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February 16th, 2012
01:36 PM ET

Explainer: How and why do Mormons baptize the dead?

By Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com Religion Editor

The recent disclosure that Mormons baptized the dead parents of Jewish Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal by proxy has sparked outrage in the Jewish world. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has apologized for the baptism, which it says resulted from the actions of a church member acting in violation of church policy. The LDS church vowed to stop baptizing Jewish Holocaust victims in 1995.

But proxy baptism for the dead is a proud Mormon tradition. Here are the basics about how it works and why Mormons do it.

Why do Mormons practice proxy baptism for the dead?

For Mormons, baptizing the dead solves a big theological problem: How do billions of people who never had the opportunity to accept Jesus Christ – including those who lived before Jesus walked the earth – receive salvation? By baptizing the dead, a practice known as posthumous proxy baptism, Mormons believe they are giving every person who ever lived the chance at everlasting life. That includes Muslims, Hindus, atheists, pagans, whoever.

“Mormons believe that there is a place the dead go where they are in ‘spirit prison’ and where they have the chance to accept the Christian baptism,” says Richard Bushman, a Mormon scholar at Columbia University. “But it’s a duty to actually perform Christian ordinance of baptism, so Mormons seek out every last person who ever lived and baptize them.”

Many Mormons are proud of the fact that they attempt to make their faith universal through baptizing the dead. “Historically, Christians have been exclusive,” says Terryl Givens, an expert on Mormonism at the University of Richmond. “Catholics have taught that only Catholics are saved, and evangelicals say only if you confess according to their tradition. Mormons say, ‘No, salvation is open to all people.’”

“In that sense Mormonism is the most nonexclusive religion in the Christian world,” Givens says.

So are all those who are baptized after death considered Mormon?

No. Mormons believe that baptism provides the deceased with the opportunity to join the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but not the obligation. They don't know if the dead actually accept Jesus. “This is about putting names on the guest list,” says Givens. “They might not go the party, but they are given the chance.’

How does the church decide who is baptized?

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints encourages its members to baptize the dead in their families going back at least four generations.

The church also has teams at headquarters in Salt Lake City and that travel around the world to identify as many people as possible to baptize, whether or not they’re in the lineage of present-day Mormons. “The church is constantly going through parish records, wills, deeds and every other genealogical source so they can extract names and put these people through the temple process,” says Bushman.

The LDS says it does not know how many deceased have been baptized. Experts say the number is in the millions.

There is no way for a person to prevent himself or herself from being baptized by the LDS church after death.

After Jews complained about baptisms of Jewish Holocaust victims, saying such baptisms deny the Jewish identity of those who died because of their faith, the LDS church worked with Jewish groups to stop the practice. But the system of preventing the baptism of Holocaust victims, initiated in 1995, has not been foolproof, as was shown this week with the disclosure about Wiesenthal’s parents.

What are Mormon baptism ceremonies like?

Baptisms for the dead happen inside Mormon temples. Members of the LDS church volunteer to undergo full immersion baptism while the names of the dead are read. An LDS member might participate in 10 or so posthumous proxy baptisms at a time. Young Mormons especially are encouraged to participate, as a way to participate in temple life.

How old is the practice of baptizing the dead?

Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, introduced baptism for the dead in the 1840s. Mormons cite Paul’s letter to the Corinthians as precedent to the practice. “Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead not rise at all?” reads Corinthians 15:29. “Why are they then baptized for the dead?”

For Mormons, baptizing the dead is not seen as a new Mormon tradition but as a practice that ancient Christians practiced and that the LDS Church has reintroduced.

What other questions do you have about the practice? Let us know in the comments below.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Judaism • Mormonism

soundoff (2,301 Responses)
  1. Wond

    The holocaust was a horrific event. The victims deserve to be treated with reference and respect. But, I agree with Joe's comment above. I am not religious but consider myself a spiritual person. I seriously do not understand all the hype. ESPECIALLY from those who claim they don't believe in any religion. If you don't believe it, then why does it matter what the mormons do? Why it it even a blip on your radar?

    Mormons themselves say that they baptize everyone, but the ritual does not force Mormon conversion on anyone. Not that it would matter because if its not true then who cares??? I don't see these baptisms as an act of arrogance. Mormons do these baptisms because they actually believe everyone (including members of other faiths) needs to be baptized in order to be happy in the after life or in order to be 'saved', They believe they are giving people the opportunity to be happy. So if that episode of South Park hit the nail on the head, then there are people of all religions that may be waiting in heaven for Mormons to baptize them. If they are wrong then it wont make one bit of difference who they baptize.

