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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. Bryan

    Why does Rev Jeremiah Wright call America the USKKK of A? How can Obama sit in his pew for 20 years and get a pass from the media that "He didn't hear any of that when he was there?"

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

      It's 1:49 pm. Your meds were due almost an hour ago.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
    • Naija

      Ah!!!!! Tea Time,would you like some Xanax with it?

      February 17, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
  2. Skeptic

    By baptizing "the dead" the Mormons rob these people of their free will and may actually be in violation of the person's beliefs such as baptizing the Jews. The practice is both heinous and arrogant.

    February 17, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • Bringham Traves

      Its a beautiful gift that they have the oppurtunity to accept or deny...Its a blessing and the most wonderful thing a person can do for another and show their love for them. I will pray your name is written in the book and that the waters pour over you.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
  3. Bringham Traves

    The importance of baptizing the dead is something I can not express strongly enough. Joesph Smith was given the word in all its power and glory and then pass it on to us to make sure that not a soul goes without the oppurtunity of accepting Christ. Your whole life is meaningless and all you accomplish is trivial without Jesus and this gives those who missed their chance in life another oppurtunity to make right with our saviour..

    February 17, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • tickled

      I'll keep asking:
      How do they give that chance to all the people that lived on the earth that have no records of their lives.

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

      Hogwash

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

      Joseph Smith was a con man. Not holy, not divine.... He does not decide who gets to believe what, and neither do you. Leave people alone and keep your unprovable, no-evidence-having, BS to yourself.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • Tee Bee

      Joseph Smith was a liar.

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

      Joseph Smith, like all prophets, was mentally ill.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
    • Bringham Traves

      I pray that each and everyone of you will one day be at my fathers table and have the chance to speak with Joesph Smith and Bringham Young and they can tell you how even with your harsh words they accept and loved you. Prayers for you all, and baptism for each and all of you.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
    • Mike

      @tickled – Not all of it will be completed before Christ returns. After that, there will be other means of completing the work.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
    • Naija

      There is Comet with your name on it,I think you better get the potion ready so you don't miss the next one.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
    • markd

      J smith was nothing more than a power hungry guy who wanted to create a cult so he could have power. He wanted to have all of the women he could find and had to move to the middle of no where to get way from those who knew better. It has even been proposed that his gang started all of the violence in the midwest that made them move. He couldn't have done it without isolating his cult members from others who would teach them the real truth.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
    • Bringham Traves

      Our saviour loves you Naija.. The waters will cleanse you.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
    • Naija

      Keep your water but I do wonder how people get sucked into things that don't even make any rational sense,for the record Jesus has never been to North America or anywhere in the Americas for that matter.You are in a cult,I am not religious or care either if you spend you entire life baptizing dead people,It will keep you away from the living.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
  4. Naija

    I am from Africa,and I know the Mormons just started allowing blacks into their church not long ago,I am hoping they can baptize my whole continent.Knowing that Christianity did not reach us for a long time should keep them busy for the next thousand years.After that they can start baptizing the Muslims,Hindu,and any other religion they deem inferior to their God.

    February 17, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • Bringham Traves

      We have started the work in the places you mention. I now ask that you please go to your nearest temple so you can help in the good work and be baptized to know God. Yes you were only recently (60's) accepted into the church, but that is now because we know through baptism that you can be saved and your marked skin and the curse from God can be removed.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • Think!

      @Bringham: Wow..hope you are being sarcastic, if not that is one of the most bigoted, rude, raciest things on this blog

      February 17, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
    • Bringham Traves

      No sarcasm, and not to be offensive, just a truth that Joesph was told that the skin had been darkened of some people because of the choices they made, but salvation is still theirs for the taking like for all of us.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      1. "The Juvenile Instructor" is an LDS tome used to indoctrinate children.
      Here is an excerpt from an early edition:
      "We will first inquire into the results of the approbation or displeasure of God upon a people, starting with the belief that a black skin is a mark of the curse of Heaven placed upon some portions of mankind. Some, however, will argue that a black skin is not a curse, nor a white skin a blessing. In fact, some have been so foolish as to believe and say that a black skin is a blessing, and that the ne.gro is the finest type of a perfect man that exists on the earth; but to us such teachings are foolishness.
      We understand that when God made man in his own image and pronounced him very good, that he made him white. We have no record of any of God's favored servants being of a black race...every angel who ever brought a message of God's mercy to man was beautiful to look upon, clad in the purest white and with a countenance bright as the noonday sun. (Juvenile Instructor, Vol. 3, page 157)
      100 years later, LDS followers became more "tolerant" and published statements like this:
      "I would not want you to believe that we bear any animosity toward the Neg.ro. Dar.kies are wonderful people, and they have their place in our church."
      – Joseph Fielding Smith, Look magazine, October 22, 1963, page 79
      In 1947, Dr. Lowry Nelson – a Mormon himself – sent a letter to the Mormon First Presidency questioning the official racist doctrines.
      The reply he received said, in part:
      "From the days of the Prophet Joseph Smith even until now, it is has been the doctrine of the Church, never questioned by any of the Church leaders, that the Neg.roes are not ent.itled to the full blessings of the Gospel.
      "Furthermore your ideas, as we understand them, appear to contemplate the intermarriage of the Neg.ro and White races, a concept which has heretofore been most repugnant to most normal-minded people from the ancient partiarchs till now. God's rule for Israel, His Chosen People, has been endogamous."
      – George Albert Smith J. Reuben Clark, Jr. David O. McKay
      Finally, in 1978 the Mormons had a revelation allowing blacks into the priesthood – conveniently at the exact time that they were expanding beyond the U.S. into countries full of "cursed" people, like Brazil.
      Today, while there is no official policy of segregation, the old prejudices still exist.
      Black LDS church member Darron Smith wrote in 2003:
      "Even though the priesthood ban was repealed in 1978, the discourse that constructs what blackness means is still very much intact today. Under the direction of President Spencer W. Kimball, the First Presidency and the Twelve removed the policy that denied black people the priesthood but did very little to disrupt the multiple discourses that had fostered the policy in the first place. Hence there are Church members today who continue to summon and teach at every level of Church education the racial discourse that black people are descendants of Cain, that they merited lesser earthly privilege because they were "fence-sitters" in the War in Heaven, and that, science and climatic factors aside, there is a link between skin color and righteousness"

