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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. King Kong Kolob

    Greetings earthings! Come on down' to my place, where all of your wives eat for free, you're served on golden plates, and you get to rule the planet with your tribe of super babies.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
  2. Nathan

    It is interesting that Paul mentions baptism for the dead as an ordinance of the early Christian church. I was not aware of this. Who knows...maybe there is something to it.

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

      but probably not...old books written by men who knew relatively little about how the world or life works.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • Llilly Liederhosen

      Nope, go back to the drawing board. The 1 verse in the Bible that Morman's misconstrue to justify this abhorrent practice is one where Paul describes this as a practice of pagan's; not christian's. Mormon's need to stop drinking good ole' Uncle Joe Smith's cool-aid.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
    • John

      Paul wrote clearly that the Gospel that saves is believing that Christ died for our sins and rose from the dead. This is the complete Gospel, and so it is the true full Gospel and the true whole Gospel. Nothing else is needed for the forgiveness of sins and the gift of eternal life. Baptism has nothing to do with it, it was what Jesus did and him alone.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
    • JR

      Sarafalin: Ah – as opposed to new books written by men who claim to know much about how the world and life works...the only problem is, there is even or more disputation and argument now regarding what truth is – everyone can find someone who tells them they're correct.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
    • Nathan

      John - I'm not sure you are right on that. I'm reading the reference and to me it seems like Paul is trying confirm the doctrine of resurrection to some doubters, saying why are persons baptized for the dead if there is no resurrection?

      February 17, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
    • JM

      Nathan

      It is interesting that Paul mentions baptism for the dead as an ordinance of the early Christian church. I was not aware of this. Who knows...maybe there is something to it.

      REPLY:
      Nathan, in regards to Paul mentioning baptism for the dead, he was not referring dead as physical but rather spiritual. In the eyes of God we are spiritually dead, but if we accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior and obey the will of the father, then we will be redeemed from the bondage of this world. It is the baptism of the holy spirit.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
  3. sarafalin

    I have the short answer to this question. Because the Momos are insane.

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

      Does this not answer the question about this 'cult'. And Romney is one of them, its total insanity in the highest order. These people are wack-jobs. But then again ALL religions are nuts anyway.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
  4. Curious

    I have a question. Can Mormons baptize the living by proxy or add them to the genealogy database without permission? Most of my husband's patients are Mormon. Unbeknownst to us, he has an incredibly special last name to that faith and many patients get googly-eyed when they hear it. He has even received, what I call, "fan" mail from those who are heavily involved in LDS genealogy. I'd like to know if I should look into the databases to make sure he hasn't been added to anything without his knowledge.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • AnnaLaura Brown

      no, you cannot add living people. You must have proof of death. It's called baptisms for the dead for a reason.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
    • stephen

      In answer to your question, baptism for the dead may only be performed for those who are deceased. Given the church's core doctrinal tenants that all men and women have agency (the right to choose), it would be contrary to LDS beliefs to try to "force" or trick someone into accepting their faith. I'm a member of the LDS faith, but not an official spokesman for it.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
    • Ian

      No- while his name- and yours- will be in the complete genealogical record for all people as one big family tree, he is not going to be baptized by proxy while living.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
    • JR

      It's a very good question, and the answer is no, proxy baptisms are not permitted or performed for people who are living.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
    • Curious

      Thank you to everyone for your information. It's much appreciated.

      AnnaLaura Brown - I was specifically asking about baptism by proxy, not baptism for the dead. "By proxy" doesn't necessarily mean deceased.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
    • M.

      No, Mormons do not baptize people in the name of someone who is alive. There is absolutely no way for that to happen- you have to have a death date to submit the name to be baptized. The only reason they do it for those who have died, is in the event that the person who died never had the opportunity in this life to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. And it is not viewed by Mormons as a guaranteed acceptance by the person. It is simply done in order to give the person the choice, in the event they were not given the choice in this life. Some of these commentors view it as arrogant, but Mormons see it as service. If you truly believe that you need to be baptized in Christ name to have eternal life with Him, then they just want to give every individual on this earth that same opportunity, with no expectation that they will choose to accept it. It is simply done as a service in the event that the person chooses to accept it. But until we are dead, and with them as well, we will never know if it was accepted by that individual, therefore they are not listed on the records of our church as Mormon once we do the baptism. I hope that clarified your concerns. Mormons are good people, if a little misunderstood! I hope your interaction with them at your husbands office will still be a good experience.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
    • Mikey

      Who hasn't had a chance to accept the Mormon faith? Your young men in white shirts and black ties are on my doorstep ALL THE TIME! Prosetylizing is wrong whether I am alive or dead.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
  5. Doug S

    I see all these ads on TV for Ancestry.com, which encourages you to trace your lineage. I wonder if people realize that is a Mormon company, and that that information is mined in order to provide data for baptism of the dead?

