“Questions and Answers,” Tambuli, Feb. 1982, 3–4
Leland H. Gentry, Instructor, Salt Lake Institute of Religion, University of Utah
The Book of Mormon (Moro. 9:10–12) and Joseph Smith’s vision of the celestial kingdom (D&C 137) make it clear that the baptism in this life of infants and little children is not acceptable to the Lord. On the other hand, the scriptures say that unless a man is baptized he cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven (see John 3:5; 2 Ne. 31:5–13). Even Jesus, who was certainly innocent of sin, submitted to baptism “to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:13–17). Apparently, it is this paradox that is the source of your confusion.
The confusion can be cleared up by referring to a few more scriptures. Baptism is an ordinance performed “for the remission of sins” (D&C 49:13). Properly performed, it offers the repentant sinner an opportunity to “put on Christ” (Gal. 3:27) and to walk forth in “newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). It shows a voluntary acceptance of the atonement of Christ and a commitment to follow Jesus’ perfect example in all things (see 2 Ne. 31:10, 13, 16). Baptism also marks one’s formal entrance into the Church of Jesus Christ.
Thus, baptism bears an important relationship to accountability. One is said to be accountable when he understands the rightness or wrongness of his actions. This is particularly important to the baptismal covenant. One must understand why he is making the covenant and with whom. When one arrives at the point of understanding, he is said to have arrived at the “years of accountability” (D&C 18:42). From this time forward he is responsible for all his deeds.
For this reason, “No one can be received into the church of Christ (by baptism) unless he has arrived unto the years of accountability before God, and is capable of repentance” (D&C 20:71). This is precisely Mormon’s point in the Book of Mormon. It is “solemn mockery before God,” he says, to baptize little children because baptism is for those “who are accountable and capable of committing sin” (Moro. 8:9–10). The Lord has set eight years as the age that children shall be baptized for the remission of their sins” (D&C 68:27). This is the age that children “begin to become accountable” before him (D&C 29:47).
Now, what about the child who dies before reaching that age? He doesn’t need baptism for remission of sins but does he still need to be baptized for entrance into the celestial kingdom? The question probably arises because of the Church’s teaching that baptism is one of the essential ordinances in qualifying for the highest degree of glory. But “little children,” we are told, are “alive in Christ” (Moro. 8:12, 19; see Moses 6:54). The Savior’s atonement covers any transgression they may commit in their ignorance, and since they are not yet accountable, they cannot sin. For these reasons, according to the Prophet Joseph Smith they “are saved in the celestial kingdom of heaven” (P.G.P p. 61). As to whether such salvation is automatic without baptism, Elder Bruce R. McConkie of the Quorum of the Twelve has replied that “the answer is a definite yes, which echoes and re-echoes from one end of heaven to the other. Jesus taught it to his disciples. Mormon said it over and over again. Many of the prophets have spoken about it, and it is implicit in the whole plan of salvation. If it were not so the redemption would not be infinite in its application. “The Salvation of Little Children,” (International Magazines, March 1978).
Granted that little children are saved in the celestial kingdom, does that mean they will be exalted and have eternal life? And if so, do they need to comply at some point in their progression with such ordinances as baptism, bestowal of the Holy Ghost, the endowment and temple marriage? The first question was answered by the Prophet Joseph Smith, who reports that “children will be enthroned in the presence of God” and “will there enjoy the fullness of that light, glory and intelligence, which is prepared in the celestial kingdom.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1938, Section 4, sub-heading 86, paragraph 1, p. 200.)
Regarding the second question, Nephi explained that the Savior’s baptism manifested his willingness to be obedient to the Father in all things (2 Ne. 31:7), set an example for us by pointing out “the narrowness of the gate” by which we enter into the kingdom of God (2 Ne. 31:9), and gave Jesus the right to say to us, “Follow thou me” (2 Ne. 31:10). But precisely what the Lord will require in the form of ordinances, or other requirements, for spirits who died as infants or children on earth in order to receive exaltation has not been revealed. It is certain that we do not currently endow children who die before accountability nor do we seal them to a spouse. But this does not mean that the blessings of these latter ordinances are unavailable to them. President Joseph Fielding Smith once said:
“The Lord will grant unto these children the privilege of all the sealing blessings which pertain to exaltation.
“We were all mature spirits before we were born, and the bodies of little children will grow after resurrection to the full stature of the spirit, and all the blessings will be theirs through their obedience the same as if they had lived to maturity and received them on the earth …
“The Lord is just and will not deprive any person of a blessing, simply because he died before that blessing can be received. It would be manifestly unfair to deprive a little child of the privilege of receiving all the blessings of exaltation in the world to come simply because it died in infancy.” (Doctrines of Salvation, comp. Bruce R. McConkie, 3 vols., Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954–56, Vol. 2, chapter 3, paragraphs 15–17 from the end, 2:54.)