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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. reformer

    The problem with the Mormon practice lies in the false interpretation of the verse they claim to be obeying. Apostle Paul described in 1st Corinthians 15:29 that we go through the process of Baptism [i.e. immersing someone in an outdoor body of water backward (like in burial), and bringing them face up again (like in resurrection), to symbolize our "burial of past sinful lifestyles" to "resurrection to a new life in Christ Jesus", and states that this process would mean nothing if the dead do not resurrect. He was not asking us to go around baptizing dead bodies. Members of the Celestial Church in Nigeria walk about with no shoes on because their founder and leader believed that since God told Moses to take off his shoes before approaching the "Holy Ground" where God met him in the burning bush in the Book of Exodus, everywhere you walk is holy ground. Like Joseph Smith, the leader of this Nigerian religion had very little knowledge of the Scriptures. Why people are still following the teachings of these leaders that make no sense whatsoever and are not even justified in the Bible is beyond me. People, you are supposed to search the Scriptures to see if the teachings and lifestyles of your leaders are in line with the teachings and lifestyles of the Apostles of Christ. If not, you are supposed to abandon them. After all, didn't we abandon the claims that the earth was flat? Didn't we abandon the claims that Black Men were only 2/5 of a person? Didn't we abandon the claims that men were more intellectually superior to women? Why then are we so stubbornly holding on to doctrines that are stupid and not Biblical? Why are we baptizing a dead body? Do the dead repent? Can the dead confess their sins? Can the dead beg for forgiveness? Can the dead pledge allegiance to God or to Christ? The Mormon claim that by baptizing the dead they are giving everyone who never had the opportunity to know Christ or hear the gospel a chance at eternal life is bogus. No human being on earth and no religious organization have the power to offer eternal life to anyone. Only The Great God of the universe determines whom He grants eternal life. The Bible specifically states that those who never had the opportunity to own or read the scriptures, know God or Christ will be judged, based on what they knew was right or wrong when they were alive-regardless of where they were born or what culture they grew up in.

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

      Holy smokes. You spend a lot of time thinking about this nonsense.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
    • Fred

      Where does it say that? It also clearly states that no one can enter into God's Kingdom without being baptized.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
  2. Illuminati

    OMG! That has to be the stupidist thing I have ever heard!! So everyone has a chance at salvation you baptize the dead whether they are willing or not... They defeated the whole purpose of people having free will and freely coming to hear and accept Jesus message. You have to be willing and readily have knowledge of what you are doing and you need to be taught! Therefore babies and dead people cannot be baptized because they cant exercise knowledge and free will, All those who never accepted or never had a chance to ,have the prosepect of a ressurection.. Why else would there be a need for a resurrection and a 1000 years on the earth? God wants all to accept his son and he is even giving them after a ressurection and 1000 years to learn and hopefully accept Christ.

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

      Illuminati,
      May God bless you for your knowledge of the Holy Scriptures, and may our Great Master Jesus Christ keep you to the end.

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

      @Illuminati, you are completely overlooking a very important part of the article. The baptism is performed for the person, but it is ENTIRELY up to that person whether or not they wish to accept it.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
  3. Angela

    Thanks, CNN, for doing your best to write an unbiased article on a belief that many do not understand! If a reader wants to hear from a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints about our beliefs, please see mormon.org.

    February 17, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
  4. Willbur

    Unless the Mormons are digging up bodies and dunking them, this is unjustified outrage. All they are doing in some old pagan ritual where they mention someone's name. I will continue baptizing by proxy Jewish Groups or any other group looking to for something to be offended by. There is no law law that states you can't baptize the name of a dead person. Anyway, my extensive training at Hogwarts gives me the authority to baptize people without even knowing their names, so I now unofficially baptize ever person who has ever lived or died on Earth, and its already done so there is nothing you can do about it.

    February 17, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
  5. Michael Morell

    The Bible says “Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead not rise at all?” The word FOR here is to be translated "because of", NOT in the idea of proxy. It's completely understandable and biblical to become baptized "because of" others who have died, not for the dead person, but FOR YOUR BENEFIT! Baptism is an intelligent thing. You do it because YOU want to!

    February 17, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
    • Bible Reader

      Baptism of the dead is not Biblical. And your understanding of the verse in Corinthians is spot on. Baptism is an intelligent, willful act. Likewise- infant baptism is not biblical as well. There are no accounts of such happening in the scriptures.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
    • Adam

      Obviously this is your interpretation of the bible. If god didn't want all these sects of Christianity, then it should have been more clear about this sort of thing so that people wouldn't have to argue the semantics of prepositions.

