This letter was written to a missionary son, Andrew, and answers his questions about the origins of the ordinance of baptism:
December 27, 2008
You asked in your last e-mail about baptism. Specifically, you wanted to know if John the Baptist was the first account in the Bible to baptize, or was it done sooner. Did baptism have any part in the law of Moses? You suggest that 2 Nephi 31 is the first place in The Book of Mormon to talk about it. Then you asked if baptism has always been performed back to Adam. You say, correctly, that seems to make the most sense to you, but you just don’t ever remember reading about it in the Old Testament at all. Let me see if I can give you some perspective on the answers to these questions.
In that compilation, Elder Lee tells an interesting story. Here is his account:
As Walter Dansie and I were at a stake conference, I referred to a conversation I had with an official of the Phillips Petroleum Board of Directors, who came to the BYU by invitation of President Wilkinson in the spring of 1953, to talk to the student body. He is of Cherokee Indian descent, and had read the Book of Mormon. He declared to the students that he believed the Book of Mormon was a true record of his ancestors. On the way back to Salt Lake, Elder Kimball and I, who had accompanied him to that assembly, engaged him in an interesting conversation (at least for us it was interesting).
We said to him, “If you accept the Book of Mormon, what will that make of Joseph Smith?”
He said, “I accept Joseph Smith as a prophet.”
“If he is a prophet, what about the other works he produced? And what about the Church that he established?”
He said, “I think they are divine.”
“Well, that doesn’t put us so far apart.” And, of course, we were backing him into a corner, a technique used by all good missionaries.
And then he said, “Well, I would accept it, but I can’t quite understand this matter of baptism of the dead,” as he spoke of it. “I can’t conceive of God requiring a proxy baptism for one who never had a chance to hear the gospel. I believe God could have saved him any way he chose to.”
And my reply was, “Yes, I think he could have done so. God could have said you can throw your hat over the cliff and be saved, but he didn’t say that. He said, that unless one was born of the water and of the spirit, he could not be saved.” It was that part of the conversation I was relating to Walter Dansie.
He said, “Brother Lee, is that true that God could have had any other plan if he wanted to? Could he have said, ‘Throw your hat over the cliff and be saved?’ That disturbs me.”
“No, I think my remark was not accurate,” I agreed. “This was a plan by which people on other worlds had been saved. It was a plan which had meaning and significance in every part. In my impulsive reply to this man of the world I am sure I said something that no student of the gospel should accept.”
Then Elder Lee goes on to drive home the doctrinal point in the proper context of his remarks:
The Lord had a plan, and this was the plan of salvation in the heavens, and planned before this world was, and had to do with other worlds. This was a plan by which all mankind might be saved. I have thought about that, and about the subject of this chapter, and the meaning of the word “salvation.” The dictionary defines salvation as, “deliverance from sin and its consequences through Christ as the exemplar.” That is a sort of the Christian Evolutionist idea – that we are saved by following the example of Jesus. That is their idea of salvation. Another definition by Mary Baker Eddy is found Science and Heath, the Christian Science Bible. She says, “Life, Truth, and Love, understood and demonstrated as supreme over all; sin, sickness, and death destroyed.”
That is the salvation of the Christian Scientist. But to the Latter-day Saint, salvation means liberation from bondage, and the results of sin by divine agency; deliverance from sin and eternal damnation through the atonement of Christ.
I think there is no other place where we have a finer discussion of the plan of the atonement than in the writings of Jacob, as found in The Book of Mormon, 2 Nephi, the 9th chapter [this was Harold B. Lee's favorite chapter of scripture]. I therefore call it to your attention, and urge you to read carefully again and again that precious explanation from this great father to members of his household:
But, behold, the righteous, the saints of the Holy One of Israel, they who have believed in the Holy One of Israel, they who have endured the crosses of the world, and despised the shame of it, they shall inherit the kingdom of God, which was prepared for them from the foundation of the world, and their joy shall be full forever.
