We frequently hear of our “baptismal covenants” in church and conference. I cannot quite pinpoint the exact spot in space-time, but I can say that a few years ago I began to view the “baptismal” covenant with suspicion. Why? It seemed that a lot of people were discussing the baptismal covenant, but I could not recall for myself what exactly that covenant entailed. With all the other covenants of the gospel, most of them housed in the temple, I could easily recall their stipulations, scope, focus, (and before 1990, their) penalties, etc. etc. I made a covenant of chastity which was laid out in detail before me, one of consecration that was explained to me, one not to reveal the little tidbits of the rituals, etc. etc. In each case, I bowed my head and said “yes.” I had volition. The ceremony itself allowed me to back out before it began (“if you don’t want to take upon yourself these obligations, raise your hand”). Same thing when I was married. The proctor (I still have a tough time calling them “sealers” if they’re not performing the fullness of the priesthood) looked at me and asked me if I would enter a covenant to keep my wife and I said “yes.” I could have said “no.” Same with her. Volition was present. The choice was mine, and I made it. The ceremony allowed for this. None of the stipulations in these covenants were given by implication, all were explicit and given to me in plain speech.
With baptism, many recall the baptism of Helam from the Book of Mormon as viable proof-text for the baptismal covenant:
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 [sic.] 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.
So apparently Helam made a covenant upon being baptized to serve God until death. But did I? Here’s what was said when I was baptized (D&C 20:73):
“David J., 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.”
Millions of others have likewise been baptized the same way, and indeed D&C 20:73 is the standard by which baptism is performed in the church today. In the field of Biblical Studies, we would say that Helam’s baptism is situation-bound. That is, his baptism is an anomaly in the presence of countless others performed under the other formula, and his baptism is unique to him. The main point here is that any mention of covenant in my baptism was absent.
One of the foremost biblical paradigms for covenant-making comes from Joshua 24. Notice the following points which have parallel in the modern temple:
1. The people are gathered before God’s presence (v. 1).
2. The people are given a review of their history (and, by extension, God’s greatness in that history) (v. 2-13). We are also given a review of our history via the creation epic.
3. The people are charged with the stipulations of the covenant, and given the opportunity to choose for themselves (which Joshua does before the people in v. 15).
4. Affirmation (v. 6-18). In this sense, the people express their willingness and volition to follow, akin to bowing the head and saying “yes.”
5. Penalties (v. 19-20). Again, before 1990, these were integral.
6. Penalties accepted if covenant is violated (v. 21).
7. Witnesses and signs (v. 22-23, 27).
8. Final affirmation (v. 24).
9. A record is kept (v. 25-27).
This paradigm fits quite nicely with the temple covenants made, but in my opinion, baptism fails. The thrust of the covenant here and in other places is that none of the stipulations of the covenant, for the temple or for these people, are implied. Covenants are always detailed and explicit.
But this raises another issue, this time stemming from symbology. In the temple, the individual is symbolically taken from birth into life. When in the womb, we are fully immersed in water, like we are in baptism. When a baby is born, it is washed off and then anointed with a sweet-smelling ointment, or soap. This is the pattern of the initiatory ordinances as well. The child is then usually clothed in a garment of some kind, and lastly given a name. This also follows the initiatory ordinance pattern. Notice that when a baby is born, it has no accountability or say-so about its birth, washing, anointing, clothing, and naming. It remains silent and yielding. Likewise, the ordinances of the gospel which follow this pattern exude the same principles upon its recipient – the initiate has no say-so or opportunity to renege until the “ordinance of accountability,” which is the temple endowment, where the opportunity to back out is finally given. Again, the “newborn” not only does not make a covenant, but is incapable of doing so and incapable of understanding the ramifications of covenant-making. So there could be symbological reasons for the absence of a baptismal covenant.
If there is a baptismal covenant, I am suspicious of it because it was placed upon me without explicit mention in the ceremony itself. Moreover, I am suspicious of any covenant that is implied. By my own cognition and research, I believe that the “baptismal covenant” as it exists today, is a relatively late introduction to Mormonism.
As for me and my house, we don’t believe it even exists.