Mormon in the Congo

Moroni 8:14 never used to sit well with me:

“Behold I say unto you, 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; wherefore, should he be cut off while in the thought, he must go down to hell.”

A little harsh, no? Always bugged me. Until I read The Poisonwood Bible, and spent some time thinking about how, exactly, a Christian gets to the place where they are OK with enslaving others and cutting off their hands if they don’t meet their work quota. And then it dawned on me: if you believe in the necessity of infant baptism (and don’t believe in baptism by proxy), then you also think that God has condemned most 20th century Africans (among many others) to hell. And if God doesn’t care about them, then why should you? I realize, of course, it was a little more complicated than that: social darwinism and eugenics and greed and all that contributed to the world view that permitted the rape of Africa. But Christian doctrine was a part of it.

Doctrine, even relatively abstract doctrine, has consequences. On the face of it, infant baptism, or the lack thereof, may not be that important. But if it leads you to conclude that God has brought billions of people into this world with virtually no chance of salvation, then that can lead you to treat them as if they were already in hell.

Now I can understand why Mormon wrote what he did.

32 comments for “Mormon in the Congo

  1. Julie M. Smith
    September 3, 2006 at 8:32 pm

    I’d like to point out that belief in infant (but not proxy) baptism doesn’t necessarily mandate unChristian conduct:

    My point in this post was rather to suggest that it could, and did, encourage that attitude among many, many Christians.

  2. mami
    September 3, 2006 at 10:03 pm

    It reminds me of Chinese orphanages where it is ok to let the children die, because they will have a chance to come back reincarnated in a happier state–or this was their lot from past lives.

  3. Starfoxy
    September 3, 2006 at 10:27 pm

    This is an excellent post. I came across a religious website the other day that was titled “Are you concerned that you’re going to Hell?” In thinking about the doctrines represented on that site, I came to much the same conclusion you did. Yes, I am concerned that they think I’m going to Hell, because it ultimately means they believe in a God who is heartless enough to create countless souls then, with little to no effort on His part, damn most of them to Hell.

  4. September 3, 2006 at 10:41 pm

    I don’t know Julie,

    If you asked the average British gentleman in the 1800s what he thought of Africans and Great Britain’s role regarding them, I imagine he likely would have described it as a noble mission to bring enlightenment and British ideals to every corner of the globe. Britain’s goal of civilizing “black Africa.”

    The tone might well be condescending, but it would have at least a general sense of good intentions.

    And what about all the genocide and brutality conducted by civilizations who didn’t even have the slightest inckling of Christianity, let alone infant baptism?

    No, I think the demons you point out are easily attributed to basic human nature without referencing infant baptism in the least.

  5. Coventry
    September 4, 2006 at 12:22 am

    That book needed to end about 40% earlier than it did.

  6. Dan Y.
    September 4, 2006 at 10:45 am

    Overall, I agree more with Seth R. (#4) than Julie on this. However, Julie was correct in saying “Doctrine, even relatively abstract doctrine, has consequences. On the face of it, infant baptism, or the lack thereof, may not be that important. But if it leads you to conclude that God has brought billions of people into this world with virtually no chance of salvation, then that can lead you to treat them as if they were already in hell.” I do think that there is a parallel here, however inexact, between infant baptism in Christianity and the policy of blacks and the priesthood in the LDS church. Just as Mormon had good reason to repudiate the former, a formal repudiation of the latter would also be appropriate (in my own view).

  7. queuno
    September 4, 2006 at 12:33 pm

    Interesting how we got from infant baptism all the way to priesthood.

    You don’t think 1978 is a strong enough repudiation? What more do you want – a statement from GHB saying, “we *formally* repudiate everything McConkie et al, said”? Even when McConkie *himself* distanced from stuff he’d said?

  8. September 4, 2006 at 1:18 pm

    if you believe in the necessity of infant baptism (and don’t believe in baptism by proxy), then you also think that God has condemned most 20th century Africans (among many others) to hell.

    I don’t.

    I also believe there’s more to baptism than saving someone from hell…

  9. September 4, 2006 at 2:46 pm

    No, 1978 is not enough. And yes, a formal repudiation (\”confession\”) would help, not just a repudiation of the doctrine itself, but of the errors that led to its persistence, mainly failure of church members to tell their leaders when the latter are wrong. And of course notion of WW\’s that church leaders will never lead us astray. This is a joint project we have entered into here, leaders and members, both fully responsible.