O the greatness of the mercy of our God, the Holy One of Israel! For he delivereth his saints from that awful monster the devil, and death, and hell, and that lake of fire and brimstone, which is endless torment.
O how great the holiness of our God! For he knoweth all things, and there is not anything save he knows it.
And he cometh into the world that he may save all men if they will hearken unto his voice; for behold, he suffereth the pains of all men, yea, the pains of every living creature, both men, women, and children, who belong to the family of Adam.
And he suffereth this that the resurrection might pass upon all men, that all might stand before him at the great and judgment day.
And he commandeth all men that they must repent, and be baptized in his name, having perfect faith in the Holy One of Israel, or they cannot be saved in the kingdom of God.
And if they will not repent and believe in his name, and be baptized in his name, and endure to the end, they must be damned; for the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel, has spoken it.
Wherefore, he has given a law; and where there is no law given there is no punishment; and where there is no punishment there is no condemnation; and where there is no condemnation the mercies of the Holy One of Israel have claim upon them, because of the atonement; for they are delivered by the power of him.
For the atonement satisfieth the demands of his justice upon all those who have not the law given to them, that they are delivered from that awful monster, death and hell, and the devil, and the lake of fire and brimstone, which is endless torment; and they are restored to that God who gave them breath, which is the Holy One of Israel. (Verses 18-26).
Herein is defined what we have referred to throughout all our teachings as individual salvation, which comes to each dependent upon his own conduct and his own life. But we have what we call “general salvation” – that which comes upon all mankind, whether or not they are good or bad, rich or poor, and the way they have lived makes no difference. All have the blessings of the atonement and the resurrection given to them as a free gift because of the Savior’s atoning sacrifice.
He then cited several other scriptures in his teachings, including this scripture chain (and you may want to study these in depth – I’ll just cite them) relating to agency and the resurrection, etc., 2 Nephi 2:26-27; John 5:26-29; Revelation 20:12-13; Romans 5:18; 1 Corinthians 15:21-22; Mark 16:16; Hebrews 5:8-9; Mosiah 5:11-12; D&C 19:16-19.
Then he continues by posing this question to his audience:
How old is the gospel upon the earth? In one of our earliest revelations that was given to the Church, the Lord spoke of the gospel as the “everlasting covenant.” He said:
And even so I have sent mine everlasting covenant into the world, to be a light to the world, and to be a standard for my people, and for the Gentiles to seek to it, and to be a messenger before my face to prepare the way before me. (D&C 45:9).
And then this, from D&C 49:9-10:
Wherefore, I say unto you that I have sent unto you mine everlasting covenant, even that which was from the beginning.
And that which I have promised I have so fulfilled, and the nations of the earth shall bow to it; and, if not of themselves, they shall come down, for that which is now exalted of itself shall be laid low of power.
Why should it be called a covenant? What is a covenant? A covenant is a contract.
If an attorney were to explain it to us he would say that it was an instrument in writing drawn up between one or more contracting parties, one called the party of the first part, and one called the party of the second part. They agree to certain mutual covenants or agreements, stipulated with that contract, and as an evidence of their good faith they sign their names in the presence of a legal officer known as a notary public.
If either one or the other of the parties of the contract were to default and fail to live up to his agreement, the other might bring him into court and sue him for breach of contract. That is what a contract means. Here, the gospel is referred to as a covenant or a contract. It is called everlasting. Why? Because it didn’t begin with this world. It had a wider application than the people who live here on this earth. It was everlasting. It is the plan that has been since all mankind, and has been dealt with as the creatures of our Father’s creations. It was everlasting. It is the plan that is called “new,” because it is new in this dispensation and everlasting because it is the same plan by which all mankind have been saved from the beginning of God’s creations.
The first reference we have made of this covenant is in the Book of Abraham [found in The Pearl of Great Price]. That scripture should become one which we should keep with us always, because here the Lord is speaking of the organized intelligences before the world was. And he said:
Abraham, thou art one of them; thou wast chosen before thou wast born. (Abraham 3:23).
