What Can We Learn from the Words of the Baptismal Ordinance?

When the Savior visited the American continent following His death and resurrection, one of His first actions was to clarify how baptisms ought to be performed. He did this so that there would be no more disputations among the people about how baptisms should be performed. As part of that clarification, the Savior specified the words which the person performing the baptism should say (3 Nephi 11:23-28).

Nearly 180 years earlier, Alma had baptized approximately 200 people in one day at the waters of Mormon. The words he spoke as he performed these baptisms are also recorded in the Book of Mormon (Mosiah 18:13).

In 1829 or 1830, just before the restored Church of Jesus Christ was organized in Fayette, New York, Joseph Smith received a revelation regarding how the church was to be organized. Contained within that revelation are instructions regarding how to perform baptisms, including the words to be spoken (Doctrine & Covenants 20:72-74).

Although these three prayers are not identical, they have a number of fundamental characteristics in common. Today, I’ve thought about what we can learn from these common characteristics.

Alma at the Waters of Mormon The Savior at the Temple in Bountiful The Lord speaking to Joseph Smith in Fayette, NY
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. [After calling them by name] Having authority given me of Jesus Christ, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen. [After calling them by name] Having been commissioned of Jesus Christ, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
  1. Called by name – Baptism is a personal experience. Even though it may be performed in public and other people may be present, it represents a covenant between one person and God. Thus, the ordinance begins with a statement of the person’s name. The words of the ordinance are addressed to the recipient, not to God, and not to the other people present. God loves each one of His children and makes covenants with us individually.
  2. “I baptize you” – (or “I baptize thee.”) The words of the baptismal ordinance are performative in nature. They do not merely describe reality: they change reality. Similar to the words “I now pronounce you husband and wife,” these words actually make something happen.
  3. Authority – Performative language is meaningless unless spoken by a person who is authorized to carry out the action. Thus, an important part of the baptismal ordinance is a statement that the person performing the ordinance is authorized (or “commissioned”) to do so.
  4. The members of the Godhead – In the words specified by the Savior and in the words given to Joseph Smith, the ordinance is performed “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” Alma did not use those same words, but he did refer to all three members of the Godhead, as highlighted in green above. Why is this significant? The Savior wanted His disciples to understand that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are completely unified. There are no disputations among them. There is no contention among them. He wants His disciples to strive for that same unity (3 Nephi 11:27-283 Nephi 19:29, John 17:20-21). Thus, it is fitting, when we formally become His disciples by baptism, that we are reminded of the unity of the Godhead—the unity which we ought to also seek to develop.

Today, as I participate in a baptismal service, I will pay particular attention to the meaning of the words. I will remember that baptism is an individual gift which is received by one person at a time. I will be grateful that God has authorized people on the earth to perform this ordinance. I will remember the unity of the Godhead and will strive to follow their example, avoiding disputations and contention with other people.

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