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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. gill

    If you don't believe what the church is doing, then they are only swimming. Why does anyone care? It doesn't effect anyone else unless the church happens to be true. If it is true than it is good for everyone involved. Let them believe what they want to believe without being torn down.

    February 17, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
  2. ana

    Morons do what???...I mean Mormom.

    February 17, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
    • toad

      oh i get it! Thats a new one ! ill bet you just figured that out! 🙁

      February 17, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
  3. The Jackdaw

    Because Mormons are nuts, like the rest of those who believe in fantasies.

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

    Here is something interesting from the 1830 First Version of the Book of Mormon:

    "And it came to pass that those Lamanites which had united with the Nephites, were numbered among the Nephites; and their CURSE was taken from them, and their skin became WHITE like unto the Nephites; and their young men and their daughters became exceeding fair..."

    From the book of Nephi.

    February 17, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
  5. Danna

    I'm LDS (Mormon). This is a pretty accurate article, though it leaves out the scriptural basis for baptism for the dead found in 1 Corrintians. Otherwise pretty accurate. I am the only Mormon in my family. My family's slant on baptism for the dead is, for me to do what I want, since they don't believe in it anyway it's now skin off their backs.

    Many of the comments here are just plain offensive. I really wonder if some of the commenters parents failed to teach them any manners, courtesty or basic skills in how to treat others. Wow! What makes it okay to be insulting and inflammitory towards others? Is it the perceived annonimity of the internet? Is it the sensationalism in the media? Is it just a general lack of respect and civility in society today?

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

      I'm ExMormon – Thank God! I used to Baptize for the dead. I'm outside the church looking in now and what you might find offensive is actually objective thinking. I bet your the same person who finds fault with others that talk about your religion but you say the same thing about Muslims, Southern Baptists, Jehovah Witnesses, etc... because you are elitist and only YOU (and other Mormons) are part of the ONLY TRUE church restored in the 1800's.

      How on earth do Mormons know if someone was baptized anyway? Perhaps there is a unchecked box on each coffin that says "Check here if baptized".

      February 17, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
  6. Susan

    At least it appears to be pretty harmless to the rest of us. Keeps a lot of them busy.

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

      Who cares? All religions are crazy. People just don't recognize it when they are a part of it. But from an outsider looking in all christinas, jews, and muslims are crazy.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
  7. Just Me

    The doctrine is about love and opportunity for everyone. I don't see anyone hating VISA for offering them a credit card even if they don't want the card. This is the same. Why so are so many haters and trolls freaking out that they just might receive an offer to join the LDS church after they die. No one is being "forced" to be a member of this church. This is what I see as really wierd and freaky. So many control freaks out there! Its really a non-issue except for the aspect that the article is sensationalist and CNN is exploiting the unusual aspects of Romney's religion to distract potential voters from the real issues.

    February 17, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • tickled

      I keep asking, How does "everybody" get a chance? There are plenty of people who die without any record that they lived. What does LDS do about them?

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

      tickled, not all of it will be done before Christ returns. After that, other means will be available to complete it all. Not one soul who ever lived on the earth will be missed.

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

      I would say the Big Deal is that they presume to much. As a Jew I find it horribly offensive to belittle a person's faith by ignoring their religious preference for some Mormons to feel better about themselves. Jews who dies during the Holocaust died for their religion, if they did not convert to avoid dying why would they want to accept Jesus after they are already dead. To me it is more of the same from Christians, that everyone who is not Christian is somehow less worthy in life and now in death. Keep your Mormonism to yourself!!!

      February 17, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
    • tickled

      Mike,
      If there are other means after Jesus returns, then why go through this trouble now?

