Why 8?

Forgive me for posing a question, and having no answer whatsoever, but was doing some reading this morning about initiation rituals into adulthood, which lead me to wonder about the LDS “age of accountability.” Anecdotally, I’d say that the most common age for the entrance into adulthood is around the ages of puberty, from 12-14. The obvious bodily changes and sexual maturation signify the time to be inducted into adulthood. In modern societies, with the delayed childhood that modernity introduced, adulthood is often put off until 16, 18, or 21. The rituals that attend these age milestones are less formalized, but still exist, whether it is driving, the cessation of free state-sponsored education, or other legal privileges and responsibilities that arrive.

As time moves on, adulthood is delayed further and further, and childhood is extended, romanticized, and protected. While 8 may have once seemed a ripe old age where children could have been expected a certain level of accountability, today that idea seems rather problematic, and the explanation to outsiders that 8 year olds choose to be baptized of their own free will lacks a certain credibility.

All of this leads me to wonder why LDS tradition arrived at 8 as the age of accountability in the first place. Did that age ever enjoy a degree of expected adulthood and accountability? Where there other early American religious or political traditions that would help situate this choice? Why not puberty or other early American ages of accountability, like the age one could join the army, for instance? Does anyone know?

28 Replies to “Why 8?”

  1. I think it is more of the case of the age of 8 is where kids begin to understand accountability. It isn’t an issue of whether they are ready to enter into adulthood, but whether they understand that it is bad to steal or tell a lie.

    Accountability and responsibility goes up for us in life as we reach ages of maturation. For example, most states allow kids to drive at 15/16 years of age, and voting at 18, but drinking may not occur until 21 years of age. None of these is a mark of entering adulthood, but just a level of accountability.

  2. I have seen reference somewhere to it being analogous to circumcision at 8 days for Jews. Doctrines of Salvation, maybe? I don’t recall. The analogy completely breaks down of course, but there it is.

  3. I do not know that origins. In many ways it is more a reponse to infant baptism than it is an endorsement of 8 year olds.

    I think 8 is more complicated if we think of baptism as a covenant like unto other covenants. But I tend to agree with David J when he argued that it is not: http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com/2006/12/on-the-baptismal-covenant/

    For me baptism is entrance into the community. At 8 we may not understand or appreciate it, but we can remember being baptized at 8. My older 2 are 8 and 10. My wife likes to use their baptisms against them “You have been baptized…you should know better.” These lines make me cringe, but I have a deep appreciation for power dynamics.

  4. I wasn’t around for that thread (or SBL discussion), but I think that post was flawed, and there clearly is a baptismal covenant.

    The stipulations and agreement are clearly set forth in the baptismal interview, and then the baptism itself is only “the sign of the covenant” (as Joseph Smith said) or ritual ratification of the covenant, not the covenant itself.

  5. I don’t have a lot of time at the moment, but Holly Brewer’s By Birth or Consent: Children, Law, and the Anglo-American Revolution in Authority is essential reading for these sort of questions. She has a chapter on questions of accountability and consent in evangelical churches in the late 18th century, esp. as they related to modes of baptism and understandings of church membership.

  6. Nitsav,

    I am not in a position to defend that earlier post. I had little to do with it at the time.

    However, I do not think the content of the baptismal interview invokes a convenant. I also think that the covenants address in Mosiah 18 and D&C 20:37 are more the obligations of one entering into Christian community. I think we can, and maybe should, view these obligations as a form of covenant, but I think baptism is more about entering into the kingdom or community. In the end, my view really in not all that different than the typical LDS view.

  7. I have heard of studies that suggest that there is a significant cognitive, developmental leap in children that occurs almost precisely at the age of 8. Has anyone else heard of these studies?

    Also, baptism is not merely entering the kingdom or community of the Church; it is the first & essential step into the Celestial Kingdom of God, & is of such importance that we regularly repent & renew this covenant in partaking of the Sacrament weekly. Regular participation in it does not render it a regular act; it is sacred, and according to a number of General Conference talks , it is the most important ordinance & covenant in the most important meeting of the Church. It is not merely a community covenant to enter a group with common beliefs; it is a life-long personal covenant to accept & follow Christ.

  8. According to Mark Staker, the 8 yr rule was not a rejection of child baptism, but was instead making it so that individuals could be baptized at a much younger age than was usually done.

  9. In his translation of the Bible, Joseph Smith changed the requirement for circumcision from 8 days to 8 years.

    Whether or not the circumcision requirement was the cause of Joseph establishing baptism at 8, yeas he nevertheless clearly made a connection between the 8-day requirement for circumcision and an 8-year requirement for baptism.

