“And the first fruits of repentance is baptism.” (Moroni 8)
In the LDS tradition we baptize children at eight years old. It’s an important rite of passage in our culture and usually accompanied by a program (prayer, song, talk, song, prayer), a family get-together, a lunch or dinner, and an outpouring of love for the child. It’s a big day and it’s all well and good. (I’m not so cynical as to criticize someone’s baptism day.)
Baptism is also formal initiation into the LDS church. It’s not uncommon to hear proud parents announce their joy at their child “choosing to become a member of the church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.” As long as I can remember I never had any reason to question this tradition. It’s just what we do. But is it correct? That’s the important question because when I started paying attention to what I was reading in the Book of Mormon, baptism was always preceded by repentance. And I got to wondering, what do eight-year-old children have to repent of? My sense is not much, if anything at all.
I had been thinking about this quite a bit when one day I saw a post on a Facebook LDS Inspiration page by a woman who’s developmentally disabled child had decided to be baptized. As I scrolled through the comments, I found all the positive reinforcement one might expect.
But my heart sank.
I think it’s reasonable to assume that this child was innocent in the eyes of God. Why did he need to be baptized? What sins had he committed? I think the church has confused and misunderstood the prerequisites and purpose of baptism. It’s not to “join the church,” but a demonstration of repentance. (Baptism in and of itself has no salvific power. It’s a ritual. It’s an important ritual, but it’s still a ritual.) In order to repent, one must willy ignore God’s commandments, or in other words, sin. This is clearly laid out in the Book of Mormon. Mormon wrote to his son, Moroni,
“Behold I say unto you that this thing shall ye teach—repentance and baptism unto those who are under the curse of a broken law. And the first fruits of repentance is baptism.” (Moroni 8)and capable of committing sin; yea, teach parents that they must repent and be baptized, and humble themselves as their little , and they shall all be saved with their little children. And their little need no repentance, neither baptism. Behold, baptism is unto repentance to the fulfilling the commandments unto the of sins…For behold that all little children are alive in Christ, and also all they that are without the law. For the power of redemption cometh on all them that have no law; wherefore, he that is not condemned, or he that is under no condemnation, cannot repent; and unto such baptism availeth nothing—But it is mockery before God, denying the mercies of Christ, and the power of his Holy Spirit, and putting trust in dead works. Behold, my son, this thing ought not to be; for repentance is unto them that are under condemnation and
Moroni wrote of the Nephite church,
“Behold, elders, priests, and teachers were baptized; and they were not baptized save they brought forthmeet that they were of it; Neither did they receive any unto baptism save they came forth with a and a contrite spirit, and witnessed unto the church that they truly repented of all their sins. And none were received unto baptism save they them the name of Christ, having a determination to serve him to the end. (Moroni 6)
I don’t think Mormon and Moroni could be more direct. So, again, I found myself wondering what egregious sin this developmentally disabled child—or any eight-year-old child—committed that necessitated a “broken heart and contrite spirit” as part of his repentance? I’ve known plenty of eight-year-old children and I’m sure you have, too. Most of them don’t know what they want for dinner and pitch a fit at bedtime. How are they to even comprehend what a broken heart and contrite spirit means and the significance of becoming a disciple of Christ? How do they demonstrate this? They’re still 15 years away from a fully developed cerebral cortex.
I decided to do some research into the tradition of baptizing children, a practice clearly prohibited in the Book of Mormon. And as they usually do, all roads lead back to Joseph Smith.
