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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. person

    because cults have dumb rules.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
  2. Johnny 5

    Dead is dead. Death is the same as the time before you existed and theres no reason why it would be any different. Religion is so mind numbing.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
  3. Sam

    I disagree with Freethinksman, it is not harmless. It perpetuates the church as overloard to us all. Religions that have deities are an enormous threat to us all. How may die each year in the name of this gof or that? Organized religion an over population will be the death of us all.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • Dave, CA

      Short answer- They're i d i o t s.
      Long answer- They have no respect for other faiths or the deceased. This is akin to soldiers taking a leak on the dead.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
  4. imogen

    I'm confused by these sorts of traditions. If you believe good people deserve a chance at salvation with your god and you believe your god is omniscient and omnipresent / good a merciful, I don't think your god needs a posthumus baptism to figure out the situation.

    Consider: God to soul: "hey I see you're a nice person that did good things but didn't quite join the right religion while you were down their care to select salvation now?"

    vs

    God to Soul " hey I see you're a nice person that did good things but didn't quite join the right religion but my chosen people haven't put you on the list so to hell with you until your post humus baptism.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • tickled

      OR
      God to Soul " hey I see you're a nice person that did good things but I didn't give you any evidence to believe me and so you didn't. Well, to hell with you until your post humus baptism, even though it really was my fault.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • Jim

      Some people believe the bible is the word of God. So if God says:

      "Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." (John 3:5)

      They believe that a person cannot go to heaven without being baptized.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
  5. Dave B

    You want to baptize me after I die? Go ahead, Ill be dead.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • Mikey

      A part of me agrees with you but another part gets angry at the arrogance. I hate prosetylizing at my door – after I'm dead is just wrong!~

      February 17, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
  6. Norm

    This practice is harmless because it has no binding effect on the soul, but I can garauntee that my devout Christian parents , if still alive, would take great offense to their grandson baptising them into what they have always considered a cult. Voluntary or not.
    I think the practice is kind of rude.
    It says the religion of the deceased person was invalid.
    I think the Christian church should start baptising deceased Mormons and see how they like it.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • Balle

      I am LDS and you can baptize me when I am dead. I am fine with that. Many many so called "christian pastors" spit at me and tell me I am going to hell. Interesting thing is that not one of them has ever offered to show me the light, they just told me that I was a sinner and that I was following the devil. Real christian way of going about it, no? And as far as most christian religions go, I am going to heaven anyway. I profess Jesus is the Christ, the only way to salvation is through is sacrifice and grace.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • Darrin

      I agree with your first comment, Norm. The practice is absolutely harmless and accepted only by those who want to accept it. Shoot, I don't mind if the Holy Rollin' Christians baptize for the dead or the Bahai baptize for the dead. We all do what we believe is true and right. This IS NOT the Catholic inquisition, which literally forced people to be baptized, or die. Or the Muslim way of chopping heads off if they don't confess Muhamed and prophet.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
  7. Dave

    That's why a lot of people are going to be surprised on judgement day. Let them keep thinking this.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
    • Dave, CA

      Feel better about yourself now?

      February 17, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
  8. Dear Hitler...

    NEXT TIME KILL ALL 14 MILLION, NOT ONLY 6 MILLION 🙁

    February 17, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
  9. ca3b

    Richard Bushman may claim to be a "Mormon scholar" but I doubt he is a scholar who is LDS (Mormon). I have never heard the hereafter for non-Mormons referred to as "Spirit prison". It's not a place of punishment or purgatory. Terryl Givens was more accurate in his explanation of a place to receive salvation.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
    • Michael

      Someone questioned Richard Bushman's Mormon "credentials." He is a stake patriarch in New York City. His use of the term "spirit prison" is correct.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • Jim

      1 Peter 3:19-20 "By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; (20) Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water."

      February 17, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
  10. Adolf

    Thank God for the holocaust

    February 17, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
  11. May L

    God Bless all Christians

    I love Jesus forever!

    February 17, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
  12. Gerard Francis Cutolo

    The living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten. Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished; neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun." "There is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest." Ecclesiastes 9:5, 6, 10. "The dead praise not the Lord." Psalms 115:17.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
    • JOAN

      The bible is very clear. You choose where you will go before death, if you want to go to heaven, you must make your decision while ALIVE, after death, it is not a choice.

