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. Precious

    To me the reason for having the memebers go through the same ritual several times to baptize the dead is to brainwash the members. Can you also explain more about how the members also mary the dead and seal the dead to their families too?

    February 17, 2012 at 3:12 pm |
  2. blinky

    Each of us can have a direct relationship to God. You don't need a Bible, written text or minister intervening. That's just my way of looking at things and I'm not pushing my belief on anybody.

    February 17, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
  3. Thank you

    I would like to thank you for such a well explained article. Being a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints I wasn't sure how CNN would present such a topic.

    I was pleased to read that explanation included that the ordinance of baptizing of the dead is not about trying to make everybody Mormon, but it is a sign of our faith in Jesus Christ and the eternal efficacy of his Atonement. If baptism is a required ordinance to enter heaven then there must be some way for those who never had the chance to be baptized. I am proud to be able to participate in sacrificing my time so that another person who I've never known will have the same blessings and opportunities I have had.

    February 17, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
    • Andy wilson

      no, they are lost

      February 17, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
    • anon

      if you want to "sacrifice" your time, go work at a homeless shelter or a food bank or an animal shelter. dipping yourself in water while someone reads a bunch of names is not a sacrifice, it's hanging out with your friends and doing something that no one asked you to do and no one wants you to do.

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

      Well explained or not the whole practice is an insult to other beliefs, In essence saying that the religion that they believed so hard in is for nothing, and that they were wrong and needs to be corrected. In some beliefs I would not doubt it if they thought they would be cast out of heaven if such a thing were to be done.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
    • Religion

      No need to be offended. It seems like the perfect harmony of justice and mercy. If you cannot be saved without baptism from the proper authority, but you did not know you needed it in this life, it makes sense.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
  4. Josh

    I think the Mormon's concept is spurious, but their intent is commendable. They think people are suffering in hell and want to "save" them. If I believed all non-christians were suffering and a "proxy baptism" could alleviate their pain, I would do the same thing. I just happen not to believe either of those postulates.

    My personal beliefs are more in-line with Saint Matthew and Saint James than Saint Paul and Martin Luther. I believe you are judged based primarily on your actions, regardless of your faith. Furthermore I believe God is just, and therefore doesn't send people to eternal torment for lack of belief. Just means the punishment fits the crime. This belief is more in-line with the Roman Catholic belief in Purgatory.

    February 17, 2012 at 3:09 pm |
  5. mm


    February 17, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
  6. ddddddddddddddddd

    The can't get live people to say yes so the dead can't say no.

    February 17, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
  7. Carolyn

    It does no harm to anyone if the LDS church believes it gives people who have died an opportunity to accept Christ and the LDS church. It is not a matter of force. I don't see what the big frickin' deal is. Every religion has its beliefs. You don't have to agree with any. To me, this is just a shrug off.

    February 17, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
    • Andy wilson

      I tried to use this analogy to explain church/religion/belief to my Buddhist wife and a Hindu friend. We are given a recipe to make....apple pie. The ingredient list is given and are told any changes to these will not produce apple pie. Well some cooks want a little more cinnamon, maybe some less sugar and more salt... customize.. bear with me. Some cook longer or at a lesser or higher temperature. In the end after all the mi\xing preparing and baking... viola..... Let's taste it..... yuck, thats not apple pie, it's too salty, too cold, to much pepper... peaches were used... the crust was missing. We as mankind have tried to change the way the apple pie is made because we want it to suit our tastes. In the end we failed at making apple pie.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
  8. Kurt

    I guess God's best judgement isn't good enough. The Bible is obviously flawed if a human must go "back in time" and baptize everyone. I wonder if someone can go around and "unbaptize" someone?

    February 17, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
  9. formerjewnowwiccan

    And one other thing, I believe that people are born again, several times in fact. Even the Christian religion when it first came on the scene believed that people are reborn in other lives. The earth is constantly being recycled why can't souls?

    February 17, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
  10. smc

    Hey, if Rick Santorum can take his dead baby home for the night, why can't the Mormons baptize them? To each their own.

    February 17, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
  11. blinky

    Futile effort. What about the billions whose lives and names will never be known, because they died hundreds or more years ago? The logical conclusion is that, since they CANNOT be identified by all modern and forthcoming Mormons, then God is discriminating against them.

    Now, don't get me started on possible sentient beings on other planets, and how Mormons can't save them, either...

    February 17, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
    • John Doe

      The funny thing is that we recognize that you cannot possibly account for all human beings up till adam and eve. Although there actually are rumors of those who have made it that far. We actually believe that after the second coming of Christ, there will be angels that will help out with the work. Since all people have a spirit body and after they die in heaven, why can't they come back and bring us their names and be baptized. I think you would be surprised how foolproof mormonism is. You try to poke a hole in the religion and trust me there is nothing that can puncture it.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
  12. My IQ is higher than yours

    I'm post-humously converting all the dead Mormons into Muslims.

    February 17, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
    • Kurt

      If they're anything like other mythical creatures, perhaps you just have to turn the first Mormon into a Muslim thereby converting all of them and saving yourself a lot of time?

      February 17, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
    • Patrick

      I guess you didn't read the article then? It specifically says that mormon's don't believe it converts the dead to mormonism... (as an ex-mormon, I can attest that is correct)

      February 17, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
    • John Doe

      Did you read the article? It isn't conversion. It is providing an opportunity to be converted. Agency is what life is all about. Baptism for the dead provides the opportunity for conversion. It does not force anyone to be converted. To force someone would be of the Devil.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
  13. OhPleaseYerKillinMeSTOP

    And for self-serving nonsense like this we give them and all other organized religions TAX BREAKS that are paid for by every homeowner? Tell your voting-bloc-whoar politicians to TAX THE PEDERAST CHURCHES, TERRORIST-INCUBATOR MOSQUES, CARPETED SYNAGOOGLES ETC NOW!!!