ESTABLISHING THE LDS DOCTRINE OF BAPTISM
In a June 1829 revelation to Joseph, Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer we read,
“And you must preach unto the world, saying: You must repent and be baptized, in the name of Jesus Christ; For all men must repent and be baptized, and not only men, but women, and children who have arrived at the years of accountability. And now, after that you have received this, you must keep my commandments in all things.” (D&C 18)
The “years of accountability” is not explicitly defined, but there does appear to be some cultural understanding that we’ll get to later. In the April 1830 Articles and Covenants of the Church of Christ, we get a little more clarification,
“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.” (D&C 20)
This seems pretty good. No quibbles here. But again, the “years of accountability” is not defined. In June 1830 Joseph begins work on his revision of the Hebrew Bible where “the age of accountability” is finally established,
“And I will establish a covenant of circumcision with thee, and it shall be my covenant between me and thee, and thy seed after thee, in their generations; that thou mayest know forever that children are not accountable before me until they are eight years old.” (JST Genesis 17, Joseph’s additions in red.)
Then a September 26, 1830 revelations reads,
“But behold, I [Jesus] say unto you, that little children are redeemed from the foundation of the world through mine Only Begotten; Wherefore, they cannot sin, for power is not given unto Satan to tempt little children, until they begin to become accountable before me; For it is given unto them even as I will, according to mine own pleasure, that great things may be required at the hand of their fathers. (I don’t know what this means)” (D&C 29. This a very strange revelation. Who is Jesus’ “Only Begotten?” Himself? I could chalk this up to scribal error, but this isn’t the only place where the identities of God and Jesus are blurred or confused. See D&C 49, The Book of Abraham and The Book of Moses.)
For historical context of the next revelation, Independence, Missouri was designated Zion, or New Jerusalem, on July 20, 1831. A number of Saints migrated south and settled the land, and the church was split into two main bodies—Kirtland and Independence—with Joseph and church leadership in Kirtland and Bishop Partridge overseeing the Missouri church. From July 1831 onward, Independence was referred to as Zion.
A November 1, 1831 revelation reads,
“And again, inasmuch as parents have children in Zion (Independence, MO), or in any of her stakes which are organized (Kirtland, etc), 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. For this shall be a law unto the inhabitants of Zion (Independence, MO), or in any of her stakes which are organized. And their children shall be baptized for the remission of their sins when eight years old, and receive the laying on of the hands. (D&C 68)
It was here that the alarm bells went off. If children are not accountable before God until they are eight years old according to a previous revelation, why are they baptized “for the remission of their sins” upon reaching eight years old? What sins have these children committed in that narrow window between their eighth birthday when they become accountable and the day of their baptism (a few days or weeks later) that requires a “broken heart and contrite spirit” and witnessing before the church they have “truly repented of all their sins?”
D&C 68 appears to be a case imputed sin, or the idea that children are inherently sinful upon turning eight years old, otherwise they wouldn’t need to be baptized. Yet our second Article of Faith declares “we believe that men will be punished for their own sins and not for Adam’s transgression.” D&C 68 doesn’t take into consideration a child’s emotional, mental, intellectual, cultural, economic and educational influences. Anyone with children will tell you they all mature differently, yet one active LDS woman suggested to me that an imaginary light switch flips on in all children at eight years old regardless of background and are therefore “accountable before God.” If the world were only so black and white.
YEARS/AGE OF ACCOUNTABILITY
I think some historical context is important. I’m not an historian, but I’m doing the best I can with the resources I have. So, as I often do, I went over to Google’s Ngram view and searched “Age of Accountability” and “Years of accountability” to see how it was used in Joseph Smith’s day. What I found was a steady uptick in the terms beginning around 1820 and continuing through 1845, but no defined age. I did find this interesting, however,
“And on the parents the important task falls, to cultivate the intellectual faculties of their children at an early age, that they may answer the salutary end of their creation, when arrived at the years of accountability. If they neglect this part of their duty to God and their children, they are guilty of the crimes they commit…” (The Excellency of the Female Character Vindicated, Third Edition, 1828, )
It’s probably a coincidence, but that’s not too dissimilar from D&C 68. Both place the burden of guilt on the parents for failing to properly raise their children. That opens another can of worms. When does agency begin? How are agency and accountability linked? If we aren’t subject to Adam’s transgression, how can a parent be held accountable the sins of a child? I have questions.
