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. Tom

    Hey Conrad – why did the government persecute and crucify the Son of God? I know if was part of the plan of salvation for Jesus to die for our sins but it was the people and government that acted in a similar manner because Jesus taught things that weren't accepted by the masses. He taught a different gospel than the people of His day would generally accept. That is why he said in Matthew 7:14 that "Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it".
    Just to clarify, Joseph's Smith wife did not leave him. And do you think it was right that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints were also persecuted and killed for their beliefs.

    February 17, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
  2. Leonard Simek

    The exact point here is this. Baptism does not save anyone. You can be baptized a million times over and it wont save you unless you accept Jesus Christ as your lord and savior. Its too presumptive to assume a person already passed believed. So if that person hated God then the actual ceremony the Church Of Christ of Latter Day Saints may be doing may be considered by God as strange fire. Anyone guilty of strange fire will be judged by God on his merits,,,,good or bad. You must believe before you are saved and then baptism comes later. You are saved by your faith and belief....baptism may or may not be required. Work out your own salvation,,,,its a command not a request. Any kind of strange ceremonies no matter how innocent,,if not completely backed by scripture can be considered very risky and usually results, in over time, very unusual fellowship or worse. Praise the Lord our God thru his son Jesus Christ who is our Lord and Savior.

    February 17, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
    • Carole Green

      Thank you, Leonard. I was going to post a similar comment, but mine would be redundant, you stated it perfectly.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
    • Steve the Atheist

      No surprise here. The only way to salvation is by (INSERT- what I believe because everyone else is wrong).

      February 17, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
  3. Overreacting

    I am both an atheist and Jewish (I don't believe in fairy tales but I am proud of my Jewish heritage). My grandfather alone lost 6 siblings to the holocaust so please understand that when I say I do not find post death practice to be offensive I have a leg to stand on. While I think all of you spouting religious gibberish are silly, I think it is kind and more importantly benign that this group of people truly believe they are helping others who have suffered. I can see how it may be insulting to families of holocaust victims who were murdered for their religion, but frankly this outcry against Mormons is just not warranted.

    February 17, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
  4. mittreagan

    "Take a Walk on the Mormon Side" with me in this interpretation of the Lou Reed classic!


    February 17, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
  5. Minoa

    I am saddened that some are angered by this discussion. Permit me to explain a point: LDS belief is that in each case of baptism for a dead soul, that individual soul can accept it or reject it. We hold that if the individual does not want it, then the ordinance will be null, void, and without effect. So, you see, there is no intent to coerce or offend. Also, a few comments indicate a misconception that corpses are involved. Not so. These ordinances only involve the NAMES of deceased individuals. These ordinances are simple, beautiful, and done in privacy and without fanfare.

    The point about free will is important: One comment asked how Mormons would like it if some other religion did this. A fair question. Because I think it is obvious that God gives every soul the free agency to reject or accept any ordinance, I wouldn’t mind if any religion or group performed a rite that used the names of myself or my relatives. Those ordinances would have no effect unless I or my relatives accepted them. Again, that is why there is no intent to offend or coerce when LDS members perform baptism for the dead...in each case the individual soul can accept it or reject it. If the individual soul does not want an ordinance, then it will be null, void, and without effect.

    Another point of confusion: “Mormon” is a nickname, and the actual name of our church is Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. It’s okay with me if people call us “members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints “ or “Latter-Day Saints” or “LDS” or “Mormon.” I am not a spokesperson, just a regular member of the Church that wants to express how I feel. I am deeply saddened that some people are angry about baptisms for the dead. It is a beautiful and ancient Christian ordinance that fell into disuse long ago, until our church restored its use. Baptism for the dead is mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15:29, and verses like Malachi 4:5-6, Psalms 16:9-10, Acts 2:25-31, and 1 Peter 4:6 help to illuminate aspects of the doctrine.

    Again, I wish to assure Jews everywhere that no disrespect or offense is intended. I apologize for the fact that this topic not been explained well to the public. Please understand that we believe none of the souls for whom this ordinance is performed is “forced” into baptism; we believe every deceased soul has the free will to accept or reject the baptism. LDS members, myself included, feel respect and a strong sense of kinship with the Jewish people. For example, I and every LDS member I know is a strong supporter of peace and prosperity for Israel.

    Hoping to add understanding, let me add that we LDS regard ourselves as Christians. Yes, I am sadly aware that some other Christians like to argue that point. I think these arguments stem from the fact that all Christian denominations have some differences in doctrine; our restoration of baptism for the dead is one of those differences. But I wish we could all set aside our arguments about differences and focus on the fact that we have so much in common. To quote two of our most essential articles of faith: “We believe in God the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.” And “We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel.”

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

      Ditch the beliefs until you have some evidence to back them up. You'll make more friends that way.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
    • mittreagan

      When the Mainstream Mormon missionaries knock on my door, I tell them I want the same deal Hitler got.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
    • mittreagan

      You left out the bit about how you're Jewish ANYway, your Mormon baptism also counting as baptism into the Abrahamic Covenant. Just another Mormon who won't honestly divulge and discuss their religion.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
    • Steve the Atheist

      I find it funny you feel the need to write a short story to defend your imaginary god and complete BS story called religion.

