Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Founding Fathers as Mormons?

Vicarious baptism -- more commonly known as baptism for the dead -- is one of the more controversial points of doctrine in the Mormon religion. For devout Mormons, this practice is seen as a holy and ultra-spiritual event, which brings salvation to the souls of the deceased. For the critic, vicarious baptism for the dead is viewed as a bizarre and secretive practice with little or no backing in traditional Christian doctrine. Yet despite the criticisms leveled against it, baptism for the dead has become a centerpiece in the religious lives of Mormon faithful.

The Mormon Church has practiced vicarious baptism since the 1840s, when their founder and prophet, Joseph Smith, revealed the doctrine to the Mormon congregation. Since then, baptisms for the dead have continued to be conducted in Mormon temples. To support the practice of vicarious baptism, Mormons will usually point out a few biblical verses from the New Testament. The first of which is Paul speaking to the Corinthians. In 1 Corinthians 15:29, Paul is quoted as saying:

Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?
In addition, Jesus' advice to Nicodemus in John 3:5 has been used to support the practice of vicarious baptism. The scripture states:

Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.
One important factor to remember about Mormon baptisms for the dead is that the baptism DOES NOT guarantee salvation. Instead, the deceased is given the opportunity -- in the afterlife -- to accept or reject the baptism that has been performed on their behalf. In other words, the PHYSICAL act of baptism, which is believed to be required of God for salvation, is performed on Earth, while the deceased is given the chance to accept the ordinance or reject it.

So, how does all of this apply to our blog's theme here at American Creation?

In 1877, President Wilford Woodruff -- the 4th President and Prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints -- related the following experience that allegedly took place while he was working in the St. George Temple:

Before I left St. George, the spirits of the [Founding Fathers] gathered around me, wanting to know why we did not redeem them. Said they, “You have had the use of the Endowment House for a number of years, and yet nothing has ever been done for us. We laid the foundation of the government you now enjoy, and we never apostatized from it, but we remained true to it and were faithful to God.” These were the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and they waited on me for two days and two nights...I straightway went into the baptismal font and called upon Brother McCallister to baptize me for the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and fifty other eminent men, making one hundred in all, including John Wesley, Columbus, and others. (Wilford Woodruff, The Journal of Discourses of Brigham Young, His Counselors, and the Twelve Apostles. Vol. 19, Pp. 229).
In addition to this account, President Woodruff recalled this experience before the 1898 April General Conference of the Church:

Those men who laid the foundation of this American government and signed the Declaration of Independence were the best spirits the God of heaven could find on the face of the earth. They were choice spirits, not wicked men. General Washington and all the men that labored for the purpose were inspired of the Lord...Everyone of those men that signed the Declaration of Independence, with General Washington, called upon me, as an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ, in the Temple at St. George, two consecutive nights, and demanded at my hands that I should go forth and attend to the ordinances of the House of God for them. (Conference Report of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. April, 1898. Pp. 89-90).
In addition, President Ezra Taft Benson -- the Church's 13th President, who also served as the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture in the Eisenhower Administration -- had the following to say about Wilford Woodruff's experience:

The temple work for the fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence and other Founding Fathers has been done. All these appeared to Wilford Woodruff when he was president of the St. George Temple. President George Washington was ordained a high priest at that time. You will also be interested to know that, according to Wilford Woodruff's journal, John Wesley, Benjamin Franklin, and Christopher Columbus were also ordained high priests at that time. When one casts doubt about the character of these noble sons of God, I believe he or she will have to answer to the God of heaven for it. Yes, with Lincoln I say: "To add brightness to the sun or glory to the name of Washington is . . . impossible. Let none attempt it. In solemn awe pronounce the name and in its deathless splendor, leave it shining on."
So, not only were the founding fathers given a vicarious baptism, but George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and others were ordained to the highest office of the Mormon priesthood. An interesting and controversial prospect to say the least

What I find so very interesting about this entire story is that it demonstrates -- on the part of the Mormon Church -- a powerful devotion to the idea that the United States was founded by the hand of God. What is even more interesting is that this ideology was not a new concept, but it began in the latter part of the 1800s, while tensions between the Mormon Church and the United States government remained hostile. This idea of American providentialism has continued to the present day for the majority of Mormons. In fact, I found it surprising that Brigham Young University has one of the largest ROTC programs in the country. Obviously relations beteen the Mormon Church and the U.S. government have changed over the past few decades.

