home
RSS
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. bob

    hilarious.......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.’

    let em do whatever they want inside their temples....cracks me up.

    February 17, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • Doug

      I'm glad you are willing to let them do whatever they want. That's the American spirit.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
  2. etrewrwrt

    These baptism for the dead beliefs are just as weird to Christians as they are to non-Christians, and are proof that Mormonism is NOT a denomination of our religion, but its very own independent faith. Mormons make Catholic and Seventh-Day Adventists look like identical twins.

    February 17, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • dave

      Mormons aren't evangelical Christians, but they are most certainly Christians.

      Also, you don't have to agree with their theology, but hopefully you can at least recognize it makes sense, if you believe in Jesus and the Bible: in the Bible, Jesus states that a person has to be born again of water (baptized) to enter the kingdom of God. The Bible also teaches that God is just and fair, and yet it's obvious that billions of people have never heard of Jesus. And then there's that scripture in the New Testament that mentions (albeit in passing) about baptisms for the dead. So... it kinda sounds like (a) what the Mormons are doing at least has some scriptural basis and (b) it solves the theological question of how baptism can be required and yet billions have never accepted Jesus and yet God is just.

      Like I said, you don't have to agree with it, but do you have an alternative that doesn't conflict with the Bible?

      February 17, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
    • Veritas

      It's all just variations on the same nonsensical hogwash...

      February 17, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
  3. Grumpster

    Looks like LDS has been doing too much LSD. Keep your holy water to yourselves...we don't want it.

    February 17, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
  4. Adam

    If Moses were alive right now, would you follow him? How about Abraham? What about Peter or Paul? It's amazing to me that when prophets are on the earth, they aren't accepted by the majority of the people. Moses claimed to have seen God in the burning bush and that he God spoke to him and told him to take the people from Egypt and lead them to the promised land. After they get into the wilderness, they do some things by today's standards that would appear pretty interesting. I'm amazed how there is a prophet in our day and everyone simply pokes fun at the truth. Why is it so much easier to believe in dead prophets than modern ones?

    February 17, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
  5. Mhmm

    I don't understand why people get offended by this practice. If they do not believe that the LDS church is truth, what do they have to worry about? If the church is not true then it is a waste of time, with no consequence to the dead. However if it is truth, then that means the salvation for millions.

    February 17, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • Doug

      Makes sense to me. If don't believe it, don't worry about it.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • tickled

      You have to kind of feel sad for them, in the same way you do for any OCD person. Spending all this time doing the same useless thing over and over and over and over...

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

      Completely agree. If you don't believe it, then it shouldn't bother you. Maybe there's something inside of them that tells them the practice is actually true.......

      February 17, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
  6. Nicole

    It is not true that Catholicism teaches that only Catholics can be "saved".

    February 17, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
  7. Ran

    Hey Mormons! What about our pets? Do our pets next!

    February 17, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
    • Doug

      Mormons don't baptize pets. You're out of luck.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • Joseph Smith's 28th wife

      Another priceless comment! Love it! I want my car baptized too because I want it in heaven to drive all my sister-wives around grocery shopping and what not.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
  8. Thomas

    I wonder when people will realize that Mormons are not Christians. Just because you claim to follow the teachings of Christ does not make you a Christian. In 325 A.D. the First Council of Nicea established that a tenet of the Christian Faith is the Trinity. Father, Son and Holy spirit in ONE. The Mormons believe that they are three separate beings, which is not a Christian belief.

    And I would like to understand how it is that Joseph Smith restored the One True Church in the 1800s. Are we meant to believe that God just left everyone after Christs death? Are we meant to believe that until Joe came along there were just Godless heathens running around. There was a church established before Christ came (Jewish Temple), there was a Church after Christ's death (Orthodox Christians) and that Church still exists today. The Catholics broke away in the year 1056 and everyone who has left the Catholic Church after that has been Protestant, including Mormons.

    February 17, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
    • Doug

      Mormon's consider themselves Christians. That's good enough for me. Don't know why others care about that.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
    • Jake

      "In 325 A.D. the First Council of Nicea established that a tenet of the Christian Faith is the Trinity. Father, Son and Holy spirit in ONE. The Mormons believe that they are three separate beings, which is not a Christian belief."

      Actually, that council said they are all one being, only a spirit, etc. Discussed, debated, and voted on. That doesn't make it true.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
    • WhatWhatWhat?

      Look at Doug there, he'll believe anything. Heck, all a Mor(m)on has to do is tell him something, like, "Blacks are inferior in God's eye", and he'll believe it. If they said it, that's good enough for him! Like the part about Mor(m)ons believing that even Muslims will make it to heaven, along with Doug. And Jews, and Bhuddists, etc, etc. Why would anyone ever question that?

