After the wicked king Noah sentenced the prophet Abinadi to death, one of Noah’s priests, Alma, pleaded with the king to spare Abinadi’s life. As a result, he was banished, and the king sent servants to kill him. Alma lived in hiding for a while and wrote the words which he had heard Abinadi preach (Mosiah 17:1-4). He began to teach in secret, and a growing number of people visited his hiding place, the waters of Mormon, to hear him preach. One day, as he taught a group of about two hundred people, he invited them to be baptized. “Behold, here are the waters of Mormon,” he said. If you want to become the people of God, if you want to live as He has taught us to live, serving one another and testifying of Him, then why not make it official? Why not be baptized as a tangible declaration that you are willing to make this commitment. The people responded enthusiastically. They “clapped their hands for joy, and exclaimed: This is the desire of our hearts” (Mosiah 18:1-11).
Mormon describes the first baptism this way:
And now it came to pass that Alma took Helam, he being one of the first, and went and stood forth in the water, and cried, saying: O Lord, pour out thy Spirit upon thy servant, that he may do this work with holiness of heart.
And when he had said these words, the Spirit of the Lord was upon him, and he said: Helam, I baptize thee, having authority from the Almighty God, as a testimony that ye have entered into a covenant to serve him until you are dead as to the mortal body; and may the Spirit of the Lord be poured out upon you; and may he grant unto you eternal life, through the redemption of Christ, whom he has prepared from the foundation of the world.
And after Alma had said these words, both Alma and Helam were buried in the water; and they arose and came forth out of the water rejoicing, being filled with the Spirit (Mosiah 18:12-14).
Mormon goes on to explain that, when the second person was baptized, Alma followed the same procedure, “only he did not bury himself again in the water” (Mosiah 18:15). It sounds like Alma immersed himself only once, along with the first person he baptized. Why did he do this? Was he baptizing himself?
The way Mormon describes the event, the answer is no. As Jesus Christ would later clarify during His visit to the American continent, baptism has the following essential characteristics:
- The person performing the baptism must be authorized to do so.
- He should state the name of the person who is being baptized, affirm his authority, and declare what he is doing (“I baptize thee”).
- He should then immerse the individual entirely in the water and bring them out of the water (3 Nephi 11:21-26).
In the passage above, Alma states clearly what he is doing: he is baptizing Helam. He doesn’t say, “I baptize us,” or “I baptize you, and I baptize me.” Since an essential element of baptism is a declaration of the action being taken, I think we can take Alma at his word: he was baptizing Helam, not himself.
Why, then, did he immerse himself along with Helam?
We know that Alma had received the authority to baptize, although we don’t know when. Joseph Fielding Smith concluded from this that Alma had also previously been baptized. This makes sense. Why would Alma invite his listeners to make a commitment which he was not willing to make himself? Perhaps the action of immersing himself with Helam was a way of showing his solidarity with the people who were being baptized that day. Perhaps it was also a way of reaffirming to the Lord the promises which he had made previously. Joseph Fielding Smith suggested that Alma took this action “as a token to the Lord of his humility and full repentance” (Answers to Gospel Questions, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith Jr., 5 vols. [1957–66], 3:203).
And what about us? After being baptized, how can we reaffirm to the Lord that we are still committed to the covenants we have made with Him? One way is by participating in the sacrament during church services each Sunday.
As President Dallin H. Oaks has taught:
How grateful we are that the Lord has provided a process for each baptized member of His Church to be periodically cleansed from the soil of sin. The sacrament is an essential part of that process.
We are commanded to repent of our sins and to come to the Lord with a brokenheart and a contrite spirit and partake of the sacrament in compliance with its covenants. When we renew our baptismal covenants in this way, the Lord renews the cleansing effect of our baptism. In this way we are made clean and can always have His Spirit to be with us. The importance of this is evident in the Lord’s commandment that we partake of the sacrament each week (see D&C 59:8–9).
This Sunday, as I partake of the sacrament, I will remember Alma’s act of immersing himself as he baptized Helam. I will remember the promises I made when I chose to be baptized, and I will be grateful that the Lord is willing to renew those covenants with me every week, as I repent and come to Him with a willing heart.