History of Baptism/Mikvah

Mormon Hereticbaptism, christ, christianity, church, history, ordinances, religion 20 Comments

Since my last post was quite speculative and controversial, I thought I’d go for a change of pace and talk about something we’re all familiar with, or so we thought.  The history of baptism is quite interesting, and much more complex than most people know.  Some have questioned the Book of Mormon’s account of baptism which predates Christ.  So, I wanted to learn more about the history of baptism, and came across a concept of Mikvah.

Mikvah is a ritual in Judaism.  I’ve been trying to track down how far the mikvah (or mikveh) goes back.  The Law of Moses talks about ritual cleansing, so it could date back to then, but I’m not completely sure.  Currently, Mikvah is used for several purposes in Judaism:

Mikveh font in Jewish Temple in AlabamaBaptism seems to be related to the ancient Jewish rite called “mikvah”.  As we know, John baptized Christ, and at that point it became an important ordinance in Christianity.  I find it interesting that if one chooses to convert to Judaism, one must submit to the mikvah as well to complete the conversion process. If you go to this link at Wikipedia, you can see some ancient and contemporary Mikvah fonts which look quite similar to a modern-day Christian baptismal font.

One of the first questions among earlier followers of Jesus was the question of when to baptize. Christ was certainly was baptized at 30. Prior to Christ’s baptism, there is no evidence that he embarked on starting a religion. I think one could make a case that if he had started his ministry at a younger age, he probably would have been baptized at a younger age. His baptism is one of the first events (if not the first) of the organization of his church.

In the early church, it seems there was no uniform age of baptism, and in fact there were two widely divergent views.  One line of reasoning said that it should be put off as long as possible, in order to wash away all sins. Because if one didn’t wait until deathbed, and one later sinned, there could be no forgiveness of sins.  The Emporer Constantine (Appx 350 AD) often gets a bad rap for waiting until his deathbed to get baptized. However, it was a very common practice for early clergy to support this position. So Constantine was actually following the spiritual advice of the clergy of his day.

So using this logic, Constantine’s baptism makes perfect sense. However, it is not always easy to predict when death will occur, so some people erroneously waited too long, which was also a problem.  Since infant mortality was also a big problem, it made sense to baptize infants. It is unclear when infant baptism was first performed, but it could date to this early church period also.  The doctrine of original sin was being developed in this early time period also. Of course, people who subscribed to infant baptism felt that sins could be forgiven as long as they weren’t “major” sins, such as sacrificing to pagan gods, adultery, fornication, or a few other sins.

Then there were some who said a major sin could be forgiven just once. The dispute on this doctrine became quite contentious.  So, as you can see, when to baptize is not an easy question to answer, and really isn’t addressed well in early christian history.

From that point of view, the Book of Mormon position is quite unique with its’ prohibition on infant baptism.  Some people will ask, is 8 years old the appropriate age? According to revelation in the D&C, it is. I don’t have a problem with the age of 8.

I can understand some people’s position, that “an 8 year old can be manipulated to believe anything.” I think that this is a reasonable position, but I don’t think that “9 year olds are in trouble if they die.”  From an LDS point of view, I think the sin of the 9 year old would be “answered upon the heads of the parents” for not teaching the child properly. I really don’t think God is going to come down hard on a 9 year old for refusing baptism.

Is 8 years old too young? I can appreciate why some people think so, but it is not really that big of a deal to me. I think infants are too young for sure.

All devout christians teach religion to their kids, and want them to join their church. There has never been a consensus on the appropriate age to baptize, so I respect any Christian religion’s right to specify an appropriate age.

From a spiritual point of view, I believe it is an inspired doctrine. From a logical point of view, I have no qualms about it. And from a historical point of view, the matter is open to debate.

What do you think?  Understanding that Constantine was following church policy, do you feel it is appropriate to “cut him some slack”?

Comments 20

  1. If I could interject something…

    I’ve noticed that LDS tend to be somewhat misinformed about infant baptism, and what it means and does not mean. (at least, to a catholic, I don’t have enough experience to speak for other denominations that practice it.)

    First of all, to catholics, baptism is not a covenant the way it is to LDS. If there’s any “covenanting” going on it’s between the parents and god, not the child. The child makes his own promises to God later on in life through “confirmation” which occurs somewhere between 10 and 18 grade depending on the congregation.

    Really, infant baptism is seen more as a blessing of the child and an introduction to the community, than anything else.

    Now, you all can debate whether such a thing is wrong or right, I don’t care, but at least understand the context of why it is done.

