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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. Baptize dead, try to convert Jews in Israel

    All about expanding numbers and saving Jews from Mormon hell.

    February 17, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
    • whysoangry

      Expanding numbers? Of the dead? That just doesn't make sense.

      This is done as a respect and blessing. It really doesn't hurt you in any way. Especially if you are agnostic or atheist. What does it really matter if someone prays or blesses you if you do not believe. You are not required to believe as they do. They just pray on your behalf. Its an act of love. Really shouldn't be met with such hostility.

      Although i do not believe in much of Mormonism i do think their hearts are in the right place with this. And it IS extending to all, non discriminating.

      I pray for lots of non-believers including the angry hateful ones. Hope that doesn't offend you. Have a blessed day.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
  2. rybl101

    I’d like to cite Chapter 1, Verse 1 from the book of common sense.

    If you believe in a cosmic, magic, Jewish zombie is your savior, then you can’t say anything that anyone else believes is strange.

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

    TLDR? Here is the shorten version: "Why do Mormons baptize the dead?" Answer: Because they are crazy just like all of the other religions, including yours whatever it may be. Thank you have a nice day.

    February 17, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
    • Baptize dead, try to convert Jews in Israel

      You are Correct sir

      February 17, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
  4. They Don't Resist

    Nuff Said

    February 17, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
  5. BoldGeorge

    Every cult or false teaching that has ever been created is mainly based on Scriptures that have been taken out of context and meaning...and basically to suit a personal agenda or sinful lifestyle (which is one and the same). And apparently, as false doctrines is created, you get many followers because a false doctrine suits many sinful lifestyles.

    False religion is primarily created to fulfill a lustful pleasure and/or for monetary gain. Joseph Smith certainly wanted to fulfill many lustful pleasures as we know it so it is of no surprise that he would distort scriptures and to the point of writing up his own book (in "addition" to the bible) like how many other religions do.

    Secondly, referring to 1st Corinthians 15:29, Paul was stating a historical fact that people indeed got baptized for their dead, but he was in no way promoting or condoning it. If you would take some time to read the whole chapter or even the whole book of 1st Corinthians, you would plainly see that baptizing for the dead is not part of the will of God. The dead are sealed for judgement already and nobody that is living can ever do anything about to change their judgement...which brings us to 1st Peter chapter 4 verse 6. If you would again read this whole chapter and not just that one verse, you'd see that Peter is exhorting believers to keep fervent in their love and devotion to God and Christ and not to pursue pagan lifestyles and lusts of the flesh. Then he mentions that everyone, the living and the dead will give an account to God come judgement day. Basically, what this is saying is that everyone will have a fair judgement because the living have been preached to, the dead have been preached to and there will be no excuse for anything, not even for ignorance (Romans 1:20 – For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.)

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

      You're all a bunch of cults, sorry pal.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
    • Mike

      Strictly your opinion, BoldGeorge. You are beginning with a book that is thousands of years old and which has passed through many translations. The Bible IS the word of God, as far as it is translated correctly. Thus, the need for modern-day prophets and revelation. And, by the way, we've already heard your limited, out-of-context supposed reasons why the Bible says there can be no prophet on the earth today. Again, please refer to what I just wrote.

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

      @ Mike "The Bible IS the word of God, as far as it is translated correctly."

      So, true. I would go so far as to say that the Bible is the Word of God as far as no one twists it's meaning, because though it has been translated through the ages, remember, meaning of the context can and must be translated accurately and they are still relevant today as it was back then when they were written.

      To be quite frank, I believe the bible has been translated well (most translations like KJV, NASB, etc.), but no matter what translation you pick up (that is if you pick up any bible), you will find that most people do not wish to discover its meaning much less adhere to it. So my question now is, what difference does it make what translation it is, are you going to follow it God's commandments?

      My advice, don't stick to the translation issue. That excuse won't have any weight at all.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
  6. ym

    If they want to baptise my dead Catholic grandparents as Mormons (two devout Catholics who refused to open the door for Mormon missionaries and who who have been horrified at the notion had they been alive)-well, that's cool. I am sure the Mormons also don't mind the gay marriages I am performing between their deceased Mormon grandfathers. After all, they are free to reject their gay marriage in the afterlife, but you just never know, do you?

