(To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, click here.) Most of us know about the ubiquity of the LDS Church performing baptisms for the dead in church temples. And every week in many locations there are baptisms outside temples, either converts or children when they reach eight years. However, in the first half of the LDS Church’s existence, baptisms for health were a common procedure, both in LDS temples and outside. It’s a bit of Mormon history that seems to have been tossed aside.
In Volume 34 (2008) of The Journal of Mormon History, academics Jonathan A. Stapley and Kristine Wright, authors of “They Shall Be Made Whole:” A History of Baptism For Health,” dove into the practice in great detail. They noted its origins, scriptural support, the eager support of church leaders and members, certain rules associated with it, including anointing and prayers afterward, and its eventual drop in popularity and ultimate banning in 1922. The fascinating history occurred over 80-plus years.
As the authors note, baptisms for health were not unique to Mormons. Early Christian advocates noted scriptural evidence, including “The story of Elisha instructing Naaman to ‘wash in the Jordan seven times’ and the miraculous New Testament waters of Bethesda …” However, the rise of Protestantism in the early 19th century U.S. had generally discouraged baptism for healings. However, the Mormons, with their belief in a restoration of the Gospel and the miracles and practices of its earliest era restored, baptisms for health fit in quite well for the early saints. As Stapley and Wright note, “Early Mormons viewed healing, along with glossolalia and prophecy, as important evidence of the Restoration’s validity.”
What likely propelled baptisms for health as a major LDS practice was a statement, published in the periodical “Times and Seasons 2,” by Brigham Young, “An Epistle of the 12,” Nauvoo, October 12, 1841. In that epistle, Young clearly tagged baptismal fonts in the the temple as places “that when the sick are put therein they shall be made whole.” As the JMH authors note, “This vision of healing rituals being performed by the ancients highlights the early Mormon particularity of connecting themselves with great figures, places and activities of the Bible.”
With baptism for health being preached from the LDS pulpits, its popularity exploded. And baptisms for health eventually were sanctioned outside temples as well. (A reason for this was the wooden font in Nauvoo bred diseases.) Stapley and Wright note that it was a common practice to carry ill persons to the river in Nauvoo to be baptized. Emma Smith, when she was very ill, reportedly was baptized for her health. Certain rules for baptisms for health were established. Following a biblical precedent, the authors write that an ill person being baptized for health needed to be baptized seven times. Many small children were baptized for health. One baptism for health apparently involved a three-month-old infant. Other seven-time baptisms occurred over the course of several days, rather than at one time.
As Stapley and Wright note, “when the Saints were expelled from Nauvoo, they carried their healing rituals with them,” including baptisms for health. Besides being practiced on the Mormon Trail to Utah Territory, baptisms for health occurred in the Pacific Islands and Great Britain, the authors write.
An interesting facet of early LDS baptisms for health, according to Stapley and Wright, is the use of baptisms for health as a tool to drive out evil spirits. There are examples in Journal of Discourses and “Millennial Stars.” Stapley and Wright write, “Several records attest to the use of baptism for health and anointing as a means of exorcism.”
In the Utah territory, baptisms for health became a periodic event for many LDS members, particularly women. With better quality fonts, the practice switched more to temples, as well as the Salt Lake City Endowment House. As the authors write, “Church members sought special healings in the temple fonts.” The practice often was a community event, done in conjunction with Fast Sunday. There were days set aside for baptisms for health at temples, add the authors.
In fact, the authors present data that shows baptisms for health to be the most common temple practice, outpacing endowments, sealings, ritual rebaptisms to re-affirm faith, etc. The authors include accounts of persons claiming to be healed as a result of the baptisms. That was the peak for baptisms for heath. In the 1890s, church leaders began formalizing temple procedures. One rule formulated “situated baptism for health … to be administered only according to the faith of participants.” The number of temple baptisms for health dropped considerably, more so after church leaders ended the once-common practice of rebaptisms for members. For most of the 19th century, rebaptism was a ritual for Utah temple dedications, but it was not for the 1896 Salt Lake City Temple dedication, the authors note.
As the new 20th century arrived, the LDS Church leadership would slowly but consistently move toward a more conservative leadership, particularly among younger apostles, such as Joseph Fielding Smith. As the authors note, a generation gap existed. Repeat baptisms, which were now regarded as making the ritual seem common, were discouraged. While baptism for health were not specifically discouraged like rebaptism, the edict affected its popularity. (The one temple where the practice remained popular well into the 1900s was in Logan, note the authors.)
However, after 1910, many church leaders (President Joseph F. Smith was a notable exception) began to see rituals of healing and other practices, such as drinking consecrated oil, as being tainted with kitsch. As Stapley and Wright note, “With improvements in modern medical science and Mormonism’s more general integration into the larger society, Church leaders begin to avoid ritualistic practices that, in turn, appeared increasingly magical.” Also, the younger church leaders were openly skeptical of “the historical validity of the practice,” the authors add. Supporters of baptism for health began to rely on tradition as a chief defense.
When Joseph F. Smith died in 1918, the new church leadership administration of Heber J. Grant continued to sanction the practice for several years, but placed new suggestions, such as encouraging members to have local elders come to their homes to do ordinances for health instead, a practice that remains common today. By 1921, the end for baptisms of health was foreshadowed by the church leadership’s announcement that healers would no longer be in LDS temples. The authors note that the church leadership’s disapproval of the growing popularity of charismatic religious preachers, many of whom claimed to be faith healers, adversely affected the fate of baptisms for health,
Finally, via a First Presidency announcement, baptisms for health were ended. The statement read in part: “We … remind you that baptism for health is no part of our temple work, and therefore to permit to become a practice would be an innovation detrimental to temple work, and a departure as well from the provision instituted of the Lord for the care and healing of the sick of his Church.”
That statement would have come as a big surprise to Brigham Young, given his and the rest of the LDS apostles’ hearty 1841 endorsement of the practice. However, baptism for health enjoyed a long run in the LDS Church, one that lasted more than four score years.