Some of these, he said, were the noble and illustrious ones of whom he would make his rulers. Now mark the terms of the contract. He said:
. . . We will go down. . . and we will. . . make an earth whereon these may dwell; And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them; And they who keep their first estate shall be added upon and they who keep not their first estate shall not have glory in the same kingdom with those who keep their first estate; and they who keep their second estate shall have glory added upon their heads for ever and ever. (Abraham 3:24-26).
Those are the terms of the contract. We were among the contracting parties. The fact that we are here in mortal flesh having added to our spirit a mortal body with added opportunities here in mortality, is an evidence that we kept our first estate, and therefore passed our first test, and the first part of that contract with the Lord. He is the contracting party of the first part, and we are the party of the second part. Now we are in the second estate. We are now being tried to see if we will do all things whatsoever the Lord our God shall command us. The commandments are the principles and ordinances of the gospel, as we speak of them, and they together constitute what we call the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Every principle, every ordinance has a vital bearing upon the whole of the purpose of our testing. It is for the keeping of the contract by which we will have glory added upon our heads forever and ever.
With respect to the timing of when the gospel was first introduced on this earth, Elder Lee continues his instructions with this observation:
Here the Lord says plainly:
The same which came in the meridian of time unto mine own, and mine own received me not;
But to as many as received me, gave I power to become my sons; and even so will I give unto as many as will receive me, power to become my sons.
And verily, verily, I say unto you, he that receiveth my gospel receiveth me; and he that receiveth not my gospel receiveth not me.
And this is my gospel – repentance and baptism by water, and then cometh the baptism of fire and the Holy Ghost, even the Comforter, which showeth all things, and teacheth the peaceable things of the kingdom. (D&C 39:3-6).
This should persuade all teachers of the Gospel to understand one essential fact. There are those who believe that one cannot enter the celestial kingdom unless he has been to the temple, that the temple is the gateway to the celestial kingdom. That isn’t what the Lord teaches. The ordinance of baptism is the essential ordinance for those who have reached the age of accountability. The ordinance of baptism is the gateway to the celestial kingdom. That is the way by which we become sons and daughters of God. However, in order to receive exaltation in the celestial kingdom there are certain higher ordinances, including the everlasting covenant of marriage which are also essential, as we have learned by our study of the 130th section of the Doctrine and Covenants.
We have found that to Adam, even in the beginning, the Gospel plan was given when he was driven out of the Garden of Eden, following the fall. The Lord came to him and commanded him to offer as a sacrifice to the Lord, the firstlings of his flock. You remember when an angel came and asked him why he was offering sacrifice. He said he knew not, save the Lord had commanded him. Then the angel taught him further and said: “This thing is a similitude of the sacrifice of the Only Begotten of the Father.”
With that first teaching came also the instruction: “Thou shalt do all that thou doest in the name of the Son.” And the second teaching was, “Thou shalt repent,” and the third, “Thou shalt call upon God in the name of the Son forever more,” or in other words, to pray. And in that day the Holy Ghost fell upon Adam, bearing record of the Father and the Son, and taught him the meaning of the atonement.
We find recorded in The Pearl of Great Price (Moses 6:64-68) that after he had received these teachings:
. . .that Adam cried unto the Lord, and he was caught away by the Spirit of the Lord, and was carried down into the water, and was brought forth out of the water.
And thus he was baptized, and the Spirit of God descended upon him, and thus he was born of the Spirit, and became quickened in the inner man.
Then we find following that, there came a voice saying to him:
. . .This is the record of the Father, and the Son, from henceforth and forever;
And thou art after the order of him who was without beginning of days or end of years, from all eternity to all eternity.
Behold, thou art one in me, a son of God; and thus may all become my sons.
You see, that statement agrees exactly with what we read in the 39th section of the Doctrine and Covenants. These are the essential first principles and ordinances of the Gospel, and characterize the Gospel itself.
So be it that we may well conclude that where there is authority, as the Prophet Joseph said [see TPJS, 271], an authorized minister clothed with the authority to perform those essential ordinances, enumerating them as the Lord has in the scriptures, there is set up on the earth the Kingdom of God.