      February 17, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
    • toad

      Adam, its not done to feel better about ourselves, but to offer this covenent to those who are willing to accept it. im not sure what history book youve read but the houlacast was about exterminating undesirables and those of jewish lineage, it ddint matter if you converted or what you believed

      February 17, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
    • Frank

      Question for those siding with the Mormon church:

      Would you make the same arguments if a group of Satanist were baptizing dead Mormons into the Church of Satan? If not, why? I can't think of many things that are more pretentious than a group of religious freaks soiling someones memory by baptizing them into their disgusting religion. If these people wanted to be part of this cult they would have joined on their own. What makes these nuts feel that they need to control people even after death?

      Someone mentioned that you're dead, so who cares? Well, most people have families and friends and such. The disposition of the dead should be in accordance with the wishes of the deceased and their families, not the damn Mormon church.

      My attorney WILL be sending these folks a sternly worked letter explaining that after my death, there will be NO baptisms.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
    • Mike

      tickled, because there are very real blessings for those who accept it on the other side and for those who perform them. Just like spreading the gospel, it is a work Christ wants done now.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
  8. Rick

    It's funny to hear Christians criticizing Mormons over this. 1 Cor. 15:29: "Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all?" Paul was responding to the charge that Christians don't believe in the resurrection. From his response in 1 Cor. 15:29, he's essentially saying, "We do baptisms for the dead. Why would we do that if we didn't believe in the resurrection?" In other words, he's citing their practice of baptisms for the dead as evidence that they believed in the resurrection. Interesting.

    The bottom line is that the Mormons are either right, or they're wrong. If they're wrong, then they are wasting their own time and it's no skin off my back. If they're right and they are giving the deceased a choice, then maybe they're doing the world a great service. Either way, I'm still have Mac and Cheese tonight.

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

      There's more in the Bible than just that. 1 Peter 4:6 says, "For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to human standards in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit."

      It says right there in the Bible that Christians claim to believe in that the gospel is preached even to those that are now dead. In the preceding chapter, 1 Peter 3:18-20, it says:

      18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. 19 After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits— 20 to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah

      So after he died, Jesus went to preach to those that had lived long ago. Um, it sure sounds like the gospel of Christ is preached to those that died...giving ALL of God's children a chance to accept Christ, not just those that happened to be born at the right time and place.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
  9. N&W 1000

    If you would like to learn about Mormonism, get these two books:

    Joseph Smith begins his work, Book of Mormon, 1830 First Edition, reproduced from uncut sheets, by Wilford C. Wood; and Volume Two, containing the Book of Commandments, D&C, Lectures on Faith, and the 14 Articles of Faith.

    Wood was an LDS member and did a tremendous service in reproducing these early works.

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

      I'll have to admit, it's great fiction.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
    • really dude

      cult. Where's the historical proof? I can prove Jericho existed can you prove anything out of your book? no. Pretty much an older version of Scientology

      February 17, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
  10. Bobo

    "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?” Interesting version of this verse, that is used in this article The ESV version states "Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf" Out of context this verse could mean many things. In the context of 1 Cor 15:12 – 34, Paul is informing the church at Cornith that holy baptism is a baptism into the death (and the Resurrection) of Jesus. And he is chastising (with sarcasm) those that do not believe in Christ's death and resurrection, yet are Baptized.

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

      If you wanted to dectree that pancakes could only be flipped on a griddle on Tuesdays, I'm sure you could find a bible verse to support it.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • Scott

      That certainly might be one interpretation of a scripture that has been translated from hebrew to english by a bunch of priests working for king james and then translated from that english to another form of english that is somehow easier for most christians to read. Remember the game where somebody whispers something to someone else and that person repeats the message to another and that person to another and on and on? At the end of the line, the message has changed usually in dramatic fashion. Such are the scriptures of which you speak.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
  11. weda

    Because no right minded person would ever become a mormon alive.

    February 17, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
  12. CrazyEddie

    What does it matter. THEY'RE DEAD.

    February 17, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
  13. John Smith

    None other religion than Mormonism is so obviously fake. The saying goes, "What they believe in is crazy, but they're actually good and smart people." Which may be true to an extent. Good for them if believing in this gives them the spirituality that they need to find a sense to life, but in my opinion there are numerous ways to live one's spirituality that do not involve placing oneself under an ultra-hierarchical authority structure with ridiculous rules and control mechanisms. Spirituality is first and foremost a personal experience.

