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Baptizing Those Who Are Accountable

Tim - August 31, 2006

“Behold I say unto you that this thing shall ye teach—repentance and baptism unto those who are accountable and capable of committing sin…” (Moroni 8:10)

In the Church we believe the age of accountability to be eight years of age. This is the supposed age when a person understands right vs. wrong and is therefore accountable for their actions. In other words, they are now able to sin. Therefore, they are now in need of baptism.

But what about those who have reached the age of accountability but have no concept of right and wrong?

I have a six-and-a-half year-old nephew with Down Syndrome, named Elam. He is a wonderful, happy, kid who has blessed the lives of those around him. But, he has very little concept of what is right and what is wrong despite my brother and sister-in-law’s constant and loving parenting.

Now, Elam is going to turn eight here in about 18 months and will be “eligible” for baptism. My question isn’t can he be baptized, but rather should he be baptized.

You might say, “Yes, it’s alright. It just won’t mean anything, like a child taking the Sacrament.”

At first, I would buy this statement, until giving it more thought. Had I married a Catholic who would allow our children to be baptized at age eight, but only if they were also baptized as infants in the Catholic Church, I would not do it.

Add to that, a reading of the eighth chapter of Moroni. Simply replace “little children” with “mentally handicapped” or whatever phrase you prefer. We then read the following:

v.14 Behold I say unto you, that he that supposeth that [the mentally handicapped] 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.

v.19 [The mentally handicapped] cannot repent; wherefore, it is awful wickedness to deny the pure mercies of God unto them, for they are all alive in him because of his mercy.

v.21 Wo unto such, for they are in danger of death, hell, and an endless torment.

v.23 But it is mockery before God, denying the mercies of Christ, and the power of his Holy Spirit, and putting trust in dead works.

Pretty strong warnings.

Now, if you are thinking I am wrong and that we should baptize them, I have one more thing. Should we be proselitizing to the mentally handicapped?

I don’t think we can have it both ways. If they need baptism, we need to baptize them. If they don’t need it, we shouldn’t do it.


  1. Who is arguing for baptizing the mentally handicapped?

    Comment by Rusty — August 31, 2006 @ 10:25 am

  2. I’m not reallt saying there is an argument out there for it, but it happens quite often. I imagine that my nephew will be baptized (without a word from myself).

    Also, Kim Peek is the one that Dustin Hoffman based his character in “Rain Man” upon. He was baptized as well, in spite of not being able to understand the concept between right from wrong.

    Comment by Tim — August 31, 2006 @ 10:28 am

  3. There were several mentally handicapped individuals in my home ward, including my youngest brother (autism).

    As far as I understand it, there are no official Church guidelines on this matter. It is a matter between the parents of the child, the Bishop, the Lord, and the child (as far as possible).

    It is not uncommon for a mentally handicapped child to have baptism delayed till a later age (my own brother for example). Some are never baptized. There are no hard and fast rules because mental capacity is always a matter of degrees.

    I know at least one young man with Down’s Syndrome who was baptized. Others might question whether that was wise, but his parents felt it was the right decision. I personally have felt this young man’s spirit and my feeling is that the ordinance was quite real for him, and he did exhibit a tangible change in countenance from the ordinance.

    My own brother also seems to have benefited from receiving the ordinance at a later age (at his own urging). I actually baptized him myself. His character changed at that time. While he still has his troubles, I think he actually is accountable enough to choose his own way. He contributes quite a bit in Elders Quorum meetings. And while his comments are sometimes simplistic or off-the-wall, he seems to have a knack for citing the right scripture and giving it the appropriate application.

    It’s a tough one. It has to be a matter of prayer for those who know the individual best with assistance from their bishop.

    Comment by Seth R. — August 31, 2006 @ 11:10 am

  4. The diagnosis of Down’s or some other mental handicap should not be the determining factor. Each person’s readiness for baptism should be evaluated individually by the bishop. I have encountered people with Down’s who have been baptized and ordained to the Aaronic Priesthood, where they have functioned efficiently.

    Comment by Last Lemming — August 31, 2006 @ 11:10 am

  5. Seth and LL, thanks for sharing. I admit I’m not convinced one way or another on this subject as perhaps I appeared to be.

    Seth, how old was your brother when he was baptized?

    Comment by Tim — August 31, 2006 @ 11:55 am

  6. Here’s one of the only Prophetic quotes I could find, from Joseph Fielding Smith:

    The Lord has made it known by revelation that children born with retarded minds shall receive the blessings just like little children who die in infancy. They are free from sin, because their minds are not capable of a correct understanding of right and wrong. Mormon, when writing to his son Moroni on the subject of baptism places deficient children in the same category with little children who are under the age of accountability, they do not require baptism, for the atonement of Jesus Christ takes care of them equally with little children who die before the age of accountability, as follows:

    “For behold that all little children are alive in Christ, and also all they that are without the law. For the power of redemption cometh on all them that have no law; wherefore, he that is not condemned, or he that is under no condemnation, cannot repent; and unto such baptism availeth nothing–” (Moroni 8:22)

    Again the Lord has stated:

    “And, again, I say unto you, that whoso having knowledge, have I not commanded to repent?

    “And he that hath no understanding, it remaineth in me to do according as it is written. . . .” (D & C 29:49-50)

    Therefore The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints considers all deficient children with retarded capacity to understand, just the same as little children under the age of accountability. They are redeemed without baptism and will go to the celestial kingdom of God, there, we believe, to have their faculties or other deficiencies restored according to the Father’s mercy and justice” (Answers to Gospel Questions 3:20-21)

    Comment by Tim — August 31, 2006 @ 12:14 pm

  7. That quote is also found in the BOM Institute Manual.

    Comment by Tim — August 31, 2006 @ 12:16 pm

  8. In my last area on my mission there was a lady who always brought her mentally handicapped son to church. My companion and I always joked that we should teach and baptize him for the numbers. If only I had known we could have done it!!! Curses!