      February 17, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
    • Naija

      @Doc Vestibule,My sentiment exactly,I don't like religion, I especially don't like people or religion that flip flops.If the foundation of something is built on bad footing,it will take uprooting the structure to get it right,and by then it will have to be named something entirely different from the Original. Mormons are still a racist bunch,they have a lot of misguided members that are looking for something new to believe or belong to.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
  5. Gail D

    Ah, Religion and Politics !!!

    February 17, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
  6. hilreal

    Any God that is as violent as the Judeo-Christian on is scary. Look at the bible. Every time he gets p o'd he slaughters a bunch of people, even innocent ones (first born, all of the animals on the planet in the flood,e tc). I think they created god in their image not the other way around. I would prefer that god be created in the image of a dog rather than a human, kind, faithful, loving, non-judgemental, etc.

    February 17, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • JJ Jukebox

      dude! That was a great post. Thank you for your thoughts! You are totally correct......A dog is more compassionate than the God of the Old Testament.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
  7. Duke5343

    DIG that DIRTY Laundry CNN- WHY not just announce Obama elected to Second term & IF He loses you can deny he lost- this is as LOW as spending time & money to obtain 24,000 emails when Palin was GOV- Lower than Whale DOO DOO

    February 17, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • Bob

      What? Your mommy is making you look thru want ads again?

      February 17, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • Duke5343

      OK what are you trying to say, you sound like a liberal on Ludes

      February 17, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
  8. sonofgadfly

    How presumtuous. I don't even believe in an afterlife, but if there were one, do these knuckleheads actually think millions of good people are condemned to eternal suffering if not for THEIR "help"?

    February 17, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • Tee Bee

      Yep, the knuckleheads (and that's a very mild term for them) do believe just that.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
    • Steve

      We don't believe they will suffer for eternity if they don't accept baptism.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
  9. rybl101

    "When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours."

    February 17, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • Duke5343

      And for those of us who keep UP on science the Astrophysics took what they call the GOD picture of space showing interconnection of matter and antimatter showing how energy is connected thru all of space and time- when one looks at the beauty and size of the universe one would hard pressed to NOT believe in supeiro beings-

      February 17, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
    • Think!

      Define superior beings, aliens? other forms of life? creatures of pure energy?...all that is more believable and possible than actual omnipresent gods...

      February 17, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
  10. Lynda Wells

    When we baptize the dead we give them the opportunity to join the church, but seriously, do we think that any of them turn that opportunity down? Of course not. They are in spirit prison and they have been taught about the Church of Jesus Christ and the Plan of Salvation. Whether you like it or not, your ancestors are ecstatic when they are finally baptized. All the signers of the Declaratino of Independence and many of the founding fathers PERSONALLY appeared in spirit to the prophet Wilford Woodruff in 1877 in the St. George Utah temple and demanded that their temple work be done. They might have been Christian at one time, but they're Mormon now. Deal with it. YOU will have to apologize to your ancestors while you're in spirit prison with them awaiting your work to be done if you prohibit it from being done now. Is that a chance you want to take?

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

      Booga-booga.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • Billy

      you're a crazy

      February 17, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • tickled

      Still waiting for a good answer:
      How do you give that chance to all the people that lived on the earth that have no records of their lives.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • Abraham

      Since it can't be disproven, it must be true! I know for a fact that my ancestors think that religion is silly because they have PERSONALLY appeared before me on pieces of toast.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • *sigh*

      This makes no sense whatsoever. The mormon mind is a strange thing. A vote for Romney is a vote to have your dead ancestors Mormonized.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
    • Tee Bee

      Of all the organized religions in our country, this has got to be the most insane.

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

      I think you have already flew past the cuckoo's nest,you are crazier than a lonely cat hording lady.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
    • Mason

      That is pure Hocus Pocus. That is such a rude thing to puch your hocus pocus on a defenseless dead person. shame on you. Keep your beliefs to yourself!