  10. Sideshow
    September 4, 2006 at 7:34 pm

    Julie, your reasoning is a bit more roundabout than perhaps it needs to be. Those who assume infant baptism is necessary adopt the idea that the nature of human beings is evil and fallen from their creation (if the nature of all people weren’t evil, not all would need baptism as infants). If people by nature are evil and horrible, then it’s no big deal to treat people horribly. Instead of thinking from God’s perspective, you can just leave God out of it — to the extent that you leave the godly nature and capabilities of people out of them.

    Viewing people as inherently evil and depraved probably does make it much easier to treat them atrociously.

  11. September 5, 2006 at 11:16 am

    Let’s say that you were a teacher, and you knew that it was impossible for certain students to pass the final test. When a passer and a nonpasser both needed help, and you could only help one, which would it be? If a nonpasser didn’t understand a concept, would it really bother you? Etc.

    I think what Mormon was saying was simple: anyone who looks at an infant, and loves it, and wonders at it and the miracles in it, and still cannot sense the love and wonder of God, but would eternally damn the baby with no hope for anything good from the God it just came from because of lack of an ordinance; yet, would grant salvation to himself and others, having gotten a conscience and experience and freedom and power (and sin), is as Mormon describes.

    Anyway, another thought: why not just perform the ordinance before birth, when the baby is already underwater?

  12. September 5, 2006 at 9:10 pm


    I think I ought to point out that the argument you make here is almost identical to the argument John Krakauer makes in “Under the Banner of Heaven” that religious people are inherently more violent because their theology allows them to make arguments like the one you list above.

    The only difference is he uses psychotic Mormons as his example instead of bloodthirsty Catholics.

  13. Julie M. Smith
    September 5, 2006 at 10:18 pm


    Is it, therefore, impossible (*cough* jihad *cough*) that certain threads of theology can encourage violence?

  14. September 6, 2006 at 11:46 am

    Of course not.

    Just making sure we all know where we are at.

  15. Craig V.
    September 6, 2006 at 2:14 pm

    I suppose, as the resident Presbyterian, I should weigh in here. First of all, let me make sure I understand your argument. Are you really saying that because of their belief in infant baptism, and because, in your view, that belief led to the atrocities of slavery, Presbyterians (and any others believing in infant baptism) “must go down to hell”? You indicate it’s more complicated than that, but this seems to be the gist of your argument.

    Permit me a couple of observations. First of all, we believe that no one deserves to go to heaven but that God, being merciful, saves some. I realize this is not a popular belief, but note that it applies to all equally. I can never conclude that I’m better than someone else because God saved me. To point to God’s mercy for me as a justification for harming someone else is, clearly, a radical misuse of the teaching. Understanding salvation as Presbyterians see it should lead to humility and compassion. There’s no place for any kind of boasting or arrogance.

    Secondly, as far as I know, neither infant baptism nor its implied teachings were ever used as a justification for slavery. The arguments put forward in favor of slavery were usually based on passages of Scripture which were interpreted in such a way that it was believed that slavery was a part of the natural order of creation. Many Presbyterians (we were on both sides of the slavery issue) argued in response that basic principles of Scripture were incompatible with slavery and that, ultimately, in a Christian society, slavery must be eliminated. There was also a view, sadly, that non white races were not fully human. My guess is that this view, more than any other, is the one that did the damage and justified the evil. As a Presbyterian, I take pride in those who vigorously fought against and (along with many others) eventually defeated slavery. My pride, however, is short lived when I realize that there were many Presbyterians who fought for slavery and many who did nothing at all.

    Thirdly, as was pointed out above, most Protestants don’t equate baptism with salvation (though some do).

    I agree with you that beliefs matter and that wrong beliefs can have horrible consequences. Unfortunately, good and true beliefs can be twisted and misused for evil purposes. When pronouncing judgments on outside groups, it seems to me that we should work hard to understand the beliefs themselves and not the twisted versions.

  16. Kaimi Wenger
    September 6, 2006 at 6:00 pm


    I think you’re right (though not in a way that entirely undercuts Julie’s post). I’ve only done limited reading on the religious justifications for slavery in America, but the ones I’ve read don’t typically talk about baptism. Some protestant denominations regularly baptized slaves (see, e.g., Dictionary of Afro-American Slavery at 79-80, discussing Baptist practices). And the protestant justifications for slavery typically talked about some combination of Noah and Ham, slave-holding patriarchs (such as Abraham), New Testament verses seeming to condone slavery, and recourse to natural law.

