Mormon, Moroni, Human Sacrifice, and Infant Baptism
Because infant baptism was a topic of discussion in the prophet Joseph Smith's day, critics of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Book of Mormon claim that revivalist America is where Smith got the idea to discuss infant baptism in the Book of Mormon. I think that's a short-sighted claim, and in this article I explain how opposition to infant baptism likely came from the prophet Mormon, and why it could just as easily have been a topic of discussion in late Nephite society.
Having lived through decades of capricious violence all around them, it may have become easy for the believing Nephites to imagine a capricious God as well. But Mormon reminds them that god is always merciful. He tells them that ‘awful is the wickedness to suppose that God saveth one child because of baptism, and the other must perish because he hath no baptism.” (Moroni 8:15)
In Moroni chapter 9 in the Book of Mormon, Moroni discusses the debauchery that his father Mormon reported as having come from Sherrizah and other war zone places in his sector of military operations. Mormon sadly reports regarding loss of religious faith, rape, human sacrifice, cannibalism, etc. among the combatants on both sides. It seemed that (as often is the case in time of war) the Nephite and Lamanite warriors were trying to outdo each other in their viciousness, and if Mormon’s report is not exaggerated, it appears that the Nephites were winning in that regard, having gone far beyond what the Lamanites were reputed to have done--raping and then torturing to death their female victims, along with sacrificing the remaining children.
At the end of Mormon chapter 2, a treaty is described as having been made by the Nephites with an alliance of Lamanites and Gadianton robbers. By this time, many Nephites were defecting to the opposition, likely because it appeared that they were switching to the winning side.
The treaty was consummated in the 350th year from the visit of Christ to the Americas, and very likely would have been seen as the seventh jubilee year from Christ’s coming--a very important year to anyone who had Hebrew heritage. According to the book of Leviticus in the Bible, Jubilee included the establishment of peace between enemies, the freeing of slaves, the forgiveness of debt, and the restoration of lands to their rightful owners. This, in this Jubilee of Jubilees, somehow Nephites, Lamanites, and Gadianton Robbers seem to have all agreed to follow the ancient custom, which, in this case, included dividing up the land such that the Nephites received the “land northward” above their geographic “narrow neck of land”, and the Lamanites and Robbers, according to the treaty’s terms, would possess everything southward.
Mormon 3:1 insinuates that this Jubilee treaty was agreed to last for 10 years, during which time the Book of Mormon record says that Mormon tried to make two things happen:
- Knowing that the Lamanites would come against them to battle 10 years hence (once the treaty had expired), he required his people to make military preparations for that future battle. This activity would prove successful in the early stages of battle following the 10-year truce.
- Knowing that the Nephites would be less apt to have to go into battle if they were righteous--and also more apt to prevail if the Lamanites still did come against them, he tried to get the Nephites to take the gospel of Jesus Christ more seriously than they had grown accustomed to in the midst of chronic war. In this endeavor, Mormon was much less successful, and he describes that because of the predominance of debauchery--especially among the more rank warriors in his military--he at one point even refused to be their military leader any longer, despite how much he loved and cared for them.
In spite of the general malaise that accompanies full-scale war, it does seem that not all Nephites had succumbed to the angry volatility of anti-religious god-hating by that point (some in Mormon’s group cursed god and wished to die). Some seemed still to take their Christianity seriously. We know this mainly because his son and fellow religious leader Moroni (serendipitously?) lived quite a bit longer than he had suspected he would, and he was thus able to include, as time and materials permitted, a few of the more important epistles and other correspondences of his father Mormon, in the last book (called “The Book of Moroni”) in the Book of Mormon. Moroni seems to have made these inclusions on the metal plates following the death of his father, all while trying to keep a safe distance from the Lamanites and Gadianton robbers whom he was sure were very interested in ending his devoted Christian life. And God seems to have had more than merely a passing purpose in preserving Moroni’s life long enough to get these additional insights added to the record.
In Moroni 9, Moroni relates to us one of his father’s insider reports about just how bloodthirsty and irrational the soldiers under Mormon’s command had become. It’s at this penultimate stage and chapter of the Book of Mormon that we get Mormon’s description of the taking of masses of prisoners by the Lamanites. It seems, according to Mormon’s description, that the adult male prisoners were summarily executed by the Lamanites, after which the women and children were fed in part upon the meat of their dead husbands and fathers. It’s not clear how Mormon would have known this sort of detail from the enemy camps, but perhaps some prisoners had been able to escape and locate Mormon or other Nephites to report to them what they had seen.
More likely it was that Mormon had first- or second-hand knowledge of the debauchery of his own Nephites, which, according to the reportage of Moroni, eclipsed that of the Lamanites. Mormon describes how the Nephites first raped their women captives, then tortured them on the altars of their idols until they died, and then had flesh-eating contests.
In the midst of such chaos, if there were believers in Christ left among them, these people were put to death by anyone who happened to come upon them and to whom they refused to deny Jesus Christ. (Moroni chapter 1) Being one of these believers, Moroni seemed from this point on to be on the run, and perhaps had less and less contact with other believers as time went by and as the ferocity of Christian haters on every side became more fierce.
In this milieu that the believing Nephites found themselves in, it’s interesting to contemplate the kinds of discussions that these devoted Christians might have among themselves. It is logical to think that one such discussion might have been regarding whether it might be important to make a doctrinal exception in order to baptize the young children of believers before they victims of slavery and the debaucheries of war, at which point (they might have feared) baptism would have been no longer possible. Perhaps they also thought that a bestowal of the Gift of the Holy Ghost, which should accompany the baptism of every candidate into the Lord’s Church, would make them more up to the task of dealing with the vicissitudes of becoming slaves and victims of death in time of pervasive war.
If that seems logical, it also suddenly seems much more logical that Joseph Smith didn’t just make up this whole story. Even though infant baptism was a topic of discussion in Joseph Smith’s revivalist America, one can see how it easily could have been a topic of Nephite social discussion as well--but for a completely different reason. Here we seem to have had a discussion among parents whose 8-year-old (and above) children had already been able to receive baptism and the Holy Ghost, but whose younger children were in direct danger of losing not only their mortal lives, but possibly their eternal ones as well.
Into the discussion steps Mormon, their military and religious leader, advocate of the idea that doctrine seldom changes, and times of war are seldom good times to make exceptions to that reality. All around him, Mormon saw probably tens of thousands of Nephites, Lamanites, and Gadianton robbers who had made complete mockery of God and the atonement of his son, Jesus Christ. Succumbing to the idea of infant baptism as an antidote to war thus would have caused great anxiety to Mormon, because it would be a signal that even the few remaining believers had themselves stopped believing. After so much mockery of God and everything wholesome and uplifting in life that had occurred on both sides of never-ending war for the past several years, I wonder if Mormon could not bear adding to that the mockery of advocacy for infant baptism.
Perhaps channeling the righteous indignance of his inner captain Moroni, Mormon specifically refers to those who would teach the doctrine of infant baptism of committing “solemn mockery before God”, and that “he that supposeth that little children need baptism is in the gall of bitterness and in the bonds of iniquity; for he hath neither faith, hope, nor charity” (Moroni 8:14). If would have been very easy, in times like those in which the Nephite believers found themselves, to have lost faith and hope. But advocacy of infant baptism probably seemed to Mormon as the surrender of charity as well.