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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. Bird on a wire

    Perhaps Mormonism is a lot like Amway. Gotta get those souls under them...so they can Baptiste 10 and so on...

    February 17, 2012 at 4:25 pm |
    • Zora

      Margaret, the hawks in Vietnam did win the war. Hence, the Paris Peace Accords. Congress lost the war by unilaterally plinlug funding from our security investment in Vietnam. This communicated to North Vietnam that it could invade without reprise, which it opportunistically did (communism is nothing if not opportunistic).Victory in an undeclared war is no harder to define now than it was back when Thomas Jefferson embarked on America's first undeclared war by attacking Libya. Victory, in the case of Iraq, means a reduction in violence to 1st world levels and a reasonable measure of political stability. This is, to be sure, a tall order. Get used to it. Victory is hard. Defeat is easy anyone can lose, because (to paraphrase Bertrand Russell) there are infinite possibilities of failure, but few paths to success. Obama wants to take the easy way out: defeat.This is part and parcel of Obama's message: He will make everything easy. But this belies his rhetoric about hope. Genuine hope inspires us to achieve the impossible. Obama's counterfeit hope is, ultimately, the currency of losers.

      September 7, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
  2. Blasphemy

    I think the Catholics should start practicing exorcism on dead Mormons.

    February 17, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
    • SMS

      Be our guest!

      February 17, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
    • Blasphemy

      I understand that it is a rather messy and undignified process.

      I really doubt most Mormons would be so cool about it.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
    • Josh

      I'm a member of the Church of Jesus Christ (i.e. Mormons) and I say go for it too. I think it's funny that people would take such offense about this ancient Christian ordinance; they must believe the Mormon faith is true then, because why would they care if baptising someone's NAME was done? If it was false, it wouldn't mean anything. But the fact is, it's true that every person is who baptized via proxy (i.e. after they die) will have the OPTION to accept it or reject for themselves. Either the religious leaders who are upset don't understand what happens after we die or they are just being upset because they like to be upset. I don't know which it is.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
    • Greg s

      Its not a Christian thing, Its a Mormon thing.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
  3. Juan DelPueblo

    If I find out that one of my deceased family members has been baptised by proxy, can I sue the LDS church?

    February 17, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
    • C from Iowa

      Hi Juan,

      Out of curiosity, what would you sue them for? I can't think of any law that would even remotely apply to the situation.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
    • dEE

      I dont know one might be able to argue that this is religious persecution and a denial to ones basic human rights and religious freedom. lol

      February 17, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
  4. erich2112x

    Straight up Cultists.

    February 17, 2012 at 4:23 pm |
    • Josh

      Hi, did you make your comment because you have not yet taken the time to read in the Bible and understand that doing proxy baptisms is an ancient ordinance or is it that you don't believe in the bible and you think all Christians who believe in the Bible are cultists?

      February 17, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
    • Wendy At483

      Those religions that practice principles found in the Bible are cultist? Baptisms for the dead and Temples were key Biblical Christian practices that every other Christian denomination seems to ignore.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
    • Greg s

      This isnt a ancient Christian Practice, Its a Mormon thing nothing Christian about it. They say look Paul said this and that yet Paul said any Gospel taught by an Angel is to be accursed yet The Mormon Gospel was taught to the founder by an angel, Of course when you pick and choose what to believe from the Bible your gonna have problems.

      February 17, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
    • dEE

      Its always interesting that when pressed by Christians Mormons tend to throw up a few bible versus as pure law and the word of god…Yet when you point out a few bible versus like these below they tend to get a little less firm in their belief in the bible, always stating that the bible is only correct where it is translated correctly…I’m curious how they decide what is and is not correct lol…For your amusement I have included a link to these versus on a site that shows translations from several independent sources (all though a few of them do use the same translations – many of these are independent translation projects)

      New International Version (©1984)

      But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!
      http://bible.cc/galatians/1-8.htm

      New International Version (©1984)

      As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!
      http://bible.cc/galatians/1-9.htm

      King James Bible (Cambridge Ed.)

      For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book:
      http://bible.cc/revelation/22-18.htm

      King James Bible (Cambridge Ed.)

      And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.
      http://bible.cc/revelation/22-19.htm

      All goofiness aside I always do wonder how you can claim to believe that the lord GOD is almighty but that you refuse to believe that he can and will protect his word….I think that god is so powerful that you could write anything in that book and when I read it, I will receive the exact message that the all-powerful god wanted me to. I mean that may sound a little silly to non-believers but if you don’t believe god is that powerful then why would you believe at all in god – like he says he is only as good as his word!!!