    That said, the unbaptized status of most Africans _did_ have a large impact on a different religious approach: The Catholic approach. In particular, Bartolome de las Casas, the advocate for Indian rights, made essentially this argument: Spain should not enslave Indians, who have not yet had a chance to accept baptism. However, Africans have had this chance for many centuries. Therefore, rather than enslaving the local Indian populations, Spain should import slaves from Africa.

    I don’t know that this entirely supports Julie’s point – she may be overreaching in linking this to infant baptism. And I’m not sure to what extent these arguments impacted slavery in the United States. But the idea that the unbaptized state of Africans was relevant in their enslavement has at least some support in the Catholic context.

  17. September 6, 2006 at 6:19 pm

    I think especially coming from LDS/ former LDS, such a doctrine as child baptism would be more condemnable to Mormon.

  18. Julie M. Smith
    September 6, 2006 at 9:30 pm

    “Are you really saying that because of their belief in infant baptism, and because, in your view, that belief led to the atrocities of slavery, Presbyterians (and any others believing in infant baptism) “must go down to hellâ€??”

    I’m not saying it–the passage I quoted from the Book of Mormon is.

    I realize that my use of the word “enslaving” was probably a poor choice–this post isn’t about American slavery (which I think you analyze well, as tweaked by Kaimi), but the de facto enslavement of Africans in Africa by 19th and early 20th century corporations/countries.

    I’m working backwards here: starting from what is a shocking [can anyone think of any other scripture that says that someone will be sent to hell for thinking a certain way? Even allowing for a smidge of hyperbole, it is a hard saying!] statement and trying to figure out why that statement might be justified. The best justification that I can come up with for it is that the attitude behind affirming the necessity of infant baptism could (not ‘does’) lead to treating those who don’t have a chance to be baptized as if they are already in hell. If anyone can better explain Mormon’s statement, I’m all ears.

  19. Craig V.
    September 6, 2006 at 10:12 pm

    The historical miss was my mistake. I should have clicked on the link for the Poisonwood Bible. I do think, however, that a better approach might be to attempt to see infant baptism the way it is actually believed and used (not the way it can be misused) and then try to make sense of the statement from the Book of Mormon.

    It is rather shocking to learn that I’m in danger of hell because of my belief in infant baptism. I’ve both done and believed far worse.

  20. Kristine Haglund Harris
    September 6, 2006 at 10:39 pm

    Julie–Hochschild’s _King Leopold’s Ghost_ is a useful companion volume to _Poisonwood Bible_. My own suspicion is that naked, theologically-uninformed avarice had (has!) a lot more to do with the exploitation of Africa’s land and people than bad theology.

  21. Atticus
    September 6, 2006 at 11:32 pm

    If anyone is interested in the Catholic Church and slavery…

  22. September 7, 2006 at 4:40 am

    I see both Julie and Craig’s positions as inconsistent.

    >>“Are you really saying that because of their belief in infant baptism, and because, in your view, that belief led to the atrocities of slavery, Presbyterians (and any others believing in infant baptism) “must go down to hell�?�

    >I’m not saying it–the passage I quoted from the Book of Mormon is.

    It is of course an obvious point that the Book of Mormon doesn’t specifically mention Presbyterians. Throwing that in as it is done in the above statement is to apply this verse without qualification to our time.

    I disagree with Julie’s statement –“the passage I quoted from the Book of Mormon is [saying all Presbyterians and others who believe in infant baptism are going to Hell].” Considering a counter-example. Do children under the age of 8 “that supposeth that little children need baptism” and die in the thought go down to Hell? Clearly no. That is to take Mormon’s whole point (that God does not hold the innocent guilty) and turn it on its head. The escape clause which is needed in this verse before it can be universally applied is that of culpability.

    Those without culpability for their beliefs will not be punished for them. Again, to think otherwise, is to miss the forest for the trees here since this is Mormon’s larger point.

    Now Craig, I am confused. You say:
    >It is rather shocking to learn that I’m in danger of hell because of my belief in infant baptism.

    Why is that shocking to you? You believe (please correct me if this is wrong) that God will send all those who haven’t been baptized and yet are not culpable of their lack of baptism Hell. So, how is the belief that all those who believe X will go to hell any more of an arbitrary a position to ascribe to God? (In this case of course X=little children need baptism to avoid hell.)

    Maybe you don’t believe in the necessity of infant baptism in order to escape hell (like, I presume, Brad Haas). In that case of course Mormon’s statement wouldn’t apply to you regardless of the question of your responsibility for your belief since this is a different belief than what Mormon is talking about when he uses the phrase infant baptism.

