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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. Old Foggy

    Some way or another a Morman "lady" did this to my father without my mother's permission or knowledge. Neither my sister nor I had a hand in it and while it took me weeks to talk to a person in Utah, I had his name removed. How dare they presume that my father would want this? How dare they presume that their religion is more important than what my father believed? And how dare they presume to do this without permission? Personally, I hope my father haunts the idiot woman who did this to him and that he drives her to hell for her presumptions. But after all my ranting and raving, what do you expect from a cult?

    February 17, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
    • Bible Clown

      "How dare they presume that their religion is more important than what my father believed? " They KNOW they are right, and so of course they do what's right. They are sure your dad has a new apartment on the Planet Koresh or some such stuff, and they want him to get their pamphlets.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
    • Allison

      The LDS church doesn't actually condone what occurred with your father (if that helps at all...maybe not). It sounds like a misunderstanding on the part of a member who did not completely understand the policy of the church. I could see why that would be offensive and difficult to cope with.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
  2. Steve

    Sadly, the founder(s) of Mormonism plagiarized and manipulated the Bible in order to justify their inappropriate behavior of polygamy in those times. Other factors may have been power and control. We saw this with David Koresh in Waco, Texas. Anyone can make the claim of being a prophet. Sometimes I think my dog is a prophet. But in the end we are all human, and God will judge and decide for us; not the other way around. Fanaticism is alive and well with all religions. Baptizing the dead... takes it one step further.

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

    Old Testiment Saints were born again by Faith in Jesus Christ exactly the way present day Saints are born again. Paul being the most educated Jewish Rabbi stated that in his argument in the book of Galations. We are born again, by Faith in Jesus Christ, we live this Christian life by Faith. The Promise was given to Abraham hundreds of years before the Law of Moses. How could an intelligent person put their eternal destiny at stake by believing in a person who was born and lived in the 17th or 18th century. Beats me!!!!! Salvation is too simple (easy) I would imagine for the human brain to explain. The great prophet Habakkuk, stated, "The just shall live by faith". Genesis 15:6, And he (Abraham) believed in the LORD; and he(the LORD) counted it (Abraham's Faith) to him for righteousness. Why is that so hard for all the religions started since Abraham to understand? Baptism is a symbol of our Faith in the Resurrected Savior, Jesus Christ. ( In the water, we are immersed (death), raised (Resurrection) to walk and live as He lived by the energy of the Holy Spirit!) The KJV Bible way works!! No baptism after death!

    February 17, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
  4. gg

    "Baptisms for the Dead are offered as a service. If you don't want it, you're free to reject it. Why the histrionics?"

    how can you reject it if you're dead?!?!?! it's patently offensive for you to push your religion on anyone, much less those who can't refuse it. the nerve of the self-righteous!!

    February 17, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
    • Allison

      You can reject it (from a Mormon's perspective) because we believe that a person's spirit lives beyond death (that includes their ability to continue to learn and choose). I honestly love that idea...that who we are existed before this life and will continue to exist after. Our existence here is only a fraction of what our lives will be.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
    • c

      The Mormans routinely scour deaths notices world wide in news papers etc to catalog and have this "ceremony" in the names of the dead who they deem/consider "unsaved" simply because they are not of the Morman faith.

      They rebaptize the non Morman baptisized – they don't consider them"properly baptisized" Surviving relative's are not allowed at the "ceremony- hence the by proxy. ( research the program ; especially on their official web site),. There are numerous complaints ( including mine) from people who say they were never contacted by the Mormans; as was the case with the Jewish group who had to sue them to get them to stop.

      According to other non Morman Christian faiths- baptism serves only one purpose- to publically declare your faith in God – you can't do that if your dead.
      Salvation, redepmtion is the sole authority of God and His Grace- The Morman verison is in direct contradiction to Biblical principle- you are saved by Grace through Faith- not a proxy or stand who can wash away sins and certainly can't serve in the place of God. Read Corinthians 15:29 (and Paul's enitre letter which specifically states that baptism has no power to cleanse or save- ONLY GOD CAN DO THAT.
      Read the Book of Morman and Smith's other rediculous assertions- you will easily see that Joseph Smith interpretations are inconsistant with and in direct contradicition to Paul's teaching to the Corinthian Church. Compare books with Smith other so called doctrinal writing's. Even if you are not a Christian you can easily see simple errors in spelling, transposing enitre passges and out right plagarism. You don't need to be a Bible scholar or even a good english student to grasp how Smith pops in a word or two here and there; takesout a few here and there to make them fit his limited uneducated understanding of hieroglyphics ( He claimed an angel Moroni told him to dig up golden plates in Plamyra , New York that he would translate into the Book of Morman. Smith never explains (in several Morman doctrine) books how he meshed this Maroni stuff with existing Christian text in written and translated in Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek , Latin and so forth. Baptism of the dead does exist in many pagan rituals; sometimes accompanied by sacrificing people and animals. Many of these rituals consisted of pouring or emersing the dead body with water. the Romans used to spit the water on the dead person. Yuk.
      I think Smith got this nonsense from reading the Ann Rice, JK Rowling or Gene Roddenberry's of the day- who knows. Put whatever spin you want- this is America and we are free to conjure up what ever foolishness we can sell to hook other idiots.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
  5. Lobo

    we have dont call nation wide list, we a no fly list, we have a child molester nation wide list, how come we dont have a dont baptize after i am dead list? and where do i sigh up.?