  10. Like 2 and 10, I’ve always thought it had something to do with the 8 days before circumcision. Of course, when you translate days to years, it does seem kind of arbitrary.

  11. I want to say that it is a Cambellite idea that came into Mormon thought via Sidney Rigdon but I of course can’t remember where I’ve heard/read that. I just emailed one of my profs who is a Disciples of Christ historian to find out for sure. I’ll let you know what he says.

  12. For me there was a sort of agreement/understanding when I was baptized and confirmed. I understand that I would officially become a member of the Church as a result and would be accountable for my sins, and that if I sinned I should repent. Thus, I understood by being baptized I was becoming a member of the LDS Church with all that that means–mostly trying to live the commmandments and repenting if I failed. I don’t remember being asked to “promise” that; but I understood that was what it meant to become an official member–i.e., to try to do right and to repent when I didn’t. I agree that “covenant” seems to strong of a word to describe it, but I think it is fair to say by being baptized I was saying I was willing to try.

  13. It is a prophetic sign and a token that in the Age of Accountability of the People of Zion, they would be called upon to Defend Marriage by approving a Proposition graced with this same God-chosen number.

    Man. I ought to write that up for Meridian or something. 🙂

  14. I think 6-9 years is pretty standard with believers baptism. It actually correlates fairly well with the catholic standard for first communion. I think it is a fairly normative thing across religions to have a step in the process around this age. I don’t know if that answers the question of why, but at least it makes it more standard

  15. I think the context of section 68 is that we should teach our children the gospel when they are young. So maybe part of the reason for 8 is to motivate parents to teach their children early.

  16. #7 you said:
    Also, baptism is not merely entering the kingdom or community of the Church; it is the first & essential step into the Celestial Kingdom of God,

    But children who die under the age of eight do not need baptism or any other temple ordinances, which would argue that in combination with a covenant that is made, that there is at least partly a “welcome to the kingdom and community” aspect to baptism.

  17. I have speculatively wondered whether any associations could be found between the ages that children close to Smith et al. died and this instruction, esp. because of later developements with regards to the salvific significance of this age.

  18. Re: 7 (cognitive, developmental leap)

    I remember reading somewhere (a book on Waldorf education, I think) that a child’s brainwave pattern changes significantly around age 8, from a “childlike” pattern to an “adult” pattern (from alpha waves to theta waves, or theta to gamma…can’t remember exactly). When I read that I immediately thought of the “age of accountability.”

  19. Andrew, I remember that studies have shown a significant cognitive leap right at 8 as well. I learned abut that in a course on behavioral and cognitive development back when I was a college student. I wish I remembered more of the specifics.

  20. IIRC, the Waldorf philosophy has something to do with the “changing of the teeth” that marks the transition into a greater state of cognitive development. In a way, this is a theory of adulthood that may be comparable to JS. Does anyone know if early Americans attributed any significance to the changing of the teeth? Maybe it is in Brewer’s book.

    The problem I have with saying that there is some sort of cognitive transition at 8 is that it still doesn’t really tell us anything. There are really big cognitive transitions at 2, 12, 14, 20, etc. Why do we attribute special significance to that one and not others? I guess for me this is a social question, not a scientific one, since I think that what is considered “child” and “adult” are already secondary interpretations, not neutral, ahistorical categories with self-evidence meaning.

  21. Years ago this was explained to me as coming from 1 Peter 3:20-21. This has never been very satisfying and felt to me like somebody trying to retroactively force a Biblical justification onto an existing practice. The verses only state that “eight souls were saved by water” during the flood, which is “the like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us…”

    I briefly tried finding a notable figure who used this claim, but I couldn’t find anything. I found some references in web forums and personal websites:

    Maybe this wasn’t ever taught seriously by anybody with credibility. If you care, you can wade through all the links at BYU’s LDS Scripture Citation Index, which shows all conference talks to reference each scripture during the last 50+ years.

  22. Brewer does not, to my recollection, mention anything about the changing of the teeth. Her analysis is primarily focused on children’s legal status, and she spends some time discussing how shifting definitions of childhood related to debates about infant baptism and questions of the age of consent.

    I guess for me this is a social question, not a scientific one, since I think that what is considered “child” and “adult” are already secondary interpretations, not neutral, ahistorical categories with self-evidence meaning.

    I think you’re right, and this is precisely what Brewer’s book demonstrates. I’m not particularly well read in this subfield (history of childhood/children’s history) and am thus not aware of scholarship examining these questions in the 19th century. But Brewer’s book provides some background for the generation into which Mormonism’s first generation were born and raised.

  23. I’ll also add as a tangent that I think that Brewer’s chapter on shifts in marital age in the 18th century are relevant to those interested in Joseph Smith’s marriages to teenage girls.

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