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)

    -All atheists believe in evolution, which means they don't believe in morality and think we should all act like animals.

    -Atheists try to shift the burden of proof unfairly upon theists (ie, atheists make the wild and unprovable claim that God does not exist, and then unfairly expect us Christians to prove that He DOES exist)

    -The Bible says atheism is wrong, and the Bible is always right (see: Genesis 1:1, Psalms 14:1, Psalms 19:1, Romans 1:19-20)

    -Some famous atheists have shown they occasionally have doubts about their disbelief, which proves that all atheists really do believe in God. Of course, no Christian has ever doubted the existence of God.

    -Everybody who has ever been in the army will tell you that there are no atheists in foxholes. That is, once they are in danger of death, the atheist will strip himself of his irrational disbelief in God, and come to admit he believed in God all along. Only liberal slimebags like MSNBC report otherwise.

    -Communism, which is inherently evil, is founded by atheism, and all atheists are probably secret communists.

    -Because we can think of the existence of God, God must obviously exists, and therefore atheists are illogical.

    -Everything in the universe shows obvious and undeniable signs that it was created by a mind far superior to our own.

    – A lot of mass murderers were atheists, and all atheists, having no morality to guide them, are only a bad day away from going on a genocide spree. There have no exactly zero cases on Christian mass murderers throughout all of history.

    – No atheists contribute to charitable causes, and all Christians do. This is because of atheist's beliefs in Darwinism.

    -Atheists don't believe in miracles, although many Christian philosophers disagree.

    -atheism cannot explain the origins of the universe, therefore God exists.

    -Atheists have more mental and physical health problems than Christians. This is attributed to theists having something more to life for. Therefore, God exists.

    -Friedrich Nietzsche went crazy and was an atheist, therefore atheism drove him insane (although there is an ongoing debate on the matter...)

    -Countries with large numbers of atheists have higher suicide rates, therefore atheism makes you want to kill yourself. Of course they would take the easy way out, not realizing like normal people that God sends suicide cases to hell. Also, developed nations also tend to have higher rates of both atheism and suicide, so we must conclude that technology and wealth are evil.

    -Sigmund Freud said religious belief was unhealthy, but many doctors think Freud is wrong, therefore atheism is evil.

    -Many famous atheists tell lies, therefore atheists are deceptive.

    -Notable atheists have converted to Christianity. The reverse never happens.

    -atheists make bad arguments on the internet, says Christian apologist.

    -atheists try to convert young people to atheism over the internet. Christians, of course, never stop to such behavior.

    -Nearly a quarter or a third of philosophy professors are theists, therefore, I quote: "God is not 'dead' in academia; he returned to life in the 1960's and is now alive and well in his last academic stronghold, philosophy departments."

    -atheists do not really exist, they just pretend that they don't believe in God.

    -atheism brought upon the French Revolution, one of the most evil events of all of history.

    -atheists make up a small percentage of the world population, therefore it is wrong.

    -a lot of famous people said bad stuff about atheists

    February 17, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
    • JJ Jukebox

      I was wondering......were you dropped on your head when you were a baby?

      February 17, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      I think "Fallacy Spotting 101" has their work cut out for them with you.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
    • Chuckles

      Poe's Law in action

      At least, for my faith in humanity, I hope this is the case.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
    • hippypoet

      "-atheists do not really exist, they just pretend that they don't believe in God."

      my favorite but followed closely by...

      "-Because we can think of the existence of God, God must obviously exists, and therefore atheists are illogical."

      just beautiful... 🙂

      February 17, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
  2. Gail D

    Additionally, (and I know because I studied the religion for 3 years), the further back you baptize your ancestors, the higher place you will receive in heaven. Oh, yeah ! they believe in levels of greatness in heaven. I have also studied 6 other major religions, but must say, the dogma of the LDS has holes to rival a Swiss Cheese.

    February 17, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
    • LinSea

      Maybe you studied it, but your level of comprehension is off. Your statement "the further back you baptize your ancestors, the higher place you will receive in heaven" is completely wrong.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • C from Iowa

      Hi Gail D – You appear to have misunderstood the Mormon teachings. Lin Sea is correct.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • jn3792

      Maybe you don't know an understand as much as you think. Claim number 1 is untrue and claim number 2 (levels in heaven) is biblical (for example, see 2 Corinthians 12:2-4 and 1 Corinthians 15:40-41). If your interpretation of the Bible is different, that is fine, but it doesn't mean the theology of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints 'has holes to rival Swiss cheese'.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
    • Adam

      This post is totally wrong. Check your sources. If you want to learn about Mormons, go talk with a Mormon rather than some anti-Mormon pastor who doesn't like them and fills you with lies.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
  3. JP

    FYI - Ancestry.com is promoted by the LDS Church..... guess they needs to get a bigger list of dead people to baptize !

    February 17, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
    • N&W 1000

      Get a pen and pad and scour the graveyards.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
  4. Drew

    Young Mormons are not encouraged to participate, they're forced to by their twisted parents and church "elders"...