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

      Your interpretation is nothing more than opinion, no more or less valid than the Mormons' opinion.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
  6. Andrew

    I guess I struggle with this...I am not a Mormon. If one came up and said they just baptised me, I know they would mean well and would probably say thank you. It would mean nothing to me, but the intent sure was good and I would appreciate that. So why be angry or upset about it? Isn't it the same thing as a Jewish practotioner saying Happy Hanukah in December? I am not Jewish, but thank you for the well wish. Either I am missing something, or people need to be less sensitive.

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

      I think you've captured the spirit of the proxy-baptism. It is not something that you have to accept, but it is done with warmest of wishes. Thanks for being open to other people who hold different beliefs than your own. It's nice to read a comment like yours.

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

      If you're not Christian and have no intention to become one, it makes a BIG difference. They are forcing their beliefs on everyone. And I do mean EVERYONE.
      All in all, it's an exercise in futility, since those they forcibly "baptize" are not really baptized, since they can not accept, being DEAD.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
  7. Jim Rousch

    Those who shout the praises of religious freeDUMB get what they deserve.

    February 17, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
  8. Jeff in San Diego

    All religions show an extreme aversion to critical thinking, but Mormonism is especially hard for rational people to swallow.

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

      I'm a rational person with a PhD in Geophysics and a 21 year career in the field, and I'm a Mormon.

      Such sweeping statements about ANY group are, of course, false.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
    • *facepalm*

      There are exceptions to every rule

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

      I suppose many people said the same thing about this "guy from Nazareth" while he walked the Earth. Probably said something very similar about a guy named Noah who was tweekin' on something when he decided to build a boat.

      BTW, Mormons do proxy baptisms for one reason, and one reason only . . . they believe it is God's will. I think if ALL Christians actually endeavored to live according to what they themselves profess to be their understanding of God's will, the entire world would be a much nicer place.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
    • KENNY

      nailed it... religion is by definition irrational thinking. No basis in fact or science or reality. If you look up delusional disorder, all ten identifiers go hand in hand with religion, except they make an exemption for religion... gee i wonder why. Fact is most people are ignorant and unable to comprehend the world around them. Religion fills in all the gaps and lets stupid ignorant people feel like they understand and it makes them feel safe which is a primal survival instinct, the need to feel safe which translates into survival. Fear is rooted in the unknown, we naturally fear the unknown because it directly translates into a threat on our most base instinct to survive. Everything boils down to survival first which is why religion is soooo prevelent in all cultures, it takes away fear of the unknown and thus we can focus on other things.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
    • JoeS

      The Church of Jesus of Latter Day Saints is founded on the revelation of Christ. It is by power of revelation that we concur.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
    • Fred

      John:
      Does that include Christians who think that it is God's will to kill certain people, enslave others and such?

      February 17, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
  9. April

    Stephanie, I do not think baptism is necessary to salvation. So, we'll just have to disagree on that point 🙂

    Joseph Smith interpreted the Bible to suit his own puposes in life. In the passage he used to call for posthumous proxy baptism, Paul is actually calling that practice into question, not advocating for it. No one group of Christians has any idea of who will be saved. It has nothing to do with baptism, having your name read in a ceremony, etc. It is about what God does. And we aren't privy to that.

    Also, why is it that atheists and agnostics use every possible chance to belittle Christians? Express your opinion on the article and move on. Repeatedly bashing people for their beliefs just shows how little you have to offer discussions like this.

    February 17, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
    • Stephanie Youell

      April, if baptism is not essential to salvation then why did the Apostle and Disciples continually and continuously baptize all that they could during the early days of the church? What exactly do you think baptism is for?

      February 17, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
    • Adam

      makin chedda

      February 17, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
    • John

      Actually, the Corinthians had a problem dealing with the resurection and he pointed out that it would be pointless to continue baptizing for the dead if there was no such thing. He wasn't calling the practice of baptism for the dead into question, he was trying to re-teach them the doctrinal point of the resurrection.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
  10. Truth-Bomb Thrower

    CNN, how much does the DNC pay you to do it's dirty work? Or do you just do it out of an inherent sense of loyalty? I'm not a Mormon, nor could I ever be a Mormon, but all of the negative stories you have done on Mormonism over the last few months are not coincidental. Your left-wing staff is obviously doing everything it can to help get Obama re-elected. It's like you no longer even care that people see you as an extension of the democratic party instead of a creditable news service. Have you seen your ranking in the ratings lately? Do you ever wonder why you are there? Maybe you should give objectivity and journalistic integrity a shot.

