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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. who cares

    why do jews get special treatment? im sick and tired of jewfilth being portrayed like victims all the time

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

      Your on the wrong blog. KKK is on another web site.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
  2. Kellie Wood

    My grandma was devastated that her older child who died in a flood was never baptized. Now she has hope that her daughter was baptized by proxy and now has just as much of a chance of receiving eternal exaltation as the next guy! The LDS church is divinely inspired, the Holy Ghost bears witness to this to those who know they have to "Knock & ask in order to receive". We can't know if we don't ask in our prayers! If we refuse to clean up our lives we won't get an answer either.

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

      What about people who lived 10-20 thousand years ago?

      February 17, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
    • Mark Yelka

      I was a Mormon for over 12 years. I did missionary work. Here's the Mormon answer to what about people for which there are no records.... We are soon approaching the time in which Jesus will come back and live on the Earth for 1000 years. During that time, records will be provided for ALL of the people who have ever lived so that posthumous baptism and marriage can be performed. I am no longer a Mormon because I can no longer stand Mormon intolerance. If you're not a Mormon, you are second class and to be looked down upon or pitied.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
    • Truthship

      I was impressed that the LDS apologized to Jews for baptizing their dead, but what about others?
      If Romney wins Republican nomination it would be interesting if Obama asked Mitt how he explained his support for the black mans Mormon ‘Mark-of -Cain’  when he was on his LDS mission in the 1960’s.  Google ‘Mark of Cain’ Has the LDS apologized for this racism?

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

      I was impressed that the LDS apologized to Jews for baptizing their dead, but what about others?
      If Romney wins Republican nomination it would be interesting if Obama asked Mitt how he explained his support for the black mans Mormon ‘Mark-of -Cain’ when he was on his LDS mission in the 1960’s. Google ‘Mark of Cain’ Has the LDS apologized for this racism?

      February 17, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
  3. Mark Yelka

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

    That's an opposite way of looking at things. In absolutely NO sense are Mormons nonexclusive. Mormons believe that they are the ONLY ones who have the authority of God to do anything. They believe that unless you join their church (even after death), that you will NOT go to the Celestial Kingdom (the highest order of heaven). You might go to lower places such as the Terrestial Kingdom where relatively good people go to, but who have refused to join their church. Or you might go to the Telestial Kingdom, where bad people go. Or, you might go to "Outer Darkness" where people go who know God, but refuse him go. They say relatively few people go there. Naturally, they say that the Celestial Kingdom is ever so much better than anywhere else. It's the only place where you'll be ALLOWED to have children. You'll be prevented from having children in heaven if you go anywhere else. The Mormons have very specific ideas as to heaven and baptism (as well as marriage) for the dead is performed in temples because only through Mormonism can you get to the highest heaven.

    February 17, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
  4. RdWhtNBlu

    Reading this article just makes so clear what all should already know, religion just makes up the rules as they go. People that are weak and cannot make their own decisions follow the made up rules of religious leaders. Life is a mystery and no living person has ever been able to figure it out or communicate with any higher power that may or may not exist. Being comfortable with the fact that life and potential afterlife is just a fantastic mystery for all is hard for weak people to deal with. They demand and create answers where there are none. Peace on Earth could be possible if religion was defined as a fraud and people started living their lives to the fullest instead of believing the made up rules of the lying religious leaders making false claims of holiness. Have a good day!

    February 17, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
    • L&C

      Prove that no one has ever understood the purpose of life. Tell me how you know that the proof I have about what the purpose of life is is not real.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
    • JoeS

      If all the mentality of all are the same, it would be possible but the problem is not. Your moral compass might be ok but others are not. Perhaps if Hitler and Stalin are still alive you could explain to him your philosophy in life so they are not going to kill millions of people. We choose religion and belief for eternal life which far better than this life.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
  5. Alex

    The baptism of the dead is a strange practice that has been practiced by the LDS for a long time. The part I am surprised no one has picked up on is that the LDS have also baptized Adolf Hitler and Ava Braun, his mistress, many, many times!! How weird is that?

