Recently I had this question brought to me from one of my online students:
I’ve always found the baptisms of Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery to difficult to understand how it all happened, is there someplace you’d recommend going to find out more about this? How does one baptize without being baptized themselves first?
This is an excellent question! I once asked this question of Robert J. Matthews, former dean of religious education at Brigham Young University. His answer has always been enlightening to me.
Essentially once Joseph and Oliver have the keys of authority from John the Baptist (Aaronic Priesthood authority), they were authorized by heaven to perform Aaronic priesthood ordinances.
Could John have baptized them? Certainly he could have. But heaven doesn’t seem to work that way. Heaven expects us to do for ourselves what we can do, and that which we cannot do, the Lord sends his divine power to intervene on our behalf.
For example, the Lord could have provided a perfectly translated text of the Book of Mormon, already leather bound, in boxes of several thousand copies, ready to distribute to the world. So why did he have Joseph translate the text? Joseph needed to do what he could do, and heaven sent the help requisite to complete the task.
So to Robert J. Matthews, this model fit for him. As he explained it to me several years ago, I realized that this is how the Lord works with his people. Joseph and Oliver had the authority to baptize, so the direction from heaven was that they baptize each other.
To me this makes sense and I have always cherished this answer from Brother Matthews and I have always seen this illustrated throughout our sacred texts. Nephi is always illustrating this this principle for us as we read about his life. How many times does the Lord expect Nephi to do what he is capable of doing, while at the same time, helping him where he desperately needs assistance from heaven. As a father, I have tried to implement this idea as I have raised my sons. That which they can do, I let them them accomplish. If they cannot do something because it is beyond their capacity, I have carefully intervened.
I hope that this explanation is as meaningful to you as it has been for me. And again, this is an excellent question!