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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. Muhammed Mushka

    It is kinda like the ancient northern etheopean/egyption falacies from long ago. After pouring warm goat soup onto the body, it is covered in pine nuts, and sprinkled with desert tree roots.

    February 17, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • That is different

      Baptisms for the dead have a living person stand in for the person who is deceased. No dead body is brought into the temple.

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

      Just by reading this article you would know that Mormons do not even touch the dead corpse. The baptism is done by proxy – that means a living person is baptized in the place of the dead person.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
  2. Tyler

    Perfect. Just have all Mormon's participate in enough baptisms in a row that they stay submerged for say ten or twenty minutes. Problems solved!

    February 17, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
    • bob

      hahaha – very good

      February 17, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
  3. Darrell Barker

    And STOP baptizing Atheists too!

    February 17, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
    • zack

      GOD IS NO RESPECTER OF PERSONS.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
  4. MikeInNebraska

    The Mormon 'religion' is a CULT, that is all it is just like the Christian Science folks.

    February 17, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
    • zack

      Typical d- bag that has probably failed highschool ^_^

      February 17, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
  5. Jim

    So how do I find out if they have baptised any of my decesed relatives? Just for the fact that none of them would have wanted that to happen. They were already baptised by their own faith. They never had the desire to convert to mormonism while they were living. So they should have nothing to do with the mormon religion now.

    February 17, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
    • zack

      Did they get baptized by the proper authority? With the priesthood? Nope. So their baptism is invalid. Ask Jesus Christ.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • Easy there

      Zack, the language you are using will stir up hatred. Once people see a few words like the ones you are using, they ignore everything else you say and instead make it their goal to beat everything you say and hate everything you tell them. You have to be respectful even if others are not, or you will be the cause of it. Ease up, and people will be nicer to you, too.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
  6. Yohanon

    How are you going to call out somebodies name who is dead, then dunk someone on there behalf???? STUPID
    Wonder How much money they get from doing this, Got to be some Money involved. STUPID

    February 17, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
    • zack

      The church gets no money from this. You're just an ignorant fool that has a closed mind.

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

      Pleeeeze, anything that is Stupid as this doctrine, there is always money under the table, like all christianity, Money Machine..

      February 17, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
  7. GeorgeBos95

    Salvation is open to all ... assuming the Mormon's have done the baptism.

    What a great game of mind-control. And what a great way to spin up the religious wars – my religion's better than yours, my religion's better than yours!

    Just more silliness from the mindless zealots. Religious Robots abound.

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

      Because reading and understanding the bible = mind control... how close-minded and ignorant are you?

      February 17, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
  8. BoldGeorge

    Mormons baptizing for the dead is as equivalent (and doctrinally incorrect) as Catholics baptizing babies. Babies, and the deceased have no will, no belief system and aren't conscience to make a faith-based decision, or any decision for that matter. In every single bible verse where baptism is mentioned, you will find prior to it "believe." So it would read, "believe and be baptized." And those who believed and were baptized were never babies, much less dead people.

    February 17, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
    • W247

      BG – Thank you!

      February 17, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
    • zack

      And you've been to the after-life? I love these ignorant fools that think they know everything pretending to be God. How blasphemous is that?

      February 17, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      "zack – And you've been to the after-life? I love these ignorant fools that think they know everything pretending to be God"

      arent the mormons doing exactly the same thing by baptising the dead? believing that they need to do it or else the dead will remain in some form of limbo?

      February 17, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
    • Sorry

      Zack does not represent the church well. Try not to be offended by his disrespectful comments.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
  9. really dude

    People have to make a conscious decision to accept Christ in their life, not a bunch of wackos pouring water over proxies. Good people, but their doctrine is ridiculous. Historical evidence doesn't exist for anything that happened in the Book of Mormon. People found Troy but no one can find one shred of evidence that these cities existed in the richest country/region of the world? Hmmm wonder why. Didn't happen

    February 17, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
    • DB

      How is the Book of Mormon any more unfounded and unproven than any of the books of the Old Testament and the Gospels?

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

      Actually it does exist. You're a fool.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
  10. DB

    I'm a Jew who's the descendant of holocaust survivors who were the only members of their families to survive the war. I find Mormons to be rather bizarre, especially the way they've copied Masonic rituals for their religious ceremonies (I'm also a Freemason). But I also find them harmless. The common emotional response to finding out a deceased relative has been baptized isn't really logical. It's like the response people have when they find out a stranger stole a Facebook picture of their baby. It might FEEL like some kind of unauthorized violation, but what actual harm does it do? None, really. I've heard all the arguments about why this is so "outrageous," including Eli Weisel's recent rant about it. But It really has no affect, and it's just silly to let yourself get upset about it. If it makes the Mormons happy, who cares? I'd much rather they be doing this than proselytizing in my face.

