Image: Intellectual Reserve

It may be said that President Russell M. Nelson isn’t just on a roll, he is the roll. Breaking news today that the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in a pre-General Conference leadership session announced, regarding the witnessing of saving ordinances like baptisms, sealings, and temple baptisms by proxy. And let it be said, none of this appeared in our General Conference rumors article! (In fairness, this did not happen during General Conference….)

As a practice, being a witness appears to no longer be a function of the Priesthood in that ordained men are no longer the only ones vested with the authority to do it.

Here’s what has changed, per the Church’s announcement:

  • Any baptized member of the Church may serve as a witness of the baptism of a living person. This change pertains to all baptisms outside the temple.
  • A proxy baptism for a deceased person may be witnessed by anyone holding a current temple recommend, including a limited-use temple recommend.
  • Any endowed member with a current temple recommend may serve as a witness to sealing ordinances, living and proxy.

Wow, these are big. And it’s hard to see them as anything other than extremely positive. These changes, centered around such foundational ordinances, are at once a symbol of progress—especially with regards to gender equality in the Church—but also another sign that President Nelson is truly, as his wife Wendy says, unleashed.

President Nelson continued with his ever gleeful intonations one can hear even in reading the text, saying “We are joyful about these changes. Imagine a beloved sister serving as a witness to the living baptism of her younger brother. Imagine a mature couple serving as witnesses in the temple baptistry as their grandson baptizes their granddaughter for and in behalf of a dear ancestor.”

Focusing on the anecdotal scenarios he laid out, it’s almost as if the steady drum of protocol that has long been to assume every task around almost every ordinance as a function of the Priesthood and therefore performed by one ordained to the Priesthood, has been lovingly challenged by a new philosophy that takes a second look at these practices and wonders what is the eternal principle here, and how might this practice bring families closer together? Let’s do that. Honestly, I see this as a refreshing, hopeful precedent. I wonder what this might portend with regards to baby blessings and the way mothers participate in them.

Heck, it’s even worth noting that for non-temple baptisms, any baptized member of the Church can be a witness. Care to let your 10-year-old daughter serve as a witness for her brother’s baptism while mom serves as the other witness and dad performs the ordinance? Go for it.

Of course, what is a change in the Church to the way we do things without heavy contextualizing to sort of posthumously pave the way of said change? To that end, the prophet expounded.

“Obedience to sacred temple covenants is essential for us to qualify for eternal life—the greatest gift of God to His children. As leaders in the Lord’s Church, we need to understand the eternal truths taught in the temple. We need to know the importance of and the difference between sacred covenants, ordinances and procedures” (emphasis added).

To that end, according to the Church’s newsroom, President Nelson used historic and recent changes to bolster his point, reminding listeners that “any adjustments made to ordinances and/or procedures do not change the sacred nature of the covenants being made. Adjustments allow for covenants to be planted in the hearts of people living in different times and circumstances.”

Then he quoted a prophecy from one of his predecessors, former church President Wilford Woodruff: “We have not gotten through with revelation. … President [Brigham] Young, who followed Joseph Smith … organized these temples and carried out the purposes of his calling and office. … He accomplished all that God required at his hands. But he did not receive all the revelations that belong to this work; neither did President Taylor, nor has Wilford Woodruff. There will be no end to this work until it is perfected.”

Folks, I don’t want to paint with too broad a brush, but did the prophet just change our faith culture practically overnight from one that was rigid and adverse to change to one that celebrates and exults in it? I mean, I know we’ve grown a little more familiar with the practicalities of an ongoing Restoration thanks to that famous talk Dieter F. Uchtdorf, but it appears one person, in particular, heard what he said and ran with it, er, is still running with it.

Indeed, by all accounts, including this one by famed Salt Lake Tribune religion reporter, Peggy Fletcher Stack, the prophet seems unafraid, eager even, to make adjustments and changes to all aspects of the church. Could be that the heavens are more opened than they were during the previous, um, administration(?) or is it that ol’ Russell has been quietly keeping a laundry list on a 3×5 card in his white shirt pocket all these years.

What is for sure is that the Church under President Nelson hasn’t seen change at this clip since the 90s under the leadership of one Gordon B. Hinckley, and maybe not even then.

Perhaps another takeaway here is that the concept of change itself is as steady an eternal principle as any. And we know that regarding the truth of things, the scripture says, in the mouth of two or three witnesses shall God’s word be established. I guess except in this case where the witnesses can be many, and so much more than ever before.