in the water, and come forth again out of the water.” (3 Nephi 11)

“And now I speak concerning baptism. Behold, elders, priests, and teachers were baptized; and they were not baptized save they brought forth fruit meet that they were worthy of it.” (Moroni 6)

The only requirement, it appears, for the actual baptism is immersion.

Without any scriptural stipulation for the “right arm to the square,” I wondered if it was perhaps borrowed from the Mormon endowment which borrowed elements of Scottish Rite Freemasonry. The preeminent sign of Mason is the square. One writer observes,

“While there are many symbols associated with Freemasonry, none are more universally recognizable than the square and compasses.”

The square and compass are embroidered into the Mormon garment. The LDS endowment references “arm to the square,” indicating a solemn oath or covenant. When new callings are extended to church members, the congregations gives approval by raising the arm to the square. And, of course, every year the LDS First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve are re-sustained as prophets, seers and revelators, by raising the right arm to the square. Yet I had no evidence that the “arm to the square” during baptism was inspired by or borrowed from Masonry.

It wasn’t until I searched “vintage baptism photos” that I feel I got closer to the answer. Various Christian denominations have been baptizing with the right arm raised or squared for quite some time. It seems its nothing more than a cultural tradition. It’s as simple as that. Mormonism took that cultural tradition, which was either extant from the beginning or brought in with the first members and codified it as part of the official baptism posture.

The Book of Mormon, nor the D&C, make no mention of a required posture during baptism. The LDS images of John with his arm to the square baptizing Jesus are beautiful and evocative, but not historically accurate.

Image of George Washington baptized by John Gano. Historians consider this story a legend.
Appalachian Baptism
Unknown baptisms
Unknown baptisms

 

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