When was Great Grandpa Baptized?
By James W. Petty, A.G., C.G.R.S.
“I don’t get it! When was my great grandfather baptized? He was endowed at the Nauvoo Temple in 1845, but family group sheets, and the IGI show that he was baptized in 1969! That doesn’t make any sense, does it? How can a man be endowed as a member of the Church, but not be baptized until a hundred and twenty four years later?”
I overheard this conversation at the Family History Library, and it wasn’t the first time, by far, that I’ve heard that query. These are questions asked by many members of the Church, when they begin their search into family genealogy. The answer to the doctrinal question is that every person endowed in a temple, in the early days of the Church, as well as today, first had to be baptized a member, before they could receive subsequent temple ordinances . However, the records showing later baptismal dates do make sense, if you understand the meaning of those dates.
Poor Record Keeping
In the 1960’s, the Church, through the Family History Department, and the Priesthood Genealogy Committee, determined that the information on existing Family Group Archives (the official name for the family group sheet collection, which had been the records submitted for temple ordinance work), needed to be confirmed, and completed, in so far as the temple ordinances were concerned. Thousands of family group sheets showed early members of the Church with incomplete ordinance dates due to poor record keeping on the part of both members and the Church. Often there was no documentation to even confirm that the original baptisms were accurate, or even real. It had been assumed, and accepted by Church officials, when these early sheets were submitted for temple work, that the person submitting the information was accurate in his information.
Therefore, the Family History Department of the Church resubmitted these many thousands of names of early members of the Church, completed re-baptisms for them, and replaced the incomplete information with a full date that confirmed that their ordinances were complete. It didn’t change the original ordinances and commitments made by these people in life, a century or more before. In my mind, it was a loving tribute by our generation, telling our fathers that we recognized their sacrifice and testimony, and honored them by making their ordinance record complete.
But the questions still lingers in our minds… “When was great grandpa baptized?”
This is a question for the historian in us. We don’t have to know the original date; after all, his temple record is complete. But the family record isn’t without knowing when the baptism happened. Why is this important? As mentioned, the original event was a reflection of their sacrifice and testimony. This is something important to learn and share with other members of the family. His witness may serve to strengthen your children, and even yourself, when you are faced with adversity and hard times.
The question to ask as you start this search is: “Why wasn’t there a correct date in family and Church records to begin with?” The first point to understand, is that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints hasn’t always been a record keeping organization.
In the infancy of the Church, members were still learning very basic simple concepts of the gospel, and they hadn’t yet learned the importance or need for keeping records. Thousands of individuals and families heard the gospel preached, and were baptized, but few if any records of those ordinances were kept. Wards and branches of the Church were established throughout the northeastern and midwestern U.S., as the Latter-day Saints grew, gathered, and moved from New York to Ohio and Missouri.
The practice of keeping membership records didn’t become common among wards and branches until twenty years or later after the Church was first established. During the Nauvoo period a dozen or more wards existed in Nauvoo. Only portions of the records of four or five of those wards exist today, and only two or three of those records provide membership information that might include baptism dates. Of the hundred or more wards and branches of the Church that existed in the United States prior to 1846, less than half kept information about their members, and only a small number of those have survived to modern times.
Beginning Your Search
When you begin searching for your ancestor’s baptismal record, you have to first identify where they lived, so you can search for membership records. The Family Group Archives are the first place to search. These are available on microfilm. Information from these records can be found on-line at www.familysearch.org, but it isn’t complete by any means. Membership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1830 to 1848, by Susan Ward Easton Black, a fifty volume work, is available through the Family History Library (and branch libraries) and provides a comprehensive data base of information about early members of the church from a variety of sources. It too is incomplete, but is an excellent place to begin your search.
The fact that relatively few records existed during the first two decades of Church history, means that you need to search in records pertaining to the later part of your great grandfather’s life to learn about him. Membership records became common in wards that were established after the Saints settled in the western United States.
