France, August 15, ’95—A missionary was playing the piano as we gathered in the meeting room of the meeting house/apartment that Saturday afternoon. I was touched so many members turned up.
3—Becoming a Mormon
3—The best afternoon. This was me getting baptised. This was me remembering what led me there. And this is an examination of the ordinance of baptism in Mormonism.
Church membership is through baptism. Because Mormons believe authority was lost and then restored through Joseph Smith, baptisms of other denominations are not considered valid, all converts must be baptised into the Church.
I have this Church card in my Scriptures with August 15, 1995 on it. A few words in French—Elder Larson bearing his testimony and praising me for mine. A few years ago he told me that he loved how excited I was to get baptised. I certainly was.
Sitting on my right was my mother, who had accepted to come, and sitting on my left was the friend who had showed me the Book of Mormon back when we sat together in Philosophy class for 8 hours and loved every minute of it. ¹ I was born in an Atheist family in one of the most secular countries in the world and she was a devout Muslim of Moroccan descent but she and I had grown up pondering existential questions, so we were top of the class (with that other student who was just good at everything).
After a couple of heartfelt speeches from smiling members, we sang ‘Praise to the Man’, an old Mormon hymn set to a traditional Scottish tune and that celebrates Joseph Smith and classical Mormonism. I had fallen in love with it at one of the first meetings I attended, and still love it.
For years the spiritual fire burning inside of me had found no outlet, no Church that fitted, no place to go. During the opening prayer, I bowed my head low, so humbled and grateful as I was to my Heavenly Father. This was the end of the road, the final act of a long quest.
In meeting houses/chapels, baptisms are performed in a baptismal font (like a Jewish mikvah), but any body of water deep enough to completely immerse someone can do. Elder Garant said we could either go to a scenic river or place an inflatable swimming pool in the meeting room. Oh, I don’t know… Let me think. Of course, we set out to drive the 40 minute ride to the countryside.
My white socks sank a little in the dark mud. My feet got into the river running slowly but effortlessly. It felt lukewarm but refreshing.
My mother was at the wheel and my friend and I reminisced. Islam had inspired me when I was in high school. I reminded her that I had let go of the Catholic religion when I was about 10. It didn’t fulfil me and I had come to see it as a fraud. I had looked into Protestant churches before we met, but they were just too liberal. The God of Islam was the one I’d discovered in the Old Testament—the powerful God I felt drawn to—and not the weak ‘Jesus’ of the Catholics. I even considered converting to Islam but a convert ought to be 100% committed or not join at all. It was a surprising twist of fate that my friend had now started to take the missionary discussions.
My mother parked the car. It was a hot summer day.
Those born Mormons get baptised when they reach the ‘age of accountability’, which is 8 years old. There is no paid clergy: the Priesthood is made up of any man who’s been ordained to it and the minimum required Priesthood ‘level’ to baptise someone is Priest—in the modern LDS Church, male members who are at least 16. Children are usually baptised by their own father (or other family member). I had asked Elder Garant to baptise me.
Mormon Scriptures say: “The person who is called of God and has authority from Jesus Christ to baptize, shall go down into the water with the person who has presented himself or herself for baptism, and shall say, calling him or her by name: 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. Then shall he immerse him or her in the water, and come forth again out of the water.”
Elder Garant would have to recite the prayer exactly, and immerse me. Two priesthood holders would be’ witnesses’ to ensure it was performed properly. If he made any mistakes, or I was not fully immersed, he would need to start again.
I changed into a white shirt, white trousers and white socks. There was a huge goofy grin on my face I could not tone down. Elder Garant got into the water in his whites first. I followed him. My white socks sank a little in the dark mud. My feet got into the river running slowly but effortlessly. It felt lukewarm but refreshing. And although quite narrow, it was surprisingly deep. We stopped once I had water up to my waist.
The members, my mother, my sister and my friend were watching from the river bank. Swans and ducks were now swimming around us. It was bit surreal. The two witnesses were staged on a large rock with the Branch President—as Bishops are called in smaller congregations. In the LDS Church, Bishops preside that ordinance—as we call rites—and they are a little like ministers in other denomination, in charge of the temporal (and spiritual) order of a congregation (called a Ward) while holding a full-time job. Bishops are called by others who higher than him in the Priesthood.
As magical as it felt, there is no magic. It is symbolic, an outward manifestation of an inner change.
Elder Garant put one arm in front of me, so I could hold on to it with my left hand when he’d duck me. “Don’t forget to been your knees,” he said. His right hand he now raised to the square to utter the words commanded of God. Then that hand went on my back as he gently pushed me down. I was now under the water. It felt like I was in another world, not like when I jumped in a pool. My heart beat fast.
As magical as my baptism felt, there is no magic. Baptism is the gate to the road to Heaven; it is a requirement, the law. It is symbolic, an outward manifestation of an inner change. The person baptised gets buried in a watery grave and comes out a new born. We follow Christ example with John the Baptist and we also partake of his death and resurrection. Unlike evangelical denominations, ‘being born again’ does not guarantee salvation. Mormons must “endure to the end” and follow the commandments to work out their own salvation, rendered possible through Christ’s atonement and God’s grace.
I emerged from the water, cleansed, my sins washed away in the water in which the swans were still swimming. Elder Garant and I hugged and came out of the water. Congratulations started and all the missionaries held large white bath towels to allow me to get changed. When I emerged from that makeshift changing room, my friend said I should fix my hair—the combination of hair cosmetics and river water did not make the best effect. She knew me too well. I had been baptised, I didn’t get a personality transplant. I had always known that. And that went for other things too.