      February 17, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
    • dave

      So some committee three hundred years after Christ got to define what is or isn't Christian? I don't get it. Did they receive a revelation on that subject? Apparently not – some people just got together and voted on it.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
    • Doug

      To WhatWhatWhat:
      Blacks are inferior in God's eye? I don't know why you would suggest that I would believe that.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
    • Allison

      So, I am LDS (ha ha...and have never used LSD and still participate in temple practices). I have been told lots of times that I am not a Christian and I honestly think that belief in and following the life of Christ to the best of my ability qualifies me as being Christian. What would better qualify someone to be defined as a follower of Christ than, well, to follow Him? I can see why many people respond negatively to Mormon doctrines because they aren't typical and not easily understood unless you take the time to learn more (like most things).

      February 17, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
    • WhatWhatWhat?

      Because that's what Mor(m)ons believe numb skull, why else would I have listed it? Have you ever heard about the word "research"? It can really open your eyes.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
    • WhatWhatWhat?

      What Allison really meant to say was, "I can see why many people respond negatively to Mormon doctrines because they aren't typical and not easily understood unless you are extremely delusional and you take the time to become even more delusional.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • Allison

      WhatWhatWhat...Nah...that isn't what I meant 🙂 I have derived a lot of happiness from living the principles of my religion and a lot of unhappiness from choosing to not live them. Just wish that there could be more understanding and less negativity.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
    • WhatWhatWhat?

      Yeah, I agree with you. If your religion wouldn't have been started by a pathological liar who looked into hats at stones, and tried to swindle people by claiming he could find treasure, maybe things would be different.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
    • Thomas

      Heck, I would even go as far to say that not all Protestant are not Christian either. And clearly most Catholics are not Christian. Heck, most Christians are not Christian for that matter. Just saying you believe and Jesus is your friend, does not make you a Christian. An article, came out recently, and I wish I could find it. But it was simply that just because you call yourself an Orthodox Christian, does not mean you are saved.

      Everyone can claim to be Christian, but not everyone can live a Christian life.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:02 pm |
  9. PapasFritas

    Written very well!

    February 17, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
  10. Pan3

    I'd rather be in a spiritual prison than spending the rest of eternity with these crazy mormons, and christians for that matter...

    February 17, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
    • Ran

      Schooled!

      February 17, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • WhatWhatWhat?

      I'd rather be dead. From your statement, it seams that under threat of death you would comply with those religious delusionists, but not for being imprisoned. Like I always say, "Live free of religious delusion or die!"

      February 17, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
    • Doug

      You probably would fit in with spirit prison, so you may get your wish.

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

      Luckily, the doctrine includes your ability to choose not to hang out with people you think are crazy...that is the beauty of it.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
  11. Veritas

    It's amazing that adult people do these ridiculous things and even pretend to believe in them. Only in America and some backwards muslim countries...

    February 17, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
    • Allison

      Shoot, no pretending on my part. Might seem less backwards if you learned more about it (even if you don't agree, knowledge about the doctrines would make it more understandable and less weird/threatening). Go do LDS.org.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
  12. CR

    How much is the Mormon Church paying CNN to get so much positive press?

    February 17, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
    • Doug

      Mormons get positive press because they do positive things.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
    • sortakinda

      TO DOUG: Are you POSITIVE?

      February 17, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • Doug

      YES

      February 17, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
    • Allison

      Sadly, I think the LDS church also gets a lot of negative press as well from CNN so my hopes are that there isn't any payment going on....ha ha! (not generally a practice of the church)

      February 17, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
  13. asdf

    That's right! you mormons are nuts! its not like the rest of us Christians are doing crazy things like speaking in tongues, wearing funny clothes, fighting in the name of God, forcing our religion on the poor in exchange for food/supplies, refusing medical treatment...

    February 17, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
  14. WhatWhatWhat?

    Who cares? Except to definitively show that Mor(m)ons are some of the most insane religious delusionists around.

    February 17, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
  15. Ran

    Wow. The Mormons actually make Scientology look not so crazy.

    February 17, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
  16. Cindy

    This is the craziest thing I have ever heard. First of all, a person needs to make the choice to believe and be saved and then baptized while still alive. And then one needs to live according to God's will.There is absolutely no scriptual reference for this.

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

      re-read the article.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
    • Ran

      If there was a scriptual reference...would that make it seem less crazy?

      February 17, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
    • WhatWhatWhat?

      Guess what? There's no scriptural reference for gravity either. When you look to fairy tales to explain fairy tales, you are definitely delusional?

      February 17, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
    • John Doe

      So what about the hundreds of millions of people who never even heard of Jesus Christ? Are they all automatically lost? (see note in the article about inclusiveness).