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

      Like

      February 17, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
    • Jose

      So reporting on news that happened makes one a left wing operative? You're an idiot. Sorry, but if something controversial is going on, it's the media's responsibility to report. Just cos it might paint Romney's religion in a negative light, doesn't necessarily mean it's biased. You really don't have any idea of what the media's role in this country is.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
    • Gerald

      Seems to me with a mormon running for pres it's only reasonable there'd be increased interest in this ridiculous religion. If it were a scientologist (talk about silly) we'd be reading about them. And when it comes to bias look to Fox and note what extreme bias is.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
    • GAW

      Welcome to the world of Free Speech. You don't have to like or agree with everything you read nor are you expected too. If you really don't like it there may be some prime real estate in Antarctica for you. Make sure you don't bring your computer or a TV.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
  11. Mark

    Religion poisons everything. Forcing a child into a RELIGION IS CHILD ABUSE. god is just an imaginary friend for adults

    February 17, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
    • Uncouth Swain

      So..you do not "force" anything you believe in onto your children? I find that hard to fathom.

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

      Don't worry, Mark – maybe somebody will get baptized for your after you're dead. Not that it matters, because you're going to be judged for your life, not your death! And then God, the one you called an "imaginary friend", will have the last laugh.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
  12. JW

    If the Mormons truly believed the Bible they would understand this: "It is appointed unto man once to die, and after this the judgment." People make their choices before they die, and no one can make that choice for them. However, it is imperative and loving to pray for the whole world, preach the gospel to all creatures, as Jesus commanded. That is what they should be spending their time and money doing. Mormons also do not believe there is a hell, so I still think that they don't believe what the Bible teaches. God will make sure that all whom He has called and chosen will make it to heaven, and He will give everyone a fair chance to choose to respect and obey Him, or choose to do evil. God is just, and knows each heart. Everyone has a conscience, and even if they do not hear the gospel, if they have a repentant heart, I think God will regard that.

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

      I am a Mormon for 24 years now. I taught Sunday School for 4 years and served a mission. You are wrong when you say we don't believe in hell. I can assure you that we believe in hell. It's in our doctrine. It's plainly taught in the Bible, which we also believe. There is a hell and there is a heaven. You can't have one without the other.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  13. GAW

    How odd that a practice that is mentioned only once in the New Testament and then no where else in early church history has now become and important practice in LDS church.

    February 17, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
  14. ib42

    Same reason baptists do it to babies. Ignorance and arrogance and greed, for money and power over their dumb victims.

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

      Uh, baptists don't baptize children.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
    • Robin

      Baptists don't baptize, they do a "dedication ceremony". Only when a person is old enough to make a conscious choice for it do they baptize. I believe it is the Catholic church that baptizes infants.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
    • John

      Catholics idiot

      February 17, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
  15. Tiny Tim

    Better late than never?

    February 17, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
  16. Jim Rousch

    I was baptized as an infant. Baptize me after death and my spirit will cut your brake cables.

    And then, after you go through the windshield and your car goes off the cliff, I'll kick your ass.

    Have a nice day.

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

      XD same here !!

      February 17, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
  17. Lewis (Zenovay) Hrytzak

    The "nations, tribes, peoples and tongues" of the earth (dead or alive) have God's promise that they "will bless themselves" by means of the 'promised seed' which, according to Scripture, will take place in what Jesus called, "the age to come" (i.e., his return). On the other hand, those who accept the promised Messiah (Christ Jesus) in 'this age' have the marvellous hope of being part of that promised seed through whom such ones will bless themselves." (See Gen. 22:18; Galatians 3:16, 29)

    February 17, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
    • ib42

      Whatever you're smoking, where can I get some?

      February 17, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
  18. Steve

    What is not made clear in this article, because the Mormon spokesperson didn't want to offend with the truth, is that Mormons also baptize dead Christians who were baptized in their church when alive. They do this because the only baptism that is valid is a Mormon baptism, for only the Mormon Priesthood has authority from God to perform baptism or any other sacred ordinance. All baptisms by other Christian churches are invalid before God and no one who is not baptized by the Mormon Priesthood and accepted Joseph Smith as a true prophet of God will be allowed into God's presence in the Celestial Kingdom.

    February 17, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
  19. Rufus Hornswoggle

    Why is it that there is always someone else who thinks that they know what is best for you.....? And now, I learn that there are those who still do even after I'm dead?! Could this be another form of religious "terrorism"? "Convert now or we'll do it for you later!" I accept that the intent may be good and honorable but it also has the "odor" of ignorance and arrogance...not to mention selfishness. Believe me, if there is a "door" in the afterlife and the Mormons knock on it, I'll shut it in their faces...just like I do now with people who think and believe that "their" way is the right way...

    February 17, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
    • Indy2

      Rufus:

      We are going to drag you kicking and screaming all the way to heaven 🙂 – the Mormons

      February 17, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
  20. DT

    The only offense I would take in regards to posthumous anything is how it impacts the living. If it offends the surviving family then hands off. I have raised my children to be open minded moral individuals so unless it somehow interferes with my final wishes I doubt they would care about some silly ritual a confused individual or group performs on my behalf to please some deity that doesnt exist.... whooptee doodle doo

    February 17, 2012 at 1:05 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.