    If a Muslim wants to travel to mecca or fast during Ramadan on my behalf, in an attempt to 'save' me then that is fine with me. If Catholics were attempting to collect the names of every infant born into this world to perform infant baptism over each one of us before we died then great. If Jewish people plan a posthumous proxy Bat Mitzvah on my behalf...Mazel Tov!! If Baptists can declare posthumously for me that, 'Jesus is my savior and lord, that He died on the cross for me, was burried, and rose again the third day', so that I can be saved and go to heaven then they should go for it. Mormons feel free to baptize me after I am gone.

    If a person truly believes that there is one truth, and that to reach the most blissful state that certain requirements must be met. Then it makes perfect sense that they would try to share that with everyone. There is a lot of un-merited anger out there.

    Just to be clear, although I'm glad so many out there believe they have found truth and some of them care enough to want to share it with me, I do not want to be killed in this life for not converting to a certain believe or moral code. Therefore, for the record I'm against Jihad and do not empathize with any violent religious crusade.

    October 8, 2013 at 1:33 pm |
  2. Dianne LaValle

    This is an issue that came up in my bible study class last evening. I am a christian, who
    is studying the TORAH with a devout pastor, who has a Hebrew heritage. Paul's comment to the Corinthians was discussed and it was made more clear to us.

    In the Hebrew faith, when someone dies they do a 'mikvah,' which is a ceremonial bathing of the deceased which is preparing them for the Resurrection. This ceremony was also done for other situations (post-menapause, etc.) It is a cleansing and preparation. This made perfect sense. The Mormon practice of 'Baptizing for the Dead' brought deep
    concern for me, because I know the Jewish practice is the right one – not the Mormon!

    I have a close family member is who totally committed to the Mormon Church and what she tells me is not what I know to be right, based upon the Bible and TORAH. Some of the information she shares with me, disturbs me because I feel she has turned her back on God's word and is committed to an organization that worships a man who really did not believe in christianity. He just wanted to do things his way.

    It is not easy to talk to my family member because of their strong beliefs. But, it is my responsibility as a christian to remind her about the First Commandment! Whether she chooses to consider it, I have no idea.

    I can only focus on my spiritual life and so all I can do is what GOD expects of me,+++

    August 21, 2013 at 12:00 pm |
  3. JOHN COMPAGLIA

    What are some of the Mormon responses about this baptismal practice as concerns the practice's encroachment of other people's religious beliefs and religious freedom? Is it a simple matter of, "Well, we have got the whole God/ultimate nature of reality thing right so we are doing everyone a favor?"

    June 26, 2013 at 1:10 am |
  4. Whiteman

    Mormonism is right there with scientology and voodoo. What an utterly whacked set of disgusting beliefs. Mormons make my skin crawl.

    June 22, 2013 at 12:41 pm |
  5. Dhow Cruise

    hmmmm the Jewish groups to stop the practice,,,,,,, But the system of preventing the baptism of Holocaust victims...,., initiated in 1999, has not been foolproof, as was shown this week with the disclosure about Wiesenthal’s parents.,.,.,thanks

    February 15, 2013 at 11:54 pm |
  6. Dhow Cruise

    is absolutely fantastic! Lots of great information and inspiration both of which we all need! Also like to admire the time and effort you put into your blog and detailed information you offer!

    February 9, 2013 at 5:45 am |
  7. don baker

    The 1st cor15:29 is a mis-quote. Paul is not promoting baptism for the dead; he is illustrating his argument that the resurection is a reality. Otherwise we supercede God"s authority and insult Him by saying "God you couldn't save him/her so we will "

    January 28, 2013 at 3:24 pm |
  8. marj

    I do not consider myself to be a religous person. I claim no organized religous practice or particular place of worship to be my one belief foundation. Nor do I have, as far as I know, Jewish lineage (atleast that is close enough down the line to trace). But I will say t I find it overwhelmingly offensive that someone would have the audacity to baptize a Holocaust victim. I understand that actions taken on behalf of the victims were most likely done in clean conscious; guided by a sincere belief of offering peace to those who lost their life to an unspeakable evil. That small credit given, I am dismayed to hear of this; such desecration of a group of individuals that have battled Anti-Semitism for generations upon generations upon generations; a group who has lost blood and life by reason of ignorance and hatred in the largest genocide humanity has ever known-for someone to take it upon themselves to impose a belief system they deem superior upon the souls of the wounded...that I find offensive. Offensive to humanity.

