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. Rita

    I am a Hindu and I don't believe in all this Mormon crap. Save yourselves some time and don't even bother to offer me this. Stupid Mormons!

    February 17, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
  2. Atheism is NOT healthy for our children and living things

    Prayer changes....

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

      Prayer changes nothing. People change everything.

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

      I disagree entirely. Morality existed before christianity and will continue to exist wherever there is life. A closed mind is worst than Atheism. Keep an open mind and dont brainwash your children. Churchschool, bible study etc = brainwashing and it robs many individuals the ability to keep an open mind. I dont send my kids to atheist school, they know I accept the truths science has provided. They are free to believe in a deity if they choose.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
  3. nowaybro

    because they are arrogant....

    February 17, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
  4. April

    I wanted to reply to you, Stephanie, but CNN won't let me comment right under your question.

    In New Testament times, baptism was actually a very common practice among Jews. It was a ritual cleansing, a recommitting. It was something done often, actually. Ritual washing didn't save Jews. It was an outward sign of an inward commitment.

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

      Ritual washing is not the same as baptizing.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
    • Stephanie Youell

      April, Judaism and Christianity are not the same religion so I don’t see the correlation you are trying to represent.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
  5. Danno

    Morman beliefs are just as silly as Catholic beliefs. God impregnates a virgin to have his human baby, just so the baby could grow up to be killed and then return to heaven? To save us from "original sin" (hilarious and completely fabricated)? That makes no sense. At all.

    I'd rather have a president that believes in science and the physical world, AKA reality, instead of someone that believes in an insecure man in the clouds that created humans just so we could worship "Him". So it doesn't matter if we have a Catholic, Mormon, Jew, or Muslim in the White House.... none of it is real.

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

      Have you ever studied psychology? You can't even be sure of your own reality so your own opinion can be called just as silly based on your standards.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
    • *facepalm*

      @Nick – nice play. When confront with your own ridiculous beliefs, just deflect with some lame existential argument.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
    • Danno

      We can't be sure what our own reality is, therefore we must become believe in a belief structure that other clueless people force upon us?

      Makes a LOT of sense.

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

      Danno, perhaps it is better for you to research things in life before you write this. Your own words will condemned you. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is based on revelation of God not the Philosophy of men.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
  6. zephyr

    "Why do Mormons practice proxy baptism for the dead?" Because as with all other religious kooks, they think they have the answer for everyone, whether they ask for it or not. Personally, I don't think baptism means anything. If we are to be judged, it will be for how we lived our lives. Not for whether or not we had some water sprinkled on us.

    February 17, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
  7. Flowers

    The Vatican warned Catholic dioceses via a letter from the Pope in 2008 of Mormons attempting "rebaptisms" of dead Catholics. The dioceses upped regulations on the issuance of baptismal certificates where now, only a priest or the living Catholic himself/herself can request a copy. From what I know, the Church will only issue a baptismal certificate of the dead if it is requested by a family member who can prove to be a relation. While I empathize with the followers of Judaism on this, as a Catholic, the thought of someone baptizing me when I am dead, seems pretty stupid to me and irrelevant. I find it more interesting that a tenant of the Mormon faith is to be cowardly, i.e., convert dead people; I mean at least the Jehovah Witnesses try to shake one down who is living. It takes courage and commitment to one's faith to have thousands of doors slammed in one's face.

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

      You've never had a Mormon missionary knock on your door?

      February 17, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
    • Brian

      Haven't you ever seen any Mormon missionaries. There are about 60,000 of them out in the world getting doors slammed in their faces everyday. Mormons are not cowards, as your post seems to imply. Mormons are doing everything they can to provide soul saving opportunities to everyone dead or alive. They see it as a service.
      As the article says, it's totally non-binding. It simply gives dead souls an option to accept the baptism or not.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
  8. m

    This is another case of religion thinking it knows better than the indvidual what is best for them, even after death. The mormons don't own the right to anyone's death or life. To begin with the fairytale gawd they & others believe in doesn't even exist. It is a fabrication made up over time and twisted to fit the needs of those in control. More over they nor anyone else own a right to a death that they know what is best for a person. Until this kind of insanity stops, humanity is doomed to be screwed up.

