Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Mormon's Epistle on Infant Baptism: Too Harsh?

Have you ever been bothered by Mormon's harsh words against infant baptism in Moroni chapter 8? Verse 14 has long been troublesome to me: "Behold I say unto you, that he that supposeth that little children need baptism is in the gall of bitterness and in the bonds of iniquity, for he hath neither faith, hope, nor charity; wherefore, should he be cut off while in the thought, he must go down to hell."

This certainly isn't the way to build bridges and sell books. It just seems too harsh. But a new insight came today when I was talking with an LDS convert who joined the Church while completing her Ph.D. in history. Part of her conversion involved using her training to recognize many touches in the Book of Mormon that are typical of authentic historical documents, often in contrast to what one would expect if Joseph Smith were just crafting a fraud to generate sales. As she shared some of her insights, my mind turned to Moroni 8 and it occurred to me that verse 14 is troubling in a modern setting, but Mormon's harsh words were not written about modern sincere believers in Christ who have been raised with infant baptism as part of their traditions of faith. When he was writing in the fourth century, before the final collapse of his people, he was desperately striving to stamp out recently kindled fires of apostasy set by theological arsonists. His targets were wicked apostates who were denying the mercy and justness of God and perverting the ways of God. It wasn't just a misunderstanding that they and all their peers had inherited, but a perversion they were introducing, presumably for their own gain.

Mormon's letter to Moroni has quite a different feel once we step back and consider the setting, viewing it as a historical document from a tough general and prophet fighting the spiritual apostasy that would contribute to the destruction of his nation. The apostates were wicked and surely would perish for what they were doing, if they did not repent. The harsh tone might make sense in the ancient historical context. From General Mormon in 300-something A.D. taking on wicked apostasy from the truth they had received from the Lord, strong language condemning the apostates may have been in order. But if a modern Joseph Smith were just making this up to sell books, drawing upon his environment to write about the theological errors of his fellow Christians, that harshness would risk further alienating a huge part of the market and just wouldn't make much sense, in my opinion.

Below is the entire epistle in Moroni 8. Note verses 4 through 6 which indicate the Mormon has just heard rumors that this new perversion is being introduced in the Church. His purpose in writing the epistle, as he states in verse 6, is to urge his son to actively put down this new "gross error." Again, he is not writing those words to condemn those who would grow up with that doctrine centuries after its introduction.
[1] An epistle of my father Mormon, written to me, Moroni; and it was written unto me soon after my calling to the ministry. And on this wise did he write unto me, saying:

[2] My beloved son, Moroni, I rejoice exceedingly that your Lord Jesus Christ hath been mindful of you, and hath called you to his ministry, and to his holy work.

[3] I am mindful of you always in my prayers, continually praying unto God the Father in the name of his Holy Child, Jesus, that he, through his infinite goodness and grace, will keep you through the endurance of faith on his name to the end.

[4] And now, my son, I speak unto you concerning that which grieveth me exceedingly; for it grieveth me that there should disputations rise among you.

[5] For, if I have learned the truth, there have been disputations among you concerning the baptism of your little children.

[6] And now, my son, I desire that ye should labor diligently, that this gross error should be removed from among you; for, for this intent I have written this epistle.

[7] For immediately after I had learned these things of you I inquired of the Lord concerning the matter. And the word of the Lord came to me by the power of the Holy Ghost, saying:

[8] Listen to the words of Christ, your Redeemer, your Lord and your God. Behold, I came into the world not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance; the whole need no physician, but they that are sick; wherefore, little children are whole, for they are not capable of committing sin; wherefore the curse of Adam is taken from them in me, that it hath no power over them; and the law of circumcision is done away in me.

[9] And after this manner did the Holy Ghost manifest the word of God unto me; wherefore, my beloved son, I know that it is solemn mockery before God, that ye should baptize little children.

[10] Behold I say unto you that this thing shall ye teach -- repentance and baptism unto those who are accountable and capable of committing sin; yea, teach parents that they must repent and be baptized, and humble themselves as their little children, and they shall all be saved with their little children.

