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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. Sandra

    This church has destroyed my relationship with my daughter. Mind control is a nice way of putting it.... WAYYYY too strange for me ~~~

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

      I am very sorry to hear there is any misunderstanding with your daughter. I encourage you to just have lots of conversations with her. In the church we learn that families incredibly important, and that there is great joy in shoing love and kindness to our families (no matter what their beliefs are). 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 4:19 pm |
  2. The Woof

    I read the verse and my take on that verse is that it confirmed the promised Resurrections of which there will be two Revelation 20: 1-13. As for the dead, the following should be read, Ecclesiates 9: 5-6.

    February 17, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
  3. Brooklyn Boy

    Yet another symptom of the mential illness of religion.

    February 17, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
  4. Penelope Abdul Plophousensteinman

    Just remember....the following poem that my Aunt Helga use to tell me: The eggs that were formerly in the nest that flew out and then back in may someday not be here nor there. They may however be over there or here. But cannot be everywhere but nowhere.

    February 17, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
  5. Bruce

    I baptised everyone who is living or has ever lived just last weekend, in a little ceromony I call "Pouring out the skunk beer". Now all are safe, and will live eternal life with the Great Brewmaster in the sky!

    February 17, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
  6. Dan

    I love how CNN is going to make religion an issue in the election, even if everyone else in Politics (if you can believe that) doesn't.

    February 17, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
    • EC

      It IS an issue. You want this country run like the state of Utah?

      February 17, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
    • Minoa

      @EC - I suppose you are implying that Romney would wear his religion on his sleeve were he to be elected. Well I don’t know the man, but where and when have you gotten the slightest inkling that he is pushy about his religion? There is no evidence of that. He seems extra polite about that type of thing.

      February 17, 2012 at 9:34 pm |
    • Sabrine

      Marriage is an earthly ocninadre, so Christ was explaining that after one is dead and resurrected, there will be no marriages performed. Marriages have to be preformed before the resurrection. It would be easy to misunderstand this passage because we only have a portion of the event as recorded in the NT. In the NT we are told that the scriptures were written by inspired men called prophets, and therefore, these scriptures must be interpreted by prophets thank God we again have prophets.

      September 7, 2012 at 9:45 am |
  7. MB2334

    Mormons DO believe theirs is the only religion that is true. They also believe that women can't get into heaven without being married to a male. They also do post humous marrriages. So this guy is not such an "expert" I know these things from life eperience. Despite those facts, it's abhorrent to baptize anyone and theirfore stuff your own belief system down their (dead) throat.

    February 17, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
    • MB2334

      *therefore.

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

      Nothing is being "crammed down anyone's throat". The person who has died chooses to accept or reject the baptism. BTW– the same can be said of men getting to the highest degree of glory in heaven– not without a wife. There are many degrees of glory since there are many degrees of righteousness. I am quite sure any of these "heavens" will be wonderful beyond our limited imagination.

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

      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.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
    • KayO

      Mormons do not believe that a woman needs to be married to go to heaven, only to get to the highest degree of heaven. Which, by the way, a man must be married to a women to get there too. Also, members of the church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which is the true name of their church, don't believe they are actually baptizing dead people. The belief is that they are being baptized on behalf of the dead. The deceased person has the option of accepting that baptism or not. It is in no way shoved down their throat, any more than if a catholic were to pray in behalf of a friend. That friend is not obligated to believe that the catholic's prayers are going to help. The friend does not need to become Catholic. If the friend wants to renounce those prayers said in his behalf, he is permitted. This is very similar.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
    • SMS

      What a sad commentary on the state of our nation. Intolerance reigns so supreme. Mormons are a cult for baptizing the dead. Muslims are terrorist because they are Muslim, etc. There is an ignorance so extreme. And to say there is not is ignorant.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
  8. TM

    kinda creepy....and yes arrogant to think they know best.

    February 17, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
  9. will

    The author missed the most important point. What wasn't said is that there is a $500.00 fee to baptize one of your dead ancestors. The practice is nothing more than a big money maker for the so-called church.