    February 17, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
  6. Jim

    The Mormon Church has absolutely no right to do this and it is against the wishes of many of the dead and living, but do they care ? Nah. What a bunch of arrogant jackholes.

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

      Same thing as when christians say "I'll say a prayer for you". It's all harmless drivvel.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
  7. drdneuro

    Baptizing the dead to allow them access to heaven? What an utterly ridiculous idea! That people would object to Mormons wasting their time doing this, or even be offended by it, is just as silly.

    February 17, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
  8. Buck

    Sell crazy someplace else, we're all stocked up here.

    February 17, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
  9. Flowers

    Because they're crazy, although because of this they have the best archives and family history centers around for armchair genealogists like myself.

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

      They are collecting data.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
  10. Eric A

    As an ex-mormon and somebody who has done this (baptize the dead), this article misses the biggest reason why Mormons truly do this. Mormons believe that their religion is the only TRUE religion is the entire world, therefore, anybody who isn't Mormon, don't have a chance of getting into heaven. This type of thinking is one of the reason I left the church. Once I grew up and started to notice the world is way bigger than just the LDS, I decided to leave the church.

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

      Mormons do not believe only Mormons get into heaven, but that everyone should be given a chance. Mormons believe we are judged on our hearts, not our religion. You would not ever hear that only a Mormon gets to go to heaven from any of the leaders of the church

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

      You could not be more mistaken, as the author noted, "In that sense Mormonism is the most nonexclusive religion in the Christian world." We believe that there are certain requirements for salvation as set forth by God – not by "Mormons." It is ture that we believe that many of the saving ordinances require proper authority (i.e.- not just anyone has the proper authority to go out an baptize in the name of Jesus Christ).

      But as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ I don't believe that salvation is going to have anything to do with being "Mormon." It will be entirely a matter of whether that individual lived a good life and chose to accept the teachings of Jesus Christ – whether that opportunity come to them in this life, or in the hereafter.

      Our's is not a religion that teaches that we are better or more valuable or more worthy of salvation than any other individual that has ever lived on the earth. We believe that all of God's children are valued equally, and that all with have the same opportunity to achieve salvation.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
    • JoeS

      I don't think you are a former Mormon since you don't know what you are talking about.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
    • Think!

      I can personally say that they do say this (that theirs is the only true religion, and only they go to (the highest level) heaven), for I have been to several services and a baptism, the speeches/ sermons are dripping with it, I started counting half way through the baptism to see how many times its mentioned, got to 8.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
    • Think!

      Also Mormons in general (not all, but most) are very isolationist, if you are not a member of the church and you live in or near a Mormon community (same schools etc...) then you and your family are non-existent to them, they will not attend your/your child's gatherings, parties, etc..., and you are treated like a second rate human, again personal experience.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
  11. RdclCntrst

    You might also explain why the concept is so offensive to Jews (among others). You could touch on how, throughout Christian history, Jews have been faced with the choice between baptism and death; or how proclaiming Jesus' divinity const!tutes heresy under Jewish teaching; or how the teachings of the LDS Church are in direct conflict with the tenets of Judaism; or even just on how in the United States (the LDS Church's spiritual and physical homeland), you have the right to be free from someone else forcing their religion on you. Any of those–or dozens of other–reasons for why Jews (and others) object to this would seem to me to be a vital part of any conversation about controversy over Mormons' spiritual baptism of dead Jews.

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

      I could not of said it better. Thank you.

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

      "Jews have been faced with the choice between baptism and death"

      But don't you see, the Christians are just doing it out of love, right? Is it not better to be tortured and killed here and now for not accepting our "savior" instead of risking an eternity of heII? I'm sure it never had anything to do with the goods and property that was confisctated from the "saved" Jew's and used for their own enrichment...right? Or maybe baptizing the dead gives them a chance to apease their guilt for the persecution Christians have been a part of...