      February 17, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
  5. ColoradoMan

    This was a very fair and well written article. Kudos to the author for doing his research, and for not skewing the facts to sensationalize the concepts.

    February 17, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
    • pzanga

      No need to skew the facts on this one to sensationalize it. It's pretty re-goddam-diculous on it's face.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
  6. Mario Hernandez

    .Just a simple and profound Christian ordinance supported by the Bible

    February 17, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
    • Greg s

      Maybe the Mormon Bible but not the Christian Bible.

      February 17, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
  7. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    February 17, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
    • Joe

      "Atheism is not health for children..."

      Why? Please explain this theory to me.
      I'd like to know because I'm currently raising three children with ZERO religious instruction. In fact, I just had parent-teacher conferences today and my 6 year old is doing fantastic – both academically and behaviorally.

      If you cannot explain your position, you're just a TROLL.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:25 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      yeah, in the same way rain dances change the weather.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
    • Greg s

      Atheists, Liberals for the most part are 100 percent for Abortion........So from the perspective of Children thats not a real positive thing. Definitely not Healthy, In truth any women who has a abortion should never be allowed to have Children again...she has shown her ability to be a mother,It was zero, She killed her child.

      February 17, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
  8. clinky

    The practice throws into stark relief why organized religion is unnecessary. Supposing God exists, either everybody is eligible for an afterlife, or nobody is. You can't identify all the billions of people who ever lived, so baptism after death is useless. You don't have the means, because of the incomplete historical record. Only God could make all of those identifications. If picking out every last person is anybody's work, it is God's alone. If you suppose you can do what only God can, then you are arrogant.

    February 17, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
    • C from Iowa

      Hi clinky,

      One of the more interesting tenants of the Mormon faith is that God speaks to man today, just as he spoke with his prophets in biblical times. Given this belief, it does not seem strange that they would rely, at least partially, on God for guidance in the matter.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:28 pm |
    • Greg s

      The prophet Clinky has spoken

      February 17, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
  9. Jonathan

    I've already baptized everyone...past, present and future, into the Church of Flying Spaghetti Monsterism, so you're all out of luck anyway. And it can't be undone, ever, except by me...I accept cash and credit cars if you'd like it undone, sorry, no checks, please. Ra'men!

    February 17, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
    • Richard Williams

      Are you a Pastafarian?

      February 17, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      Prego Noster

      February 17, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
  10. Brian

    In one of Woody Allen's movies he tried to baptize a dog. The dog didn't buy it. He was too smart to be a Christian.

    February 17, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
  11. Mike

    I have always wondered why people who do not believe in a Mormonism care what beliefs and practices the church follow. If you think Mormons are just crazy, why do you care what that they do in their temples. If its a false practice, baptism for the dead will not serve any purpose. God will not respect it. You guys get to easily excited.

    How exactly is the practice disrespecting anyone? God will not require someone to join any faith against their will. God will not make any Jews turn into Mormons against their will. We all have agency to follow after our own heart.

    February 17, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
    • Greg s

      Your Right Mike, But Liberals attack anything to do with God, They see it as foolishness, Its makes no sense to them they cant comprehend it. So they hate it.
      No one pays this much attention to something they care nothing about....but if you have a burning hate for something, You go the extra mile to trash it. Im not a Mormon, this practice made me go Huh, But to each his own my friend.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:28 pm |
  12. George Jetson

    Problem is, I've been de-baptizing millions of people faster than they can baptize them. What'chu going to do about it?

    February 17, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
  13. Aaron

    Why do they baptize the dead? Maybe they're freaking nuts. They had a plan a few years back to baptize Jews killed in the Holocaust. That didn't go too well, so those plans were dropped.

    February 17, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
    • carly

      actually those plans were not dropped and that is the whole point of this article. they claimed it was dropped after 1995 but it was not.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
    • Art M.

      MAYBE???