    February 17, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
  14. No Thank You!

    If they tried to baptize me when I'm dead, I'll just say what I say in real life, "get the hell out of here you freaks!"

    February 17, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
    • zack

      And then you'll realize all your life you have been living a lie.. and end up in hell. Good luck with that.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
    • No Thank You!

      @zack – Hell is standing there listening to two 1960's IMB employees talking about Joseph Smith.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
    • Have Fun

      When Mormons come a knocking, i pull out my copy of the "Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster" and preach to them.


      February 17, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
  15. formerjewnowwiccan

    As a former jew, I do find this offensive. The Wiccan religion is one of the few religions out there that does not force its beliefs on others, but all other religions constantly try to force their religion on other people. Look, there is more than one way to find Goddess (or God if you prefer) and that is the path I have taken. This is rude. They need to stop forcing themselves onto others.

    February 17, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
    • zack

      So providing all with the chance to accept the gospel is cruel? How ignorant are you?

      February 17, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
    • YBP

      Zack, how ignorant are you? Don't you know that Jesus was a Jew of the First century CE, prior to the Roman-Jewish War? An End-Times prophet? One of countless magicians from that time and place? A lunatic? If you had any idea about what he actually believed, or why he thought he was dying (prior to any of the Greco-Roman nonsense that St Paul borrowed), you surely wouldn't believe any of it. Take a class. Read a book. Avail yourself of some genuine information. There's a ton of it out there.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
  16. OBPenguin

    I certainly hope that Mr. Romney will condemn this incredibly strange behavior. If he does not, this will instill to the American people that Mormonism is a very odd and strange cult. I would NOT want to see the potential President of the United States of America condoning this odd and strange religious custom !

    February 17, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
    • zack

      So you're saying jesus christ and his apostles taught false doctrine? Typical ignorant soul.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
    • YBP

      Zack, the New Testament was written after the fall of Jerusalem, after the year 70 CE. It was influenced by St Paul, not illiterate Jesus and his illiterate followers, who were all long dead by then. And the Book of Mormon was written by a 19th Century known huckster in the style of the 17th Century Jacobean translation of the Bible that he was mining while doing so. Even a child could see through all of this.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
    • SunnyInSLC

      But therein lies the rub: Mitt Romney can't condemn Mormon doctrine. You are in or you're out; the LDS church does not look kindly on people who openly criticize, as fired BYU professors can attest.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
  17. Bob

    I love how it claims to "solve" a problem. It just points out how silly all religions are. Just because any eight year old in Sunday can raise their hand and say "So Moses couldn't go to heaven because he wasn't baptized" and the teacher has to quickly backtrack on her "Only the baptized can go to heaven" statement. Another kid will then raise their hand and say "So my baby brother who died during birth is now in Hell!?" while fighting back tears and soon chaos ensues. The Bible and any religion never stands up to any kind of close scrutiny. The Catholic Church invented "Limbo" for all the unbaptized babies even though the Bible says nothing of the sort.

    February 17, 2012 at 3:02 pm |
    • sparks

      that one's easy, actually. Mormons believe that if a child dies before the age of 8 they automatically go to heaven.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
    • truth

      Baptism and communion are ordinances, not required entrance to heaven. Believing that Jesus is the Christ, the Creator, that he died on the cross for the sins of ALL and he was resurrected on the third day...that is how you gain entrance to heaven. Not by works, or deeds, but by FAITH. (if you are a Bible scholar, you will know that Jesus descended to the "grave" and witnessed to the souls in 'sheol' 1Peter 3:19, 4:6)

      February 17, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
  18. xeniv23

    Magical circular thinking in the extreme. Absolute disregard and disrespect for all other human beings. Who do you think you are? Jesus Christ?

    Go away and stay there.

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

    Religion is all silly nonsense. Anyone who took science classes in school should recognize that. Emperor Constantine sat down with his writing staff, and invented the christian religion and the bible stories.

    February 17, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
    • Mordrud

      Emperor Constantine had a writing staff?? LOL. You had me up to that point. Was his writing staff part of his PR department?

      February 17, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
    • YBP

      Mordrud, the books contained in the New Testament were voted upon for inclusion by bishops under the direction of Constantine in the Fourth Century CE. numerous gospels were discarded at that point. Some have been recovered. The bishops were like princes, the politicians of their day, and the stronger their political influence, the greater their wealth, the more significant their vote. So, stop "laughing out loud" and learn some of the history of your so-called religion.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
    • Andy wilson

      and science is man's way to explain how things work using the knowledge and skill some higher being gave us. we are creatures of curiosity. Just as an architect thinks thru and designs a building, someone made/designed us. Then we had the smarts to make letters to write a book. I would rather live my life and in the end if there was no God then fine, but to live my life like there was no God, and there was, woe is me.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
    • fritz

      Actually, the Christians were a well established, although not so well defined religion by 325 AD. Constantine convened the Nicene council to legitimize the religion by making it the official state religion. It was also to resolve the Arian dispute on whether Jesus was a real human being or a divine creature as Saul from Tarsus (Paul) had preached as well as to what books and miriad stories about Jesus were true or false (canonized}. Constantine used the religion for matters of political cohesion within the rapidly shrinking empire. He also favored the religion because it was the only one he could find to absolve him of his many crimes.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
  20. The World

    The world is 6000 years old, dinosaurs were Jesus horses and Jesus was a native American

    what's not to believe

    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
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.