    February 17, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
  6. Kenneth

    If anyone I know, my kids, siblings, even parents, ever became a mormon, I would never speak to them again for the rest of my life.

    Their beliefs are simply stupid and I'd lose all respect for them. Same goes for people becoming a catholic, evangelical or muslim.

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

      First of all, you are probably all talk, no action. However, if this was your true reaction, it only shows what kind of person you are to cut off all ties to someone just because of their own personal beliefs. Religious or not, it is just sad that people like you take this kind of stance.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
    • Bible Clown

      My friend's brother stormed out and swore to never speak to them again after her kid said something that wasn't pro-Santorum. Good old religion, bringing families together . . .

      February 17, 2012 at 3:13 pm |
  7. Ted Haggard

    I saw God when in the meditative hyper state of methamphetamine and ga y male activity

    February 17, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
    • Bible Clown

      Was it 900 feet tall?

      February 17, 2012 at 3:13 pm |
  8. David

    The practice of baptizing the dead is just one more example of a group of people attempting to exert their will, their beliefs, on others. It's like the anti-abortion people trying to say those who believe in freedom of choice are going to hell if they have an abortion. Ones religious beliefs is ones religious beliefs – ok, fine and dandy. But don't force me to believe what you believe. And don't baptize me when I'm dead – you may think you're doing something nice for me, but as a Jewish person, we've been denied our religion by so many Christian and Muslim political leaders over the centuries that the Mormon practice smacks us in the face and denis us our own beliefs. Step back, Jack – we don't need your stinkin' baptisms.

    February 17, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
  9. Roger

    Mormons baptize the dead because their theological ideas are just as screwy as every other religion.

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

      .....or not understood. Understanding doesn't mean you have to agree. I have talked to so many non-religious people in my life and I could easily decide they were just as crazy because they don't believe in God (or are not part of my religion), but I don't because I think it is worth the time to understand where others are coming from (at least this is what I try to do....definitely not perfect).

      February 17, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
  10. spike

    The mormons are as completely nutty and cultish as scientology.

    February 17, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
  11. Ran

    I love how the religious treat each other. It speaks volumes.

    February 17, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
    • jbob

      well said !!

      February 17, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
    • Allison

      Religion is for imperfect people wanting to be better. I agree though, no need to be negative.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
  12. ICYSILVER

    this is not God's word so is false teaching and we are to flee.

    February 17, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
  13. Tes Stone

    While I'm a proud heathen finding most religions absurd, the idea of recruiting the dead is certainly one of the most repellant of practices, right up there with animal sacrifice and child abuse. Go ahead and argue 'em into an early grave, if they let you, but PLEASE stop at the grave! No religious Zealots cross my door step, but this particular practice does make my flesh crawl. Fortunately, I don't need to decide between any of these ridiculous beliefs, as I will not be voting Republican.

    February 17, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
    • Allison

      This article doesn't do the doctrine justice (purely because there isn't enough space). It might be less disturbing to you if you learned more of what it is about and what the intent is behind it. Just go to LDS.org and look it up.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
  14. Lobo

    crimanie, jews, mormons, caltics and orther assorted nut jobs everywhere ya turn, whats a guy to do who's just trying to live his life the best he can,

    February 17, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
    • hollow-welt

      well learn to spell for starters

      February 17, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
    • frespech

      Live your life the best you can. Pretty simple.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
  15. Matt

    Baptisms for the Dead are offered as a service. If you don't want it, you're free to reject it. Why the histrionics?

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

      If they want to make friends, here, with the living, then they shouldnt act like pompus arrogant a$$es and offer this "service" to those that never wanted it, that's why.

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

      Because it's patronizing and insulting, Matt. Mormons aren;t the only ones who believe their way is the only way. There's nothing histrionic about reminding you Mormons that "No" means "No" - and no, you don't "know" anything we need.You guys need to work on your own salvation.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
    • Critic

      @ Matt, Baptism for dead, and if you don't want it reject it????? I hope you are being sarcastic. Enlighten us how a dead person can reject? Now that is a question that even the dead can not answer. But, may be, may be you can.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
    • ID Spud

      Let's see, if you believe that a dead person can't reject, let alone accept, so why should it matter?