17 comments:

Jonathan Rowe said...

Great post. I don't think America's Founders were exactly "proto-Mormons" but Mormonism is closer to their heterodox unitarian/theistic rationalist creed than is orthodox Trinitarian Christianity.

Instead, the deceased is given the opportunity -- in the afterlife -- to accept or reject the baptism that has been performed on their behalf. In other words, the PHYSICAL act of baptism, which is believed to be required of God for salvation, is performed on Earth, while the deceased is given the chance to accept the ordinance or reject it.

This makes sense. It reminds me of Herbert Armstrong's notion that men after their death, when God resurrects them, have one final chance to accept Him, which if you think about it a just God would HAVE to do, else He not be just.

Lots of religions (indeed lots of variants within the Christian tradition) peddle all sorts of mutually exclusive theological claims with man's soul hanging in the balance. The Roman Catholic's way is exclusive. The Protestant fundamentalists way is exclusive. The Mormon way is exclusive. The biblical unitarianism of the Jehovah's Witnesses and Roy Masters is exclusive (they argue you CANNOT believe Jesus is God and be saved because worshipping Jesus as God violates the First Commandment).

Who is right? I'm a smart guy; I've investigated these things in detail and I have no way to tell for sure.

This analysis -- again not original to me -- destroys Pascal's Wager. It's not a choice between belief and disbelief where belief guarantees salvation if God exists. The Muslims think they have Pascal's Wager best hedged.

So ultimately in order for me to make a truly informed opinion on whether to accept or reject God I have to see Him (or Her or It or They) face-2-face and know who was right about who is wrong about who God really is (the RCs, the EPs, the JWs, the Mormons, the Trinitarians, the Unitarians). And only then can I make an informed choice to accept the True God. And when I see God (if He/She/It/They exist(s)) of course I'd accept Him. Who wouldn't? Maybe a few "antitheists" like Christopher Hitchens. But until then I simply don't have enough information of which I am sure to commit myself to a specific philosophy other than agnosticism and perhaps hope for a near universal or perhaps completely universal salvation of man in the afterlife.

Brad Hart said...

Thanks, Jon.

"I don't think America's Founders were exactly "proto-Mormons" but Mormonism is closer to their heterodox unitarian/theistic rationalist creed than is orthodox Trinitarian Christianity."

Agreed.

"This makes sense. It reminds me of Herbert Armstrong's notion that men after their death, when God resurrects them, have one final chance to accept Him, which if you think about it a just God would HAVE to do, else He not be just."

It especially makes sense when you consider the millions -- if not BILLIONS -- of individuals that have lived and died having never heard of Jesus Christ, Christianity, etc. I agree that God would be far from just if he were to condemn those individuals for simply being born in the "wrong" place and time.

I think it is worth pointing out here that the Mormon Church -- Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- is far from the only church that practices vicarious baptism for the dead. Apart from a number of Latter-day Saint break-off's, there are other religions -- even non-Christian religions -- that practice vicarious baptism. The Mandaeans -- a small religious congregation in the Middle East -- have been known to practice vicarious baptism for the dead. In addition, a small number of Native American tribes have been known to practice vicarious forms of salvation for the dead.

akaGaGa said...

"But until then I simply don't have enough information of which I am sure to commit myself to a specific philosophy"

I think that's why they call it faith, Jon. If you have enough information to be sure, then by definition it's not faith.

Dave2 said...

Jon, if you really wanted to hedge your bets, you'd take the advice of this king in the Caucasus, described by 10th century Persian geographer Ibn Rustah:

"He prayed on Fridays with the Muslims, on Saturdays with the Jews, and on Sundays with the Christians. 'Since each religion claims that it is the only true one and that the others are invalid', the king explained, 'I have decided to hedge my bets.'"

Matt Huisman said...

...which if you think about it a just God would HAVE to do, else He not be just.

Leaving aside the issue of God's justness for a moment, I'd have to say that this approach loses me on aesthetic grounds. I'm not an earned salvation kinda guy, but what you describe here is a devalued existence in the here and now, and a very (if you'll permit me) unmanly decision at the end.