    February 17, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
    • Adam

      Mormons are no weirder than any other version of Christianity. You only believe this because your version is about 400 years older (1700 or so if you are Catholic) and it has had more time to become accepted.

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

      so you believe that spirituality is personal ......then stay out of my personal business...... thanks:)

      February 17, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
  14. Christian

    If baptism were the means to salvation, then Christ died in vain.Jesus Christ the Messiag Himself taught this ; "For GOD YAHWEH loved the world so much that HE gave HIS only SON, so that EVERYone who BELIEVES IN HIM will not perish but have everlasting life. John 3:16 Whoever BELIEVES in the SON is not judged; but whoever does not believe has already been judged bnecause he has NOT BELIEVED GOD'S SON. John 3:18 The bible also says this;"But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel that is different from the one we preached to you, may he be condemned to hell! We have said it before, and now I saiy it again;: if anyone preaches to you a gospel that is different from the one you accepted, may he be condemned to hell!

    February 17, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
    • Tim Williams

      But then again...even Jesus Christ was baptised. If we are to follow his example (ie take his yoke upon ourselves), then would that not also include doing as he did and be baptised? I agree with other comments. Does it really matter if Mormons are baptising for dead? At least they aren't blowing themselves up doing it. Got to give them credit for that.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
    • Scott

      Don't forget, Christ was baptised by someone who actually had authority from God to do so, John the Baptist. This is unlike most baptisms that are performed in a church, probably like yours where someone just decided one day that they could act in the name of god and start performing baptisms. Read your bible, old and new testament, you may be suprised to find that there are some very specific ways the power of god is given to man to act in his name. It actually has to be given by him to a person that has the authority to do so. Remember what happened when someone other than the Sons of Aaron tried to to steady the arch of the covenant when he did not have the authority to do so? It did not go to well. Fact its, if you truly understand the bible there are only a couple of groups that could have it right, the Jews, (still waiting for the messiah), the catholics, (christ set up his church through peter and the authority still exists there), or the mormons, (the authority to act in gods name was lost and restored later on). The rest of you are just swinging in the wind.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
  15. nolibs

    Why a lib would want to tell lies about Mormons...

    February 17, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
  16. kkellycpa

    Re: Mormons' posthumous baptizing of Jews

    I think there's a fair amount of the story that is being missed. The baptism is the simplest and quickest event that will happen in the temple regarding deceased ancestors. Once baptized, via proxy, another proxy will pick and go through a ritual washing and anointing and will be pronounced worthy to wear the garment. Then another proxy will pick up and go through an elaborate two-hour ceremony called the endowment, wherein the deceased, again via proxy, makes covenants to stand by God and the Mormon Church. Finally, the proxy will be "sealed" to all other relatives in a short "marriage-type" ceremony. Then the complete temple work is done. This will usually be accomplished over a series of days.

    Every active Mormon involved in genealogy work knows that until the sealing is completed, the work for deceased individuals is not complete. So for those worried about the posthumous baptisms, it's only the beginning of the story.

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

      and all of this has to be accepted by the person who the work was performed for.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
    • Over It

      If you knew about the errors in genealogy that LDS makes, you might see how ludicrous this is.

      That you spend your time getting bathed and oiled and in haranguing superst.itious chants for dead people is beyond ridiculous.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
  17. Alberto

    God instructed Joseph Smith to bring up the baptism for the dead, the same they did in antient time. Joseph Smith NEVER started it at his own. That was command of God to do it in behalf of the dead and to fulfill Jesus's words when he said:" If you don't get baptise you won't enter into the Kindom Of God" John 3:5...

