Can Baptism be Annulled?
Annul means to be “declared invalid.” A common question is whether baptism as a Jehovah’s Witness can be annulled. This has important implications, since if a person’s baptism is annulled, it means they cannot be considered disfellowshipped, hence potentially avoiding the related implications, such as being shunned.
Annulment is possible, but very rare. I only have heard of three cases where annulment was granted, from my father when he was a Circuit Overseer. (If you have details of other cases, please feel free to email information about the situation to me.) In each case, it was fairly shortly after baptism, and the person proved that they had not qualified with the baptism requirements. This was either due to suffering from mental health issues, or because they were still practicing disfellowshipping offences, such as gambling.
The Correspondence Guidelines do provide for such a situation, though refer to the baptism being invalid, rather than using the word annulled.
"A person does not need to get rebaptized simply because he gains improved understanding or appreciation of the truth or some Scriptural doctrine. (Prov. 4:18; w70 5/15 308; w64 2/15 123-6; w62 6/1 332-3) However, if at the time of baptism, a person was living in a situation or engaging in a practice that could result in disfellowshipping of a baptized individual, we cannot assume that the person’s dedication was acceptable to Jehovah. ...
A person might commit a wrong after his baptism that could result in his being disfellowshipped or his being considered disassociated. Now, for the first time, he claims that his baptism was invalid because he did not understand at the time of baptism what was involved in getting baptized. In that case, we would take him for what he had professed to be up until that time, a dedicated and baptized Christian. The congregation would deal with him accordingly. (w60 3/1 159-60) However, if it is discovered that the very situation now giving rise to action by the congregation existed at the time of his baptism (such as using tobacco) and he nevertheless got baptized, then his baptism is not valid and he should be dealt with as an unbaptized wrongdoer. —Acts 19:1-5." Correspondence Guidelines (2007) pp.12-13
The elder's manual makes brief note of such an allowance.
"There are rare occasions when it is obvious that the baptism was invalid because serious wrong- doing did not cease before baptism, even for a brief period of time. For example, it may be that at the time of baptism, the individual was living immorally with a member of the opposite or the same sex, was a member of a non-neutral organization, or some- thing similar. If there are questions, the branch office should be consulted." Shepherd the Flock of God (2012) p.76
A 2010 "Questions From Readers" also raises the topic of an invalid baptism and rebaptism. Whilst it does not discuss the option of not getting rebaptised after the baptism is considered invalid, this line of reasoning is a potential outcome.
"Under what circumstances might rebaptism be considered?
Under certain circumstances, a baptized person may want to give thought to the validity of his baptism and may consider rebaptism. At the time of baptism, for instance, an individual may secretly have been living in a situation or engaging in a practice that could have resulted in his being disfellowshipped if he had already been validly baptized. Could he make a dedication to God in such circumstances? Such an individual would have been in a position to make a valid dedication to Jehovah only if the unscriptural conduct had been discontinued. Therefore, a person baptized while such a serious impediment existed may appropriately consider the necessity of rebaptism." Watchtower 2010 Feb 15 p.22
The article warns elders not to broach the subject of whether the person was engaging in wrongdoing during the time of his baptism, showing they do not want people to take advantage of this loophole.
"What about an individual who was not practicing sin at the time of his baptism but whose subsequent wrongdoing required the formation of a judicial committee? Suppose he then claimed that he did not fully understand what he was doing at the time of his baptism and said that his baptism was not truly a valid one. When meeting with a wrongdoer, the elders should not raise questions about his baptism and ask whether he feels that his dedication and baptism were valid." Watchtower 2010 Feb 15 p.22
A more common reason people are requesting annulment is on the basis that they were baptised as "minors," making their baptism "contract" legally invalid. I have not heard of any cases where this has worked, and whilst there is potential for it to be considered, it is highly unlikely to be granted.
I personally attempted to have my baptism annulled for being baptised as a minor, and having been coerced into baptism through misinformation in Watchtower publications. I was denied on the basis that when I was of age, I continued to be actively involved with the religion, signing contracts with them to become an Auxiliary Pioneer, Regular Pioneer and Bethelite. It also did not help that my request was 20 years after my baptism. My full experience is at Paul Grundy's request for Annulment, including the letter I wrote outlining the reasons behind the request for annulment. It is interesting to note that I never received a formal reply to my letter. It was only during the subsequent judicial committee, and after specifically requesting an answer, that I was verbally informed of why they would not honour an annulment.
I am unaware of attempts to use the court system to annul a baptism on the basis of being a minor. This could take advantage of contracts law from two angles, using reasoning similar to mine for requesting annulment:
- Forming a contract as a minor
- Being coerced into a contract with false and misleading information
It is unlikely to succeed on the basis of being a minor under the concept of "ratification;" that upon reaching the age of majority, the contract is upheld if the person has continued to abide by the terms of a contract. There may be some chance of invalidating the baptism if the person involved is still a minor. Regarding coercion through false information, there is a general reluctance of the courts to involve themselves in Church matters, a separation of Church and State. Furthermore, Watchtower does not consider baptism a contract that falls under state laws, but an agreement directly with Jehovah (and his representative organization.) Even if such a case won in court, many Jehovah's Witnesses would see taking such a matter to court as an attack on Jehovah's Organization, and label the person as "apostate," regardless of whether or not they legally are technically considered disfellowshipped.
Following is a call made in December 2015 to Bethel Headquarters by a disfellowshipped sister, requesting information on the process to have her baptism annulled. The elder responding is evasive, first suggesting she contact her congregation elders, then asking for a request in writing, although indicating that annulment is not something offered. The excuse is that baptism is a personal matter, which is dishonest, since there is in fact a Watchtower arrangement to have a baptism considered invalid.
Will it Make a Difference?
Consider whether the unlikely event of having your baptism considered invalid will make any difference to how you are treated. Theoretically, if your baptism is annulled, or deemed invalid, you will be considered as someone never baptised, and hence treated as someone of the world. An unbaptised person will be treated better than a disfellowshipped person, but they will still never be treated as a baptised witness, and will be considered worldly and bad association. If you are already disfellowshipped when trying to annul your baptism, it is possible that family members will see your attempt as trying to get around the rules, and decide to continue treating you as disfellowshipped. If you are not already disfellowshipped, then annulment may prevent you being disfellowshipped, and may make a slight difference in how you are treated once fading from the religion.
A further matter to consider is what the consequences of requesting an annulment will be. If you are not disfellowshipped, such a request will likely label you as an apostate, and you will risk having the elders start the process to have you disfellowshipped. For information about similar considerations, see the article on whether to disassociate or fade.
The disfellowshipping arrangement is integral to Watchtower's control over Jehovah's Witnesses. It is not a power they will give away easily, so do not expect it to be easy to invalidate your baptism, or if you do, that the elders will not attempt to still impose restrictions around people associating with you.
Paul Grundy 2005 - 2018