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. Debopam Chakrabarti

    How would Mitt Romney or other mormons feel if other religions did the same thing to their ancestors? How about converting Romney's dad to a Hindu!

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

      I agree Debopam, but unlike other religions, mormonism is a cult for the crazy and luckily other religions believe that we are here to live our lives now...to improve our lives and others now instead of waiting till we die to wait in "spirit prison" until some mormon tries to baptize us by proxy on earth. How arrogant the mormons are to think they are the only way to god! Who wants a leader who believes in that? Say NO to Romney!!!!

      February 17, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • RLP1509

      Just as in baptisms for the dead, ultimately the choice is with the exact person for whom the baptism was posthumously performed. That person in the world after death has the choice to accept or not accept the baptism performed in Mormon temples. So in your example Mr. Romney, me or you would have the same choice about accepting Hinduism or not accepting it. It is pretty well explained in the article.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
  2. neniatak

    The article says "Mormon salvation is the most non exclusive." "Salvation is open to all people." Be careful of the words. Mormons redifine many words and themes of Chrisitnaity. Salvation is only an opportunity to become perfect through a progression of lives. Salvation in Mormonism is the same as Exhaltation, which means to becoume a God. They say the eternal God that Christians profess was once a man and progressed and became perfect, that he earned his role as god of this planet. Friends, the god of this planet is indeed the god of the Mormons. That god is Satan. Mormonism is blasphemy.

    February 17, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
    • Abudu Rahman

      You are absolutely correct. The Qur'an says Shaitan has been given rule over this world until an appointed time upon which Jesus (as) and Muhammad (as) will return. I believe the Bible also says this world is ruled by the devil until the return of Jesus.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
    • Jeff


      February 17, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
  3. Sigh

    I just love that (what I believe to be) most of all major religions is foolishness to make it fantastical. Then the mormons decide to attend the party like...WAY late and decide to make it even more "relevant" and fantastical (hey do you want your own planet!?) by taking, not the the sound principles of being a decent human being, but the foolishness that was created way back when and cutting and pasting it together to create some makeshift mud pie. Unbelievable.

    February 17, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
  4. korkea aika

    Without any prejudice about anyone's beliefs, this seems to be an obnoxious pratice. There is no way that a christian or jew or muslim or buddist or whatever would agree to being baptized after his death into another religion, after he or she already lived his/her life as he/she chose. This appears to be linked to the fanatical belief that only Mormons will go to heaven and dwell in special place all together. Not wanting to leave uncoverted loved ones behind, the unsuspecting mormon violates god-given free will of anyone or everyone else. This is truly obnoxious behaviour.

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

      These are the same religion who believe they are going to be queens and kings of their own planet, just info for those who did not know about this.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
  5. The Angel Moroni

    Hello Every Body,

    Dr Nick here errr I mean The Angel Moroni. I am writing some new golden tablets in script that cannot be read without a special decipererer made from an Eagles claw and rare clear Amber with a lightning bug trapped inside. Once I find a suitable subject walking in the woods I will reveal the tablets and you will write new book of Latter Latter Day Saints.

    OK Morini out.

    February 17, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
    • korkea aika

      tks for your good efforts mr angel

      February 17, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
    • Joseph Smith's 28th wife

      That is priceless.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
  6. Joseph

    7 Thus came the voice of the Lord unto me [Joseph Smith], saying: All who have died without a knowledge of this gospel, who would have received it if they had been permitted to tarry, shall be heirs of the celestial kingdom of God;
    8 Also all that shall die henceforth without a knowledge of it, who would have received it with all their hearts, shall be heirs of that kingdom;
    9 For I, the Lord, will judge all men according to their works, according to the desire of their hearts.
    10 And I also beheld that all children who die before they arrive at the years of accountability are saved in the celestial kingdom of heaven.

    There is so much more-

    February 17, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
    • drew

      there's enough bologna in there for white jesus to make 5000 lunches for everyone!

