Mormonism and Early Christianity:

Baptism - A Requirement For Salvation

by Barry Bickmore

©1997 Barry R. Bickmore. All Rights Reserved.

Reference Info - glossary of ancient Christian writers and documents, guide to abbreviations, bibliography.

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Beyond the generality of "good works", Joseph Smith preached that there are certain ordinances or sacraments necessary for salvation. That is, certain rites must be performed wherein one makes covenants with God. Keeping these covenants entitles one to the grace of Jesus Christ, and hence, salvation. "We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel."1 First on the list of essential ordinances is baptism, and Joseph Smith accordingly proclaimed that one must be baptized to enter the Kingdom of God.

In contrast, most Protestants have given up the idea that baptism is strictly "necessary" for salvation. For, although true faith carries with it the desire to perform good works, no particular good work, such as baptism, is necessarily required to show one's faith. A minister representing the Presbyterian Church explained:

    While baptism is urgently recommended in the Presbyterian Church, and while its omission is regarded as a grave fault, it is not held to be necessary for salvation. The Confession of Faith declares: "Grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it that no person can be regenerated or saved without it."2

Baptism in the New Testament

It must be admitted that the question of whether baptism is strictly "necessary" for salvation is not clearly answered in the Bible. Although there are two passages in the New Testament where Jesus seems to give baptism as a requirement, many Protestants feel that they can legitimately interpret them otherwise.

When the resurrected Lord appeared to the disciples in Mark's account He announced: "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned."3 But Protestants who deny the necessity of baptism point out that Jesus never said that he who believes and is not baptized will be damned. To them, belief, not baptism, is the defining characteristic of the saved person, as opposed to the damned.

Likewise, Mormons see Jesus' statement to Nicodemus, "Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God,"4 as a proclamation that one must be baptized and sanctified by the Holy Spirit to be saved. On the other hand, many Protestants contend the "born of water" clause refers to birth from the water of the mother's womb. Indeed, Jesus' proclamation came in response to Nicodemus' question: "How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother's womb, and be born?"5

Baptism - Early Christian Interpretation of the New Testament

Who is right? Perhaps the only way to settle the question of how Jesus and the Apostles interpreted these statements is to discover how the early post-Apostolic Christian writers interpreted them. This method carries with it no guarantee, but one must grant that Christians who lived at times when there were still people around who had heard the Apostles speak, or who were only one more generation down the line, would be more likely to preserve the original teaching than some Reformer thirteen or fourteen hundred years later. And, indeed, we find that the early Christian writers unanimously insisted that to be "born of water" was to be baptized. Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, the Clementine Homilies, and the Apostolic Constitutions all testify of this fact, and the Constitutions even consider Jesus' statement at the end of Mark to be a command that everyone must be baptized:

    For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water. For Christ also said, "Except ye be born again, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven."6

    "And dipped himself," says [the Scripture], "seven times in Jordan." It was not for nothing that Naaman of old, when suffering from leprosy, was purified upon his being baptized, but [it served] as an indication to us. For as we are lepers in sin, we are made clean, by means of the sacred water and the invocation of the Lord, from our old transgressions; being spiritually regenerated as new-born babes, even as the Lord has declared: "Except a man be born again through water and the Spirit, he shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven."7

    And do not think, though you were more pious than all the pious that ever were, but if you be unbaptized, that you shall ever obtain hope. For all the more, on this account, you shall endure the greater punishment, because you have done excellent works not excellently. For well-doing is excellent when it is done as God has commanded. But if you will not be baptized according to His pleasure, you serve your own will and oppose His counsel. But perhaps some one will say, What does it contribute to piety to be baptized with water? In the first place, because you do that which is pleasing to God; and in the second place, being born again to God of water, by reason of fear you change your first generation, which is of lust, and thus you are able to obtain salvation. But otherwise it is impossible. For thus the prophet has sworn to us, saying, "Verily I say to you, Unless ye be regenerated by living water into the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven."8

    Nay, he that, out of contempt, will not be baptized, shall be condemned as an unbeliever, and shall be reproached as ungrateful and foolish. For the Lord says: "Except a man be baptized of water and of the Spirit, he shall by no means enter into the kingdom of heaven." And again: "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned."9

Therefore, it is fairly certain that baptism was considered essential by the earliest Christians, but how was it done? Jesus commanded the disciples to baptize "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost,"10 and in general the Christian world has continued this practice. However, controversy has arisen over whether one is to be baptized by immersion or by pouring or sprinkling.