[11] And their little children need no repentance, neither baptism. Behold, baptism is unto repentance to the fulfilling the commandments unto the remission of sins.

[12] But little children are alive in Christ, even from the foundation of the world; if not so, God is a partial God, and also a changeable God, and a respecter to persons; for how many little children have died without baptism!

[13] Wherefore, if little children could not be saved without baptism, these must have gone to an endless hell.

[14] Behold I say unto you, that he that supposeth that little children need baptism is in the gall of bitterness and in the bonds of iniquity, for he hath neither faith, hope, nor charity; wherefore, should he be cut off while in the thought, he must go down to hell.

[15] For awful is the wickedness to suppose that God saveth one child because of baptism, and the other must perish because he hath no baptism.

[16] Wo be unto them that shall pervert the ways of the Lord after this manner, for they shall perish except they repent. Behold, I speak with boldness, having authority from God; and I fear not what man can do; for perfect love casteth out all fear.

[17] And I am filled with charity, which is everlasting love; wherefore, all children are alike unto me; wherefore, I love little children with a perfect love; and they are all alike and partakers of salvation.

[18] For I know that God is not a partial God, neither a changeable being; but he is unchangeable from all eternity to all eternity.

[19] Little children cannot repent; wherefore, it is awful wickedness to deny the pure mercies of God unto them, for they are all alive in him because of his mercy.

[20] And he that saith that little children need baptism denieth the mercies of Christ, and setteth at naught the atonement of him and the power of his redemption.

[21] Wo unto such, for they are in danger of death, hell, and an endless torment. I speak it boldly; God hath commanded me. Listen unto them and give heed, or they stand against you at the judgment-seat of Christ.

[22] 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 --

[23] But it is mockery before God, denying the mercies of Christ, and the power of his Holy Spirit, and putting trust in dead works.

[24] Behold, my son, this thing ought not to be; for repentance is unto them that are under condemnation and under the curse of a broken law.

[25] And the first fruits of repentance is baptism; and baptism cometh by faith unto the fulfilling the commandments; and the fulfilling the commandments bringeth remission of sins;

[26] And the remission of sins bringeth meekness, and lowliness of heart; and because of meekness and lowliness of heart cometh the visitation of the Holy Ghost, which Comforter filleth with hope and perfect love, which love endureth by diligence unto prayer, until the end shall come, when all the saints shall dwell with God.

[27] Behold, my son, I will write unto you again if I go not out soon against the Lamanites. Behold, the pride of this nation, or the people of the Nephites, hath proven their destruction except they should repent.

[28] Pray for them, my son, that repentance may come unto them. But behold, I fear lest the Spirit hath ceased striving with them; and in this part of the land they are also seeking to put down all power and authority which cometh from God; and they are denying the Holy Ghost.

[29] And after rejecting so great a knowledge, my son, they must perish soon, unto the fulfilling of the prophecies which were spoken by the prophets, as well as the words of our Savior himself.

[30] Farewell, my son, until I shall write unto you, or shall meet you again. Amen.

10 comments:

Waiting For Zion said...

Jeff,

Amen to what you have said.

Today if someone within the Church were to rise up teaching the doctrine of baptism for infants (teaching that infants that died without baptism were damned nonetheless!) and in doing so lead away members I am sure the Prophets would respond in like manner.

However when teaching the correct principle of baptism to investigators of the Church who have believed in infant baptism their entire lives I'm sure the approach would be more empathectic and understanding.

Context means so much when we read the scriptures. I am afraid many false doctrines can be traced to those failing to understand the context in which a certain passage is given.

Anonymous said...

Great post, jeff. My Catholic in-laws would appreciate your post. :-)

Anonymous said...

Jeff, as a good Latter-Day-Saint why you would find it troublesome? I was born a Catholic but joined the LDS Church with my family when I was 8 in 1953. I have never been troubled by the statement. Over the last several years of reading your web sites (which for the most part I enjoy) I have noticed several times that you question some LDS doctrine. If the Book Of Mormon is true, and I believe it is, why the angst? Or are you just stirring the pot to see what will come to the top?

