Evidence #15 | September 19, 2020

Infant Baptism

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Scripture Central


The Book of Mormon’s discussion of infant baptism is supported by early Spanish accounts as well as artwork found in an ancient Mesoamerican codex.

Infant Baptism in the Book of Mormon

Sometime after Moroni began his ministry, he received a letter from his father which stated, “if I have learned the truth, there have been disputations among you concerning the baptism of your little children” (Moroni 8:5).1 Mormon explained that this situation “grieveth me exceedingly; for it grieveth me that there should disputations rise among you” (v. 4). The fact that Mormon “immediately … inquired of the Lord concerning the matter” suggests that this theological perversion may have been a relatively recent development among his people (v. 7).2 In response to Mormon’s inquiry, the Lord revealed that infants are not in need of baptism: “the whole need no physician, but they that are sick; wherefore, little children are whole, for they are not capable of committing sin” (v. 8).

Newborn Sleeping. Image via ChurchofJesusChrist.org.

Infant Baptism in Pre-Columbia America

It is possible that infant baptism initially stemmed from outside of Nephite culture. According to Matthew Roper, “When the Spanish arrived in the New World in the mid-16th century, Mesoamericans were practicing several different kinds of water purification rituals that involved young children.”3 For instance, “Bernardino de Sahagun reported that the Aztec midwives ritually bathed newborn children, invoking the cleansing power of the goddess Chalchiuhtlicue. Implicit in the practice was the assumption that infants may inherit evil and impurity at birth.”4 Roper commented, “It is not difficult to imagine that Mormon and Moroni were resisting similar cultural traditions which were making dangerous inroads into the Nephite church of Christ.”5

Evidence that such practices were performed before Europeans arrived in the New World comes from the codex Nuttall. This pre-Columbian text appears to depict “a Mixtec baptism by immersion.” Roper further explained,

Detail from Codex Nuttall depicting a woman being reborn (baptized) underwater.

According to Friar Diego do Landa, the Maya of Yucatán practiced a pre-Columbian water purification ritual known as caput sihil, meaning “to be born anew or again.” No one could marry or become a Maya priest without having been thus purified. Children may have been baptized in this manner as early as three years of age. Of the ancient Maya community once located in present-day Mérida, Mexico, Landa recorded, “[I]f anyone died without baptism they believed he would have to suffer more torments in hell than a baptized person.”6


Upon reviewing the evidence for infant baptism in pre-Columbian America, Roper concluded, “Thus the idea that little children who die unbaptized will suffer torment for their inherited evil or impurity was not peculiar to American discourse in the early 19th century, as some detractors of the Book of Mormon have claimed.”7 Rather the evidence points to infant baptism and other forms of ritual purification being present in Mesoamerican societies before the Spanish arrived.8 Exactly how far back these baptism rituals took place, and what forms and symbolism they may have taken in earlier eras, remains to be uncovered.

Matthew Roper, “The Baptism of Little Children in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica,” Inisghts: A Window on the Ancient World 23, no. 3 (2003): 2–3.

Matthew Roper, “Review of Mormonism: Shadow or Reality?” Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 4, no. 1 (1992): 182–183.

Moroni 8:4–26

Moroni 8:4–26

  • 1 The timing of this letter remains uncertain. After developing 13 criteria needed to evaluate the date of its composition, Alan C. Miner concluded that both Moroni 8 and 9 were “written sometime within the year between 375 and 376.” Alan C. Miner, “A Chronological Setting for the Epistles of Mormon to Moroni,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 3, no. 2 (1994): 111. In a different study, Joseph M. Spencer proposed that “Mormon’s first letter was … produced in the years 345–50, while his second letter was written in the years 375–80.” See Joseph M. Spencer, “On the Dating of Moroni 8–9,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 22 (2016): 144.
  • 2 One important consideration is that Nephite children during Mormon’s ministry were in danger of being captured by the Lamanites and offered up as “sacrifices unto their idol gods” (Mormon 4:14). In this context, it is understandable that parents may have had increased anxiety for the welfare of their children.
  • 3 Matthew Roper, “The Baptism of Little Children in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica,” Inisghts: A Window on the Ancient World 23, no. 3 (2003): 2.
  • 4 Roper, “The Baptism of Little Children,” 2. See also, Jacques Soustelle, Daily Life of the Aztecs, trans. Patrick O’Brian (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 2002, first published in 1962), 163–167; M. Bloch and S. Guggenheim, “Compadrazgo, Baptism and the Symbolism of a Second Birth,” Man (New Series) 16, no. 3 (1981): 383–384.
  • 5 Matthew Roper, “Review of Mormonism: Shadow or Reality?” Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 4, no. 1 (1992): 182–183.
  • 6 Roper, “The Baptism of Little Children,” 2.
  • 7 Roper, “The Baptism of Little Children,” 2. As an example, Roper cites Alexander Campbell, “Delusions,” Millennial Harbinger 2 (7 February 1831): 93.
  • 8 The word baptism, of course, comes from our New Testament language, and the Spanish writers only used it (in its Spanish form) to describe a native practice that was sufficiently similar to the European conception of baptism.
Customs and Ceremonies
Infant Baptism
Book of Mormon

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