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

      I, for one, know it, but don' care. My ancestors are dead. What some cult does in their names is nonsense to me.

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

      To provide enlightenment to Ancestory.com: First off, most of not all genealogical records that any family history company uses or references, comes from the records of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Members who have recorded and continue to provide record extractions from court records or places of record filings are kept, are all loaded into the worlds largest genealogical library. With that, the church by however means, allows other companies (member owned or not) to access them. How those companies run their internal affairs such as cost etc., solely falls on the company not the church. The church also has a genealogical library that is accessible for free to anyone member or not. The data may not be as detailed or as pretty as other sites, but does provide the same data none the less.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
    • M.

      It isn't a Mormon company any more than Marriott, or any other company with an LDS CEO is owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The fact that it was started by a Mormon does not mean that it is owned by the church! That is a really poor assumption. There are millions of people who enjoy learning about their ancestors, and this company offers people a chance to research them on a website that is unaffiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
  6. Mormon Think

    modern science today has exposed Mormonism for exactly what it is: a fruadulent religion from a dishonest and immoral man. I just read this from the Mormon scripture called Doctrine & Convenants, proudly posted on the LDS website. While I love the mormon people, the religion and it's founders make me sick:

    http://www.lds.org/scriptures/dc-testament/dc/132.61?lang=eng

    61 And again, as pertaining to the law of the priesthood—if any man espouse a virgin, and desire to espouse another, and the first give her consent, and if he espouse the second, and they are virgins, and have vowed to no other man, then is he justified; he cannot commit adultery for they are given unto him; for he cannot commit adultery with that that belongeth unto him and to no one else.

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

      If we keep letting Muslims flow into this country we will be forced to legalize polygamy at some point on grounds of non-interference in religion.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
  7. toxictown

    I can only hope that the new light on the obvious sillyness of Mormonism will cause people to re-assess the sillyness of all the Abrahamic religions.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
  8. bookworm

    I am sure the Mormons would not appreciate it if the other religions got the facts wrong on their beliefs so I will enlighten them on an error they made on mine. Catholics do not believe we are the only ones saved. as a matter of fact it is the exact opposite. Evangelicals hold this belief but Catholics respect the Jewish traditions and hold that although not baptized into christianity there is no condemation of them or their devotion to God. If you speak at least get it right.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
  9. Aunt Lisa

    Thank you for an informative article. Although I do not "believe" in any religion I do believe we have one shot at being a good human being and that is here and now. No pay back and no reward aside from knowing you are doing the right thing. I do however know that many people believe something different and that belief brings them comfort and helps to define who they are. My neice is a morman and now I know a little more about what she believes thus knowing her better. No harm no foul. Thanks for the invite to heaven but I'm pretty sure it won't be necessary.

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

      "All fall short of the glory of God" – I'm sorry but being a good person won't be good enough. You have to be good enough by God's standards, not man's. And he clearly states that isn't possible. The good news is that Jesus took your place and placing trust in Him for the forgiveness of your sins is the way to everlasting life. None of this Mormon sillyness is true BTW. You are loved!

      February 17, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
    • unknown

      Well since god doesn't exist his standards are meaningless, which means the only standards that matter are mans.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
  10. svann

    Its nice of them to offer salvation, but it kind of implies that if they didnt do it it wouldnt happen. Which implies a lack of faith in God's good wishes imo. Are they saying that Jesus wont baptise those dead so its up to Mormons to do it?

