Do 8-year-olds really understand why they’re getting baptized? Puh-leeze.

Robert Kirby

Last week, I watched my eldest grandchild, Hallie, get baptized. It was a special moment in the collective life of my family. We all showed up to support the decision she had made for herself. She’s 16.

From this you might rightly conclude that this wasn’t a Mormon baptism. Hallie was baptized at the South Jordan campus of South Mountain Community Church, along with several of her friends.

The worship area was crowded. I stood in the back with my youngest grandchild, Ada, perched on my shoulders so she could see. Her interest was obvious by her questions. It being religion and her being 3 years old meant she had a lot of them.

“Papa, why is it swimming at church?”

“Papa, is it a bathtub?”

“Papa, does Hallie need goggles?”

“Papa, do I have to get wet?”

My answer to all of the questions was “I don’t know.”

I’m Mormon. My own baptism occurred 56 years ago, an obligatory dunking in a murky swimming pool in Zaragoza, Spain.

Of that sacred ordinance, I remember mostly being cold and standing on a folding chair in the deep end. The Old Man said a prayer and then yanked the chair out from under me. Another prayer later and I was officially Mormon at the well-informed age of 8.

Different churches, different baptisms. Catholics baptize newborns, which some other religions consider an awful thing to do, but I honestly don’t think it’s much different than what my own church does.

Eight is when we figure a kid is old enough to understand right from wrong and be responsible for their own behavior. Age of accountability? Puh-leeze.

What 8-year-old understands personal accountability? Hell, I didn’t understand it until I’d been married at least a year.

The only reason I agreed to get baptized at that age is because I didn’t have much choice. That’s just what Mormons did (and still do). That, and I figured the Old Man would kill me if I didn’t go along.

On the way home from the swimming pool, with my hair still wet, I asked my father if being baptized meant I was still grounded for punching my sister the day before? He said I was.

Me • “That’s not fair. I’m forgiven.”

Him • “Jesus forgives you. Do I look like Jesus?”

Crushed by inarguable doctrine, I gave up. What was the point of being washed clean if I was only sin-free for about five minutes? I stopped counting my newly accrued crimes by the time we got home.

Years later, while serving a Mormon mission, I baptized a black woman. In fact, Hermana C. was the only person I physically baptized during that time. Typically we got local members to perform the ordinance so they could fellowship the new convert long after we left.

Hermana C. came up out of the water looking radiant. Still, it would have been a lot better for me if, at the time, the church didn’t still hold her personally accountable just for being black.

Granted, these are broad interpretations of baptism among the various faiths. And I’m an idiot. But the issue of the age of accountability for a formal manifestation of faith does beg an important question.

Namely, how many of us would participate in a ritual symbolizing commitment to the faiths we currently belong to if our indoctrination into them (in any version) occurred at middle age?