Baptism - By Immersion

When John the Baptist restored the authority to baptize to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, he specified that baptism was to be by immersion.11 And, it is clear that baptism in the New Testament was by immersion. After Jesus was baptized he "went up straightway out of the water,"12 and John baptized in Aenon "because there was much water there."13 Paul also indicated that we are "buried with [Jesus] by baptism into death."14 Clearly much of the symbolism of the rite is destroyed when pouring or sprinkling replaces immersion.

The rite of baptism began to be perverted early on. Even in the first century certain communities had adopted the practice of pouring, but only when it was not possible to find enough water to immerse in. The Didache , which probably originated in Syria, suggests that one should be baptized in running water, but if none can be found, in still. Also, cold water is preferred over hot. "But if thou have not either, pour out water thrice upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit."15 Perhaps in certain desert communities this eventuality was sometimes faced, and in time it became the practice of the Church in general to sprinkle or pour, especially when infants were baptized.

Baptism - The Age of Accountability

Certainly no one would expect an infant to be immersed, so what's wrong with it? Mormon, in The Book of Mormon, explains:

    For awful is the wickedness to suppose that God saveth one child because of baptism, and the other must perish because he hath no baptism.... Little children cannot repent; wherefore, it is awful wickedness to deny the pure mercies of God unto them, for they are all alive in him because of his mercy.16

And indeed, there is significant evidence that it was not the original practice of the Church to baptize infants. Not only were no infants recorded to have been baptized in the New Testament, but Jesus commanded his disciples: "Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven. And he laid his hands on them, and departed thence."17 Thus, Jesus merely blessed the children, and did not command them to be baptized, as he did adults. Mormon's contention that children cannot be baptized because they cannot repent is significant, as well, because the way to baptism is always paved with repentence. "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost,"18 Peter commanded.

Clement of Alexandria recorded a very ancient story about John the apostle, where John entrusted a young boy to the care of a certain local Church leader: "[John] then departed for Ephesus. But the presbyter, taking home the youth committed to him, reared, kept, cherished, and finally baptized him."19 If infants were to be baptized at that time, why did the cleric wait to baptize the child? Certainly he would not have neglected his duty toward this child, who had been entrusted to him by an Apostle of Jesus Christ!

According to an article in the Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, the earliest reference to the practice of infant baptism was by Tertullian [ca. A.D. 200]. For centuries after this, however, believer baptism appears to have been the norm. The author notes that the inscriptions from this early time period which mention infant baptism place the date of baptism very close to the death of the children in question, therefore, "The principal impetus for the rise and spread of infant baptism may have been the desire that the child not depart life without the safeguard of baptism."20

Perhaps Greek religious influence had some effect, also, since H.J. Rose reports that in Greek cults "a baby was put through a ceremonial corresponding in some measure to baptism."21 By the fourth and fifth centuries, the practice was so widespread that Augustine could use its existence as proof of his doctrine of original sin. But although he claimed all the unbaptized would be damned, he generously allowed that the damnation of unbaptized infants would be "the mildest punishment of all...."22

Baptism - Accompanied by Laying on of Hands

One more issue needs to be addressed in connection with baptism. Namely, the ordinance of baptism was not originally just a dunking. At first it included both immersion and the laying on of hands for the reception of the Holy Ghost, and only later did baptism disintigrate into two separate rites. Likewise, Joseph Smith preached: "Baptism by water is but half a baptism, and is good for nothing without the other half - that is, the baptism of the Holy Ghost."23

Laying on of hands always accompanied baptism in the New Testament. For example, after Philip preached to the Samarians and baptized quite a number of them, the Apostles came and conferred the Gift of the Holy Ghost.