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

      Mormons believe that, after the second coming of Jesus, temple work will accelerate and, eventually, every person who ever lived will have the opportunity to accept or reject baptism.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
    • Nathan

      Do you think Jesus wants to personally get baptized 65 billion times? Perhaps he is using the Mormons and their temples to get the work done now.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
    • JR

      A significant part of the reason that individual members are the ones performing these baptisms is so that they have a better understanding that this life is not just about self. In taking on this responsibility in behalf of those whose spirits are believed to still live, Mormons are looking upon others as equally worthy to receive the blessings of God, that Mormons aren't better than anyone else or "hoarding" God's blessings for their own enjoyment and exaltation only. The bottom line is that no one has to believe that this practice makes any difference at all; however, for those who believe it does, there is immense comfort in performing the work, an increased regard for the lives of every person, and a reiteration by action of belief in life after death. For people who don't believe these principles, of course this practice would seem ludicrous, insulting, or crazy.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
  11. Ms. Maryland

    PPL quoting biblica scriptures that Mormons do not even follow.. so again I am very confused, please enlighten.

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

      Mormons believe in the Bible.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
    • sarafalin

      I believe in Zeus. Wonder what my chances of getting elected are?

      February 17, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • Rachel

      They quoted that scripture because Mormons study and believe that the Bible is the word of God. They use the King's James version of the Bible because they believe it is the best translation available.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
    • Matt

      Mormoms have added books to the bible. Clearly forbidden in the scriptures, making it a false religion.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
  12. Ray

    Thank you for this informative, well-balanced article.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
  13. Ms. Maryland

    Is Mormorism real? Is that even a word?

    February 17, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
  14. superstar

    The practice of baptizing the dead started when church leaders realized that they can remove the jewelry and go through the pockets of the deceased for loose change prior to performing the ritual. Pretty slick.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
  15. Ms. Maryland

    R they serious ? I gues I would ask the same question for a muslim "When you die, will a 100 virigins really be waiting for you on the other side?" Sorry this is some straight BS......

    R they really serious though: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. come on man, how can you not lYOURmfao ! seriously.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
  16. LJWB

    "let the dead bury the dead" just what we need in the White House "the blind leading the blind" good grief!

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

      This article is about a religion, not politics! Oh wait, too many people confuse the two, that is why we are so messed up in the USA. Freedom of religion means you can practice it, not implement a Theocracy. If only some people actually practiced what tehir religion preaches, then we would be civilized again.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
  17. Frank Stanton

    If Mitt Romney is an example of a Mormon, then I would say there is not much difference between a live Mormon and a dead one, so the Mormons might as well baptise everyone. In my experience with Mormons, they seem a little too tighlaced and insular. They are polite as hell, but one gets the sense that there is us (meaning Mormons), and then there is everyone else. I don't think a Mormon would be a good choice to lead America because true leaders engage with the world, whereas most Mormon leaders are very distant and disconnected with the outside world. Hence, baptizing Holocast victims. Disconnection often leads to insensitivity.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • Baptizing?

      Intelligently put, but, generalizing none the less.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • dabble53

      Most religious leaders are out of touch with the world at large, living within their own little fantasy religious world.
      One question I have is, are they careful to not baptize those already baptized by another religion? I.e., do the M's consider Catholics to be not properly baptized?
      On a lighter note, do they push for the younger M's to be the proxies as a way to get them to take their Saturday baths?

      February 17, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
    • Nathan

      I suppose baptizing them is better than consigning them to hell as many evangelical Christian churches would tell you will be their reward from God for not accepting Jesus as their "personal savior."

      February 17, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
    • Jen

      If you think that the church leaders are so focused on their own little world instead of reaching out to touch other’s throughout the planet, perhaps you should read some of these comments from various world leaders when President Hinckley died. The previous leader of the LDS church:
      George W. Bush
      Laura and I are deeply saddened by the death of our friend, Gordon B. Hinckley. While serving for over seven decades in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Gordon demonstrated the heart of a servant and the wisdom of a leader. He was a tireless worker and a talented communicator who was respected in his community and beloved by his congregation. As President of his church, he traveled to more than 60 countries to spread a message of love and optimism to the millions of people around the world who shared his faith.
      Bishop Carolyn Tanner Irish, Episcopal Diocese
      Hearing of President Hinckley's death this evening I find it difficult to imagine the world and its faith communities without him. Leading the LDS Church for decades, he has been its heart and soul to many millions — members and nonmembers alike.
      Larry King
      President Hinckley was more than a leader of a Church, he was a great friend.
      I have met very few people in my life who had his passion, his understanding or his wisdom. He will be sorely missed.
      Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, American Jewish Committee
      The American Jewish Committee mourns today the passing of Gordon B. Hinckley, the president and prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
      When a delegation of AJC leaders met with President Hinckley and the First Presidency in 2003, we found him to be wise and witty, proud of his Church’s positive history with the Jewish community and a good listener as well.
      President Barack Obama
      Last night I spoke with President Thomas Monson and expressed my deepest sympathies to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on the passing of President Gordon B. Hinckley.
      Glenn Beck, CNN
      Glenn Beck posted a tribute to President Hinckley on YouTube.

      Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, President of Iceland
      With the death of President Gordon B. Hinckley the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the entire world have lost a great and wise leader, a man of vision and courage. The people of Iceland have lost a good friend and I offer the Church of Jesus Christ our sincere condolences.
      Ambassador Joseph Verner Reed, Under-Secretary General of the United Nations
      I was greatly impressed with President Hinckley as both President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as well as being a distinguished citizen of our noble land. President Hinckley always received me with energy and elegance. It was always a special pleasure to have exchanged views on the situation in our troubled world.
      I only posted a few. To see the rest of the article, please go here:
      http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/additional-resource/tributes-to-president-gordon-b-hinckley-from-public-figures
      Our church will reach out to anyone who needs us. We do not discriminate, nor do we inflict choices on anyone’s behalf. We don’t rip apart your beliefs or traditions. We are good people and don’t disdain other religions, so please share the same courtesy.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
  18. Larry

    Actually, based on the criteria that Terryl Givens is using, the New Apostolic Church (NAC) is more open due to the fact that it does not rely upon members actively naming people who have passed away nor encourage them to simply invite up to four previous generations of family members. Instead, it simply encourages its members, through prayer, to extend an invitation to souls who are no longer in the flesh to be not only baptized but also sealed with the Holy Spirit. Like the LDS, the NAC bases the need for this service on 1 Cor 15:29, 1 Peter 3:18-20, and others, and the three occasions per year for the Service for the Departed is considered an integral part of the doctrine practiced by the church and its members.

    See http://www.nak.org for more information about the NAC.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
  19. Kevin

    It's based on a total misinterpretation of the Bible. Taken completely out of context, which is what Mormonism often does with the Bible. It's also a way to jack up the membership number of the LDS church. And, based on what they've done to Jews (and people of other backgrounds), it's immoral.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • Ms. Maryland

      So please help me... Mormons use the bible but do not believe in God??? Sorry, I am confused.

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

      it is what most religions due with the bible. Cherry pick scripture to support their own agenda and uniformed view of how the world works

      February 17, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
    • ron

      I have no agenda to defend Mormonism. But "misinterpretation of the Bible" is what every theological argument is based on. That's why we have hundreds ( or thousands) of denominations and sects. Interpretation of scripture is the name of the game. Even the so-called "literalists" who claim not to interpret, have wildly varying interpretations.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
    • Ben

      The church does not "jack up" membership numbers via posthumous baptism. As explained in the article, those who are baptized are not considered members by the church.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
    • stephen

      Actually Kevin, there is no misinterpretation at all. The scripture quoted in the article was of Paul attempting to convince the saints in Corinth that Jesus' resurrection was real and that all men would be resurrected. Then he used their own practice of baptizing for the dead as proof that, if there is no resurrection or life after death, why then would the be baptizing for the dead. In context, it is clear. I suggest you reread the scripture in historical and doctrinal context. And lastly, if you have any faith in God, I encourage you to pray to him and ask if these things are true. If you do so sincerely, he will answer your prayers. I sincerely wish you the very best in your search for truth.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
  20. BigBooty1

    Finite minds, trying to understand the infinite. The Hindus say we all sit in a circle around God, none any closer, none any farther away, just a different perspective. Like the poem where blind men are describing an elephant, each is holding a different part. Humans only believe what they can see, touch or smell. The rest is a leap of faith, and that all depends on how far you leap. Hey "One True Steve", the only truly meaningless thing here is this entire argument, regardless of what side your'e on. Faith is personal.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
    • Ms. Maryland

      Faith is personal, but dam... can they make a little bit of sense.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
    • toxictown

      They can also make a LOT of nonsense.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:27 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.