    January 2, 2013 at 3:02 pm |
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  12. Jared

    Catholics do NOT believe only Catholics can be saved. Infant baptism is more of a blessing, and Confirmation is when the child fully accepts Christ and continues by choice to be Catholic. I cant believe the false statements and misrepresentation that I read on these posts. LDS people DO believe only mormons can be saved and it is up to them to save anyone who is not LDS by the proxy baptisms after death. The bible to them has been basically replaced by "the book of mormon" which contradicts many things of the bible and they see Jesus as a mere prophet of the earth as they feel they will become Gods of their own planet some day if they lead a "righteous life".

    September 15, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
    • Zach

      I do not know where you got your information, but perhaps you should check your sources again. I recommend lds.org.

      November 4, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
      • brigit

        why would anyone go to the mormon website, my husband was a branch president and knows what all the books say and the satanic symbols on the undergarments you wear. "spirit babies" really...Joseph Smith a fella with so many FBI records. Read this book: One Nations Under Gods, but, hey your mormon and told by the church "don't read anything that someone hands you or contradicts the"doctrine" well since that is truth, how in this world will you be open to the truth? read the book and then and only then can we talk apples to apples.

        August 12, 2013 at 2:03 pm |
  13. Mormon Missionary1

    1 cor. 15:9

    September 3, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
  14. Joe

    I'm an atheist. I can't, for the life of me, understand why a non-mormon would care if someone 'baptized' them posthumously. If you don't believe in the mormon religion, why would you care if they are baptizing you? If your religion turns out to be real, having mormon's baptize you without your knowledge- after you are dead, will do nothing. If you turn out to be wrong and the mormon's are right, it'll give you a second chance to not live in a burning pit, or whatever they believe, for all eternity.

    Mormons- if it makes you feel good, feel free to baptize me after I'm dead. I don't have the slightest shred of a belief that it will do anything, but good for you for caring enough to try to save others from what you believe to be a terrible eternity and doing something very non-invasive about it.

    July 11, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
    • Bea

      Joe, maybe you were a member of a religion that was dominant in this country. Maybe you don't know people who were massacred because of the religion into which they were born, no matter whether or not they believed in it, practiced it, identified with it or rejected it.

      For people persecuted because of having been born Jewish, having lived life as the target of hate speech and hate acts, having lost entire families because they were born Jewish, the idea that yet another attempt is being made to negate them even after death is unutterably offensive.
      This is not a matter of whether anyone believes the dead are living where the Mormons think they are, or whether they will accept Jesus, or even whether they believe in religion.
      It's an insult and affront to the living relatives to see yet another blatant example of discrimination – that they are somehow in need of saving dead or alive, and that even in death, if souls do exist, that these crazy Mormons won't leave anyone alone.
      Until you've been sitting at business dinner and had an acquaintance lean across a table where 12 dining companions are seated and say for everyone to hear, "What's wrong with the Jewish people that they won't accept jesus christ as their one true savior?" you can't really understand how it feels to be the target of relentless campaigns to attack and devalue your beliefs. Doesn't matter that I don't identify myself as Jewish – I just want it left out of the conversations.
      If you've been an atheist for a while, you might have gotten the same sort of bull thrown at you.
      The difference is that if you haven't lived your life immersed in a culture that tolerates but doesn't accept you, yet accepts the free speech right of people inciting hatred and violence against you. If you haven't lived since your earliest memory with the awareness that just a few years before your birth, people like you were slaughtered for an accident of birth – no matter if they believed, it must be said again – and nothing they said or did could stop it, you can't really understand how deep the insult goes.

      Yeah, it sounds like a silly thing – a fairy tale created by a religion in its infancy – that we can all choose to believe has absolutely no effect on the "targeted audience." But it's just insult added on many, many injuries and it's disrespectful.
      What gives anyone the right to be so sure their way is the one and only true way that they have to invade other people's privacy to force it on them? Ooops... I guess that applies to all sorts of proselytizing, doesn't it?

      September 3, 2012 at 8:55 pm |
    • Good Point

      Joe, atleast thats a nice way of looking at it. Whats your full name? :D

      January 11, 2013 at 1:37 pm |
  15. Roberta Crossfield

    Stop this outrage of baptism and trying to hijack the souls of the dead. It is an affront to peoples of other faiths who do not believe in your arrogance of going after our departed loved ones. Leave them alone. The 19 baptisms of Daniel Pearl alone must have caused his parents immersurable pain and grief. Baptism is not part of their tradition. Neither for Muslims, Hindus.

    Keep your missionaries at home and clean out your own houses. Go back four geneerations and how if you really believe this are you honestly going to go back to the beginning of civilization and save each and every one to turn them into Mormons?