    February 17, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
    • Joseph Smith's 28th wife

      Perfect. Love it.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
  7. Monk66

    The tone of these comments is typical of almost any article about the LDS Church. Either poorly crafted comedy routines about religion generally, or insulting and ill-informed jabs at Mormons in particular. Suggestions that we "learn from" the people who persecuted the early LDS Church and murdered Joseph Smith....well, that's something new, but I guess not unexpected.

    It is one of the tenants of the LDS faith that we claim the right to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and we afford all other people the same privilege: Let them worship how, where, or what they may.

    No religious organization is above criticism, and there are certainly plenty of maintalin Christian churches with far more embarassing skeletons in their closets. But I don't spend much time thinking about them, and even less discussing them, because the practices of other churches don't affect me. Why so many people of other faiths can't extend the same civility to the LDS Church is baffling, and, in my view, speaks poorly of their professed discipleship. Disagree with me, think I'm a nut, believe that I worship dirty gym socks...whatever. But to incite hatred against me, my family, and my fellow believers goes too far.

    Maybe I do worship a different Jesus from the rest of the world. The Jesus Christ that I revere enjoined us from judging others, cautioned us not to throw stones, and urged love over hate. If the God you worship encourages something different, then I don't want any part of him.

    February 17, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
  8. Simple Math

    Baptizing the dead leaves the choice up to the living, since the Mormons are ASSUMING that there is another choice available to the dead.

    February 17, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
  9. Bill Rode

    Mormons misuse the verse cited, 1 Cor. 15:29. Paul is arguing for the resurrection and is not advocating the practice of baptism for the dead as practiced by some at that time. He is saying: If you don't believe in the resurrection why are you baptizing the dead? Baptizing the dead is a useless.

    February 17, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
  10. Christina

    Religion scares me. Religious people do whatever they want because they say God told them to, but that doesn't make it right.
    What right does any church have to baptise anyone after their deaths? If people choose not to be baptised, that is their business. If parents don't get their kids baptised, the kids can choose to do so later. That is a personal choice.
    I believe in something bigger than ourselves, but I'm not sure I believe in God or heaven. None of us know for sure, but I don't appreciate other people making a choice like this for me.

    February 17, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
  11. Scott

    Sounds just as pervy as raping somebody. If somebody didn't ask you to "baptise" them after death, keep your kiddie molesting, sister marrying hands to yourself!

    February 17, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
  12. Darren

    Can't hate on Mormons too much since they do mean well. If anything its kind of cute. Religeon isn't real anyway so I really don't care one way or the other, but I could see how it could upset the Jews.

    Oh wait, I take that back. Mormons think that if you don't believe in their insane religeon then you go to hell.

    Nevermind, not even going to bother with this rediculous argument. have a nice day everyone!

    February 17, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
  13. Susan

    I'd like to see an answer to Tickled's question

    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 1:56 pm |
    • Darren

      Imagine if you lived a thousand years ago and when you die you show up in hell. The devil is there and says "welcome to hell". You say, "why am I here? i was a good person and believed in God.". The devil says, "well, you didn't believe in the MORMON god.". You then say, "Who the hell are Mormons?".

      People are SOOOOOOOOOOOOO dumb. It really amazes me sometimes. And scares me.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
  14. RichardSRussell

    Why do Mormons baptize the dead?
     
    Because they're crazy.
     
    Just like Catholics are crazy for thinking they're actually eating Jesus at communion.
     
    Just like evangelicals think the whole world was covered with water shortly after it was created 10,000 years ago.
     
    Just like Christian Scientists think you can pray your cancer away.
     
    Just like JWs and 7th Day Adventists think Jesus is coming back next year — a position they've held EVERY year since 1846.
     
    Just like Shintoists and Confucians think your dead ancestors are kibitzing over your every move.
     
    Justs like Buddhists think that nothing is real, and everything is an illusion.
     
