When A Woman Served as an Official Witness for Mormonism’s First Baptism for the Dead

Vienna Jaques was mounted on a horse when she witnessed Mormonism’s first vicarious baptism. Jaques had already witnessed much in her life. Born in Boston the same year that America’s founders wrote the Constitution, she was in her forties when she embraced the LDS faith. Giving up her home and comfortable living to join the young movement, she decided to move to Kirtland, was then asked to move to Missouri, and then finally forced to move to Nauvoo. She had many of trials along the way, but she was quick to point out the many blessings. Serving as the first witness for what came to be one of the Church’s most famous ordinances was just another chapter in her momentous story.

It was due to another woman, however, that the baptism took place at all. In many ways, Jane Neyman had a lot in common with Jaques: she was a woman of faith who persevered through immense suffering. Her husband, William, died within months of their arrival in Nauvoo in 1840, following their son, Cyrus, who had died several years previous. Death seemed ubiquitous in the Mormon city that summer: what the saints called “swamp fever” took the lives of many new settlers, including Joseph Smith’s own father. Funerals and burials were nearly a weekly occurrence.

It was at one of those funerals, that of Seymour Brunson on August 15, that the Mormon prophet offered a glimmer of hope. At first emphasizing the power of Christ to transcend death, Smith changed course when he saw the bereft Neyman in the audience. Salvation for Brunson, an adult who had been baptized in the faith, seemed assured, but what about those who didn’t have a chance to receive God’s required ordinance? What about Neyman’s son, Cyrus, who died before hearing the gospel? Smith shocked observers by drawing from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians to preach that the saints “could act for their friends who had departed this life.” Vilate Kimball, in attendance, wrote to her apostolic husband that despite the somberness of a funeral, “the day was joyful because of the light and glory that Joseph set forth. I can truly say my soul was lifted up.” The doctrine of vicarious baptisms was born.

But hearing the doctrine was one thing, and acting on it was another. Smith provided the former, but Neyman was ready to move on the latter. Several weeks later, on September 12, she requested a family friend, Harvey Olmstead, to baptize her on behalf of her deceased son, and another fellow saint, Vienna Jaques, to act as witness. They marched down to the Mississippi River to perform the ritual. In order to properly observe the baptism and “hear what the ceremony would be,” Jaques rode her horse into the water. Omstead was tasked to come up with proper wording, and he merely appropriated the words used for the faith’s traditional baptism. The first recorded baptism was a ground-up affair.

Joseph Smith didn’t even know about the circumstances until later. When he was filled in with details, he merely replied that “father Olmstead had it right.” Soon hundreds of others participated in the ordinance. Kimball wrote that “since this order has been preached here, the waters have been continually troubled.” The floodgates were now open. Within the next fourteen months, nearly two thousand vicarious baptisms were performed. There were a lot of troubled waters.

There was to be a standardization, too. God’s house, Smith frequently sermonized, was a house of order. Soon there was a prescribed text for the ritual. Later it was determined that the ordinance could only take place in the temple. And as the priesthood was routinized over the next century, so too were the guidelines for who could perform the baptism, who could be baptized, where the baptism could take place, and who could stand as witness. Some changes took longer than others. As has noted, it wasn’t until the mid-twentieth century that witnessing ordinances in the temple was firmly restricted to priesthood-holding men.

Within the LDS faith, the priesthood is often highlighted as the ritualistic tether that binds individuals and families together. It is the ligaments that unites the entire body of Christ, and serves male and female, old and young, bond and free. It is expansive in its power and inclusive in its reach. But it should also be noted that the history of Mormon priesthood development is one of considerable restriction: what was originally a cosmological concept that allowed both women and men to labor together in the work of salvation slowly became closely connected of ecclesiastical offices and, increasingly, representative of traditional gender roles.

Ever since its creation, the Mormon priesthood was always partly about gender divisions; over the past two centuries, it has become expressly so. The policy announcements made this week—which grants teenage boys the opportunity to more fully participate in temple baptisms, including baptizing and witnessing, while teenage girls are allowed to “assist in baptistry assignments,” including things like handing out towels—further embodies this shift.

As long as the church continues to define priesthood leadership solely by male performance and male authority, the tales of women like Vienna Jaques and Jane Neyman will appear all the more quixotic. And distant.

[The major exception to the restriction narrative, of course, was the 1978 reversal that allowed black men and women to participate in priesthood and temple activities. It is possible there were vicarious baptisms that took place between Smith’s discourse on August 15 and Neyman’s ritual on September 12, but none are documented. Background for Jaques is found here. Background for Neyman is here and here. The best article on Baptism for the Dead in Nauvoo is Ryan Tobler’s “‘Saviors on Mount Zion’: Mormon Sacramentalism, Mortality, and the Baptism for the Dead” (Journal of Mormon History, download here), but also check out Alex Baugh’s article here and M. Guy Bishop’s article here. For female ritual healing, see this landmark article by Kris Wright and Jonathan Stapley; for an overview of expansive priesthood in early Mormonism, see Stapley’s article in this volume.]

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