    Comment by Rusty — August 31, 2006 @ 12:18 pm

  9. My brother was about 13. It was a bit interesting since he didn’t “lean back” the way you’re supposed to, but instead kinda hunched forward which made the “immersion” part tricky.

    Throwing protocal to the winds, I put my hand on the back of his neck and shoved him under up to my shoulder. I got a raised eyebrow from the Bishop, but, seeing as no part of my brother remained above water, he apparently felt it was good enough.

    Comment by Seth R. — August 31, 2006 @ 12:29 pm

  10. You said that if they don’t *need* baptism they shouldn’t get it. I don’t have any experience with this so I am just thinking it through, but might we consider other reasons (e.g. social) that it would be good to baptize them? Moroni seems to be mad about people saying they *need* baptism, but I don’t think that means we are condemned if we *let* someone be baptized when we are not sure (or can’t be sure) how much understanding a person has. If a child who was mentally handicapped wanted to be baptized because all the other people in his class were being baptized, I wouldn’t oppose it myself. Just some thoughts, some of you with more experience with this may have a better take.

    Comment by Jacob — August 31, 2006 @ 1:54 pm

  11. Jacob, I was thinking along those same lines. I have a niece with severe mental and physical handicaps who was baptized about a year ago at age 8, which got me thinking about this topic. She was certainly cognizant enough to know her 8-year old friends around her were getting baptized. And I just can’t see a loving Heavenly Father telling her, “No, sorry my dear little Cami, even though everyone around you is following the Savior by being baptized, you are just too handicapped to do so.”

    Clearly she doesn’t “need” baptism, but in such cases of mental handicaps, I seriously doubt the parents of these children “are in danger of death, hell, and an endless torment” (Moro. 8:21).

    On the contrary, to me it seems that to deny such sweet children the opportunity to follow Christ’s example in this way is, in fact, a perfect instance of “awful wickedness to deny the pure mercies of God unto them” (Moro. 8:19).

    Comment by Amy — August 31, 2006 @ 3:55 pm

  12. My only worry is that a meaningless baptism would be considered blasphemy in a way, though I certainly don’t think the handicapped children nor their parents fall under condemnation.

    Comment by Tim — August 31, 2006 @ 4:21 pm

  13. I’m surprised there hasn’t been any discussion so far about the “becoming a member of the church” part of baptism. That seems to be a pretty decent reason to baptize someone who’s mentally handicapped.

    Comment by Rusty — August 31, 2006 @ 6:09 pm

  14. I used to be in the “don’t baptize someone unless they are accountable” camp. But I’ve changed.

    Comments #10 and #11 sum it up well:

    “If a child who was mentally handicapped wanted to be baptized because all the other people in his class were being baptized, I wouldn’t oppose it myself.”

    “And I just can’t see a loving Heavenly Father telling her, ‘No, sorry my dear little Cami, even though everyone around you is following the Savior by being baptized, you are just too handicapped to do so.’”

    And then there’s what Heber J. Grant said in the Priesthood/RS manual a couple years ago: “I’d baptize the devil if he requested it.”

    Based on what I’ve seen, bishops have okay’ed the baptism of plenty of healthy normal 8 year olds (children of both totally active and totally inactive parents) who still had absolutely no idea what baptism or church membership was about.

    I don’t think requirements should be more rigid for the handicapped than for the average kids.

    In fact, I finally figured out that if baptism requirements were meant to be rigid and strict, then the church wouldn’t have 19 and 20 year olds doing the convert baptism interviews.

    Comment by Bookslinger — August 31, 2006 @ 9:10 pm

  15. From the 1999 Church Handbook of Instructions:

    Ordinances for Persons Who Have Mental Disabilities

    When contemplating ordinances for a person who has a mental disability, priesthood leaders and parents prayerfully consider the person’s wishes and degree of understanding. Ordinances should not be withheld if the person is worthy, wants to receive them, and demonstrates an appropriate degree of responsibility and accountability. Living persons whose disabilities cause them to have the mental capacity of little children may not be accountable (see D&C 29:46-50). The saving ordinances do not need to be performed for these persons.

    If leaders determine that a person should receive an ordinance, they help him or her understand and prepare for it.

    Comment by Floyd the Wonderdog — September 1, 2006 @ 5:49 am

  16. Moroni’s discussion is a mere guidepost.

    It has been pre-empted by modern revelation setting the age at eight and justifying us before God when we baptize those children.

    So yes, Moroni’s logic probably applies to many eight year olds who are baptized. But God has justified us in this matter via revelation.

    Comment by Seth R. — September 1, 2006 @ 7:53 am

  17. This is a good discussion on this. My experience with it tells me the same things, especially in the respect of needing to do more preparation for these individuals if they are planning on getting baptised.
    I was working once with a schizophrenic. We had him interviewed by the stake mission president who was a doctor who specialized in schizophrenia. He told us to go ahead and…well, he didn’t show up and he later told us he never wanted to see us again. I tell this to the stake mission president and he tells me he really didn’t think he was ready anyway!!

    So, yeah. I’m all for it after MUCH prayer and preparation.

    Comment by Bret — September 1, 2006 @ 10:30 pm

  18. There seems to be some difference between saying that a mentally retarded person can be baptized and saying that they should (or need to) be baptized.

    I think the BOM injunction certainly applies to the latter but not to the former.

    Comment by GeorgeD — September 10, 2006 @ 8:59 am

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