Now as to the Gospel through the various ages, as it has come down to us. We herewith sketch it briefly. Following the time of Adam was the commencement of the first of God’s Kingdom on this earth in which Adam had authority given him to perform the saving ordinances of the Gospel. Scriptures indicate to us that in the days of Abraham, he had received those essentials, and there was a dispensation of the Gospel committed to him.
The first chapter of the writings of John confirms what we have already said about those essentials of the Gospel. In the writings of the Apostle Paul, he says this about the dispensation of Abraham:
And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed. (Galatians 3:8).
After making that statement, he asked the question, perhaps the very question that was being asked of him in his day: “Wherefore then serveth the law?” referring to the law of Moses, or in other words, “For what purpose is the law of Moses, if Christ is the fullness of the law?” And then the Apostle Paul answered his own question by saying:
It was added [i.e., the law of Moses was added] because of the transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made. . . Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.
But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster. (Galatians 3:19, 24-25).
President Brigham H. Roberts, commenting about that, refers to the fact that the Prophet Joseph Smith had explained in plainness about the priesthood in the days of Moses. This was the Prophet’s statement, in answer to the question, “Was the priesthood of Melchizedek taken away when Moses was translated?”
All Priesthood is Melchizedek, but there are different portions or degrees of it. That portion which brought Moses to speak with God face to face was taken away; but that which brought the ministry of angels remained. All the prophets had the Melchizedek Priesthood, and were ordained by God himself. (TPJS, 180).
Even during the law of Moses the Aaronic Priesthood was held among men. It is found in the Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, as just cited.
The Lord by revelation has made even a plainer statement than that one in section 84 of the Doctrine and Covenants. I call attention to a most important scripture in the 84th section of the Doctrine and Covenants, beginning at verse 6, and leading on through to the end of verse 17:
And the sons of Moses, according to the Holy Priesthood which he received under the hand of his father-in-law, Jethro;
And Jethro received it under the hand of Caleb;
And Caleb received it under the hand of Elihu;
And Elihu under the hand of Jeremy;
And Jeremy under the hand of Gad;
And Gad under the hand of Esaias;
And Esaias received it under the hand of God.
Esaias also lived in the days of Abraham, and was blessed of him—
Which Abraham received the priesthood from Melchizedek, who received it through the lineage of his fathers, even till Noah;
And from Noah till Enoch, through the lineage of their fathers;
And from Enoch to Abel, who was slain by the conspiracy of his brother, who received the priesthood by the commandments of God, by the hand of his father Adam, who was the first man —
Which priesthood continueth in the church of God in all generations, and is without beginning of days or end of years.
The priesthood is traced from Adam right down to the time of Moses, and in the time of Moses, the Aaronic Priesthood was held by those who administered in the ordinances of the Mosaic law. At the same time, keep in mind what the Prophet Joseph said, that the Melchizedek Priesthood also was held by the prophets – not just the Aaronic. “All the prophets,” he said, “had the Melchizedek Preisthood, and were ordained by God himself.”
With the priesthood having continued from the beginning, may we now sketch briefly the type of organizations the kingdom has had from the beginning. In the time of Adam he was told he should have dominion over every living thing that moveth upon the earth. The government at his time was patriarchal, and the priesthood ruled. Men holding the priesthood ruled by direct revelation and by commandments. In Enoch’s time, likewise, his government was patriarchal. Zion, the City of Holiness, was established, and Enoch gave a perfect economic law known to us as the Order of Enoch. There was likewise a similar type of government from Noah to Abraham, and we are informed by modern revelation of these words contained in the Doctrine and Covenants, 107th section, verse 40:
The order of this priesthood was confirmed to be handed down from father to son, and rightly belongs to the literal descendants of the chosen seed, to whom the promises were made.
From Moses to the Prophet Samuel, Israel was governed by judges who were chosen from among the people. And then because they thought they were “peculiar” in having that type of government, they clamored for a king, despite the counsel of the prophet. But they wanted a king, and so the Lord gave them a king to rule over the secular matters, while a prophet still continued to guide them in spiritual affairs. Saul was first chosen, followed by David, and then Solomon. Then the division of the children of Israel occurred under Rehoboam and Jeroboam.