    Jewish leaders, Catholics, Muslims and Hindus are outraged as well they should be. You guys stick to your own business and leave our families out of it.

    June 17, 2012 at 12:29 am |
    • Huuf Arted

      Actually Roberta Even though Mormon "baptism" is goyish confusion the concept of "baptism" ie "immersion" or in hebrew the "mikveh" is a very jewish concept and a command from various places in the Torah. The Jewish Religion which this Yeshua taught to his followers involved being immersed for various reasons as commanded by the rabbis or the time or directly from the Torah. Examples of this would be the mikveh required at repentence/Teshuva or the mikveh commanded in the Torah for anyone entering the Levitical Priesthood (the reason Yeshua was immersed). The mikvah was always intended to point to either cleansing or commitment to a teacher and always for a pouring out of the Ruach ha Kodesh (Holy Spirit) upon the immersed.

      Shalom, huuf

      September 6, 2012 at 6:29 pm |
  16. Jeff Pringle

    My question is with what right does the church have to baptize someone into their religion without the permission of the family of that person? Who are they to make that decision? Seems like typical religious arrogance to me. You have done that to a bunch of my ancestors and I am greatly displeased that you think you can just hijack my ancestors who lived 200 years before mormonism existed into their faith.

    May 15, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • howart Dao

      Sounds like freedom of religion to me. I am sure the next president of the US will make sure this practice top of his agenda !

      June 7, 2012 at 11:03 pm |
    • Diane

      I absolutely agree with what Jeff has written. The arrogance of the Mormon behavior is overwhelming.

      October 3, 2012 at 8:52 pm |
  17. Todd

    I am a Mormon.
    1. "Mormons cite Paul’s letter to the Corinthians as precedent to the practice." While we do believe, and often quote this verse, that statement is not entirely correct. For us, the precedence is that Joseph Smith received a revelation from God that we were to begin the practice. The verse itself is only evidence that Jesus wanted baptisms for the dead to be done, and is not the principal reason we practice it. For example, without divine guidance, Joseph would not have known the manner this ordinance was to be done, based only on this verse in Corinthians. This is consistent with the core doctrine distinguishing us from other Christian faiths: we believe that in addition to God having revealed many grand truths to prophets in the past, that He both continues and will continue to do so through future generations. (Our core belief, shared by many other Christians, is that salvation through Christ is both necessary and possible.)
    2. My understanding was that we were only to baptize our own ancestors for the dead, and not anybody else.

    April 22, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
    • Nish

      Okay Jesus said nothing about baptizing the dead. Jesus said unto him, Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou and preach the kingdom of God (Luke 9:60). Meaning the ones that are unaware of spiritual matters, let them be. JESUS said: Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, BAPTIZING them in the name of the FATHER and the SON and the HOLY SPIRIT"Matthew 28:19. THAT IS LIFE a NEW LIFE in CHRIST JESUS. While you are here on this earth ... breathing. Read the HOLY Bible baby. He comes that we MIGHT have life more abundantly. Therefore living this life and being under HIS OBEDIENCE so when we leave this life we will have LIFE ETERNAL In HEAVEN. A church doesn't decide on who goes to heaven or hell. Only GOD can. LDS can't save dead people. That's hilarious. BIBLE( BASIC INSTRUCTION BEFORE LEAVING EARTH). Read the book of of TRUTH,dear, the LORD will open your eyes. I love you. May the Lord Light your path.

      August 28, 2012 at 1:58 am |
    • Bea

      Todd, you need only search the terms "Mormon baptizing dead" and you'll see they do it to EVERYONE.
      Yes, the practice started based on genealogical research in an attempt to trace ancestry back to the days of the Bible, but at some point all bets were off and they started doing it to everybody.
      I suggest you do more research about the religion you follow, lest you follow blindly.

      September 3, 2012 at 9:00 pm |
  18. Becky

    I find it very interesting that the article is about the LDS practice of Baptism for the Dead, but most of the comments are not even about that. As a memeber of the Church of Jesus Christ of Atter-day Saints, I find the article to be basically correct and informative.

    April 12, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
    • Christianity is a form of mental illness- FACT

      Joey Smith was a fraud and a con...and yes he had a day in court because of this. The foundation of your religion is built on fraud by a fraud. Educate yourself beyond lds.com

      January 11, 2013 at 1:49 pm |
    • Whiteman

      Joseph Smith was a mysogenistic criminal. Anyone who "believes" he was some sort of prophet is in dire need of counseling.

      June 22, 2013 at 12:45 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.