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  3. MH, interesting post that causes me to revisit something I’ve struggled to understand for years.

    To be honest, I have a very hard time understanding why God would institute legalistic requirements like baptism that then inevitably result in centuries and millennia of legalistic debate. It seems to me if there was one thing Jesus railed against during his ministry, it was the Pharisees’ legalism in setting nit-picky requirements and outward observances for this and that and the other thing, and calling that religion, distracting people from the private interior yearning for God and development of the human soul that characterizes true spirituality. By contrast, Jesus just tried to focus on making sure our faith was a genuine, private, interior pursuit that focused on caring for those in need and infusing our unseen thoughts and motives with selflessness and love (don’t fast as the hypocrites do, pray in secret, give alms in secret, don’t judge, go the extra mile [i.e., be generous with others], don’t just focus on avoiding wrong action like murder or adultery, focus on cleansing your heart from bad feelings like anger and lust, etc.).

    As soon as we say God “requires” an ordinance, a legal ceremony, you inevitably run into contentious debates for the next few millennia about who does and doesn’t have the legal authority to perform those legal ceremonies, and legalistic debate over the details of exactly how those legal ceremonies should be performed (sprinkling? immersion? a little of both?), at what age the legal ceremony should be performed, etc., etc., etc. And I’m just not sure how all that inevitable legalistic debate moves us all closer toward the oneness and unity that was the ultimate desire of Christ’s intercessory prayer.

    By contrast, if baptism is not viewed as a legal requirement for your salvation, but instead is viewed as one of many possible ways to focus ourselves on God and to commit ourselves to live a Godly life, in other words, a beneficial-but-optional performance, then it seems we have all the benefit of baptism (the covenant-making, the focusing our hearts on God, the striving for purity) without the need for centuries of ensuing legalistic debate. Oh, and the other benefit of not having baptism as a legal requirement for salvation is that then we don’t have to worry about babies and relatives and people living in most of the world going to hell for not being baptized by the right people in the right place at the right time and in the right way.

    To be clear, I don’t dispute the fact that the Bible says Jesus was baptized and preached baptism. And I’m not saying God doesn’t require ordinances like baptism. I’m just saying that for years I have had a hard time understanding WHY he would require ordinances like baptism because it seems to lead us in the opposite direction, or at least greatly distract us, from the interior spiritual pursuits that Jesus so passionately preached, and seems to be a stumbling block that undermines the oneness and unity that was the object of his Intercessory Prayer. If anyone has any thoughts about why God would require ordinances like baptism as requirements for salvation, I’d appreciate hearing your views (MH, I hope that’s not a threadjack).

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    Andrew, thanks for the comments. I think you raise some excellent issues, and I don’t mind going in that direction at all. I think the LDS and Pharisees have much in common, and we LDS often focus on legalistic outward appearances, rather than focusing on our inner spirits. Yes, Christ did focus on avoiding appearances of Pharisees, and I think Mormons could do a much better job of focusing inward, rather than outward.

  5. I know that Pope Benedict recently, and officially, denounced the idea of Limbo (which for the most part, hasn’t been taught or believed for at least the last few hundred years anyway) and I believe the official belief now is that they are placed under God’s mercy, to do with what he will. In other words, they don’t know for sure, but they trust that God is just and merciful, I guess.

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  7. Andrew,

    I’ve wondered the same thing myself.

    I’ve concluded that the covenant associated with baptism is necessary for our salvation, and the ordinance of physical baptism is the way God has chosen for mortals to make that covenant. (The same is true of other ordinances) The ordinances focus our mortal minds on spiritual concepts, and establish an orderly way for us to make and keep spiritual covenants.

    The ordinances are for our benefit, not God’s. Without the ordinances, I suspect we mortals would make a mush of key spiritual concepts.

    Christ participated in the physical ordinances and rituals including circumcision (albeit not by choice), baptism, passover, etc. (Interestingly, I can’t think of any scripture indicating that Christ offered sacrifices) He wasn’t anti-ordinance; he was anti-focusing-on-symbols-and-appearances-to-the-exclusion-of-spiritual-truths.

  8. I view ordinances as for us. I know we talk of continuing ordinances throughout the Millennium, but I would be totally fine with it if that ends up being strictly symbolic – if they no longer are necessary when Christ reigns personally and it’s just a matter of assigning a reward. I have no doubt God could take care of it all without the ordinances, but I think WE need them.