    February 17, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
    • N&W 1000

      Today's LDS member is woefully ignorant of the Church's past and it's distinctive doctrines.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
    • Adam

      Incorrect, its all voluntary.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
  5. NoTags

    Baptism is not necessary for salvation. The LDS Church should read and understand Ephesians 2:8-9.

    February 17, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
    • jn3792

      what about John 3:3-5 and Mark 16:15-16?

      February 17, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
    • N&W 1000

      The passage in John you refer to says he that is born of water, i.e., the natural birthing process of a baby leaving the womb, and those born of the spirit, i.e., the redemptive work of Christ.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
  6. April

    LOL! Guess that three year master's degree studying the Bible taught me nothing. Oh wait, baptism simply means "being covered with water." It is never given a place of salvific significance. It simply shows an outward sign of an inward change. The people at Cornelius' house in Acts 10 were filled with the Holy Spirit BEFORE they were baptized. 🙂

    February 17, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
    • Accuracy International

      Everyone has the right to feel the Holy Ghost, with or without baptism. Only those baptised properly receive the "Gift" of the Holy Ghost, as shown in Jesus's baptism.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
    • N&W 1000

      April, you are correct.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
    • Adam

      John 3:5 says April is wrong. Its more than simply a nice thing to do. Its essential.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
    • N&W 1000

      April is correct, you are mistaken.

      Being "born of water," is how EVERY person comes into this world, i.e., pregnant women often say "My water broke," in other words, it is time to get to the doctor.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
  7. Accuracy International

    If Jesus was perfect, why was he baptised, if baptism washes away sins for a "rebirth". God is just, and to be just, all must obey the same law, baptism being one of them. So even Jesus, perfect as he was, needed to be baptised. It is no stretch to then acknowledge that ALL people must be baptised and given the opportunity of such...with a baptism that is authorized by God and not by someone who happen to study in a bible school and wants to perform baptisms.

    February 17, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
    • N&W 1000

      Are you a front group for LDS?

      February 17, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
    • Gail D

      Because in a human state, he had free will, and inherently subject to original sin. ALSO, to set the example for others, because he knew the skeptic mind of man.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
    • JP

      This is a Catholic Church error – sin is removed by confessing it to God, repenting and having a change of behavior. Also, Holy Water is a pretend thing created by religion, not Jesus !

      February 17, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
  8. Joseph Smity

    When Joseph Smith made up mormonism, he copied it from one of his occult books he loved to read. The god "Mormos" is the god of the dead. Mormons call themselves "latter day saints" only in certain countries because Mormon is a pagan god like the devil. In defense of mormons, I have found most all of them to be wonderful people with good family values. It is a shame they dont look at where their religion really came from objectively.

    February 17, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
    • N&W 1000

      Smith's story came from three primary sources:

      1. The KJV bible, from which he plagiarized freely.
      2. The Freemason legend of Enoch.
      3. A book called A View of the Hebrews, which alleged American Indians were the descendants of Jews.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • Adam

      Go read the Book of Mormon and find out the truth. You say things that you really know nothing about. Go read and find the truth.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
  9. chas

    Bet ya they have never performed the ritual for any Black people, who they considered less than human until recently, however due to the simple wrongness of their beliefs maybe the Black church should start to secretly baptize them inorder that they may see the kingdom of heaven. Oh I forgot you must come to Christ willingly on your own, tough break guys.

    February 17, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
    • N&W 1000

      It would be fun to see who could baptize more of the other group.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
  10. N&W 1000

    In the very first edition of the Book of Mormon, the 1820 version, it promised the American Indians that if they would accept the Mormon gospel their red skins would turn "white and delightsome."

    February 17, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
    • C from Iowa

      I find it interesting that you would cite your information from an 1820 version of the Book of Mormon, because it was first published in 1830. Perhaps you were mistaken?

      February 17, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • N&W 1000

      Please pardon my typo; instead, focus on the heresy that was written instead of my mistake.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
  11. N&W 1000

    What a load of horse manure.
    Proxy baptism for the dead is mentioned only ONE time in scripture, by Paul in Corinthians. He says the HEATHEN do this.
    LDS, go ahead and identify yourself with the heathen if you wish.

    February 17, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
    • JamesofFaith

      Help me understand how you are making the "heathen" connection here.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • N&W 1000

      1st Corinthians 15:29. Paul says "They" baptize for the dead; not the Christian Church.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • LinSea

      The word 'heathen' doesn't appear in or anywhere near the verse where Paul talks about it, at least in the King James Version of the Bible.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
  12. Truthship

    It was surprising to see the LDS apologize for baptizing Jews. I too deserve that consideration.
    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 Mormon Church apologized for racism too?

    February 17, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
    • trushship?

      I don't think the mormon church was apologizing for the practice of baptism for the dead, but apologizing for baptizing people they had previously said they would hold off on.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
  13. Alberto

    Joseph Smith is not the founder and author of our faith. He was a prophet of Jessus Christ who restored the lost gospelfor these last days since 1800's. Jesus is the founder. Joseph Smith was a prophet like Peter, Paul and the apostles from the antient time. Joseph Smith was an instrument of Jesus to bring up his church again. Don't get confused here.

    February 17, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
    • ImWithJeebus

      Joseph Smith was a whacko nut job.

