I feel fairly certain that Dornan Willett would have been shocked to learn that his years of devotion were newsworthy.
I thought of gentle Willett this week as news media once again made a story out of the practice of baptisms for the dead. His example showed me some of what I think the media coverage — as fair-minded as some of the coverage has tried to be — has missed.
For about a year after graduation from college, I volunteered for a weekly shift in the Provo LDS Temple baptistery. It remains a highlight of my life, a source of deep satisfaction.
I met Willett there, and learned that he had been volunteering twice weekly for about two decades. By the time I knew him, his health was failing and the service was growing harder for him to do. So, it was natural that I admired his devotion greatly.
Knowing how many ordinances we performed in one shift and how many shifts he might I done over the years, I extrapolated outward and concluded that he had participated in something like one million ordinances over the years.
Sensing the profound importance of this work, I imagined that Willett’s work would receive a great reception by those on the other side when he returned there. I thought it a very beautiful thing.
Of course, almost all devoted Latter-day Saints know and admire people who have devoted their lives to the work of salvation represented in our LDS temples.
My own mother, while I was a teen, in the years after she became a widow, volunteered hundreds of hours over the years to go into the basement of the old Cherry Hill Stake Center on 400 East in Orem to labor over scores of rolls of microfilm, extracting the names for genealogical and temple processes.
I suspect she contributed thousands of names to the genealogical databases around the world.
That devotion was rarely noted in church services or by church authorities, but she did it with a faithfulness that still moves me.
So, I believe the news media in their coverage of this controversy have mostly missed three important things: First, they have missed how much this ordinance means to Latter-day Saints like my mother and Willett; second, they have missed how much this ordinance is central to our perceived duty as Latter-day Saints; and third, they have missed how much this ordinance comes from the Bible. (Thankfully, some coverage has been a notable exception.)
First, having participated in hundreds of these baptisms over the years as a youth leader and as a volunteer, I can say that it connects me with my own baptismal covenants, with my own families and with the atonement of Jesus Christ. I always feel a great sense of holiness and of the spirit of God.
I don't know what religious rituals do for others in other faiths, but this ritual fills me with hope and meaning and gratitude. It has been part of my development as a Latter-day Saint and has made me a more grateful person. I am connected to people long past. It also confirms in me that I believe life continues beyond death, that these people are literally still alive and that resurrection — for which baptism is the great symbol — is an earnest reality.
Second, this ordinance is central to our duty as Latter-day Saints. Brigham Young himself said, “Our fathers cannot be made perfect without us; we cannot be made perfect without them. They have done their work and now sleep. We are now called upon to do ours; which is to be the greatest work man ever performed on the earth. Millions of our fellow creatures who have lived upon the earth and died without a knowledge of the gospel must be officiated for in order that they may inherit eternal life (that is, all that would have received the gospel).”
It’s hard to get more direct than that. This work is vital to salvation, and we cannot be faithful Latter-day Saints in the end without striving to do it. We are grateful that this ordinance has been revealed.
Now, I believe I understand and I do support the feelings of our Jewish friends, with legacies of forced baptisms and differing understandings of ritual meaning, that sometimes this practice can be misunderstood and even appear hurtful – even as Latter-day Saints don’t in any way mean it that way.
I have grown more wise and mature as I have tried to listen to those who complain about this practice. That has been a meaningful thing to me. I fully sustain the church policy not to do baptisms for celebrities or holocaust victims.
Third, this doctrine is biblically grounded. One of the odd criticisms of the Latter-day Saints is that we aren’t grounded in the Bible. Yet 1 Corinthians 15 specifically mentions the practice of baptisms for the dead.
Nothing demonstrates more the LDS faithfulness to the Bible as the word of God than the fact we embrace this practice, a practice no other religious tradition maintains to my knowledge. We try to take the Bible in full.
The future of this issue will require faith and understanding and love. And I know this: We wouldn’t be Latter-day Saints without these ordinances. The faithfulness of Dornan Willett reminds me so.
Lane Williams teaches journalism and communication at BYU-Idaho. He is a former journalist whose scholarly interests include Mormon portrayals in the media, media and religion, and religion and politics.