    And so on.
     
    Get the point? Believing in crazy things is practically the DEFINITION of religion.

    February 17, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
  15. rybl101

    Silly Mormons.

    They believe in the wrong cosmic, magic, Jewish zombie who is his own Dad.

    February 17, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
  16. Byrd

    They do this unholy baptism without the knowledge of those being baptized. They did it to me because one of my cousins was a Mormon before coming to her senses and she mapped the genealogy of my entire family which, being Adams, goes back quite a long way, as you might imagine.

    Well, Mormons, I don't appreciate that even in the slightest and consider that you have invaded my privacy on a scale far above abomination. Sanctimonious cretins one and all.

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

      Therein lies the real reason. The control factor of having all of that information on you and your family. It will mean more to the LDS dirty dozen later as their power grows. But they will already have all the info, there is nothing benign or benevolant about the practice...

      February 17, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
  17. Ben

    More CNN stories designed to make Mormons look weird and by way of that Romney without directly criticizing him for being a Mormon. If you're not disgusted by this, you're not honest.

    February 17, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • Xman

      Mormons don't need help to look weird, they do that all on their own, with their bizarre clothing, bizarre rituals, bizarre leaders, bizarre history, and just about everything about the cult.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
    • John

      Ben, if those are the facts and it feels weird to you then it is the Mormons who are weird not CNN. On reflection, Ben, don't you think it is telling that facts bother you so much?

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

      I'm not disgusted. I'm informed. There is a lot about every religion we do not know. When Kennedy was elected, the fear was that he was going to make this country a Catholic Theocracy. Well, that didn't happen. It was just silly unfounded fear. However, we did learn a lot about Catholics.

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

      This story is not an attack on Mormons or Romney – it is reporting on a timely topic that is in the news.

      But I will be honest with you – it does not disgust me, and I do think it makes Mormons look weird, because, frankly, it is weird. But no worse than – let's say – the folks who run that creationist museum. Zealots who reject reason look weird because they are abnormal.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
  18. N&W 1000

    From Joseph Smith's Lectures on Faith, Kirtland Ohio, Lecture Five:

    "We shall, in this lecture speak of the Godhead: we mean the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit...The Father being a personage of SPIRIT..."

    February 17, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • Argle Bargle

      Christopher Stead of the Cambridge Divinity School (a non-Mormon scholar) explains how a statement that God is spirit would have been interpreted within ancient Judaism:

      "By saying that God is spiritual, we do not mean that he has no body … but rather that he is the source of a mysterious life-giving power and energy that animates the human body, and himself possesses this energy in the fullest measure."

      Without knowing fully what Joseph meant in his lecture, it leaves a wide possibility of things one might define. Any scripture, when taken out of context, can be made to mean many things. The same for news stories, scientific theories, and myriad other concepts. Only when one looks at the entire picture, does one see the truth.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
    • N&W 1000

      Well, in the book of John, Jesus said, God is a SPIRIT...then in the book of Luke, he said "A SPIRIT HATH NOT FLESH AND BONES."

      February 17, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
  19. Emily

    This article is misleading in the fact that they say that the Mormon church is non-exclusive when it comes to a person's salvation. They are exclusive, because if there is a baptism done for someone that is dead, they are giving them the choice to choose the MORMON baptism or to reject it. Not only that, but after the proxy baptism is dead, they go on and do an endowment for them, and seal them to their spouse and family, which is also done in the temple. The endowment is when a person makes a covenant with God and they receive their garments/"special underwear".

    February 17, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • Emily

      *After the proxy baptism is done, not dead.

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

      I like baseball. Can I get a special Mormon jock strap?

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

      by baptisting the dead whom they are not asosicated with is so disrepectful. and uncaring. mormons only do this for what they think benefits them

      February 17, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
  20. mightyfudge

    If anyone tries to post posthumously baptized any of my relatives, they best be prepared top be baptized by me, with boiling oil.

    February 17, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
    • Argle Bargle

      Nummy! Boiling fudge!

      February 17, 2012 at 2:28 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.