You offer me nothing transformative and nothing of beauty to be discovered within. Justice has other means of satisfaction, but it is not the only consideration. Beauty has its place as well.

Who is right? I'm a smart guy; I've investigated these things in detail and I have no way to tell for sure.

And this is different from the rest of your life how exactly? When Tom (channeling Pilate) asks, 'What is truth?', he's not making a minor point. I don't think it is a stretch to say that we are in jeopardy of being overwhelmed by it at all times.

Per Clouser, all of our thought rests on religious* presuppositions. Truly informed opinions, then, are light years away. In the meantime, Christianity offers you a start towards truth and promises you revelation.

You stand there waiting to be clubbed by the truth. Have you no sense of adventure?

Taste and see that the Lord is good.

If it's alright with you, this seems to be the prescribed method. Don't worry, you can always bail if needed.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Let us note here then, that the Constitution gives the government Sundays off.

Article I, section 7 of the Constitution: "If any Bill shall not be returned by the President within ten Days (Sundays excepted) after it shall have been presented to him, the Same shall be a law, in like Manner as if he had signed it..."

A minor "Christian Nation" argument, but not a false or insignificant one. In the least, it's an accommodation with religion or religious custom, and the Christian one at that.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Brad Hart opens his faith--religion, whatever---to a very interesting theological exploration here. And to everyone's credit, it has been respected as fragile, handle with care.

The concept that there is some connection between the living and the dead across time, as part of a continuum as it were, also appears in the Catholic idea of the "communion of the saints," and in the Jewish notion of the manifestation of God's promise to Abraham in the survival of the Jewish people to this very day.

Or, as Walker Percy put it: "Show me one Hittite in New York City. ..."


A contemporary Protestant take may be found here.

bpabbott said...

"He prayed on Fridays with the Muslims, on Saturdays with the Jews, and on Sundays with the Christians. 'Since each religion claims that it is the only true one and that the others are invalid', the king explained, 'I have decided to hedge my bets.'"

No there's a guy who is agnostic but not apathetic ;-)

Phil Johnson said...

.
.
.
WOW!!
.
The idea that this present existence is of little significance in the "greater" view of the after life gives the religious elite its necessary support to tyrannize the masses and to keep them in subjection.
.
.
.

Phil Johnson said...

.
Even so, I see a great value in the analogy involved as it shows such great respect to the Founders for the freedoms we have to be in personal possession of our natural rights.
.
.

Brad Hart said...

TVD states: "The concept that there is some connection between the living and the dead across time, as part of a continuum as it were, also appears in the Catholic idea of the "communion of the saints," and in the Jewish notion of the manifestation of God's promise to Abraham in the survival of the Jewish people to this very day."

An excellent point Tom. I think that the majority of religions make this connection between living and dead. It is prevalent in so many different traditions from Native American, Islam, Buddhist, etc.

Phil Johnson said...

.
.
The "connection between the living and the dead" also appears in evolutionary theory.
.
.

Phil Johnson said...

.
And, in evolutionary theory, the connection can be shown to be true.
.
You don't have to take it on faith.

Matt Huisman said...

Oh, I suspect there's a turtle or two somewhere down there at the bottom, Phil.

But I do take your point regarding the significance of this life (or lack thereof) seriously. I suppose some may be tyrannized by it, but others may use it as a gauge for truth. If you hold that life is sacred, as Mr. Van Dyke has related to us, you should expect it to be more than time-wasting.

Phil Johnson said...

.
Matt opines, "...I suspect there's a turtle or two somewhere down there at the bottom..."
.
As far as turtles go, that's true. But, my point is about human beings and how we evolve from one generation to the next. There is a definite connection between the living and the dead.
.
But, rather than deprecate religious beliefs, my position elevates them to the highest degree. Religion gives us the ability to think beyond the material world that is made up of our physical environment. It is part of our eternal search for the good, the true, and the beautiful.
.
I will never put religion down as such.
.

Phil Johnson said...

.

.
So, in a manner of speaking, I can say that it is within our religious thinking that we find the keys that open the doors to the realm of the divine.
.
Some say that it is Jesus who hands us the keys to that realm and I'm happy with that.
.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Well I've thought about jumping right in and joining the Quakers or the Unitarian Universalists. I don't belong or regularly attend any Church (though I'm baptized Roman Catholic); but if I were to join one, it would one of those two.