Baptisms for health were once more common than baptisms for the dead

(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.


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10 Responses to Baptisms for health were once more common than baptisms for the dead

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  2. Dylan DeShazer says:


    Thank you for this tidbit of information. I have been reading some biographies of the early church Presidents and this was mentioned in passing in both “A Rough Stone Rolling” about Joseph Smith, and “Brigham Young: American Moses”. This practice was mentioned as if it was something routine, now I know that it was. Having studied a bit of Church History is seems to be that Heber J. Grant made quite a few changes in some of the early LDS Church practices. I love your blog by the way.


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  4. Tom says:


    I remember reading in my grandmother’s journal about being baptized several times to cure her of the “Mountain Fever”. This most likely took place in the 1890′s. She was born in Lincoln, Nebraska and her family loaded up some wagons with all their worldly possessions and came to Zion when she was 3 years old. Although the railroad was in operation by this time, they were too poor, had too many kids and too much stuff to bring that they did it the old fashioned way – by freight wagon. When they got to Wyoming several of the small children got sick with what they called the “Mountain fever” and later in life when she wrote about it she swore her and her siblings were saved from certain death by repeated baptisms over several days in a very cold river. I don’t recall her using the “Baptism for health” name however.

  5. Trevor says:

    A very similar thing happened with ritual healings among the first Latter-day Saints. Early on, few distinctions were made between “medicine” and “religious ritual”. Washings and annointings were proscribed and details in medical manuals.

    As medicine and science developed, medicine became more evidence based, and the religious aspect grew separately.

  6. BarbaraJoanne says:

    Just another example of the primitivism and confusion of this sad organization; baptising Adolf Hitler and his bride would be another. Encouraging shunning of family members who are not pro Mormon isn’t pretty either. And still revering the serial sexual predators, and occasional pedophiles, Mssrs Smith and Young ain’t so impressive from where I sit too, but I’m too picky.

    To those trapped in this non-Christian group, read the New Testament if you are seeking Christianity, and learn the history of your church if you seek the truth.

    • Dwight Rogers says:

      Jesus taught that baptism is necessary to enter into the kingdom of God: (John 3:3-5; see also Mark 16:14–16, and Matthew 28:19).

      Throughout the book of Acts, baptism is without question the rite of initiation that all converts must undergo. (Acts 2:38; 8:12, 38; 9:18; 10:48; 16:14–15, 30–34; 18:8; and 22:16),

      Many countless numbers of people have lived on the earth without the knowledge of Jesus Christ and without the chance to accept His teachings and be baptized. In churches which practice infant baptism babies are born and die without time for the priest to come and perform the baptism. Christians have struggled for centuries to answer the question: what happens to those people? They did not have the chance to be baptized. Are they condemned to hell because they weren’t baptized?

      Jesus taught that the dead would hear the teachings of Jesus Christ: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live.” (John 5:25). The Apostle Peter taught us that this would happen when Jesus visited the spirit world between his death and resurrection: . (1 Peter 3:18-20). God revealed to the Prophet Joseph Smith that those who had no chance to hear the gospel in this life are taught in the spirit world and have the chance to accept it before the resurrection. (Doctrine and Covenants sections 137 and 138) This is exactly what Jesus and Peter taught in the Bible.

      Because of this, the early Christians baptized for the dead (1 Corinthians 15:29). Here, the Apostle Paul was reminding Christians at Corinth that the resurrection was a reality and that there would be no purpose in continuing in the practice of baptizing for the dead, like the Christians were then doing, if there was no resurrection.

      Some argue that Paul was supporting a true doctrine (the resurrection) with a false one (baptism for the dead), but does that make any sense? Imagine that someone who doubts the resurrection goes to his pastor for assurance. The pastor says, “well, the resurrection must be true because the Mormons baptize for the dead and there would be no point in it if there weren’t a resurrection.” The person would not find any assurance in that answer if he did not believe in baptism for the dead or Mormonism. It makes no sense that Paul would try to assure the Christians in Corinth that the resurrection was real by citing a false practice as proof.

      The “THEY” to whom Paul refers are the apostles under Cephas (Peter) and James. “They” means that THEY, the Apostles and the Christians, were practicing baptism for the dead. Read the verses leading up to Pauls teaching on baptism for the dead (1 Corinthians 15:29). Paul says: “For I am the least of the apostles…Therefore whether it were I or THEY [the other apostles; see verses earlier in the same chapter], so we preach, and so ye believed” (1 Corinthians 15:1-11). So when Paul says “Else what shall they do,” they means the other Apostles and Christians.

      Most credible scholars who look at 1 Corintians 15:29, favor a meaning of vicarious baptism for the dead. (Michael F. Hull, Baptism on Account of the Dead (1 Cor 15:29): An Act of Faith in the Resurrection (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2005), 8 and 11 n. 14. See Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 766; and Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, “‘Baptized for the Dead’ (1 Cor 15:29): A Corinthian Slogan?” Revue biblique 88 (1981): 532.)

      Additionally, we know from historic records and research that the early Christians did believe in this practice. As John A. Tvedtnes has noted:

      “…historical records are clear on the matter. Baptism for the dead was performed by the dominant church until forbidden by the sixth canon of the Council of Carthage in A.D. 397. Some of the smaller sects, however, continued the practice. Of the Marcionites of the fourth century, Epiphanius wrote:

      “In this country—I mean Asia—and even in Galatia, their school flourished eminently and a traditional fact concerning them has reached us, that when any of them had died without baptism, they used to baptize others in their name, lest in the resurrection they should suffer punishment as unbaptized.” (Heresies, 8:7. As Quoted in John A. Tvedtnes,”Proxy Baptism,” Ensign (February 1977), 86)

  7. Stephen M. Cook says:

    Shame. Think of all of the lives that could have been saved.

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