The “age of accountability” was a frequent topic of conversation in the era, which stemmed from a growing rejection of Calvinism in favor of Arminianism during the “Second Great Awakening.” (See also the Arminian-Calvin Controversy). One writer notes,
“Calvinism further maintains that, due to this inherited spiritual depravity, babies are born with a corrupt nature. Babies, therefore, are born depraved and, by definition, are in a “lost” state. The only way for babies to be saved is for them to be one of the elect—a predetermined few whom God arbitrarily decided to save while condemning all others. Hence, free will does not enter into the question of salvation. The Calvinist maintains that people cannot choose to receive salvation from God. They are in a lost condition due to their corrupt spiritual nature, and do not have the ability even to desire salvation, let alone to attain it.” (The Age of Accountability, Dave Miller)
“…the idea of an age of accountability arose in the 19th century and the 20th century amongst non-Calvinistic Protestants who were attempting to address the issue of infant mortality and explain on the basis of Arminianism and freewill why all children who had been unable to exercise their own unaided faith by freewill didn’t go to hell. That’s really where the idea of an age of accountability came from.”
So, Joseph Smith may have been responding to these contemporary debates and controversies and decided that eight-years-old was the age of accountability.
John MacArthur once said,
“Now let me say this and I don’t want you to panic when I say it. Saving faith is an adult issue. Saving faith is an adult experience. Salvation is an adult experience. Am I saying that a child cannot be saved? I’m saying that salvation is a conscious turning from sin to follow Jesus Christ with an understanding of something of the sinfulness of sin, its consequences and something of who Jesus Christ is, what He has provided and that I’m committing my life to Him. At what point can a child understand that?… I tell parents that salvation is an adult decision… There is no illustration in Scripture of childhood salvation. There is none. People want to throw the Philippian jailer and his household; well that’s talking about his servants so there is no reference there about his children. So there is no such thing as a childhood conversion.” (Emphasis added)
“I think the best way to answer that is to say this: There is no “age of accountability” identified in Scripture, as such. There is nothing in the Bible that says, “Here is the age and from here on you are responsible!” I think the reason for that is because children mature at different paces. That would be true from culture to culture, and from age to age in history.
While I disagree with McArthur’s cessationist views, I agree with him here. It seems very reasonable. There’s no “age of accountability” set forth in the Book of Mormon, Hebrew Bible or New Testament. There’s a reason for that. However, if one believes the Joseph Smith Translation, then it is found there and in D&C 68 and nowhere else.
After reading through multiple articles on LDS.org, it seems that baptism of children is associated with accountability rather than repentance. There’s a big, big difference. One of the articles, written by mother of an autistic son, reads,
“We learned from Church policy that the individual’s accountability depends on both his wishes and his level of understanding: if David was worthy and desirous to be baptized and demonstrated that he could be held accountable, we should not withhold baptism from him…”
I hope you can see the immense difficulty with this statement. It’s putting the cart before the horse, baptizing someone before he or she has had the chance to actually sin. Accountability is not the qualifier for baptism. Repentance is. Another article, directed at children of the church reads,
“Each year thousands of righteous children reach the age of accountability and are baptized into the Lord’s church.”
And repentance necessitates having knowingly broken one of God’s commandments. Children are baptized because an arbitrary age rather than cognizant understanding of and rejection of sin.
BAPTISM IN THE BOOK OF MORMON – THE FIRST FRUITS OF REPENTANCE
As I mentioned at the beginning, no one was baptized into the Nephite church “save they brought forth fruit meet that they were worthy of it.” It was a demonstration of repentance manifest in their works, not a date on the calendar.
And again Mormon,
“…for repentance is unto them that are under condemnation and under the curse of a broken law. And the first fruits of repentance is baptism; and baptism cometh by faith unto the fulfilling the commandments.”