    February 17, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
    • fritz

      i have done hundreds of baptisms for the dead in LDS temples – there is no money involved at all, ever. that's flat-out false information.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
    • souptwins

      Okay, I'll play the game and I'm calling it - BS! You lose.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
    • uisignorant

      Pull your head out and take a breath. You have no idea what you are talking about.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
    • SunnyInSLC

      I'm a happy ex-Mormon and find their doctrine and culture pretty wacky, but I gotta say: Will is flat-out wrong.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
    • Mormon Christian

      No money is involved with baptism for the dead. No cost, just sumission of the deceased ancestor, and the volunteering of time to do the proxy baptism on their behalf. LOL

      February 17, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
  10. Conway Eastwood

    Why do Mormons do anything?

    February 17, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
  11. unshrub

    We can do what ever we want fro while we are alive is we can get so Mormon to read our name while on of them holds their had under water. T sounds like a loophole into heaven. Great.

    February 17, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
  12. Seer

    Fricking cult of idiots and now the republicans want to put one in charge. Hell these idiots even baptized Goebbels, Goering and many other killers so they do not care and there is no heaven but if I can haunt after I am dead I promise to haunt anyone who tries to baptize me back into a religion I left anyways and had my name removed.

    February 17, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
  13. will

    The author totally missed the most important point. What he didn't say is that there is a $500.00 fee for baptizing your dead ancestors. The practice is a scam to make money for the so-called church and nothing more.

    February 17, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
    • jeremywill

      Please provide a source, i would love to know more about this fee.

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

      Sorry Will, but your are wrong. I'm LDS and there's no "charge" or "fee".

      February 17, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
    • David

      That is absolutely not true. There is no fee for performing baptisms for the dead.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
    • SMS

      I agree as well...produce your source. I have been a member of the church all my life..there has never been a fee.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
    • Paige

      I have participated in baptisms for the dead many times as a youth for some of my ancestors. There is ABSOLUTELY NO FEE involved and there never ever will be. Please stop spreading false information that you obviously know NOTHING about!

      February 17, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
    • dscotty

      Yeah. That thing about the fee is completely not true. Where in the world did you hear that?

      February 17, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
    • Tony

      I don't know where people get the idea that it costs money to baptize an ancestor but that is absolutely not true in any sense of the word. I was a Southern Baptist for 40 years. I have now been a Latter Day Saint for going on six years. I have been in the temple many times for both baptisms for the dead and other ordinances and I can assure you there is absolutely no money involved in having an ancestor baptized for the dead. The biggest problem Mormons (and those of other faiths) have is the fact that most people do not take the time to investigate for themselves concerning a particular belief. They simply seize upon what they hear other people say or what they read on the internet. If people would look at the truth instead of vicious rumors, you would see a very different picture painted of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
    • Lynn

      There is no fee, just as there is no fee for your own baptism, temple marriage, or any other LDS ordinance.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
    • Minoa

      I don't know where you got this idea, but it is incorrect. There is no fee for ordinances in the LDS Church. In fact, we have no paid clergy in our congregations: bishops, teachers, priests, etc are all volunteers that accept assignments. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is a very social organization. We participate, in part, because we enjoy it.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
  14. SMS

    I am a proud Latter – day Saint and appreciate this very objective and precise view of the baptism for the dead ordinance. At ths root of this ordinance is the concept that all have the opportunity to accept Christ. One of the most profound tenets of the church is the concept of "free agency" ie, we are given the gospel to live and the choice to live it. Jesus Christ was baptized in life to fulfill all righteousness by one in authority to do so. Christ was perfect, without sin, but elected to be baptised out of obedince to God. We conduct these baptisms for the dead to ecxtend the invitation to people who have gone before. One thing that is very interesting about baptisms for the dead that is excellent is the spirit of sreving one another engenders. No matter what you believe, it is rare to find instances in our society where people will take time to provide service to people that they have never met. Great article!

    February 17, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
    • Old Foggy

      i think that most of us can make our own decisions, thank you very much. Bottom line, mind your own business and let the rest of us live, die, and rejoice in Christ within our own religions. Besides, I'd never be so stupid as to follow the belifs of a drunkard and I doubt most right minded people would either.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
    • nwatcher

      Problem is the interpretation of the passage used by Joseph Smith to create this doctrine in the first place. Scripture was not condoning or promoting the practice, just saying it was useless if there was not resurection – which some were claiming at the time. The whole concept is based on a falsehood.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      What it is doing is telling all these people that they made a mistake in their life and did not live it correctly and the mormons obviously know better and will correct their mistake.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
    • Hannah

      It is offensive.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
  15. Chuck

    If a Mormon even tried to go near anyone I love I would be so ticked. I think they are a cult and a bunch of nut cases so needless to say I have little to no respect for these door knocking bible salespeople...they are nuts....and it scares me that a Mormon may get a run at the White House....America is in trouble...Obama or a Mormon...what a garbage choice.

