Baptism, or the Anniversary of my Arranged Marriage
Twenty-two years ago this month, I sat in my bishop’s office with my parents for my baptism interview. My bishop asked me, “Do you feel you’re ready to be forgiven of your sins and be baptised?” I sat confused at the question, and then, a little lightheartedly, told him, “Well, I’m still seven, so I don’t think I have any sins to be forgiven of.”
I giggled a little as I gave him my answer, and my parents responded in shock at my apparent mockery of the interview. I guess I don’t blame them. They were the ones who held weekly FHE and family council, who gathered us for gospel instruction and scripture reading every single day. They thought they’d prepared me well to answer the bishop’s questions. They’d even taught me to pray for forgiveness of my sins since I was three years old (for practice, my dad said). But honestly, I was confused, and my giggles were my attempt to cover up the immense awkwardness I felt at being interviewed so seriously for something I didn’t understand and wouldn’t have thought to ask for if left on my own.
I couldn’t understand why I was getting my sins washed away when I’d also been told that I hadn’t begun to become accountable for my sins. To my almost eight-year-old mind, this seemed a strange paradox. I was eventually baptised three weeks after I turned eight in a stake primary baptism, but I wonder what I could have done in those three weeks to put my soul in need of such infinite redemption requiring immediate absolution. What I did understand was the social aspect of the ordinance: My best friend was also baptised that day, and honestly, that’s what I was most excited about. That and the fact that I got a new dress and got to eat out with my family, which definitely signified a special occasion.
I don’t think baptism of children of record is something we spend a lot of time thinking about. Usually it’s a happy family occasion, and it’s not my intention to downplay that rewarding family experience by bringing up my questions and concerns with the practice. But it’s something that as an adult I still have a lot of confusion about. We often speak of baptism necessarily following faith and repentance, which I can completely understand for a person who is making the choice with more life experience and knowledge. But what about primary-aged children? What about those who just are beginning to be accountable? Why are they baptised, what sins are keeping them out of the Kingdom, and what should be the rhetoric surrounding their baptisms?
In attending my niece’s primary baptism last week, I listened closely to the reasons given for baptism and heard they were 1) to follow Jesus’ example, and 2) to become clean. The second reason implies that little children are in fact not clean, which is a concept I still have a hard time reconciling with many scriptures including the 2nd Article of Faith.
In junior primary, we have children sing this song in preparation for their baptisms:
I know when I am baptized my wrongs are washed away,
and I can be forgiven and improve myself each day.
I want my life to be as clean as earth right after rain.
I want to be the best I can and live with God again.
I know a child can do wrong (and know s/he is doing wrong) before age eight. But my understanding was that the atonement gave them an automatic pass. So when we speak of barely eight year olds getting their sins washed away, I’m wondering, where do those sins come from?
We sometimes emphasize or even pride ourselves on rejecting the concept of original sin, or the need to redeemed merely by entering into mortality. But to me, saying each eight year old – who has been declared sinnless and/or non-accountable until that age – is in immediate need of similar redemption isn’t too far off. We’ve just transferred the date of the onset of original sin from automatic-at-birth to automatic-at-eight.
Perhaps I take baptism way too literally. But to me it is an important decision that I wish were left to those who were more able to understand the life-long implications. I feel baptism is like a marriage, choosing to become a member of the Church – the bride of Christ – and take His name upon ourselves and enter into a covenant that He’ll share what he has with us as we strive to be as deserving as we can. It’s just that we often talk about how disgraceful it is for other churches to have their children enter into this metaphorical marriage as babies or toddlers. Yet I feel that for eight year olds, it’s still very much an arranged marriage, proposed and implimented by the adults surrounding the child. The child may understand s/he is getting baptised, but might not have gone seeking that relationship, at that age, without the conditioning and expectations of their parents and teachers that they begin to experience from the time they are three-year-old Sunbeams.
What do you think of baptizing children at eight years old? Do you think our official lessons and materials – whether adapted for children or adults – adequately address the reasons for the baptisms of children of record? Should there be a difference between the preparation of a child versus that of an adult for baptism, or a difference in how we reflect on that experience in accordance with first principles and ordinances?
For those of you who were raised as children in the Church and baptised at eight, what are your thoughts about when you made the covenant of baptism? How do you look at it now?