One of the interesting aspects of how members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints approaches the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is that it is seen as a renewal of covenants. What may not be as widely known is that the idea of renewing covenants may have originally emerged in the Church in connection with the practice of rebaptism. In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history and theology blog From the Desk, historians Jonathan Stapley and David Grua discussed Latter Day Saint rebaptism. What follows here is a co-post to the interview (a shorter post with excerpts and some discussion).
An overview of rebaptism was given as follows:
Within the Restoration there are additional meanings to rebaptism. During its first decades, the Church not only rebaptized converts, but also rebaptized Church members. There were many purposes for these rebaptisms. Unlike other churches, Latter-day Saints required excommunicated members to be rebaptized in order to return to full fellowship. This is a practice that exists today, though we now use the term “withdrawal of church membership” instead of excommunication.
Rebaptism as a sign of repentance and renewal wasn’t limited to excommunication. Many people who experienced church discipline were rebaptized without being cut off from the Church. And many people who were in good standing also sought out rebaptism “for the remission of sins.”
Though not discussed in the referenced article, Joseph Smith introduced the practice of baptism for health—a form of rebaptism used as a healing ceremony along with anointing and blessing. Lastly in Utah, Brigham Young introduced rebaptism “for the renewal of covenants.”
Rebaptism became a relatively common thing, and was done for a few different reasons.
Based on those reasons, most Latter-day Saints were rebaptized multiple times throughout their lives in the nineteenth century.
Latter-day Saints in good standing often were rebaptized at least five or six times at a minimum throughout their lives. Some experienced it many more times. For example, a member in Nauvoo might have been rebaptized:
1. When it was widely introduced;
2. Then again when they arrived in the Great Basin;
3. During the reformation of 1857;
4. When they were endowed in the Temple;
5. When they were sealed in the temple; and
6. When they joined a United Order.
This began to change around the turn of the twentieth century, when leaders of the Church “all viewed the practice as becoming too commonplace.” During the 1890s, rebaptism was no longer a requirement for emigrants and temple attendance. Other rebaptism practices were also curtailed. While the practice has declined overall, there are two circumstances where rebaptism still happens: “First, Latter-day Saints still rebaptize converts who have been baptized in other Christian denominations. . . . Second, Latter-day Saints also rebaptize people who have had their membership withdrawn.”
As mentioned at the outset, one purpose for rebaptism was for the renewal of covenants. In the interview, Grua and Stapley discussed some of how that has remained a part of our doctrine:
The practice of “covenant renewal” in the Church was first mediated through rebaptism. Brigham Young introduced baptism for the renewal of covenants upon arrival in Utah, and it was the primary method to renew covenants throughout the nineteenth century.
Today, covenant renewal is an important aspect of Latter-day Saint religious life. However, instead of rebaptism, it is the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper that mediates that work. . . .
While a lot has changed since Brigham Young entered the Salt Lake valley over 175 years ago, the human yearning for renewal has not abated.
But whereas those early Saints immersed each other to renew their covenants, today Church members across the globe eat the bread and water of the Lord’s Supper to find their covenant renewal. This shift in concept largely occurred at the turn to the twentieth century.
I’ve written about renewal of covenants in the sacrament before, and it’s a topic that fascinates me. Part of that is that there have been a couple indications here and there that the idea of renewing of covenants may be undergoing some reconsideration by Church leaders in our time. Elder Neil L. Anderson noted that despite common use of the phrase when discussing the sacrament, “the title ‘renewing our baptismal covenants’ is not found in the scriptures … and it can’t be the keynote of what we say about the sacrament” (Neil L. Andersen, “Witnessing to Live the Commandments,” General Conference Leadership Training on the Sabbath Day Observance at Church (April 2015). Available to priesthood leaders). Elder David A. Bednar added further differentiation between baptism and the sacrament by teaching that while baptism provides an “initial cleansing of our soul from sin,” the sacrament does not. Both ordinances do, however, offer us the promise of having the Spirit of the Lord with us if we keep our covenants, which is the actual sanctifying force that cleanses us from sin (Elder David A. Benar, “Always Retain a Remission of Your Sins,” CR October 2016, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2016/04/always-retain-a-remission-of-your-sins?lang=eng). Those thoughts may go somewhere or they may not, but it’s interesting to consider when thinking about the sacrament.
For more on Latter-day Saint rebaptism, head on over to the Latter-day Saint blog From the Desk to read the full interview with Jonathan Stapley and David Grua.