      Sorry, just calling it exactly how clearly it is to see.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
    • Vanka


      This isn't about YOUR beliefs. It is about respecting the dead, their memory, and the rights of their families to have their ancestors respected and left to "rest in peace".

      What makes it most offensive is that YOU continue to think that everyone else in the world just has to understand and accept YOUR beliefs and that will make it OK.

      How did Mormons get to be so self centered?

      You and your Church are NOT god's gift to the world! The whole world, and all of history, are NOT about Mormons and Mormonism!

      But you people believe it IS! And that is what is so offensive... and arrogant...

      February 17, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
  6. mittreagan

    Learn what Mormons think of the Catholic Church - don't wait for CNN to "break" the story!


    February 17, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
  7. Duh

    Rocky, your history is a bit off. I'm pretty sure the Jews of the Holocaust, as well as those for the past 2000 years, "heard about Jesus Christ", had the opportunity to be baptized, but chose not to. But, this didn't matter to the Mormons who went about their merry way baptizing them anyway. Presumptuous!!!

    Perhaps the fact that there were many millions of people who lived before Jesus and did not have the opportunity to "know" him should tell you that: (1) the whole think is a bunch of bunk or (2) God is wickedly cruel in not giving all people an equal opportunity to be "saved" (why leave it to an arbitrary process of posthumous baptism by a religious group that didn't exist until the 1800s?). Perhaps the wickedly cruel God is not worthy of worship anyway.

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

      Great answer.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
    • Minoa

      Duh wrote <> Good question. In the end, we believe it will not be an “arbitrary process” that leaves some people out. Like most other Christians, we believe that Jesus Christ was resurrected, ascended to be with our Father in Heaven, and that He will return some day (what some call the 2nd Coming). At that time, lost information will be made known, and ALL ordinances will become vastly more organized, until they are all complete. So why do baptisms for the dead now? Many reasons. One reason is that it is another way to learn to render service to others (our ancestors, not to mention opportunities to help others research their own family genealogy). And it builds understanding and love for all the people in one’s family tree; it turns “the heart of the children to their fathers.”

      February 17, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
  8. Simple Math

    Baptism is associated with accepting Jesus or being saved by grace.

    Being saved by grace means you should have received a punishment for your sin which hurt other people. The problem here is that Grace tends to be put above The Greatest Commandment Matthew 22:37. If this were the case, then the devil could be forgiven and he would be in heaven. The devil does not love God and this is the reason he is not in heaven.

    February 17, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
  9. Kevin

    In reading the "facts" of this article, their beliefs are truly the most insane I've ever seen. PS – What exactly did Joseph Smith do with those golden tablets???

    February 17, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
    • Joseph smith

      He pawned them at Pawn Stars shop. Watch the next episode.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
  10. webster

    The obvious answer is because they are crazy

    February 17, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
  11. Jiminy Cricket

    Well I think it is pretty nice of them. I think their goal would be reached faster since God is all knowing, what if they got a large group of people together by proxy and proclaimed, I babptize everyone who's ever died then they group is submerged..... Why wouldn't it work? He knows all who have been created.

    February 17, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
  12. mittreagan

    Click here to learn how Mormons are baptized into the Abrahamic Covenant!


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

      That is a young Soupy Sales !

      February 17, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
  13. Chuck

    Jesus died on the cross and resurrected from the dead for all our sins. He conquered death for us. All we have to do is believe. Its by God's grace that we are saved. We first believe and accept this as the truth then it's by God's grace we are saved. It's God's gift to us that he sent his only begotten son to die on the cross and be resurrected. Anything thing different is a lie. Then we have to put God first in our lives in order and live by his commandments and gospel in order to complete our salvation. People are saved everyday. Some choose to live by his word some don't. God never said he would demand anything from us because it is all by choice. Now in order to complete the process we as believers serve God with all our mind, body and soul and repent of our sins then we will be with him forever. If some believe but choose not to follow his guidlines and not truly repent then they will not be eternally with him. Believers that fall from grace are worse off than ever have known him at all. NO one is perfect he already knows this but you still must follow his word or it really didn't mean anything to you and Jesus's sacrifice was for nothing. Everyone needs to repent means to change from and not repeat over and over. Friends be very careful in what you believe and follow. Path to hell is far and wide but path to heaven is straight and narrow.

    February 17, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
  14. Bible Clown

    Yeah, because that's not insane or anything.

    February 17, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
  15. Interpretation

    You have to love interpretation, without interpretation there would be no modern "Rapture" as it does not exist in the bible in anything remotely a clear statement of such. At best it is a couple of verses that as many don't have a clear meaning and a word or two can allow for manipulation to mean what one wishes.

    February 17, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
  16. Test

    To asdf:
    So what you are saying is that because Romney wears sacred underware there is something wrong with that? Don't many people who worship God wear something – Muslims wear a taqiyah (cap), Jews wear a tallt (prayer shawl), christians wear a cross. Don't they wear it as a reminder of who they are and what higher standards they are accountable for? These symbols represent mans desire to achieve something higher than themselves. They represent a higher more ethical code of conduct... and you are saying there is something wrong with that?