      I am a babtized Mormon, and i do not believe I can get to heaven after death, They wanted to babtize my murdered daughter, she was a Christian and she did not need to be baptized after her murder to get her into heaven. I was brought up Christian, baptized and then went to the Morman church, I have left the morman church because their "book" does not go along with the Bible which I believe is much more God worthy than their "book".

      February 17, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
  13. Vanka

    The funny thing about baptisms for the dead is that Mormon doctrine itself makes the practice meaningless!

    In Mormon theology, "salvation" is a muddled concept. In its most basic sense, salvation simply means "resurrection", and every single person who has ever lived will be resurrected, no matter what they do. You do not have to believe in Jesus, or repent, or be baptized or "confirmed", or do good works to be resurrected. All people will be "saved" from death, according to Mormonism.

    But saved from sin? That is different. According to Mormonism, ONLY those who repent will be saved from sin. Repenting is a "change of mind, i.e., a fresh view about God, about oneself, and about the world... a turning of the heart and will to God, and a renunciation of sin to which we are naturally inclined."

    But here is the rub. Mormons preach that "you must not procrastinate the day of your repentance"..."this life is the time to prepare to meet God...for that same spirit which doth possess your bodies at the time that he go out of this life ...will have power to possess your body in that eternal world" (Alma 34: 32-34). Mormons teach that human life was "prolonged...that they might repent while in the flesh" (2 Nephi 2:21).

    In other words, the dead cannot Repent in the "night of darkness" called death (see John 9:4).

    Changing your mind and heart toward God in such a way as to "accept" a proxy Mormon baptism certainly counts as "repenting".

    Even the great Mormon "scholar", Hugh Nibley cited ancient texts and Mormon scripture to support this idea that "the dead cannot repent".

    In short, Mormons baptize for the dead, who are incapable of "repenting" and "accepting" those worthless baptisms anyway!

    Mormons' notions of "salvation" are all over the map. Without scriptural support for doing so, they distinguish between "salvation" (resurrection) and "exaltation" (a "continuation of the seeds forever and ever"; see D&C 132. Of course, you need multiple wives as brood mares if you are going to achieve your "exaltation"!)

    But baptism is NOT required for salvation (resurrection)! Neither is Mormon "confirmation, nor the temple "endowment", which are also rituals Mormons do "for the dead!" Mormons are not only baptizing for dead people, they are "confirming" them members of the Mormon Church and "endowing" them with Mormon "priesthood blessings"!

    So, again, to paraphrase Paul, What the heck are Mormons baptizing for the dead, if the dead not only cannot repent, but also baptism does NOT SAVE? Why are they then baptizing for the dead?

    If you ask a Mormon these questions, prepare yourself for a blubbering, nonsensical, obfuscation followed by a passionate "testimony"!

    February 17, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • Balle

      You make a compelling case. It is wrong, and you obviously don't understand the Grace of God, but you make a good argument. I think it is so funny to listen to these people spout of as if they completely understand what the LDS church teaches and believes. Good try though.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • Dave

      Great comment! Thanks a lot!

      February 17, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
    • Mike

      Sounds like a nice "rub" from an ex-member with a few quotes in hand and an axe to grind.

      #1 – Changing your mind and heart toward God in such a way as to "accept" a proxy Mormon baptism certainly counts as "repenting".
      Nice stretch, and quite a stretch indeed. What is being accepted is purely an outward ordinance to potentially qualify the individual for exaltation.

      #2- Even the great Mormon "scholar", Hugh Nibley cited ancient texts and Mormon scripture to support this idea that "the dead cannot repent".
      Bigger stretch. Completely taken out of context and, as you state it, simply not true. Besides, Hugh Nibley was never a prophet or qualified to set LDS doctrine.

      #3 – So, again, to paraphrase Paul, What the heck are Mormons baptizing for the dead, if the dead not only cannot repent, but also baptism does NOT SAVE? Why are they then baptizing for the dead?
      You completely fall off the cliff here. Nice attempt at putting words in Paul's mouth. Are you going to write your own interpretive version of the Bible next? Paul was not referring to what Mormons do today or speaking against baptism for the dead. He is clearly referring to the correct practice as support for his teaching on the resurrection.

      For blubbering, nonsensical, and obfuscatory, just look to your own words.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
  14. ERIK12874

    These people are crazy and morons! All religions are yet, they take the cake!

    February 17, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
  15. toxictown

    Can these silly cultists get any sillier?