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

      Joseph Smith was a drunken treasure hunter.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
    • Carlos

      Is there archeological evidence to support this?

      February 17, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
  14. Emperor Vadik, CA

    The problem with Christian religion (all versions of it) is that you don't have to be a good person to receive the rewards of heaven...

    ...you just have to believe in this mythical guy called Jesus...

    ...all sins are forgiven, and you can keep going on with your evil ways, as long as you believe in this guy called Jehehehesuuus

    February 17, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
    • ImWithJeebus

      If that's what you think, you know nothing about Christianity. "Christians" who feel this way are very misled.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
  15. Lou

    Mormon baptisms are meaningless. It would mean something if Mormons were actually Christians. Any group that believes that, when they die, they will become "God" of their own planet has clearly not read the bible.

    February 17, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
    • Truthship

      That is true, not to mention that they still believe in polygamy since if you remarry after your wife dies, you then have two wives for all time and eternity.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
  16. Cindy

    Mormons baptize the dead because they are a non-christian cult. We need to listen to our ancestors and understand why they killed the mormon prophet and chased them accross the country.

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

      Thank you for stating Satans position so clearly.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
    • Cindy

      Are you calling our Christian ancestors satan?

      February 17, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
    • Rube

      Wow, I can't believe what said. You condoned mobs chasing people from homes they built on land they bought AND murder. Makes me sick. I don't know if your Christian, but I have a hard time picturing Jesus Christ doing that or any decent human.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
  17. Keith

    Ummm... self-righteousness?

    Mitten's father-in-law was a devout atheist. So if we take the religeous view, we must conclude he went zipping straight to Hades upon his death.

    Mittens then force-converts his dead father-in-law to Mormonism. So presumably that means his father-in-law went zipping out of Hades to be the god of his own planet.

    Then Maher was kind enough to conduct a ritual to convert the guy back to atheism. I guess that means the guy immediately lost his god status of his own planet and was promptly shipped back to Hades.

    Now... can the Catholic Church be paid indulgencies to buy the guy back out of hades? And if so, what's the price tag? I mean, this makes completely sense. We're talking about a god that clearly embraces all aspects of capitalism. Therefore it must be just a matter of naming the right price, right?

    ...and are these all Pirate Laws, or really just Pirate Guidelines?

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

      OK that was funny!

      February 17, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
    • C from Iowa

      Hi Keith,

      You might want to double-check the section of the article that deals with the question, "So are all those who are baptized after death considered Mormon?" It will help you to better understand what happens to the dead for whom the Mormons are baptized.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
  18. toad

    these articles sure bring out the haters..would be nice if some of these uniformed bigots would be made to verify their ridiculous assertions...for those with an open mind, if you want to know about "MORMONS" , ask one. if you dont share the same testimonys, that ok with us ....and you wont find us bashing and lying about other faiths either

    February 17, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
  19. hkraznodar

    The article is essentially correct in detailing our doctrine. As for those that dislike our practice of baptism of the dead; I have a couple of thoughts. First, if you think we are wrong then you must think we have no power to act in God's name so what we are doing would then be a waste of time. I don't mind if you waste hours of your time every year so why are you so uptight about how I spend my time?

    Secondly, the Jews are justifiably irate about people messing around with a truly horrific event. The problem is that many of the holocaust victims have living Mormon descendents that have every right to honor their relatives any way they see fit. If a Mormon does a baptism for a deceased person they have no connection to and that person has living descendents, then by our doctrine that person is sinning against those living descendents. Just as not all Muslims are terrorists and not all Jews are bankers, not all Mormons are insensitive jerks. We have our share of insensitive jerks mind you, but no more than any other group.

    February 17, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
    • penquin

      I am offended because I would not want anyone to think that I prescribe to the Mormon faith. I would not want myself or any of my relatives who have passed to be listed anywhere as Mormons. My loved ones would have died in the faith of their choosing, or the faith they were raised in; they do not need some living descendant who has made the choice to be Mormon taking their faith from them. That is the way I would look at it. How would you feel if someone made the choice to baptize you in another faith? If all of a sudden you were listed as Lutheran or Baptist or Catholic?
      BTW – I do have family that are Mormon and I have read the Book of Mormon as well. Just do not choose to believe in my God or Jesus Christ in that way. I believe in freedom of religion – you are free to believe or not, up to you. As long as you treat your fellow man with fairness, love and compassion you can attain heaven.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
    • C from Iowa

      Hi penguin, You might want to check out the section of the article that answers the question, "So are all those who are baptized after death considered Mormon?" It helps to explain that nobody's faith is taken from them, but they are simply offered the choice whether to accept the baptism.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
  20. rybl101

    Mormonism is so strange.

    They totally pray to the wrong cosmic, magic, Jewish zombie who is his own Dad.


    February 17, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
    • hkraznodar

      Hey! Zombies need love too!

      February 17, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
    • David West

      As a Mormon, I can testify that Jesus is not his own Father. They are two very distinct individuals with one purpose – all of mankind's salvation.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
    • rybl101

      At lease I got the cosmic, magic, Jewish zombie part right though...

      February 17, 2012 at 1:34 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.