    February 17, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
  16. Vanka

    Mormons try to make us feel better about their disrespecting our dead ancestors by saying such things as:

    "From lds.org – http://www.lds.org/study/topics/baptisms-for-the-dead?lang=eng&query=baptism+dead
    "Some people have misunderstood that when baptisms for the dead are performed, deceased persons are baptized into the Church against their will. This is not the case. Each individual has agency, or the right to choose. The validity of a baptism for the dead depends on the deceased person accepting it and choosing to accept and follow the Savior while residing in the spirit world. The names of deceased persons are not added to the membership records of the Church."

    But the same is true of live people being baptized. Baptisms are not efficacious without the sincere belief and repentance of the person being baptized.

    But that is the problem. According to Mormon teachings and scripture, the dead are unable to repent. That is why they teach that you must not procrastinate the day of your repentance... because you cannot repent after death!

    If baptism is ineffecacious without repentance, and the dead cannot repent, then baptism for the dead is doctrinally meaningless and, frankly, stupid!

    February 17, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
    • ron

      You can't repent because you can't repay the wrong, but you can still accept Jesus and his attoning sacrifice can overcome all sin.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
  17. Don

    It's my understanding that Mormon orthodoxy claims that God retracted his approval of the Christian religion early in the 1st century A.D. and did not restore it until Joseph Smith discovered the buried golden tablets near Palmyra, NY in 1835(?). The text was written in Egyptian, but the tablets came with a pair of eyeglasses that allowed Mr. Smith to translate the text into English, then parlay the content into the Mormon religion. He discovered the tablets by placing a "peeping stone" in a hat, covering his face with the hat, then surveying the ground for buried artifacts by looking through the stone. This technique was developed at the time as a way to find the graves of native-American indians, which sometimes included gold and other valuables, The gold tablets were seen by two people only –J. Smith and a collaborator– then disappeared. Hence, the proxy baptisms are needed as well for all Christians who lived between the 1st A.D. and the mid-1800s.

    This fantasical account sounds like a Colbert Report skit or an Onion newspaper article. Don't trust me. Read Jon Krakauer's "Under the Banner of Heaven."

    February 17, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
    • C from Iowa

      Hi Don,

      While I do not have a full understanding of the Mormon faith, I am familiar enough with it to spot several inaccuracies in your account. I doubt they were intentional, but you might want to inform yourself more before making such claims. For example, there were twelve witnesses who claimed they saw the golden plates some of whom eventually left the Mormon church. Interestingly, even those who left the Mormon church never denied their account.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
    • jparker

      Thats sounds crazy.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
    • Rent A Yenta

      Great post, Don…I find it interesting that, in 1835, Joseph Smith translated that text into 400 year old English instead of the English of his day.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
  18. aunty taqiyyah

    Another theology that is incomprehensible as being appealing to anyone over the age of 6...

    Of course its not as lethally idiotic as another one we are all regrettably aware of ....at least since 9/11 for many.

    February 17, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
  19. StMike

    Catholics believe that anyone can be saved who sincerely believes in his faith/religion!!!!!

    February 17, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
    • Barry

      Wrong. Just like the Jews, Catholics think they're the only ones going to heaven. That's one of the inherent problems with organized religion; mass egos. Of course none of it really matters, because, as Pat Tillman's brother so eloquently put it – "There is no heaven – he's just f#$kin dead."

      February 17, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
  20. Not For Me

    I find the whole process repulsive.Before my dad died he asked that my brother, a crazy mormon, not baptise him, I'm sure he did anyway becuase they have no regard for those outside their church.

    February 17, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
    • zack

      It's not your choice. It's his. To deny him the opportunity is a sin. You trying to decide for him is also a sin. He has his free agency.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
    • Thinkformyself

      Zach – You seem like a brainwashed zealot.

      I grew up in that cult and ran as far away from it as I could. The Mormon church IS a cult! Its also all made up!

      February 17, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
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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.