    February 17, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • Kyle

      As a proud member of the Mormon church and one of your "silly cultists", I can tell you from my own experience that the only way to know whether or not the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is true is by investigating it and actually living the principles. Enough with the blind bigotry. After you've actually read the Book of Mormon and given it serious consideration as to whether you believe it to be a true book of scripture that testifies of Jesus Christ, then you can say what you want about it. Until then, keep your bigotry to yourself.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
  16. depops

    Insanity! How do people go along with this and be fine with it?

    February 17, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
  17. nestor

    The Church In Corinth had gone wild. Doing a lot of weird thinks like. Turning the Lord;s supper in frivolous Bankquets, Dening the original meaning explained well by Paul in 1Cor 11.
    This practice refered in cahpter 15 Paul is using an irony. Telling them your are making a ffool of yourself doing this. The ultimate Christian point here is The Resurrection. So If theres a Resurrection Why in the world you are baptizing them? You are not making sense. I can believe that somebody can make a whole Theology around a verse. That's taking out of context.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • Darrin

      And you were there, Nestor. You've met the apostle Paul and know the exact meaning, do you? The Latter-day Saint baptism for the dealer ordinance was given to modern-day prophets through revelation, not goofy money-hungy evangelical pastors.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
    • James

      Nestor, thank you for this clarification! I was raised Mormon, and as a teenager spent many hours in the temple getting baptized again and again as names were read. At 30 I left the Mormon church. That ridiculous practice never really made sense to me back then, but reading Corinthians in context helps me understand how the Mormons misread it. Thanks again!

      February 17, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
  18. RVN Vet

    My father was an experimenter in most religions of the period which gave me a profound sense of skepticism and I am, at a minimum, an agnostic. When the Mormons had me baptized for some dead people when I was 12 years of age, that was probably the eye-opener that predicated my direction toward my current beliefs, i. e., what a crock!! All organized religion is about subjugation of the masses and money, money, money! Nuff said.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • toxictown

      you said it!

      February 17, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
  19. Ben James

    Mormon History: Convicted con man Joseph Smith Jr., founder of the Mormons. Joseph Jr. was a traveling con man and diviner who went town to town and offered his “magical” services. Joseph claimed he could find buried Spanish treasure using “Peep” (Seer) stones, magic stones that gave him divining power. He swindled poor farmers charging them to find buried treasure on their property. Before Joseph marriage to Emma Hale, he was convicted of swindling farmers and the original court bill of 1826 charging of him this offense is still on record.

    After his conviction for swindling farmers Joseph Jr., was looking for a new safer way to make a living and claims the angel Moroni delivered magic golden plates to him in 1827. From 1827 till 1829 Joseph Smith was involved in “translating” the Gold Tablets which only he could see, which were supposedly written in “Reformed Egyptian”. Along with the Tablets Joseph received more “Seer” stones and the breastplate only he could see or wear which would allow him to translate the “Reformed Egyptian” into the Book of Mormon. It gets even weirder beyond this but you get the idea, and that’s how a con man forms a religion!

    February 17, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • letsgomets2012!

      The more and more I read these things, the more and more Mr. Joseph Smith sounds like one of those gypsy hawkers.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • Dave

      Didn't the same angel come to Mitt Romney and tell him how to improve the economy and make the world a better place?

      February 17, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • Darrin

      Clearly, Ben James, you know nothing about Joseph Smith. Rather than re-create your own little history and spread lies, try doing some actual research and direct your venom towards people or groups that actually want to harm you. Trust me, there are plenty. The Latter-day Saints are not one of them.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
  20. Freethinksman

    They're free to baptize me when I'm dead. I couldn't care less. It makes their simple hearts happy, and it doesn't hurt anything. As far as I'm concerned, as long as they leave living people alone, they can wish on dead people whatever they want. I wouldn't want them to use me as a way to increase their perceived size, but if they agree to differentiate the dead people they bathed for from the actual people who are bathing, ehhh. Whatever.

    It's easy to get worked up about the silliness of religions. I won't dignify religions with discussions about their validity or importance, but for those who feel the need to lean on make-believe to get through the day, I say let them act as silly as they think. There are real problems in the world. Some people shirk their responsibility to society and shift the blame and credit upward toward a god. It's up to the rational, practical, caring rest of us to pick up their slack and work to make this world better.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
    • 2chihuahuas

      For people like you and me and many others it doesn't matter. But for people who have deeply held religious beliefs this is very distasteful, can you grasp that? Freedom means that others CAN belive, just as I have the freedom NOT to believe. This is wrong, pure and simple.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
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About this blog

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.