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

      mormon.org is a propaganda site put out by the mormons to get Romney into office. They show happy, glowing people and leave out the truth. They forget to mention their temple rituals, blood oaths, secret names, secret underwear with symbols matching the symbols that they have to put their hands through while they speak secret words to get into heaven and become gods. I can't make this stuff up. Look it up, but you won't find it on a site that wants you to see through a glass darkly...

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

      Totally unbiblical and blasphemous. "For I, the Lord, will judge all men according to their works.." TOTALLY anti Bible. Mormon friends "resist the devil and he will flee from you." Abandon this Satan worship.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
  7. N&W 1000

    There is not ONE verse in the Book of Mormon that teaches the Mormon view of God, i.e., that he is an exalted man with a body of flesh and bone.

    February 17, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
    • neniatak

      As Man is...God once was...As God is...Man may become"


      The book of Mormon is a minor authority in this church. The so-called liiving prophets have spoken many times of hoiw their god was once a man and progressed to be exalted. As Man is...God once was...As God is...Man may become
      That phrase was first spoken by the late Lorenzo Snow. The Prophet Joseph had spoken of it during the King Follett sermon.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • N&W 1000

      Agreed, I am 100% correct that the Book of Mormon, the "most correct of ANY book on earth..." does NOT teach Mormonism.

      It is based on the shifting sands of mortal, sinful men.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
  8. Stormy

    For all who think this idea might be OK, ask yourself how you would feel about being baptised into the Shurch of Satan? If you can't say that is OK, then what the Mormons do is not OK either.

    February 17, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
    • OK by me as a Myth is a Myth and has no reality outside the believers fragile mind


      February 17, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
  9. N&W 1000

    I will challenge any Mormon apologist on here to answer me one thing:

    IF the BOM is the "most correct of any book on earth..." then WHY does it NOT teach your view of God?

    Joesph Smith, in the Lectures on Faith, stated that it was IMPOSSIBLE to be saved with out a proper knowledge of God.

    Is God a man, of flesh and bone, with spirit wives, as your Church teaches; or, a Spirit, as the BOM and Bible teach?

    February 17, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
  10. Mare

    What is worse is Mormons trying to teach the rest of the Christian faithful (regarless of our denominations) what the THRUTH is. Baptise your own faithful and leave it at that!

    February 17, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
    • Think of the life

      not killed throughout history if only each cult did not feel every other cult was blasphemy and a threat.

      If only all religions and especially evangelical christians would take your advice and not try to con...vert everyone.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
  11. Emma

    It would be nice to see some explanation in the article about those who have passed and are baptized by proxy. Just because the "work" is done for them, does not mean they automatically receive every eternal blessing. They will still be judged according to their deeds and their knowledge of right and wrong (along with everyone else).

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

      are you saying you believe this stuff?

      February 17, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
  12. Justin

    Why does anyone in any religion do weird things? Because religion is irrational. Plain and simple. I'm sure they have some neat, internally consistant, justification for doing it. However, baptising the dead (or anyone for that matter) has no justification that is consistant with REALITY.

    February 17, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
  13. keeth

    The dead are already in God's hands. He doesn't need any "help" from Mormons.

    February 17, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
  14. Jeff

    This is an outrage! First off, Mormons should be cast out by any religion. Who gave them the right to re-write the bible! If they re-wrote the Koran or any other religions manuscripts they would be crucified. The fact that they are baptising people potumously is rediculous. Baptisim is an action taken while living as an expression of your faith in front of family and peers and is a holy covenant between you and God. They just get weirder and weirder. It's a cult not a religion!

    February 17, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
    • kls817

      I'm not mormon but baptizing the dead is harmless to those of other religions. Don't get so uptight about it. I suspect your faith is more of a cult than theirs since you mindlessly follow what your peacher tells you to think (e.g. that mormonism is a cult).

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

      It is disrespectful. If following Gods word is a mindless act then I will accept that.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
  15. ajk68

    The Catholic Church has never taught that only Catholics are saved.

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

      Of course not. Besides anyone who has read the Old Testament knows that people knew about Jesus (or the coming thereof) thousands of years before Jesus came along.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
  16. Ichiban

    It goes along with the gulls,the Salamander Papers and Moroni, the Italian trumpet player. Oh, don't l;eave out the garments.