    February 17, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
  9. Don

    You can be sure that if a Church name has two "of's in it (for example The Church "of" Jesus Christ "of" Lader Day Saints), it is the creation of a man. This is not the church that Jesus Christ established. And as a result this is the type of stuff you get. Baptizing the dead. In Jesus own words Mark 16:16, "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved, but he that believeth not shall be condemned". No how do you suppose the dead can do that? And one other thing, wherever there is no authority in the Bible for something, and churches are practicing something, you can bet that man has added unto.

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

      The "of Latter-Day Saints" (not "Lader") part means followers of Christ living now as opposed to those who lived during Biblical times. And yes, baptism is absolutely a requirement for salvation. So what about the people who lived without ever having the chance to be baptized? Would God be so unfair as to condemn someone who never had the chance to hear about Christ and be baptized? I don't think so.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
  10. Spam Eater

    CNN, you aren't fooling anyone with the recent spate of Mormon bashing articles. It's nothing more than an attempt to stir up anti-Romney sentiment because he is a Mormon. If it's OK for obama to be a member of an g.dd... America clan, and for Harry Reid to be a Mormon, why are you so anti-Mormon. Never mind, the answer to that is obvious.

    P.S....I'm not a Mormon or even religious for that matter.

    February 17, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
  11. Pete

    Why? I'm guessing so their zombie army can one day rise from the dead and rule the earth.

    February 17, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
  12. nena

    Kudos to Dan Gilgoff for a clear explanation without sensationalizing or criticizing. I'm LDS and appreciate the care he took to ensure this article's accuracy. I hope he will be given a chance to report on my church's doctrine again.

    February 17, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
  13. Laverne

    Once a person is dead it is to late for salvation. The body is just a cavity without a spirit or soul at that point. There is no way I can be convinced that what mormons teach is correct let alone make any sense at all. People are free to believe what they want to and practice whatever religion they want to, but the mormons sure have some strange practices!

    February 17, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
  14. Matt

    Jesus said, "Leave the dead to bury their own dead" Oftentimes in scripture the word dead refers to their spiriitual standing before God. The dead here are the spiritual dead or unsaved. The mormons have taken the scripture and twisted it into something that is not true. True salvation is found by placing your faith in Christ. "There is no other name under heaven by which we must be saved." Pretty clear.

    February 17, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
  15. Steve

    Personally I think the whole lot of them are nuttier than a squirrel on acid!

    February 17, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
  16. sftommy

    Biological phenomena; Mormon's get a feel good kick of brain chemicals for "saving" someone beyond saving. Church as social organization controls it's members with it. Religion is all about people controlling people, not paths to God.

    February 17, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
  17. RdWhtNBlu

    Reading this article clearly shows that religious leaders just make it up as they go. Weak people are uncomfortable with the fact that life is just a beautiful mystery. No one that has ever lived has communicated with any higher power and religious leaders are comfortable preaching that the Bible is the word of the Lord and I don't think they believe it themselves in many instances. Concluding that all religions should be known to not be true and disbanded is the only way peace on Earth can happen. So many millions act as if they believe this load of crap that it will never happen, but it is the only path to true peace.

    February 17, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
  18. Suisse008

    1 Cor 15:29 Paul taught this same principle. It is not something new.

    February 17, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
  19. Dawn H

    an Incredibly Arrogant practice.... Its not their job or their choice, .... so, Go sing a low note somewhere in your Utah prison, and leave the world alone.... sounds like the arrogance Romney is displaying, that he knows better than everyone else... and has our backs against the wall....

    February 17, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
  20. Mark in New Orleans

    What a bunch of nonsense. The older I get (now 55) and the more I read and learn about religion the more anti-relgion I become. If religion helps you get through the day or your life and helps give you a moral compass that results in the world being a better place that is great. It doesn't work for me. My moral compass is fine without religion. I choose to focus on doing what I can to make the world a better place today, and not worry about some promise of salvation and eternal life. I wish more people would do the same and stop arguing and fighting over which god is the true god or which religion is the key to salvation. If there is a God, whcih I doubt, I don't think he would be too impressed with much of what goes on in the name of relgion today.

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

      Amen brother.

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

      You're right Mark. Jesus said he hated religion. And I agree I think he would be very unhappy with the way the religious people of today are. He was never looking for relgious people, he was lookng for people to sincerely follow him. Instead of looking at all the relgions, I encourage you to look at Jesus. Maybe you'll see something you like a little better. You are loved!

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

      Very well put.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:56 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.