      February 17, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
  12. Judy Aikin

    I am more concerned about "sealing", which was perpetrated on my grandmother. After her death, a Mormon relative sealed her (married her) to a Mormon elder in a polygamous marriage so that she could be "saved". My mother was extremely distressed. Please talk about "sealing" and its relationship to the posthumous baptism you already wrote about.

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

      In Mormon temples, you can only "seal" someone to someone they were married to on earth. Never just pick someone out. I'm sorry for your concern, I can understand it!

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

      I can understand your concern – that would be a bit distressing. But as the other commenter noted, we only "seal" individuals that were already married together while on this earth.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
    • Bill90230

      Even in death Mormon's believe you have [moral] agency, the ability to accept or reject being sealed or baptized.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • Cindy

      A sealing is a marriage for eternity. Many of the religions and government organizations on this earth only can provide marriage till "death do you part." Members of the LDS church (Mormons) believe that God has provided a way for us to be married for eternity. If you have a family member that is a member of the church and they performed this sealing for your grandmother then they would have likely done one of two things, performed the sealing of your grandmother to her husband so that their marriage could go on eternally or sealed your grandmother to her parents to create a family that again goes on for eternity. She should not be sealed to anyone that was not already a member of her family here on earth.

      The church requires us to get permission from next of kin if it is a recently living person but unfortunately not all people follow the rules. Also, those lines of next of kin do get blurred when there are a lot of descendants of a person. I am sorry none of this was ever explained to you. I know that I try to explain these things to my non-member family members before doing the temple work.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
  13. DEK

    David Johnson wrote:
    "All believers are loony."

    Obama claims he is a Christian. Therefore, he claims to be a believer.
    If all believers are loony, and Obama speaks the truth, then Obama is loony.
    If Obama is not a believer, he may not be loony, but he would be a liar.
    So, based on your statement, Obama must be loony or a liar.
    Thank-you! Your erudition is most helpful. Since I would never vote for a loony or a liar, I won't be voting for Obama.

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

      yeah, sure right

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

      He's a liar, just like every other President in our history. Lying is a job requirement just to get elected. If you wanted to be President and you knew every single President in our history prefessed some belief in Christ do you think you would choose to be the first candidate to claim to be Atheist? He was already bucking the system being half black in an all white boys club, to admit that humans have absolutely no solid evidence for God's existence would be political suicide for anyone in this country, though it doesn't make it any less true.

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

      So David Johnson is the ultimate arbiter of truth in this world? Is that why you take his quote as a fact? It seems that you might be the one who is loony...

      February 17, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
    • DEK

      To GodPot:
      You are most likely correct. It would seem we've been forced to choose between the lesser of two evils. Wouldn't it be wonderful to encounter a politician that actually told the truth? Someone that actually valued integrity and honesty above personal gain? Maybe this is why some people have decided to place their hope in God and not man.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • DEK

      To Sarah:
      If you actually thought my statement was to affirm the truth of David Johnson's statement, you must be loony.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
  14. Jake

    I see grown adults arguing over who's imaginary friend is better.

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

      I love it !!!

      February 17, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
  15. oyvey

    Cause they crazy! Ask about mormon blood redemption ideas... now thats crazy!!!

    February 17, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
  16. Laurie in Spokane

    I for one strongly protest the baptizing of the dead. What a slap in the face to the memory of those who practiced a religion other than mormonism, or no religion at all. It is the height of arrogance, creepy, and disrespectful.

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

      Your remark is totally on-point

      February 17, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
  17. Truthship

    I want to be with the Jews on this one. I too want to be on the do not call list when I am dead. Let me rest in peace with my own God thank you.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
  18. Burbank

    Mormons baptize the dead because they arrogantly think the Creator doesn't go a good enough job.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
  19. Bill90230

    The Mormon belief is that each person baptized, including those baptisms for the dead have to be accepted by that person/soul/spirit (choose which ever word makes you most comfortable). The idea is that even in death, the person being baptized can say "no thank you." It is seen as a selfless act, not forcing a person who has died to accept the baptism, but the opportunity to accept or not.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
  20. Stephanie Youell

