I Walk Imperfectly

To My Bishop, About My Son's Baptism

Sun 15 April 2018 |

Dear Bishop,

I don't know if you're aware, but my son will be turning eight in a couple months. I've spent a great deal of time over the past couple years pondering whether I wanted him to be baptized in the church. I would like to get your perspective. To explain why, I'd like to share a story from my mission, and some thoughts I've had about it since then.

I was Donny Osmond's district leader. To be clear, it was Donny Jr., the son of the famous pop star, but he still had a little bit of Hollywood gleam to him when we served in neighboring areas in the London South mission. One of my responsibilities as a district leader was to interview candidates for baptism to ensure that they had been taught the doctrines in the missionary discussions, and believed them. So one day Elder Osmond called me up and asked me to interview an investigator couple, Keith and Maddie, who had recently committed to be baptized. Keith and Maddie were a little older, maybe in their 60s or 70s. They'd been attending church for months, and were being increasingly embraced by the ward, Keith particularly. He had already given himself assignments to help clean the church and put fresh flowers on the podium each Sunday.

I was excited to meet Keith and Maddie when the day for their interview came, having heard about them in district meetings over the months they were being taught. We went to their home for the interview. I talked to Keith first, out on their small patio, and everything sounded right. Belief in God and Jesus Christ? Check. Belief in Joseph Smith and Gordon B. Hinckley as prophets? Check. Following the law of chastity, Word of Wisdom, and willing to pay tithing? Check, check, check.

Then I talked to Maddie. When I asked the question about Joseph Smith, her answer seemed indirect, maybe even evasive. I went ahead and asked the rest of the questions, and they were all fine, and then came back to the Joseph Smith one. As we talked she opened up about not really believing that Joseph Smith was a prophet. We talked a little more after rejoining Keith and Elder Osmond in the other room, and Maddie's doubt triggered some of Keith's own, leading him to say "You know, I'm not sure I believe that Joseph Smith was a prophet either."

I didn't know how to do much other than follow the instructions in our handbooks, so we wrapped up our visit and left. Months later, after I'd been transferred to another area, I asked Elder Osmond whether Keith and Maddie had eventually gotten baptized. He said no, they still didn't believe in Joseph Smith. Over the years since then I've wondered whether I did the right thing by pushing Maddie to be more explicit about her doubts. Had I aborted their enthusiastic embrace of their congregation by being too dogmatic and rule-bound? Even later in life, as my own misgivings about Joseph Smith grew, I worried that I had deprived them of relationships and support that could have greatly benefited their lives.

Though I no longer believe it was written by ancient prophets, the account of Alma preaching and baptizing at the Waters of Mormon still speaks to my soul. From Mosiah 18:

And it came to pass after many days there were a goodly number gathered together at the place of Mormon, to hear the words of Alma. Yea, all were gathered together that believed on his word, to hear him. And he did teach them, and did preach unto them repentance, and redemption, and faith on the Lord.

And it came to pass that he said unto them: Behold, here are the waters of Mormon (for thus were they called) and now, as ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light;

Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death, that ye may be redeemed of God, and be numbered with those of the first resurrection, that ye may have eternal life—

Now I say unto you, if this be the desire of your hearts, what have you against being baptized in the name of the Lord, as a witness before him that ye have entered into a covenant with him, that ye will serve him and keep his commandments, that he may pour out his Spirit more abundantly upon you?

And now when the people had heard these words, they clapped their hands for joy, and exclaimed: This is the desire of our hearts.

I still yearn to be among people who want to bear one another's burdens, mourn with those that mourn, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort. I want that for me and my family. I want to teach it to my kids. I hope that they will commit to be such people themselves.

But kids are where this gets hard. My son's church friends, grandparents, and many cousins are assuming he'll get baptized when he turns eight in a couple months. As you might guess, I have mixed feelings about it.

The church's General Handbook of Instructions says this about interviewing eight year olds for baptism:

The bishop or an assigned counselor conducts interviews for the baptism and confirmation of 8-year-old children...

A bishopric member who interviews a child for baptism ensures that he or she understands the purposes of baptism. He also ensures that each child understands the baptismal covenant and is committed to live by it. As guided by the Spirit, he could ask questions similar to the first two that are asked in convert baptism interviews. In asking other questions, the interviewer should bear in mind that children are accounted as sinless before God until the age of 8.