      February 17, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • dave

      What about the scriptural reference in the article itself?

      February 17, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
    • Allison

      It isn't about forcing them to accept the religion. It is about giving them the opportunity to do so, if they want to, once it has been taught to them. They make that educated decision after death. They can't actually perform the baptism themselves because they are spirits and temporarily do not have their physical bodies. There are scriptural references to this practice (as sited in the article) and the LDS church has a modern day prophet that also clarifies doctrines/practices in Christ's church. It is actually a very interesting doctrine that you can learn more about on LDS.org.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
  17. tickled

    Why baptise the dead when god will still need to handle the ones you missed later? Please explain.

    February 17, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
    • rockey

      When Christ reigns for a thousand years after his return, baptisms will be performed for those we can't find now.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
    • Allison

      My opinion is that members of the LDS church participate in this work even though it can't be done perfectly (and God will have to make up for that, but He does with everything...) because they feel that they are allowing individuals the opportunity to gain the blessings of baptism as soon as possible and they have spiritual experiences while doing it that confirms their faith. Additionally, there is a great deal of genealogy work that goes into finding the people in our families that have not received those blessings. As we do the work, we become more connected with them and therefore with who we are. Families are eternal from the LDS perspective and we cannot be happy/complete without knowing, understanding and offering the blessings we enjoy to them. LDS.org can probably explain it better than I can, but that is my personal experience.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
  18. Charles

    Why is cold caffeine ok but not hot? What happens when a soda gets warm or is cold coffee okay?

    February 17, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
    • Vantari

      that is no part of mormon doctrine.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
    • RLP1509

      I have not heard officially that caffeine is the reason for not drinking "hot drinks".

      February 17, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
    • Greg

      Where is planet Kolob where mormon God is making spirit babies?

      February 17, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • rockey

      This is sort of a misnomer. Mormons are forbidden from 5 things: Coffee, Tea, Harmful Drugs, Tobacco, and Alcohol. Some Mormons call caffeine a harmful drug and don't drink Coke. Others say that it is not expressly forbidden. The church has no official stance on soft drinks.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • Doug

      Charles is confused. Mormon's don't drink coffee. A lot of Mormons drink caffeinated sodas, etc.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
  19. Sneaky Jones

    Jesus, please save me from this Mormon nonsense!

    February 17, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
  20. Duh

    I have been secretly baptizing all Mormons in the name of Satan for His church of the everlasting dead.

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

      I'm sure its equally effective.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • Robert P

      Speaking as a Mormon myself, your actions are cruel beyond imagination. Beyond the imagination of any decent human being, that is. To think that you, because of your Godlessness, would condemn dozens, if not hundreds, of Mormons to everlasting torture is ghastly. It is even more grotesque in that those good Mormons have been to Heaven, they have tasted bliss, they have been with the Creator, and now to have their immortal souls pulled out of Heaven and sent to perdition, well, it's not nice. No, i'ts not nice at all.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
    • Whitney

      Baptism for the dead is whack!!!

      February 17, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
    • rockey

      See, that's okay by me. You don't understand the doctrine. We (Mormons) offer a proxy baptism to those who never had the opportunity so they can enter the gates of heaven if they wish. If they reject the "ordinance" fine. I'll just say "No, thanks," when they ask me if I want to go to hell for your "ordinance."

      We believe (as do many Christians) that baptism is essential for salvation. Would it be better to say: "Oh, never heard of Jesus Christ because you were born in China in 1864? Too bad, see you in hell."

      February 17, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
    • asdf

      @Robert P

      First of all, it was a joke. Second of all, I don't think "Duh" is worried about your everlasting torture because he is probably an atheist. His baptism in the name of satan is just as pointless as your baptism in the name of god. Do you seriously believe that one of your Mormon bretheren, assuming he was a good guy, would be actually removed from heaven because of something done to his body after his death??? That doesn't seem fair.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
    • Goldenpuppet

      stupid.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
    • Duh

      Robert P, I'll tell you what...You don't baptize me in your religion without my permission and I won't baptize you in mine without your permission. It's called mutual respect. Don't you get it?

      Is baptizing a non-Mormon in the Mormon faith any less hurtful than baptizing a Mormon in a non-Mormon faith? The inability to see their hypocrisy is one of the common problems with religious types.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
    • EC

      That doesn't bother me. I am still the one who will decide who I will follow in the end and all those baptized post-humously in the mormon temples will do the same.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • meemee

      Good one! I can't see this practice as anything more than usurping the remains of people who cannot defend themselves intellectually from anyone who deems it their special self-proclaimed religious rite and duty to impose their nonsense onto them. It is a form of desecration of the dead regardless of how lofty the claims for doing it are proclaimed to be.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42
Advertisement
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.