Repentance is always prerequisite for baptism. Said Jacob,
“And he commandeth all men that they must repent, and be baptized in his name, having perfect faith in the Holy One of Israel, or they cannot be saved in the kingdom of God.” (2 Nephi 9)
2 Nephi 9, to me, is the most sublime sermon in the entire Book of Mormon. In it Jacob notes that the repentance and baptism mandate only applies to people who have received God’s commandments, not every single person who has ever lived as the LDS church now teaches.
In editing the Nephite record, Mormon writes,
“And it came to pass that whosoever did not belong to the church who repented of their sins were baptized unto repentance, and were received into the church.” (Alma 6)
Said Jesus at Bountiful,
“Now this is the commandment: Repent, all ye ends of the earth, and come unto me and be baptized in my name, that ye may be sanctified by the reception of the Holy Ghost, that ye may stand spotless before me at the last day.” (3 Nephi 27)
The “remission of sin” does not come from the physical act of baptism, it comes from the cleansing power of the Holy Ghost,
“Blessed are ye if ye shall give heed unto the words of these twelve whom I have chosen from among you to minister unto you, and to be your servants; and unto them I have given power that they may baptize you with water; and after that ye are baptized with water, behold, I will baptize you with fire and with the Holy Ghost; therefore blessed are ye if ye shall believe in me and be baptized, after that ye have seen me and know that I am.” (3 Nephi 12)
Man baptizes with water. God baptizes with fire.
THE EARLY CHURCH UNDERSTOOD
The criteria for joining the church in the early days was set forth in The Articles and Covenants of the Church of Christ,
“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 truly 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, shall be received by baptism into his church.” (D&C 20)
This is the church as it should be, a church modeled on the Nephite church. The church of Christ is necessarily exclusive. Not superior, but exclusive. There has to be a vetting process to keep the wolves out of the henhouse. All are welcome to become part of the Body of Christ, but this membership is contingent upon demonstrable repentance. This directive was quickly forgotten. As Mormon missionaries went out preach, it wasn’t uncommon for them to preach in the morning and baptize in the afternoon. How did they determine if these new converts manifested through their works the spirit of Christ unto the remission of their sins? How did the children manifest they had received the spirit of Christ to the remission of their “sins?” While in England did the 12 personally vet the thousands of converts who immigrated to Nauvoo? I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest they didn’t.
In the LDS church, baptism of children on record has become a rite of passage. We do it because that’s our tradition. It makes a child an “official member of the Church.” But I think we’ve lost sight of what baptism truly means and what it doesn’t. We have confused “accountability” with the actual act of sinning. It may sound trivial to some people, but I take this deadly seriously. I think in his revelations Joseph Smith was responding to cultural issues over the question of the “age of accountability.” He had the Book of Mormon before him, in which parents are encouraged to repent and be baptized, but for reasons I have yet to comprehend, didn’t rely on it for resolving, or even establishing, doctrine. But because “eight-years-old” is codified in a purported revelation, there’s no chance it will ever change. So, we continue to baptize innocent children and make a mockery of the atonement. Joseph Smith was wrong to establish eight as the age of accountability. (No, I don’t believe D&C 68 is an actual revelation from God.) This is why, as I’ve said many times, we should be free to question and challenge Joseph Smith’s doctrines and revelations without fear of condemnation, reprisal or excommunication when we encounter problems in his revelations.
A PERSONAL NOTE
I don’t remember my baptism. Were it not for a faded polaroid and a certificate telling me I was, I would have no knowledge of it. I’m pretty sure I didn’t understand what it meant to take upon myself the name of Christ, either. I was eight years old. I liked baseball cards and G.I. Joe and playing with my friends at the schoolyard. I assume most kids today are like I was. My suggestion would be to let these children grow and mature and come to understand what it means to become a true disciple of Christ rather than baptizing them because they’ve completed a certain number of days on earth
Great article. Thank you for sharing the scriptures and common sense.