With the advent of the Savior, the Jews, you will recall, were in a state of apostasy. He chose twelve men to be his special witnesses, and to one of these, Peter, he said: “And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. . .” (Matthew 16:19). Mark those words. They are significant in view of the definition that the Prophet has given us. The significance of that commission of the keys of the kingdom to Peter is better understood in a revelation given unto us by the Prophet Joseph Smith, when the Lord said this, speaking of Joseph:
Unto whom I have given the keys of the kingdom, which belong always unto the Presidency of the High Priesthood. (D&C 81:2).
So Peter, holding the keys of the kingdom, was as much the president of the High Priesthood in his day as President David O. McKay is the president of the High Priesthood in our day [it was 1954]. You see, that also is essential – one must be commissioned to hold the keys to the kingdom of God. There is never but one on the earth at a time who holds these keys – that man being the one who is the head of the earthly organization upon the earth. (Refer to D&C 132:7).
With those facts in mind, let us turn to discuss the various dispensations. We have spent a great deal of time, and some of our writers have labored hard, in trying to determine the number of dispensations there have been. There are the dispensations of Adam, of Abraham, Moses, and Enoch, the dispensation of the meridian of time, the special dispensations of the Nephites, and the dispensation of the fullness of times.
"I believe that God has never for one moment of the earth’s existence abandoned the earth to Satan. There has always been one or more holding the Holy Priesthood to hold Satan in check."
That comment started me on a whole new line of thinking. There has never been a moment of time since the earth’s organization when there has not been someone holding the priesthood on the earth. I have for you some remarks by President J. Reuben Clark on this same subject, taken from an address delivered at the October General Conference in 1953, in which he said:
the Lord then said, and did as he said, that he would give to Adam the gospel plan by which the spirits that were to come here could live and gain the reward which he had promised. That gospel plan he gave, and when he gave it he said it would never be taken away until the end of the world.
Here is the statement I want you to get, and it is in agreement with what I have just given you:
It is my faith that the gospel plan has always been here, that his priesthood has always been here on the earth, and that it will continue to be so until the end comes. While through the apostasy since the time of Christ, the priesthood was lost to the people generally and to the Christian church, yet there have always been on the earth from the beginning, servants of the Lord who have held the priesthood.
If you will refer to the 84th section of the Doctrine and Covenants, you will see the significance of that statement in tracing the lineage of the priesthood from Adam right down through Moses. And then recall that we have had those who were translated in the City of Enoch, the Three Nephites who are here upon the earth, and we have had John, who was translated, but is still upon the earth. You can see the significance of what I have quoted, that God has never for one moment abandoned the earth to Satan without having someone holding the priesthood to keep him in check.
Well, that’s plenty for you digest, and I hope it fleshes out a useful outline for you in answer to your questions. To summarize: There is always a priesthood organization of some kind on the earth that authorizes baptism as the key essential saving ordinance of salvation. Within that organization, whatever form it takes, there is only ONE MAN at a time on the earth who controls the whole organization through the use of all the authorized priesthood keys. The ordinances of the gospel have never changed since Adam, and in fact the “gospel” predates the organization of this earth because it is the same plan by which God became God in the same way that we hope to become God someday in our future existence.
And you thought you were asking a simple question about baptism. Note that once again (and always) the answers to the questions are always based in the revelatory process of the Restoration. It is very hard to make this case from the Bible alone – all the answers are nested in the context of Joseph’s latter-day scriptures. If someone cannot accept Joseph as the Prophet, the answers I have given you here will never satisfy them. However, if this all makes logical sense to someone when you lay it all out for them, it is likely they will be more inclined to attribute its origins to God through a prophet raised up in the latter days to restore that knowledge which has been lost to the rest of the world.
I love you, and hope you enjoy your pursuit of this topic, as with all others in your expanding gospel scholarship.