001: Kiddie Baptisms? My Mission Experience in Guatemala

I served an LDS mission in Guatemala in the late 1980s. As my mission progressed, we began to average over 700 baptisms per month, with some companionships baptizing over 40 in one month. When I confronted my mission president about the issue–the response wasn’t what I hoped it would be. After returning home, I wrote a letter to Elder Dallin H. Oaks. Today we claim 12+ million in the Church, but truth be told, less than 1/2 of them actually consider themselves Mormon….and thus perhaps the reason why activity rates are so closely guarded. Link to podcast

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11 comments for “001: Kiddie Baptisms? My Mission Experience in Guatemala

  1. GreenEggz
    September 10, 2005 at 5:45 pm

    John,
    Elder Oaks did address the bogus baptism issue within the last 2.5 years or so, but he didn’t use that exact phrase.

    President Hinckley addressed the baptism machine too.

    Naturually, they both used generic terms so as not to single out anyone, and to make their advice more universally applicable.

    Elder Oaks talked about not forcing (though he didn’t use that word) people into baptisms, and to respect their agency about the decision to get baptized. If you’ll search his conference talks in Oct 2002, 2003, or April 2004, you’ll find it. He talked about either to be very careful, or to avoid having goals for a certain number of baptisms since baptism is completely within the agency of the person taking the discussions.

    President Hinckley’s talk was either in 2004, or April of 2005. Probably 2004. One of his key words was to avoid using sales techniques. So you could probably use that as a key word.

    Personally, I think it is okay, as Elder Packer said in the early 80’s, to use LEGITIMATE “sales techniques” to get people INTERESTED in the gospel, and get them to at least listen to one missionary discussion. But sales techniques, legitimate or not, should not be used to get people in the waters of baptism.

    In my mission, in the early 80’s, I experienced similar problems you encountered about missionaries baptizing people who weren’t ready, and in many cases kind of strong-arming, or “brow beating” or emotionally/verbally manipulating them into baptism instead of waiting until they were fully committed.

    Many people of South America are very humble, meek and timid, and most of the poor and down-trodden were easy to lead. The missionaries would lead them to baptism, and then move on to new people, and the growth was so fast, that members couldn’t fellowship the converts.

    I only saw one attempted child-baptism that was completely inappropriate. Though rumors were rife of it being common.

    I was unaware if many of our baptisms were in situations where the person only had one, or none, discussions, and never went to church before being baptized. So it wasn’t as bad as what you described in your mission.

  2. September 10, 2005 at 8:37 pm

    Thanks for the feedback and perspective, GreenEggz.

    I’m always glad when I hear these things being addressed/discussed. I know that the bretheren don’t like/support a lot of this that goes on. It’s great to learn about times they’ve tried to teach against it. I hope it continues (I’m sure it will). After speaking with Elder Oaks, I’ve never felt like this was condoned by them….just really hard to stop/guard against. That’s partly why I try to speak up about it….to help build awareness.

    Anyway, I value your thoughts. And welcome to MormonStories!!!! Thanks for stopping by!!!

    John

  3. Tom
    September 30, 2005 at 4:14 pm

    It’s always refreshing to see honesty and transparency in the church, such as we see in this podcast. It makes you feel that issues will not be hidden but rather dealt with, and that members will be respected for voicing their concerns about THEIR church. Hopefully that day will come before too many people stray into apostasy.

  4. Adam
    December 6, 2005 at 10:37 am

    I think in the podcast you said you were going to post the reply letters from Elder Oaks. Are those somewhere on this site?

    Thanks!

  5. Bob Birks
    June 26, 2006 at 4:07 am

    As John pointed out, this kind of ‘bad’ baptism practice has been endemic in the missionary program, at least since the baseball/ basketball baptisms of the early 1960’s, which impacted Australia as well as England.

    A particularly noxious example was the strongarm ‘Day of Pentecost/ Baptismal Discussion’ program conceived by Elder Loren C. Dunne when he was President of the Australia Sydney Mission in the late 1970s, then spread to the rest of Australia when he moved up a level to Area President (or equivalent). Missionaries faced the same baptismal body count pressures as did John in his mission, with the result that local activity retention rates for converts, after 6 months, dropped below 10%. The high pressure tactics forced on missionaries (such as the ‘Wilford Woodruff’ weeks, where they had to put in 18 hour days door-knocking to meet their tracting goals) did incalculable damage to the image of the Church locally that took years to recover from.

    These particular programs were stopped only after an investigation and highly critical report by Joseph McPhie, then of the Church Missionary Dept., who was sent out to take over as Mission President. (I had done several statistical studies on recent convert retention rates, which I provided to him and which I know he made use of.)

    What saddens me is that, despite assurances to the contrary, the Church seems entirely unable to prevent these recurrent lapses. This leads me to suspect that they arise out of fundamental flaws in the administration of the current proselyting model.

  6. n
    August 19, 2006 at 6:23 pm

    Excellent podcast. I just heard it today. I can’t imagine how demoralizing that must have been for you at the time.

    I’ve heard several similar stories from friends who served missions. I agree with Bob Birks comment that it is an administration issue and would extend it to the stakes as well. I was in one 5 or so years ago where the stake prez told the leadership of a certain ward that he wanted all the members to extend invitations to all their friends to come to the chapel on Christmas Eve and he was going to issue a baptismal challenge for that very evening. He was hoping many would get baptized on the spot. A friend who was there called and told me about it, understandably freaking out. He had served a foreign mission in the mid 80s and had been pressured into tactics like making kids be baptized in order to play baseball.

    Evidently, feedback from all parties was very negative and the ward Christmas eve idea was never rolled out. Phew.

  7. rhomboidrelease
    September 7, 2006 at 10:44 am

    I’m on my second stint as a Ward Mission Leader, with 2.3 years in this second calling. My bishop is very missionary minded and huge on goaling baptisms, as is the new stake president. I refuse to participate in goaling baptisms, and told my bishop so several nights ago at my last PPI. This is the third time we have discussed the matter together. He used language this time, however, that he may be releasing me due to my unwillingness to participate in goaling. I remain steadfast and immovable on this issue.

    I appreciated the posts and went and read the Ensign article from October 2003, from Dallin H. Oaks about the inappropriateness of goaling something that is largely out of your control because of someone else’s free agency. The full-time missionaries also tell me that Elder Bednar recently spoke at one of their mission meetings and said the same thing when answering a question about goaling baptisms.

    I disagree, however with the excuse that this is an administrative matter that the Church is essentially powerless to change. If they wanted it changed, they could change it. I believe that it concerns them, but apparently not enough to do much about.

  8. Nillie Garz
    January 6, 2007 at 3:32 am

    Can some body please help me find an old article by Paul H Dunn. It has to do with te Word of Wisdom and what happened while he was serving in the army? I think the title of the story is Sargent Iso. It has a sentimental value to me. Please help.

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