    February 17, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
  17. 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 2:02 pm |
    • Sigh

      HAHAHAHA oh man, thank you for that comment. That was just hilarious and made my afternoon. But you're right, what if we all end up at the gates of hell and satan says you don't believe in the [fill-in-the-blank god who will reveal himself in a century]. Well how the f am I supposed to predict the future!?

      February 17, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • Michael

      Everyone keep their opinions to themselves. We live in a free country, with free religion. Don't like it...don't join it. period. Stop being childish and pretending that people care about your views.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • James

      Actually, it would be accurate to say it's the belief of most Christian churches that you go to hell if you aren't baptized in some form or another. Mormons don't even say that....and if you don't believe in baptisms for the dead, big deal, at least the Mormons came up with an answer the question of the commandment to be baptized.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
  18. John Andrew

    I expect Jesus can work out such matters in the afterlife without the help of adherents of this silly man-made religion. This is rude and offensive everyone – not only Jews. They were forced to stop hating black people...maybe they should be forced to stop this practice too?

    February 17, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
  19. cantilever

    I'm not sure I have this entirely figured out. Let's see now, Christians believe in free will, that you have to "accept" Jesus to be saved. Ok. Then how do the dead transmit that free will to be saved, if they're dead and never heard of Jesus?? Oh, I see, they transmit it to God. But if God is really God, why is He not able to chat with these dead people Himself? In fact, if He's really God, he could read their thoughts. Since when does God need a dialogue with the Dead? or a franchisee? Any other crazy ideas? this is fun.

    February 17, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
    • bud in NC

      Good question Cantilever.Let me add a little. When you die and go up to the great and loving god, he askes you " did someone ever sprinkle water on you?" If the answer is "no", a trap door suddenly opens and you fall into a huger fire and you have unberarable pain along with billions of others.

      Then lucky you, someone recites your name and dunks into a bath tub. Poof, you are back in the loving presence of god. All the others stay in the burning fire. Does god appologize for all the pain he put you through? Did a little water make that big a difference? He sounds like a real prankster.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
  20. Alberto

    YOUR WORDS YOUR THOUGHT WILL CONDEMN YOU. WATCH OUT WHAT YOU SAID. GOD WILL JUDGE YOU IF U SAID SOMETHING AGAINST HIS CHURCH. BE CARFUL OF SAYING THINGS WITH NO FUNDAMENTALS, YOUR LIFE CAN BE RUINED....Joseph Smith was a prophet of God and restored Jesus's church again. Period. True hurts to those atheos and some bashers on this forum

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

      YAWN (also in all-caps).

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

      i'll blow a l0ad on your prophet and make white jesus cry

      February 17, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
    • keeth

      Prove it.

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

      Pics or it didn't happen.

      Seriously though, how do you justify those beliefs? And how do you intend to convince others that you are right?

      February 17, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
    • fp737

      Alberto, from a practicing Mormon – – – you need to lighten up a bit.

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

      So why did Joseph Smith have to get all of this from a serpent in the desert. In any religious text where has a serpent ever been an emissary of good. Even Joseph Smith has come out against his own so called reigion. The only thing stranger than Mormon beliefs are Scientologists. Stop with the lie!

      February 17, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
    • St_Mosquito

      Joseph Smith was an alcoholic man-$lut who invented a religion to justify sleeping with as many women as he could and it was a big hit with other men who were cool with promiscuity. From there, it morphed into pedophelia and the LDS is responsible for protecting Warren Jeffs and the rest of those freaks – you can't tell me they didn't know what was going on down in Hilldale. The temple elders should be in jail.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • Carl

      Heard that Joseph Smith was a pedophile. So I am quite sure that God would not be using him as a prophet.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • N&W 1000

      ARE you Alberto Rivera, the former Jesuit priest?

      February 17, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
    • Laurie

      Joseph Smith was a con man looking for a fast was to make a buck.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:00 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.