Russell said...

While I can't speak for Jeff, I can speak for myself on some doctrines I have found worrisome. Brigham Young found the Word of Wisdom and section 76 of the Doctrine and Covenants.

There is nothing wrong with analyzing the scriptures, holding them up to the light of scrutiny.

Hugh B. Brown said it best (while he was probably referring specifically to academic pursuit, I believe that this spirit of theological inquiry ought to be the rudder of our discussions:

I hope that you will develop the questing spirit. Be unafraid of new ideas for they are the stepping stones of progress. You will of course respect the opinions of others but be unafraid to dissent if you are informed. Now I have mentioned freedom to express your thoughts, but I caution you that your thoughts and expressions must meet competition in the marketplace of thought, and in that competition truth will emerge triumphant. Only error needs to fear freedom of expression.

BRoz said...

Funny you should bring up this scripture. I have a friend who just had a baby and is contemplating baptism for their baby. They don't believe in it but the mother-in-law is most insistent. Consequently, they have relented and at this point going to baptize their baby.

My friend and I had a great discussion on the tpic and revieved several Bible scriptures which indirectly address this issue. That led us into a discussion about the unfortunate ambiguity of the Bible and the need for the clarity of the Book of Mormon.

My friend then asked me what the Book of Mormon said about infant baptism. The first thing that came to mind was the, "it is mockery before God, denying the mercies of Christ, and the power of his Holy Spirit, and putting trust in dead works."

After speaking, I was kind-of embarrased that I had quoted that scripture. I don't think I could have selected a more pointed verse. But, as thought more about it I wasn't sorry. If you want to know what God thinks about infant baptism, It doesnt get any clearer than Mormon 8.

Mormanity said...

Why would I find a verse or some aspect of LDS teachings to be troublesome? This happens when something offends my sensibilities or seems just plain wrong. I think it's healthy to allow for the possibility of human error - error on the part of the hearer as well as on the part of the speaker, writer, or translator. That's not meant to be an excuse to dismiss what we don't like, but there's simply no question that errors occur. In fact, just about everything we read, hear, and teach on this planet goes through human hands and minds in some way and is thus subject to error. So if a verse seems way too harsh - like suggesting that some sweet Christian grandmother without any tattoos might go to hell if she happened to be thinking about the necessity of infant baptism when her Harley wipes out an icy stretch of I-94 - then I can suggest that there must be some mistake here. The mistake may be in my interpretation and application of the verse and not in what Mormon was really saying in his historical context.

As for other issues, there most certainly have been errors by various Church leaders, both now and anciently. It's OK to permit personal discomfort with some hopefully rare parts of what has been taught and done, even when it had the appearance of doctrine.

Bookslinger said...

Jeff, you practically begged the question.... What if that Christian grandmother _did_ have some tattoos?

Mormanity said...

Good question - guess I'd have to see the tattoos first.

Frankly, by the time you reach grandparent age, those cool tattoos you got as a teenager are so faded, distorted, and generally gross looking that they just look like your run-of-the-mill terminal skin disease -- so it's hard to tell if the hypothetical heavily tattooed Harley-riding grandmothers I speak of actually have old tattoos or just really bad skin.

Lars said...

I think it's also important to distinguish LDS doctrine (e.g. infants do not need baptism) with something we through our misunderstanding may claim as LDS doctrine (e.g. Catholics are going to hell because they baptize infants). Inquiry like this can lead us closer to truth by emphasizing the real doctrine and shedding any of the excess baggage that we've attached to it.

BRoz said...

Another example of this is God's explaination of the phrase "eternal punishment" in the D&C 19. God indicates that the usage of "more express" phase led to mis-understanding. However, God seems to say that he allowed it so it "might work upon the hearts of the children of men, altogether for my name’s glory" (D&C 19: 7).