And those first two questions from convert baptism interviews are these:

  1. Do you believe that God is our Eternal Father? Do you believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior and Redeemer of the World?
  2. Do you believe that the Church and gospel of Jesus Christ have been restored through the Prophet Joseph Smith? Do you believe that [current Church President] is a prophet of God? What does this mean to you?

The rest of the questions, not asked to eight year olds, are about repentance, any past crimes, and willingness to live the Mormon rules of tithing, chastity, and the Word of Wisdom.

There is an obvious disparity between these questions in the handbook and the questions asked by Alma at the Waters of Mormon. When it comes to my own children being baptized, that disparity is frustrating and saddening. There is nothing I want more than for my children to make a meaningful promise to support and uplift their fellow man. Yet few things make me more uncomfortable than my 8 year old son being made to feel that he has to profess a belief in Joseph Smith's prophethood in order to be fully accepted by his many Mormon friends and relatives.

Kids believe what they're told by their parents and teachers, and doubly so when it's clear that their acceptance in the community depends on sharing those beliefs. An adult who is approached by an unfamiliar salesman or missionary will be cautious and skeptical, double checking facts and getting second opinions. We don't expect children to exercise those abilities with regard to things taught by their parents and teachers.

That gives us a special obligation to be trustworthy parents and teachers. It doesn't mean that we wait until our children are fully grown before teaching them anything, but it does mean that we give them accurate, age-appropriate summaries with increasing levels of detail and nuance as our children's minds develop. In kindergarten we teach about Christopher Columbus by having kids make ships out of construction paper, but even at that age we can add that Columbus hurt a lot of people. By high school they're ready (and maybe even eager) to hear the more grisly details, even as we still express admiration for Columbus's accomplishments.

The big difference between Christopher Columbus and Joseph Smith is that no one asks eight year olds to profess a religious belief in Columbus before they can be baptized. But I believe that because more is at stake in making church commitments, we parents and teachers have an even greater obligation to be accurate and honest in our teachings.

What would it look like if we were as honest with our kids about Joseph Smith as we are about Christopher Columbus? We could still tell little children stories about his refusal of liquor when having a leg operation as a child (perhaps the only thing I knew about Joseph Smith when I was eight). We could still credit him with founding the church and bringing forth the Book of Mormon. But we could also candidly summarize that we're not OK with some of the things he did. As our children aged we would share more details about those things. For me those things would include Joseph's marriage to dozens of women, his dishonesty about those marriages, how his Book of Abraham doesn't seem to have actually come from the papyrus he was using (which we've now found), and how his priesthood restoration account was retrofitted into earlier revelations.

I don't want to go too far off on that tangent; the point is that as Mormons, we don't provide age-appropriate summaries of the problems. Whether talking to the youngest nursery children or the oldest Gospel Doctrine students, our lessons and conversations about Joseph Smith are so conspicuously devoid of criticism and doubt that we end up silently teaching "If you want to be one of us, don't talk about these things."

That is one lesson that I will not have my son taught. I was taught it, and believed it in my bones. When I later learned the less flattering parts of Joseph Smith's story, it was agonizing to know that I could not discuss them with any of my Mormon friends, relatives, or leaders without risking their trust and respect. Making my eight year old son profess a belief in Joseph Smith being a prophet would be the first step down that path.

As I look back at the experience interviewing Keith and Maddie, I wonder whether they had found some of the uglier facts about Joseph Smith, facts that I wasn't yet aware of at the time, that made them reluctant to call him a prophet. My regrets over that episode have increased as I have come to understand that church is about much more than believing certain things. As described by Alma, it's about belonging to a community of people committed to loving God and supporting each other. As Dallin H. Oaks taught in the year 2000 general conference, it's about becoming a better person than you could be on your own. As I've experienced many times myself, it's about finding a connection to God that gives us solace and hope in times when we feel alone and in despair. I fear that my myopic focus on beliefs and insistence on following the handbook deprived Keith and Maddie of these things.

When it comes to the baptism of my son, I have more reason for hope. The handbook leaves a lot more room for discretion for those interviewing eight year olds than it does for convert baptisms. Rather than mandating any specific questions, it says that the bishop "could" ask questions similar to the first two that are asked in convert baptism interviews. Not "must", but "could". It is your job to ensure that my son understands the baptismal covenant and is committed to live by it. I would like that discussion to focus on questions asked by Alma at the Waters of Mormon, and not on belief in Joseph Smith as a prophet.

I will be making an appointment with your secretary to come and speak to you in person. I hope that this letter has given you an understanding of where I'm at, and will help us to have a fruitful and heartfelt conversation.

Thank you for your service to our ward,