      February 17, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
    • Lolz

      I'm sorry, but I've never heard someone so sure of themselves especially in the face of no proof. You absolutely positively believe whatever you're told. And hey if that's how you want to live fine. But keep in mind that every other religion on the planet spews the same nonsense that you do too lol So keep convincing yourself that you're special.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
    • Tee Bee

      @najia, I resent that remark. I'm a crazy cat-hording lady and this religion is on a completely different playing field!

      February 17, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
    • N&W 1000

      Not a shred of proof for any of this.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
  11. *sigh*

    So much nonsense in the name of god. Religious people arguing that their fairytales are the truth. So many people who are desperate to be holier than the next, chosen, better. Religion fosters elitism – "people who believe what I believe are better than everyone." Silliness. Try being a good person all on your own – can you do it without the fairytales?

    February 17, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
  12. Shan

    You know, the great thing about religion and spiritual belief is that once you have gained a testimony of something and truly felt something stirring in your heart, no one can take that away from you. No matter what one person believes or tries to force you or even makes fun of you for believing. I'm a Mormon. I believe in Christ. He is the truth and the light. The way to salvation. I have felt this in my heart and no one can take that away from me. People can believe what they want and listen to whoever they want. But until you actually take the time to go to the right people (i.e. not people who have left a church and have hard feelings about it) and have an open heart to actually learn about a specific religion and then PRAY about it, you will never really know if it is right or wrong. The world will try to educate people on any subject. But the real teacher of truth is the Holy Spirit. Matthew 7:7 Ask, and it will be given; seek, and ye shall find, knock, and it shall be opened unto you"

    February 17, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
    • fairlydust

      Good for you, and I mean that in all seriousness and not as a troll. Everyone deserves to be happy. I've had that exact same experience, and now I'm estatic to be pagan.

      I respect your path; please respect mine.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
    • Jimmy C

      I agree, that's fantastic for you. I believe that people who are happy within their religions are fantastic. But those who left the church deserve to be heard as well, and that goes for any faith. I hope you continue to be happy and don't try to guilt others into your belief system.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
  13. Gail D

    Religion is what one practices (or not). FAITH is what one discovers for themselves, owns and controls.

    February 17, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
  14. crazy

    I think the other churches should babtize all the mormons into their church. And see how the Mormons like that, to be babtized into a church they don't believe in after they are dead.

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

      beautiful

      February 17, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • Joseph Smith's 28th wife

      That is simply brilliant.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
  15. David

    The answer is simple. Mormons don't read the bible. Such a practice would be strictly prohibited by biblical law – which was NOT done away with.

    So few people actually know what the bible says that they constantly fall for traditions dreamed up by common men. READ people. Everybody. Read it for yourself and no Mormon, Christian, Muslim or any other manmade belief will fool you about BIBLICAL things. The bible is a book of history and prophecy (whether you believe or not), NOT religion.

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

      1 Cor. 15:29

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

      If you will read your bible you will see that baptisms for the dead existed among the saints during bible times. Again 1 Corinthians 15:29.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
  16. andorifwhat

    Is there any way find out if youself [living] or any of your "dead' family members have been baptised Mormon by this church?
    Non-mormons should being a class action suite against this "church" for violation of privacy and the right to ones reglious freedom of choice.

    February 17, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
  17. rybl101

    Pop Quiz:

    Q: What is the difference between Theology and Mythology?

    A: Perspective

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

      Practice.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • sonofgadfly

      Q: What's the difference between a religion and a cult?

      A: Business model.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
  18. Lars Babaganoosh

    The Mormons need to baptize my balls because if they don't they'll be getting some unclean balls in their face!!!!!

    February 17, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
    • Lars Babaganoosh

      And by the way, yes, my balls love to party.

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

      "And by the way, yes, my balls love to party."

      Too bad mormon's don't know the first thing about parties.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
  19. Cindy

    I think a lot of people are skipping over this paragraph in the article-
    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.’

    We are not forcing anyone to join anything but only asking if they would like to.

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

      How do they give that chance to all the people that lived on the earth that have no records of their lives.

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

      you and your kind make me sick

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

      None of what you said makes it any less weird, useless, creepy and stupid.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • Lem

      I have been Baptised and it's not considered "official" because it wasn't done in a Mormon temple by one of your priests, who claims to trace his lineage to God through Joesph Smith. Nothing in the Bibile mentions anything that Mormon's accept from the other three texts-no Jesus didn't have three wives, no Lucifer was Jesus' brother and so forth.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
    • Steve O

      I suppose you wouldn't mind hearing that my Church of Satan has been performing indoctrination ceremonies on the souls of your ancestors. They don't have to accept Lucifer as their master, we are merely opening a door if they would like to join us.

      What's offensive about that?

      February 17, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
  20. RobertOKUSA

    Only in religion and other mass brainwashing does such silliness occur. Perhaps someday mankind will evolve to the point where all this wasted action is used productively.

    February 17, 2012 at 1:35 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.