  23. Julie M. Smith
    September 7, 2006 at 11:21 am

    KHH, I read _King Leopold’s Ghost_ recently–it is, in fact, what reminded me of my experience with _The Poisonwood Bible_ and led to this post. Definitely one of those must-read books (but keep the photos out of reach of the kids!).

    Matthew, I was following your logic (and actually feeling quite happy to be corrected! I don’t like any of this any more than some of the posters here do!) but then I felt like you abandoned me in the middle . . . If I read you right, you are saying that only a certain population (i.e., not the innocents) would end up in hell for believing in infant baptism. Who, exactly, constitutes this population of the culpable?

  24. September 7, 2006 at 11:56 am

    >Who, exactly, constitutes this population of the culpable?

    I guess I am more interested in saying who Mormon isn’t condemning than saying who it is. But I’ll do my best to outline both. (Am I understanding your question right?)

    Mormon isn’t condemning here:
    (a) those who believe in infant baptism but aren’t sure what happens to children who get unbaptized–Mormon is clearly talking about a belief in infant baptism that sends unbaptized little kids to hell
    (b) those who believe in infant baptism and believe those without infant baptism will go to “an eternal state of natural joy, untempered by any sense of loss at how much greater their joy might have been — a supernatural joy — had they been baptized” as Aquinas believed (if wikipedia is to be trusted) The hell of the Book of Mormon, the one Mormon is speaking of is not that defined by Catholic theologians as including Limbo but rather a fire and brimstone place of endless torment (2 Ne 28:23) –not a place of natural joy.
    (c) those who believe unbaptized children go to hell but given the lack of knowledge or experience they were blessed with aren’t culpable for not realizing that such a belief is false and rejecting it.

    So, that leaves us with the following who Mormon seems to condemn:
    (d) those who believe unbaptized children go to hell but given the knowledge and experience they are given in this life, are expected to have recognized this believe as false and rejected it.

    Of course I can’t say how to divide people up between (c) and (d) so I’m not sure if this is much help in answering your question.

    Also, I am not sure what to make of the phrase “should he be cut off while in the thought.” Suppose you believe (d) but happen to be thinking about something else when you die? To me this phrase does signal that some sort of hyperbole is going on and I’m not sure how that hyperbole affects how we should intepret this verse.

  25. Julie M. Smith
    September 7, 2006 at 12:03 pm

    Matthew, that’s exactly what I was looking for–thanks for spelling it out.

    But my concern now is this: has anyone ever actually occupied category (d)? Seems like they’d have to be a pretty rare beast to have that level of knowledge but to somehow think that infant baptism was necessary. Of all the heresies I can think of, this one seems pretty rare.

    (That’s the cue for you history wonks–Oman and Stapley–to come in with your example of the ____ Community, which lived along the Arizona border in the 1920s and were renegade Saints who believed in infant baptism and make me look like an idiot.)

    If we define (d) to be a virtually non-existent group, then what the heck was the point of having this verse in the BoM when the space could have been used for more useful manners such as how to convince a 5yo that his nighttime Pull-Up (TM) habit is bankrupting the family?

  26. September 7, 2006 at 12:22 pm

    PS To digress, the lingering need for night time pull-ups was addressed recently in my stake priesthood meeting. I don’t remember it all but it had something to do with the size of the bladder not being large enough to get through the whole night and not to worry, in time the issue will naturally resolve itself. Of course, this message was meant for my local stake and I don’t know that it is applicable to yours.

  27. Sideshow
    September 7, 2006 at 12:34 pm


    It sounds like you’re saying that Mormon doesn’t mean what he’s saying. It seems pretty clear to me that the statement in the verse quoted is “he that supposeth that little children need baptism” results in “he must go down to hell” if the person remains of that opinion when he dies. While the case of a 7 year old who thinks it obviously does not have the stated result because under-8 year olds are a stated exception, any other exceptions would invalidate the statement.

    So if Mormon doesn’t really mean what he says, then why does he write Moroni 8:20-21?

    “And he that saith that little children need baptism denieth the mercies of Christ, and setteth at naught the atonement of him and the power of his redemption. Wo unto such, for they are in danger of death, hell, and an endless torment. I speak it boldly; God hath commanded me.”

    Mormon seems pretty clear that the reason a belief in infant baptism is bad is because it means the believer does not truly believe in the atonement or Christ’s power to redeem. He even seems to realize it’s a strong statement.

  28. September 7, 2006 at 12:37 pm

    someone (or something!) deleted my comment responding to Julie’s #25. Too bad if one was going to be deleted it wasn’t my off-topic one on pullups vs the on-topic one on Mormon’s point working even if no one occupied category (d).