      February 17, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
    • Bible Clown

      Matt, I just had your mom baptized as a Satanist and offered her soul to the Sabbath Goat. You can undo this by sacrificing ten goats to BAAL if you for some reason think I was a bit presumptuous.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
    • RAB

      Apparently too many people still don't understand (or do not want to understand) the doctrine. The LDS Church teaches that the spirit of everyone who dies continues to live in the spirit world, awaiting final judgement. Mormons take time out of their schedule to get baptised by immersion in behalf of those spirit souls–not in behalf of their dead bodies. It is an absolutely selfless act and is intended merely as a gift. And like all gifts, the recipient is free to turn it down–same way I am free to turn down a pamphlet offerred to me from some religious or political group.

      LDS Chruch members believe that EVERY spirit being will be taught the gospel after death if they did not have the opportunity to hear it during their life. Seems like a logical doctrine if you believe God is just. Spirit souls will also be told if someone performed baptism in their behalf. If that spirit being accepted Christ as their Savior after they died, they will be extremely thankful that someone had the thoughtfulness to perform the rite for them. If they reject the gospel, they will be perfectly free to say thanks, but no thanks.

      If you do not believe that spirit beings exist, than you obviously must also believe that the Mormons are performing baptisms in behalf of no one. Therefore it cannot be offensive to anyone.

      If some spirit beings are offended that someone tried to give them something they did not want, that is regretable. But it is extremely selfish for anyone (especially people who have no knowledge of the will of the spirits of people who have died) to demand that those who might want the gift of baptism be denied it. How would you feel someone planned to give you a new car, but your friends told him you do noit want it and it is an insult to you? If you did not want the car, would you not wnat to be the one to say you did not want it?

      February 17, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
    • Melody

      So, I am really confused. From everything I have read, the Mormons believe that you are taught in Spirit prison about Christ and have the opportunity to accept or reject Him. At that point, you still can only attain Heaven if you have received baptism..namely a Mormon baptism. So you are kept in spirit prison after accepting Christ until someone does a proxy baptism for you? So if no one does it before God calls judgement, then they believe there will be a 1000 year reign where God will help Mormons know every name they need to baptize for. But wait...isn't every human dead, or turned to a spirit at that point because the world has ended and Christ has returned? So how are the Mormons, who are now spirits just like every other human, going to do a proxy baptism when it can only be done by a living person to a living person? Can anyone answer me this? I think I will just take God's Word for what it says in context, and in it's entirety! It is so much clearer and easier to believe!! When man gets their ideas and opinions involved, it becomes confusing and muddled. Lord help us all!!!

      May 22, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
  16. MikeT

    As an LDS member myself, I was pleasantly surprised by the accuracy and fair tone of the author's article. As the author mentions, this was a practice that originated with the early Christian church, and approved by the same guy (Paul) who wrote much of the new testament. Im not sure that Paul would recognize "modern" mainstream christianity, now that they no longer perform this Christian ordinance (or even know where and how it is supposed to be performed)

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

      I'm sorry, but you are incorrect. Paul did not approve. he was simply observing a contemporary issue (that is not well understood). to make a pillar of your religion something that is not commanded or even approved in your scripture is a bad idea, at best.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
  17. WWJD

    "Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead not rise at all?” reads Corinthians 15:29" This is talking about SPIRITUALLY dead. Not physically dead....people please read the bible and get a clue!

    February 17, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
    • Dennis

      Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the Scripture is of any priuate Interpretation:
      – King James Version (1611)

      February 17, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
    • PDirt

      You are correct. Baptism is a choice made by the living. You can't effectively baptize someone who doesn't choose it for themselves.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
    • TA

      I did not see anything or word like SPIRITUALLY in that passage!

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

    Mormons are not Christian. The I Corinthians 15:29 verse that is misused actually reads, "Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead?"

    February 17, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
    • MikeT

      Well, exactly. He's saying "If there is no ressurrection, then baptizing the dead would be pointless" – the implication is "You guys (the early Christians) do baptism for the dead, so obviously you need to believe in the ressurection, otherwise, why waste your time?"

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

      I should also point out that this ordinance is mentioned in other apocryphal biblical books, including "First Clement" (written 80-140 AD) where Clement is assured that his dead ancestors could receive the baptism, "in a certain place" (the temple) – so its not like the verse in 1st corinthians is alone in talking about the early christian practice of proxy baptisms

      February 17, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
    • bobw

      he noted that it was going on. he did not command or approve it.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
  19. PeteH

    Catholics believe that only those who turned to Christ can be saved-just like every other Christian denomination. Please; if you're going to report the facts, make sure its fact that you report.

    February 17, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
  20. Lobo

    dang, cant get these sums beyatchs to leave you alone even after your dead.

    February 17, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
    • Bible Clown

      All knockin' on your coffin and wantin' to give you AWAKE! pamphlets and stuff.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
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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.