It Mattereth Not? A Question about Baptism by Immersion

It was baptism day and the tap was dry. Utilities worked sporadically in that town in the Dominican Republic. Today there was no running water and we couldn’t know when water would flow through the pipes again.

All of the missionaries in my district went back to our apartments and retrieved the vats of storage water we kept on hand. When plumbing was dry, we would use our emergency supply of stored water to clean up with sponge baths until water came again.

We walked across town to the church, two missionaries working together to heft each heavy vat, and dumped our storage water into the font. There would be no bathing—not even a sponge bath—until the water started running again.

We stared into the font glumly. It wasn’t enough.

We tried something else. We filled up the vats we had just emptied with heavy objects and placed them inside the font. It didn’t look pretty; the font appeared to be littered with trash bins. But it worked. The water level rose just enough that someone could lay down flat on the floor of the font, completely immersed

Our convert and the elder who was baptizing him started the ceremony in sitting positions. My eyes drifted to the convert’s protruding stomach. I held my breath as the elder gently pushed the convert down by his shoulders, laying him down on his back. I exhaled when even his big belly was immersed by water.

I remember how uncomfortable I was the first time I heard one of my missionary companions explain why baptism had to be by immersion.

“You have to wash all the sins away,” she told our investigator in Spanish. “Do you think you could wash away all the sins with just a little bit of water? No. You need a lot of water.”

Was the investigator buying it? I wasn’t. A baptism doesn’t literally wash away sins. Quantity of water is irrelevant. Not to mention the fact that many of the people baptized are children that we don’t doctrinally believe even have sins, yet we immerse them too. And before my mission, I had attended the temple for the first time and experienced a “washing and anointing” ceremony which was much less literal in its depiction of “washing” than immersion in a giant tub.

My companion hadn’t been through the temple yet because there were none in her country. I assume baptism by immersion was taught differently in children’s Primary where she came from. In my Primary class growing up, we were equally smug about baptism by immersion, laughing at those silly Christians from other churches who thought they could baptize people by just sprinkling water on them, but we had a different rationale to explain why: “You must baptize the same way Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. Jesus showed us how to do it. He was fully immersed in water.”

But that logic is equally flawed. When Joseph Smith had a problem obtaining wine for the sacrament, he received a revelation: “It mattereth not what ye shall eat or what ye shall drink when ye partake of the sacrament.” (D&C 27:2) Today, even though we know that Jesus used wine, we deviate from how he did it and substitute water.

I now live in a place where the tap never runs dry, even though I am surrounded by desert. In the wealthy, consumerist society where I reside and where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is headquartered, we rarely think about the wastefulness of running a tap for three hours to accommodate a three-minute ceremony.

I do like baptism by immersion. The ceremony is beautiful (not so much so when the person baptized lies belly up on the floor of the font, surrounded by trash bins, but in the more common, more dignified iteration of the ceremony). People disappear into the water, reminding us of spiritual and temporal death and rise out of the water looking different, reminding us of resurrection, cleanliness and a new life.

But the temple washing and anointing is also deeply beautiful and symbolic, although it has evolved even more since I was a missionary, to the point that it does not resemble a literal washing in any way at all. The baptisms performed with a light sprinkling of water by other faith communities, the very ones I was trained to disdain when I was a child, are rich with beautiful symbolism too.

I wonder if there will someday be room for flexibility in performance of the baptism ceremony to accommodate non-immersion baptisms in places where water is scarce, in times of drought, or when the person to be baptized cannot immerse themselves due to disability, illness or injury.

I wonder, if Joseph Smith had been at our baptism that day in the Dominican Republic, if he might have had a revelation: “It mattereth not if ye are immersed when ye are baptized.”

(This is my favorite song about baptism by immersion: Pray for the Fish by Randy Travis.  Enjoy!)

April Young Bennett

April Young Bennett is the author of the Ask a Suffragist book series and host of the Religious Feminism Podcast. Learn more about April at aprilyoungb.com.

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3 Responses

  1. Ziff says:

    I really like your thoughts here, April. It is interesting which details of ordinances we decide matter, and which ones we end up dropping in the name of expediency. To me, the temple endowment is a great example, since it’s been tinkered with repeatedly, yet Church leaders continue to refer to it as “unchanging.” Clearly they’re thinking there’s some essential core that’s *not* getting changed, but I wonder if they’re so sure of this why they don’t just strip away all the superfluous stuff immediately.

  2. Abby Hansen says:

    Such interesting and good points, all of which I had never thought of before. People like you should be on some church planning committees. It’d help so much to have all of these perspectives and ideas!

  3. Dani Addante says:

    Interesting! I had never thought of that before. Great post!

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