  29. Craig V.
    September 7, 2006 at 12:43 pm


    I was being a bit playful with my last two sentences, and it probably would have been wiser to have left them out. What I hope is not lost here is the importance of understanding the beliefs of others as those beliefs are actually held and practiced. To say belief A is bad because it could lead to evil is a recipe for misunderstanding. The commandment to love requires that we work hard (and in my view it is hard work) to understand one another.

    For the record I, along with most Presbyterians, do not believe that God sends anyone to Hell arbitrarily. Everyone in Hell deserves to be there; God is just. The unpopular part of our belief is that we believe that everyone does deserve to be in Hell so that salvation is the result of God’s mercy. “There is none righteous, no not one.” What does that mean for infants? I don’t really know, however, I do know that God will do what is just. We do not believe that baptism is necessary for salvation, whether for children or adults. Baptism, on our view, is the sign of the covenant that God has made with His people through Christ. The promise of that covenant is “I will be their God and they will be my people”. Because we believe that children are part of the covenant community, we believe they need to be baptized.

    Julie’s last question is a good one. Who is being condemned by Mormon’s statement? It certainly looks like it would include Presbyterians. Even if it only includes those groups who believe children need to be baptized in order to be saved (there are Catholic and Lutheran traditions that seem to hold something like this) it still seems pretty arbitrary.

  30. September 8, 2006 at 10:38 am

    Mormon is not condemning people to Hell because of their belief. He sees the belief as symptomatic of their lack of faith, hope and charity. It is only after pointing out the link between this belief and a lack of faith, hope and charity that he makes the connection to Hell.

    On a related note. Mormon is reacting to a whole set of people in the Church who, at the time, accept the practice of infant baptism. If people of the Church of Jesus Christ today started in droves accepting the practice of infant baptism and President Hinckley felt there was a connection between this and a lack of charity on the part of the Mormons who do this, President Hinckley might use similarly fiery language in addressing them. However, we don’t see President Hinckley addressing other Christian denominations with similar fiery language because (though there may be other reasons as well) the situation for other churches isn’t analagous to the hypothetical situation I described for President Hinckley and isn’t analogous to the actual situation Mormon faced. It isn’t analagous for reasons which I have already made explicit above.

    However, even though the particular circumstances Mormon addresses aren’t prevalent–and may be nonexistent–today (i.e. there may be none or few people today in category (d)), his words are still important today. (So this my response to the question of why not devote this section to pullups.) Here are three reasons: (1) Mormon lays out a larger position on the relationship between innocence and the atonement of Jesus Christ–namely that the atonement covers the innocent without requiring repentance. This is an important point relative to young children and also to other innocent people received through revelation. It is good we have it. (2) Mormon’s argument can be thought of as a warning to be wary of any belief which ascribes a lack of charity to God. Such beliefs can be symptomatic of a lack of personal charity and can reinforce a lack of personal charity. (3) We can also look at Mormon as laying out our reasoning for rejecting the practice of infant baptism today. Mormon’s argument is a sort of reductio absurdum to us and as such doesn’t, for us, depend on whether anyone around actually falls in category (d). Consider a parallel example. To drive home the importance of charity in good works, I might say that someone who sacrifices their own life without having charity is not profited by that action. My point isn’t their own action. That point doesn’t depend upon the existing of people sacrificing their own life without charity.

    Hopefully, this answers the concerns of Julie, Sideshow and Craig above relative to my own comments above. I wrote up some of this explanation on the Feast site and will try to apply some of the thoughts there. Certainly all who are interested in this topic and want to help improve upon that commentary are invited to help.

  31. Craig V.
    September 8, 2006 at 12:03 pm


    Thanks for the clarification. Textual and historical context is key to understanding a text and I confess that for the text that heads this topic, I’m ignorant of these contexts. I’ll take a look at your write up.

    Perhaps this underscores the point I’m most concerned to make here, namely, the importance of understanding the beliefs of others as those beliefs are actually viewed and practiced by the believers. If your explanation of the text is right, it seems that failure to work at understanding the views of others can lead not only to a misunderstanding of those views, but to a misunderstanding of one’s own views. Now that is a delicious irony.

  32. cchrissyy
    September 8, 2006 at 12:58 pm

    Matthew- agreed. Mormon aporaches this topic after quite the discussion on faith, hope and charity. Then he brings up the example of infant baptism and links it back to those vitrues by saying that people who think infants get damned to hell don’t have faith, hope or charity. The context makes it clear to me that the issue isn’t baptizing infants, but having the coldness in your heart and the misunderstanding of God that would allow belief in damnation of innocents.

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