When congregations were established, lists of the members in each ward’s boundaries were gathered, and often listed with birth information, and baptismal dates and places, along with the names of the priesthood holders who performed the original ordinances. Often, early baptisms were recorded for the first time many years after they were performed. Members of the Church who were first baptized in the early 1830’s, might finally be listed with their original baptismal date, or a portion of it, as late as the 1890’s or even later.
I had an aunt, whose parents were inactive members at the time when she was eight years old. She recalled seeing a public baptism taking place at the town creek, which had been blocked and backed up to make it deep enough for the ordinance. She said she ran down and told them she had just turned eight years old, and they baptized her. But no official record was recorded on the ward records. She claimed it as her baptism and was never baptized again. She received her temple ordinances, and was sealed to her husband in the temple. After her death, her children completed a baptism on her behalf in the temple. All of her ordinances remained valid, and her testimony continued based on her childhood experience.
A new ordinance called “re-baptism” was established in the late 1840’s or early 1850’s that can be confusing for researchers. Many early members were unable to recall their original dates of baptism. During the upheaval period of Church history following the death of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, many members of the Church struggled to determine what they believed and who they would follow. People were cut off from membership, and later returned. Many members of the Church died crossing the plains.
Again record keeping was poor, and the historical records of individual Saints was almost non-existent. When the Church was finally settled in Utah, Brigham Young introduced “re-baptisms” as a means to commit oneself to the new Church organization and also as a way to rededicate a person’s commitment to the gospel and to God. Many members of the Church were re-baptized, perhaps even several times during their lives, and this re-baptism was often recorded as the official date of baptism in later membership records.
Journals and Diaries
The early membership records of the wards and branches were often simply journal records kept by members of the Church. Consequently, when searching for early dates and information you want to search for journals and diaries of your ancestors, or for people who knew and associated with them. Recall that some later membership records recorded the names of missionaries who performed early ordinances. The journals of these brethren, if found, may provide the only source for a correct date, and account of the event.
Early newspapers may also list early baptismal services in their communities. This would be especially true for LDS towns and cities where baptisms were an important social event.
Temple records are also a good source for finding early living baptism dates. As mentioned, it was necessary to be baptized prior to receiving one’s endowment and other temple ordinances. Members receiving their endowments in life were asked to record their baptism dates. Again, because of poor record keeping, those early dates were often not known or remembered and many endowment records reflect only partial dates or simply statements that the person was Aa member.”
Many people who were baptized in life, died before receiving their endowments. Except for baptisms for the dead, the first temple ordinances for the dead were not performed until the St. George Temple was dedicated in 1876, forty six years after the Church was organized. During that forty six years, thousands of members of the Church died without having received temple ordinances during their lives. Some of those individuals received endowments and sealings by the efforts of family members on their behalf. In some cases families were able to record the original baptismal date for their deceased parent or sibling. But many of those proxies simply responded to the request for a baptism date by stating that the person for whom work was being done was Ain the Church” without listing any baptismal date at all. With no evidence at all to confirm this testimony, temple work was still allowed to be done.
If you want to know your ancestor’s original date of baptism, you may have to do a lot of digging. Search ward membership records in every ward they lived in until they died. Study temple endowment records to see when they stated they were baptized. Search for a personal journal of that ancestor to see if an account of his baptism was recorded, or look for journals kept by the missionaries who performed the baptism. Keep in mind that you may not identify a complete date. Therefore, a partial original date, and a later re-baptism date may represent your ancestor’s earliest record.
Searching for the original baptism date is a valuable research project for every researcher. The history that is discovered about an ancestor in such a search is often inspiring as well as exciting. Not only will you learn more about a beloved ancestor, but you may learn more about their families, and relatives whose temple work has not been completed. Learning about your great grandpa will bind your heart to his, by helping you to gain a better understanding of his commitment to the Church and the gospel, and your own testimony will be strengthened in the process.
2003Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.