    February 17, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
    • zack

      haha copied masonic rituals? Are you serious? You do know those rituals go back to the egyptians.. and from them ... to moses? And from moses ... to God... Do some research before claiming we copied masons.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      how on earth do you think you can claim that things that go back to egyptians came from moses? that is just silly.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
    • DB

      I'm completely serious, and you're sort of making a fool of yourself because it's common knowledge that Joseph Smith based his religious ceremonies on Masonic ritual. He was a Freemason before he founded LDS, until he was kicked out of his Lodge for giving away those rituals to non-Freemasons.

      Ancient Egypt? Kid, Freemasonry as we know it today is only about 300 years old...and most of the modern ritual was developed in the 19th century. Don't try to tell a member of a fraternity that you know more about the fraternity than they do, it makes you look ridiculous.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
  11. Fuzzlesnook

    Wow – I did not know that Morons had this posthumus baptism practice. I appreciated Dia's observation that they are merely a Scientologist in disguise. I guess that is not too far from the truth. I have never seen anything though about Xenu walking with Christ in the Book of Mormon, but I think that they can both – according to each fo their teachings – become a "God" and that they can get their own planet and "celestial family". I wonder though if the Scientologists believe that Xenu is the one who is actually involved in the conception of their offspring like the Mormon's believe their "Heavenly Father" (the "Alien" on his own planet who they "belong" to) is the one who is actually inpregnating the women on Earth today. I don't understand the sci-fi and religion connection with the aliens and the spaceships or comets and all. But maybe if we get a new president – we will all get to learn more about that. I do find it all facinating, but I could never wear the shoes that the Mormon missionaries wear.

    February 17, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
  12. ZZ

    First off I want to start out by saying I am not Mormon. I was trying to type a response to an earlier comment and accidentally hit the "Enter" key and it took off before I was done with it. Anyway, someone brought up their belief that if a religion doesn't believe that God is a Trinity then they're not Christian. Not that it will really do any good so I'm actually kind of wondering why I'm bothering to type this, but if the Trinity were true, then when Jesus was being crucified on the stake and he prayed to God (Mark 15:34); who was he praying to? Himself? And who raised him from the dead three days later? Himself? And in the Garden of Gethsemane before being betrayed by Judas Iscariot he prayed to God to fervently that his sweat became as drops of blood (Luke 22:44). Also he prayed that "this cup" of suffering be removed from before him, however, he qualified that statement by saying that let not Jesus will be done but God's will. (Luke 22:42). Again who was he praying to if all one in the same, and if they were the same person, why would there be two different "wills"?

    February 17, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
    • DB

      Oh no now I've gone crosseyed.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
    • really dude

      study the trinity. you obviously have no idea. In the beginning there was one church. If the ancient Jews existed in the new world before Columbus....per the Book of Mormon then why is there no evidence linguistically, genetically or physically? Why didn't these "lost Jews" use some of the technology from the holy land in the new world..i.e. metal tech, sea craft, even the wheel (yes the wheel, the indians didnt have it). I am a History graduate. Mormon doctrine makes no sense and there isnt a shred of evidence. Good people, built on Joseph Smiths lies. Dominus Jesus

      February 17, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • Honest Trinity Question

      How does the Trinity work? After reading John Chapter 17, it would seem Jesus was doing everything he could to say he and his Father were separate people. He even says later on "I will return to my father and your father and your God and my God." Why bother to say that?

      February 17, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
  13. geeeeez

    what a crock of bull, fantasies of afterlife and all that hokem

    February 17, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
  14. Chris

    I gave up religion many years ago, I believe that if you simply follow the "Golden Rule" that you will be allright and don't have to subscribe to any one religion or faith to go to heavan or wherever it is that we go when we die. Humans are an interesting species in that they cannot come to terms with their own mortality unless they slather it with a thick coating of religion or faith in a higher being.

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

      sweet. believe what you want. but in the end have fun in hell considering you have to be baptized by the proper authority to be saved.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      "zack – sweet. believe what you want. but in the end have fun in hell considering you have to be baptized by the proper authority to be saved."

      as some said earlier, oh it was you wasnt it?......
      And you've been to the after-life? I love these ignorant fools that think they know everything pretending to be God

      February 17, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
  15. realdeal

    despite what the professor said, Catholics do not believe that only Catholics are saved

    February 17, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
    • really dude

      read Dominus Jesus then answer. I am Catholic too.

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

      Before a non Catholic can be SAVED (whatever that hokus pokus means) they have to first confess their SINS (whatever that hokus Pokus means) and accept Jesus as their Personal Saviour (whatever that hokus pokus means). That takes about 6 days so they rest on the 7th day or something like that. Anyway by the time the non Catholic has done that he might as well be a Catholic.
      BTW does Mrs. God know that Jesus was her only begotten son in the whole wide universe cuz after all Jesus was born of a virgin.
      Pretty stoopid belief system if ya ask me.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
  16. Bob

    If salvation is available to everyone, then why is intervention by any church needed?