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

      Yet again...
      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 1:48 pm |
    • ben

      Those people who we have no record on this earth will still have the opportunity of baptism during the millennium.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
    • tickled

      ben,
      The obvious next question...
      Then why do this now? You are effecting the most miniscule number of souls imaginable compared to what needs to be done later!!!!!

      February 17, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
  18. Michael

    More than anything else, this is about the fall of the Mormon Church for becoming entangled in such foolishness. That this kind of idiocy is happening in the 21st century is astounding. Even if you believe in an afterlife, the idea that God would be constrained by temple baptisms as to whom he raises to paradise is an incredible insult to said deity.

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

      Whatever you said it will be recorded in your mind and God knows that. You will be judge based on your words, thoughts...BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU THINK. YOU CAN BE CHASTISED in these days or after this....BE CARFUL OF INVENTING THINGS WITHOUT FUNDAMENTALS. JOSE SMITH WAS CALLED BY GOD TO BE THE PROPHET OF GOD. Sorry if you belong to different religion, but it's true. You're welcome to join Jesus's table to the Church of Jessu Christ of Latter Day Saints

      February 17, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
  19. rich

    Catholics do not teach that only catholics get saved. I have been a catholic for 58 years and i have never heard this. Secondly, as far as baptizing the dead – it doesn't make much sense to me because as CHRISTians we are taught that salvation comes when you consciencely accept christ and his teachings. It is a fundemental belief that salvation cannot be forced on you. YOu and only you can effect salvation thru the acceptance of Christ, as taught by most Christian faiths. So how does a dead person accept Christ? i think the Mormans have it wrong again.

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

      I am also a catholic and totally agree with your comments!

      February 17, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
    • Rick

      Then people that lived and died, e.g., 3000 years ago in Africa, without ever even having the chance to hear about Christ cannot be saved merely because of where and when they were born? I would think God's plan would at least give every one of his children the chance.

      If salvation requires acceptance of Christ (which I agree with by the way), then God would have provided a way for everyone to have the chance to accept Christ. So how could someone that lived 3000 years ago accept Christ? The answer is in 1 Peter 3: 18-20

      18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. 19 After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits 20 to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah.

      It says right there that after his death Jesus went to preach to those that had lived "long ago."

      The following chapter makes it even more clear: "For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to human standards in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit." (1 Peter 4:6).

      Those that have died CAN still accept Christ.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
    • rich

      answer to rick. you are right and you are wrong. The dead can accept Christ but only thru Christ in the after life. God did make it possible for the dead who did not have the opportunity to accpet Christ in life to accept him in death. No mortal can do this – hence i do not agree at any level a Morman can baptize a corpes and the soul will be saved.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • toad

      thank you Rick !

      February 17, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • Kenneth

      Your understanding of our believe and practice is not accurate:

      "No mortal can do this"

      You misunderstand our belief. We do not believe we can accept Christ on behalf of a deceased person. We agree that they must do that on their own. However, Christ said "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved." The belief part is up to the individual, we can't do that for them. The baptism part they can't do because they are dead. We stand in proxy for them. It is not forced upon them; we merely make it so that if they choose to believe, the second half of Jesus' statement (baptism) is taken care of since they wouldn't be able to do that himself/herself. If on the other hand, they choose not to believe then the baptism has no effect, but at least it was made available should they have chosen to believe.

      "i do not agree at any level a Morman can baptize a corpes"

      Lol. We don't baptize corpses. Gross.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • Kenneth

      My above comment was in response to rich's second comment, I didn't make that clear.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
    • LDS

      It's their spirit that accepts or rejects the baptism. Baptism is a physical ordinance that must be performed in mortality. For those who died without this ordinance being performed, proxy baptism gives them the opportunity to receive this ordinance if they so choose. As Christ himself was baptized and considered it necessary, how much more so do we mortals need it? And, if God's word is true, then there must be a way for everyone who has ever lived on the earth to be taught the Gospel and be baptized. No other church has come forth with a way to accomplish that end.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
  20. Chainyanker

    Yawn.

    February 17, 2012 at 1:45 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.