    If you study the bible you will find that there are 5 steps to salvation, (1) Hear – The gospel, (2) Believe – What you have heard, (3) Repent – Of your sins, (4) Confess – That you believe that Jesus Christ was the son of God, and (5) Be Baptized. A dead person can do none of these so baptism by proxy is so utterly ridiculous and preposterous and insulting to anyone with a brain. It makes the Mormons look so completely out there that all you can do is shake your head in disbelief.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • S. Maker

      Baptism is not a requirement for heaven according to the bible, nor is #4 on your list for that matter. Study what happened to the thief on the cross that was next to Jesus.

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

      That is still just as crazy.

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

      You are correct in your assertion that those are 5 key steps requried for salvation. The belief is simply that all individuals will have an opportunity to: (1) Hear – The gospel, (2) Believe – What you have heard, (3) Repent – Of your sins, (4) Confess – That you believe that Jesus Christ was the son of God, and (5) Be Baptized.

      For the vast majority of individuals that have ever lived on this earth that opportunity did not come to them in this life, we simply believe that the opportunity will be provided to them in the afterlife. We believe baptism is an ordinance that requires a physical body, hence we do this work in their behalf. As the author notes, we do not believe that we are making them "Mormon," they may chose not to accept those things that they are taught – agency is still theirs. It is simply a work of providing all individuals the same opportunity for salvation; "In that sense Mormonism is the most nonexclusive religion in the Christian world."

      It might sound weird to someone not of our faith, the idea might be very foreign – but when you consider that the primary driving factor is simply charity, it's very hard to argue that the practice is "preposterous and insulting to anyone with a brain."

      February 17, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
    • Steven Hovey

      For a believer in Jesus Christ, to reject the concept of proxy ordinances is to reject the basic tenet of Christianity: that Jesus died for our sins – by proxy. He did for us what we could not do for ourselves. Be careful what you reject.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
    • Bill90230

      Stephanie – you would find every Mormon in agreement with you about the 5 steps. And it is understandable with the GOP race and debates that the Mormon church is being looked at closer by some people that is normal, but, as a christian but not a catholic, I am not allowed sacrament in a catholic church. Or a Lutheran church.

      There is no church, no faith that doesn't at some level say, "This is the most right."

      The only church that I have attended that allows all in attendance to partake of the sacrament based on their personal feeling was the Mormon church. The only church I have ever stepped into that said that ALL CHRISTIAN churches are important and of value for teaching the principles of Christianity and about salvation through Christ, is the Mormon church.

      There are many churches and faiths, and all have value. The problem is, what IF there is only one right one? All you can do is live your life morally and with humility.

      Let me ask a different question of you; gay marriage is all over the news these days. EVERY faith, Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist, Mormon, Islam, Jewish, with the exception of a very few that have "broken off" believe in their doctrine that marriage is between a man and a woman, period. IF you are a person of faith, AND you believe in the doctrine of your church, then don't you have to agree about marriage as well? Faith is NOT a pick and choose what you want to believe, you choose a church because you believe in its doctrine. Whatever that faith is.

      The shame is when we "shake our head in disbelief" or use offensive language to express a disagreement. IF those who read this feel inclined, without pressure or outside influence, you can always go to http://www.mormon.org to learn more.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
    • Bill90230

      Steven Hovey
      For a believer in Jesus Christ, to reject the concept of proxy ordinances is to reject the basic tenet of Christianity: that Jesus died for our sins – by proxy. He did for us what we could not do for ourselves. Be careful what you reject.
      **************************************
      Such a wonderful and simple example.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
    • Cardiac50

      Actually believing that any of those steps are meaningful in any way says pretty much the same thing about those that believe in it.. but like like their practice of baptizing the dead.. it's all harmless as long as you don't attempt to foist such nonsense on others.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
    • Believer

      And why exactly can a dead person not perform the first four items on your list - or do you not believe in the hereafter?

      February 17, 2012 at 4:56 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.