    This also assumes of course that the individuals being offered this opportunity posthumously might actually have wanted it.

    Personally (speaking only for myself) I have never felt that salvation was something I needed. I don't need to be "saved" from anything...other than the depredations of those who insist that EVERYONE embrace their religious views whether they wish to or not.

    February 17, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
    • zack

      Salvation IS available to everyone... does everyone get baptized or have the chance to by the proper authority? Nope. Just because it's available doesn't mean everyone gets it automatically nor understands how to obtain it.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
  17. tim

    Tracie Erickson, ex-mormon, lists a lot of things Mormons do that are much weirder than this, if that is possible. A cult is a cult is a cult. Like these Catholics pretending outrage over birth control while the systemic problem of pedophilia goes unchecked. A cult is a cult is...

    February 17, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
    • zack

      And you're an idiot.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
  18. Dwain Holmes

    This baptizing the dead because of those who died before Jesus time does not make sense at all.Jesus came to fulfil the old testament and those living under the old testament were saved by following God's law.Baptism is an outward sign of dieing to Sin and should not be done until a person is old enough to understand what it means and being willing for it!

    February 17, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
    • tim

      If the soul is gone why baptize the body? Just sayin'

      February 17, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
    • A reason

      A stand-in does the baptism in their behalf since you cannot baptize a spirit. But in the end, the spirit can say "I do not want that" if that is their choice.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • zack

      Baptism is an outward sign of dieing to Sin? lmao how stupid are you? What bible are you reading?

      February 17, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
  19. Scott

    Personally, I prefer to argue about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

    February 17, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
  20. Matt

    For all those who would like to understand (rather than ridicule) why baptisms for the dead are performed, I encourage you to ask a friend or co-worker who is a member of the LDS Church. Or, you can research this issue and other matters related to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on mormon.org as well as schedule a meeting with some of our fantastic missionaries. It may be difficult to understand baptisms for the dead without knowing the big picture of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
    To me, this doctrine is not pushy, but all-inclusive. It is not wierd, but loving. Thanks to all who are tolerant of our religious beliefs and to other religions as well.

    February 17, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
    • BL

      It's a complete crock, a fantasy, mythology, 100% BS. It's no more real than believing in Mickey Mouse. It's a total fairy tale.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
    • GeorgeBos95

      "To me, this doctrine is not pushy, but all-inclusive. It is not wierd, but loving. "

      Actually, it's arrogant, condescending, and disrespectful. LDS is just another silly belief system, no better than any other silly beliefe system. But it's the unbridled arrogance behind this that is truly remarkable.

      And of course you defend it – you live inside that dogma, and you are unable to see the tyranny of LDS behavior. You belive so strongly in this nonsense that OF COURSE you're justified in disrespecting any other belief system. After all YOURS IS RIGHT!

      Or not.

      And therein lies the silliness of not only your religion, but every other belief system. It's a belief system – there's no evidence to support it, no logic behind it, and anything can be rationalized away, because it's all basically magic.

      Fairy tales are for kids ... and believers.

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

      While I don't believe in it or believe that it makes a difference, that once you're dead you're dead ... I do realize the perspective it comes from, out of concern for others, even if they're dead.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
    • really dude

      Good people but your history is fabricated. Where is the evidence? Seriously? Dont say "they find stuff every day " like all the missionaries do because when questions they cannot name anything just give that ridiculous statement. What have they found? Ask yourself and research it. Archaeologists have found relics and cities THOUSANDS of years old and you tell me that not one coin or artifact can be found in the new world? Really? The richest area in the world and not one shred of evidence. Sorry but Joseph Smith was in it for personal fame and riches. Read "non-biased" sources on him. A magic rod that can find gold, seriously? Again, good people, family values, but based on virtual lies. If the foundation is rotten the house will fall.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
    • In response

      To really dude: there must be a reason why God does not just appear frequently to each individual to give them evidence. If it were so easy, we would all believe the same thing. I frequently hear arguments that evidence has been discovered as well as no evidence has ever been discovered. It has come down to which scientist you believe is telling the truth. So it comes down to which religion you believe is true. Mormons say if you study it out and continually pray, full assurance comes from the Holy Ghost. This story here provides a deeper level: that if you were a good person full of integrity and you were missing a few pieces, complete opportunity will be given to you. It's not so bad. You may need to search books that talk about positive evidence if that matters to you instead of just negative evidence. But in the end, God will reveal in his way, and not in the way man chooses.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:54 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.