    February 17, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
  17. Paul

    Dear Mrs(?) Givens,

    Catholics do not believe we are the only ones saved. Anyone with 'The light of God' is saved. You can read all about it in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

    February 17, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
  18. Andre

    Why should one's salvation depend on someone else's actions? And what about all the people who have died without any record of them?

    February 17, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
    • JoJo

      Yea! What about the CaveMen and Cave Women ? Didn't God create them ?

      February 17, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
  19. JoJo

    Do they baptize them by sprinkle or dunking them in water? Figuratively speaking of course !.

    February 17, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
  20. BYUROX

    As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I thought that this article was a fair representation of how we as "Mormons" believe. It wasn't entirely accurate, but a good critical article and I commend CNN for its fairness. One argument I would like to make is that our heritage whether Mormon, Catholic, Jew, Evangelical, Muslim, Budhist, etc. is not our only heritage. We are all children of God and eternity is a long, long time. This life is simply a very small event in time when considering the big picture of eternity. In other words, our true heritage, no matter who we are, is children of a loving Heavenly Father, and our existence goes far beyond this life. However, in light of stating that, simply because one is being baptized for by proxy, doesn't take away from ones heritage. My guess is Peter, James, and John, though choosing not to follow some of the tenets of Judaism, were very proud of their heritage being from the house of Judah. If someone is a Jew, Muslim, Evangelical, etc., and receives baptism by proxy, it doesn't take them away from their heritage, but rather offers them the opportunity to follow the commandment of Jesus Christ, who he himself was a Jew and of the house of David, and who was baptized to "...fulfill all righteousness"(Matt 3:15). This is no different than me asking if one of my friends who may be Evangelical would like to learn more about my religion. Simply asking doesn't take away his/her heritage. Why then, would it hurt someone's heritage if he/she was baptized FOR. The baptism is an invitation and ordinance to accept Jesus Christ as his/her Saviour, if they CHOOSE. Not allowing them to be baptized for, in a sense, is taking away their, the deceased individual's, option for this opportunity in the next life. We, the decendents, choosing what our predecessors may or may not want in the next life, is not up to us. Again, the deceased persons may or may not accept the baptism by proxy, this OPTION, in my opinion and belief, is up to them. I am a Mormon, I am a Christian, and I follow my Savior Jesus Christ. I will always be grateful for His sacrifice by proxy for me that I may live with Him and Heavenly Father again one day.

    February 17, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
    • Oopey-ster

      I disagree with almost EVERYTHING you said. Who says there is a "Heavenly Father"? What if its more of a "Heavenly Dirty Old Uncle"? You just don't know. It could also be a "Heavenly Dark Matter". Anyway, the practice of baptizing the dead is offensive to such a degree that I'm not sure there are words to explain it.

      I do agree with one point: "We, the decendents, choosing what our predecessors may or may not want in the next life, is not up to us."

      If its "not up to us", then how DARE you take it upon yourself to decide that our predecessors wanted to be baptized?!! If they weren't baptized in life, then doesn't it stand to reason that maybe they didn't want to be baptized in death? Or do you think maybe its just one of those things they never got around to? I guess logic plays no part where religious "thought" is involved?

      February 17, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
    • Rob

      The bible is a fairy tale book. Jesus was a good, but crazy man, who died in the cross for nothing. Religion is counter productive to our lives and advancement.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
    • BYUROX

      Oopey-ster and Rob I am saddened you do not know your Heavenly Father. He is kind, loving, and very real. I am glad to know Him and feel His influence in my life. He brings me peace and love in a world of confusion and strife.

      To answer your note, notice that I never stated we choose what they want, as you mentioned, rather offer them an option to receive Jesus Christ through baptism. I love this great nation where we can worship how we choose and share our beliefs with others without constraint by the government. Likewise, Jesus Christ offers his love, grace, and mercy to those who have passed beyond the veil of this life. We, as "Mormons" or followers of Jesus Christ, work to share His gospel to those here on the earth and those who have passed beyond. The work we do in the temple for our deceased ancestors and in everyday life with our friends, neighbors, and community sharing the gospel or good news of Jesus Christ, is a labor of love. I am so grateful to be able to share His marvelous message to others in these ways.

      Oopey-ster and Rob you should try His message and see if you do not begin to feel the swelling of peace, prosperity, and abundance He offers. Go to http://www.mormon.org and see for yourself. You will not be disappointed in the loving message Jesus Christ gives to all. I wish you peace, happiness, and grace.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
    • Steve the Atheist

      @BYUROX – "Oopey-ster and Rob I am saddened you do not know your Heavenly Father." I have to call you out right there, and you do? When is the last time you met him for lunch? His phone # perhaps (the way you make it sound)?

      One question though, is it true that he rides a unicorn everywhere he goes???

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

      You make it sound like a gift. I think the vast majority of us do not see it as a gift, but rather an insult to our beliefs, and yes, to our heritage.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:35 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.