    Now when the apostles which were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent unto them Peter and John: Who, when they were come down, prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Ghost: (For as yet he was fallen upon none of them, only they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.) Then laid they their hands on them, and they received the Holy Ghost.24

Certain post-Apostolic writers were anxious to preserve the form and meaning of these rites. Tertullian, for example, both confirmed that baptism was necessary, and clearly defined the two parts of the ordinance:

    When, however, the prescript is laid down that "without baptism, salvation is attainable by none" (chiefly on the ground of that declaration of the Lord, who says, "Unless one be born of water, he hath not life"), there arise immediately scrupulous, nay rather audacious, doubts on the part of some.... Not that in the waters we obtain the Holy Spirit; but in the water, under (the witness of) the angel, we are cleansed, and prepared for the Holy Spirit.... In the next place the hand is laid on us, invoking and inviting the Holy Spirit through benediction.25

Cyprian not only recorded the form of the rites, but he identified baptism and the laying on of hands with being "born of water and the Spirit":

    [After the baptisms by Philip in Samaria] that which was needed was performed by Peter and John; viz., that prayer being made for them, and hands being imposed, the Holy Spirit should be invoked and poured out upon them, which now too is done among us, so that they who are baptized in the Church are brought to the prelates of the Church, and by our prayers and by the imposition of hands obtain the Holy Spirit, and are perfected with the Lord's seal.26

    For then finally can they be fully sanctified, and be the sons of God, if they be born of each sacrament; since it is written, "Except a man be born again of water, and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God."27

And Bishop Cornelius of Rome disapproved of the practice of baptizing without laying on hands, for without it, how could one receive the Holy Ghost? It would only be "half a baptism", one might say!

    Being delivered by the exorcists, he fell into a severe sickness; and as he seemed about to die, he received baptism by affusion, on the bed where he lay; if indeed we can say that such a one did receive it. And when he was healed of his sickness he did not receive the other things which it is necessary to have according to the canon of the Church, even the being sealed by the bishop. And as he did not receive this, how could he receive the Holy Spirit?...28

Baptism and the laying on of hands for the reception of the Holy Ghost are necessary to enter the Kingdom of God! Joseph Smith not only got the concept right, however, he also restored the proper forms of the ordinances and the knowledge that a merciful and just God would never condemn little children for sins they never committed, as well.


1 Article of Faith 3.

2 Bonnel, J.S., in Rosten, Religions of America, p. 203.

3 Mark 16:16.

4 John 3:5.

5 John 3:4.

6 Justin Martyr, First Apology 61, in ANF 1:183.

7 A fragment attributed to Irenaeus, in ANF 1:574.

8 Clementine Homilies 11:25-26, in ANF 8:289-290.

9 Apostolic Constitutions 6:15, in ANF 7:456-457.

10 Matthew 28:19.

11 D&C 13:1.

12 Matthew 3:16.

13 John 3:23.

14 Romans 6:4.

15 Didache 7, in ANF 7:379.

16 Moroni 8:15,19.

17 Matthew 19:14-15.

18 Acts 2:38.

19 Clement of Alexandria, in Eusebius,Ecclesiastical History 3:23, in NPNF Series 2, 1:150-151.

20 Ferguson, Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, p. 133.

21 Rose, Ancient Greek Religion, p. 11.

22 Augustine, Enchiridion 93, in NPNF Series 1, 3:266; cf. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, p. 485.

23 Smith, ed., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 314.

24 Acts 8:14-17.

25 Tertullian, On Baptism 12, 6, 8, in ANF 3:674-675, 672; cf. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, p. 209.

26 Cyprian, Epistle 72:9, in ANF 5:381.

27 Cyprian, Epistle 71:1, in ANF 5:378.

28 Cornelius of Rome, in Eusebius,Ecclesiastical History 6:43, in NPNF Series 2, 1:288-289.

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