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Bad information and social pressure revealed in Petersen’s book, About Baptism

February 3, 2011

When Ethan announced his 7th birthday party, a slightly older girl from church said, “Next year you can get baptized!” Then her mother gave Ethan a birthday gift, a 1957 edition of Emma Marr Petersen’s About Baptism: A child’s story of the meaning and purpose of baptism. The book tells of a 7-year-old Dane named Larry whose parents both die, so he is sent to live with his aunt’s family, the Jensens, in Salt Lake City, where the childhood indoctrination begins immediately.

Larry is told that, “As soon as boys and girls in the Church are eight years old they should be baptized,” (p. 31) that “we must become members of the Church too—Christ’s own true Church,” (p. 33) and that Jesus “expects all of us to be baptized, just as he was” (p. 40) [emphases added].

Gosh, that’s a lot of pressure.

Brother Jensen tells Larry that, “We came from heaven” (p. 33) and that God “lives on the most wonderful star in the sky” (p. 37). Poor Larry didn’t think to ask for evidence of this claim, or to know which star was this most wonderful star. From my perspective, it would be our own sun since that’s the star that sustains life on Earth.

After Jesus came and went, the church that he had supposedly established was taken “away from the earth, because men were too wicked” (p. 41). (Were people really so wicked? Ignorant or superstitious, yes, but why wicked?) But then, more than a hundred years ago, a man-sized Indian fairy—I mean, an angel—appeared in a boy’s room, Marley-like, and gave him some golden plates inscribed with mysterious writing. Who had written these gold plates? Ancient Americans, “the forefathers of the Indians of today. They came from Jerusalem” (p. 43). Again, there is absolutely no evidence for this claim, and in fact genetic testing shows that ancestors of Native Americans came across the Bering Strait from Siberia 55,000 to 60,000 years ago. This information wasn’t available to Petersen in 1957.

Larry learns that “Baptized boys and girls should always treat everyone right” (p. 52). Why only baptized children? Shouldn’t all children be expected to treat others right?

After baptism, Larry learns he has to give back 10% of what Jesus gives to him (p. 54). What a screwy arrangement – why wouldn’t Jesus just withhold the 10% from his paycheck in the first place? Ah, maybe Jesus isn’t really the one cutting the checks.

Larry also learns that after baptism, “our bodies may be a dwelling place for his Spirit, which really comes upon us” (p. 61). My body is my own, thank you very much, and I wish to remain in complete control of it and I wouldn’t agree to some sprit possession if such a spirit even existed.

The closing line of the book is the most revealing. Larry’s cousin asks him how he feels after his baptism and Larry says, “I feel like I really belong to you folks now” (p. 71). Belonging is what baptism is really all about. It’s an indication that you now belong to the group. Come to think of it, baptism is religious hazing (albeit without the humiliation that hazing usually entails, unless the thought of letting someone say some magic words and duck you under water is humiliating to you). And didn’t Larry feel like he belonged to the family before he got wet? I guess not, what with all the pressure to be baptized.

Children want to belong, of course. And if my children decide to be baptized, that will be their decision, and I’m not convinced that it’s necessarily harmful, just silly. My wife thinks eight is too young to decide to be baptized anyway. But I’ll be interested to see how strong the need to belong will be for my boys. Maybe as an atheist in the pew, I’m setting an example that it’s okay to sit with a group of people without having to conform to their superstitious practices.

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