    Andrew, I wrote a short post about ordinances a few months ago.

    Conversion of the Whole Soul: Body and Spirit

    I agree with adam e’s #7. There is a big difference between being opposed to ordinances and being opposed to losing the symbolism and the on-going efficacy in the doing of them.

    GENESIS 17: 3-7, 11-12
    God established a covenant of circumcision with Abraham. The ordinance of baptism and the age at which children become accountable were revealed to Abraham. (compare Genesis 17: 3-12)
    3 And it came to pass, that Abram fell on his face, and called upon the name of the Lord.
    4 And God talked with him, saying, My people have gone astray from my precepts, and have not kept mine ordinances, which I gave unto their fathers;
    5 And they have not observed mine anointing, and the burial, or baptism wherewith I commanded them;
    6 But have turned from the commandment, and taken unto themselves the washing of children, and the blood of sprinkling;
    7 And have said that the blood of the righteous Able was shed for sins; and have not known wherein they are accountable before me.
    • • •
    11 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 for ever that children are not accountable before me until they are eight years old.
    12 And thou shalt observe to keep all my covenants wherein I covenanted with thy fathers; and thou shalt keep the commandments which I have given thee with mine own mouth, and I will be a God unto thee and thy seed after thee.

  10. So the purpose of circumcision was to remind the ancients that children were not accountable until age 8? (see verse 11 quoted above) Yeah, I guess that would be a sure-fire way to get me to remember something like that as well. 🙂

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  12. Mormon Heretic,
    I don’t believe the covenant was “instituted by Abraham” at all. In a covenant, God sets the terms. He also provides the token. I did read your post however…

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  14. #3 Andrew wrote: “I’m just saying that for years I have had a hard time understanding WHY he would require ordinances like baptism because it seems to lead us in the opposite direction, or at least greatly distract us, from the interior spiritual pursuits that Jesus so passionately preached”

    Andrew, I’ve always found the LDS model of 2 Priesthoods re-assuring for this very reason. Milk before meat. Law of Moses before Law of Christ. Physical ordinances prior to spiritual. Baptism is an easy way to see someone commits to wanting to be a member. Temple recommend interviews are very spiritual-driven.

  15. Heretic, did you forget that Adam was baptized by the HG? This is not a Jewish ordinance, but something from Adam’s time. Or should we relegate the Book of Moses to apocryphal status? Mikvah, if anything, is based off of baptism, not vice versa. Furthermore, I have to wonder whether Mikvah doesn’t have more to do with Initiatory than it does with baptism, as there used to be “bathtubs” in the Salt Lake temple.

  16. Ed,

    My point in bringing this up is historical, provable information. Nothing in the Bible can be proved archaeologically prior to about 600-700 BC. I’m not trying to argue theology here, but rather history. Andrew is the one who wants to argue theology here (as in WHY?). Perhaps you can answer that for him. Or you can show me the baptismal font Adam was baptized in? (Sorry, I’m not trying to provoke–please understand.)

    I know and trust the JST, PoGP, etc, but they don’t add anything to the archaeology. While it is off-topic here, I mused that the Book of Abraham is similar to Muslim writings about Abraham, and is also similar to the Jewish Midrash, in the link I posted above. For those that want to trash the Book of Abraham, that certainly adds some interesting elements to consider. But then Doug G is going to come along and say that Joseph copied the Midrash or Koran, and blamed it on a funeral scroll…

  17. There are two things that were interesting to me, which are not mentioned above, that I would like to share with all due respect to all of you and the thoughts already shared.
    The answer Jesus gave to Nicodemus, man learned in the Law of Moses, on the proper way to enter into the kingdom of God, i.e. born of water and of the Spirit.

    The other thing is one interesting discussion between Jesus and the chief priests, the scribes and the elders on the authority to do the things Jesus did, which he moved to the first step/requirement/ordinance – baptism. Why Jesus did went to be baptized of John instead of the learned man of the Law of that day? For Jesus knew who had the authority and what did the authorized one (John) did? [Pull him up] or “went up straightway out of the water”, i.e. did it the right way.

    I would like to learn more about Mikvah too. Is there more to what was shared here on the Mikvah that I can go and read?

    Thank you for the quality discussion I see here!

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    The Wikipedia article I mentioned at the top has some footnotes and links for further information. Every time I clicked on them, I never really found any information on the history of mikvah–it seems to focus more on sexual purity and things like that. So, you’re welcome to look through the footnotes, and if you can find something that tells when mikvah first started, please let me know.

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