      There's no maybe about it – they're deluded nutwhacks.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
    • Josh

      I'm assuming by reading your comments, you don't read the Bible? One of the great things about studying the scriptures is that we learn things that we didn't previously know or understand. Adding to that, receiving guidance directly from God through prayer and personal revelation, we learn even more and we are able to understand more. Add to those things the Book of Mormon, another testament of Jesus Christ, which clarifies those plain and precious truths that are so confused and debated by many today, and you now have an amazing "road map" to living a happy life and a clear understanding of why we are here on this earth and where we go after we die. It's pretty amazing. I invite you to try these 3 steps. You will feel good and you will have a greater understanding and peace than you've ever had before. 🙂

      February 17, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
  14. Tammy

    I think that "proud" is very much the wrong word here, it is not a proud act but a humble one. I am sorry for anyone who might find this offensive and repulsive. In no way are these special baptisms meant to harm, they are meant to simply extend a hand of fellowship if the deceased choose to. Paul talks of baptism for the dead in 1st Corinthians chapter 15. We believe that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is the restored church, the same church Christ established while He lived and that the Apostles carried until they died. Baptisms for the Dead is a restored ordinance. Everyone is human, we are not perfect, nor do we protest to be. We believe that we have the right to worship in our way, and also want every person to also have that right as well, to worship how they desire as well. We don't infringe on anyones rights, we only try to share the happiness and joy we have found. How can you truly understand something unless you learn from the source, our church's websites have wonderful informative messages about what we really are about. I hope we can be more understanding and civil instead of vulgar and rude. There are ways to discuss things without resorting to bashing. http://www.mormon.org/ http://www.lds.org

    February 17, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
    • carly

      " if the deceased choose to". Really how exactly do the deceased choose anything and what gives the church the right to baptize anyone of a different faith? this whole thing is highly offensive and it is just incredible that anyone would see it any other way.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      They are claiming that all those that were not baptism made mistakes in their lives and that they obviously know better and will correct that mistake.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      *baptised

      February 17, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
    • rk

      lds, just knock it off it is not appreciated..the practice very distubing and read the whole chapter before quoting it.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
    • Art M.

      "Everyone is human".

      No, sadly, this is not true. I refuse to be called the same species as those who believe in the idiotic and ridiculous things you religidiots believe in. You don't think this is harmful? OK – let's start having Muslim conversions of dead Mormons and see how much you all start whining and sniveling then!

      February 17, 2012 at 4:25 pm |
    • carly

      Cedar Rapids I wonder how "they" know that the dead made mistakes in their lives and need to be baptized to correct ehir mistakes? (btw baptized can be spelled either way)

      February 17, 2012 at 4:25 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      who knows Carly, I think they believe that magical stones in a hat told them or something.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
    • Suzie

      I like your kind defense of your faith. However, if you study early Christianity, you will see there is an unbroken historical record. There is no dark period where the real Christianity was lost and was then 'restored' by Joe Smith. Many Christians are not aware of the 'early church fathers' and their writings of what the early church actually did believe. Cardinal John Henry Newman, an Protestant theologian, who became a Catholic, famously stated (paraphrase). "He who discovers history, becomes Catholic.". Please do a little research and try to prove me wrong.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
    • Greg

      Tammy, that isn't true. The church donated millions in CA to prevent gay marriage by supporting Prop 8. There was a movement here to ask the federal gov to strip the church of it's tax exempt status for using church money in a political cause.
      One side of my family is Mormon and saying that they don't infringe on anyone else is complete nonsense.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
  15. frank

    The mormon church was founded by J Smith, a historical fact is that he was a criminal wanted in several states. That is why the mormon followers had to move from state to state. It is a historical fact that Smith believed in aliens, special glasses that helped read tablets,and once said that there were green men on the moon dressed like quakers! It is a historical fact that Smith believed that in order for your soul to be complete you had to have many wives.The fact that the cult has tried to get away from more than one wife is only to make so called church look better. They still believe in more than one wife! They still have to , that is what their prophet has written! Mormons are so far out there, they prey on the weak, and hope brainwash them. Study the historical fact of the meadow mountain massacur and you will see that they try every way they can to cover it up! It happened and then they named a university after the guy that ggave the orders to kill women and children! NICE

    February 17, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
    • Joe

      Where are you getting your facts? Just curious.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
    • ColoradoMan

      Wow frank, I think that you might be playing a little loose with the facts and the historical record here.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
    • Art M.

      @joe – try any history book not written or influenced by Mormon nutwhacks.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
    • Paula

      Please do not speak without knowledge. You sound like an ignorant angry fool.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
    • C from Iowa

      I always find it interesting when those who spread inaccurate information try to pepper their posts with the word "fact" as often as they can. It seems to be some sort of overcompensation mechanism.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
    • ksfarmer

      Dude, you missed a few. It's also a well-known and proven historical fact that Jack had a beanstalk and that Cinderella married a prince. Just simply stating that something is a fact doesn't make it so. What sources do you cite for this nonesense you are claiming as fact?

      February 17, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
  16. carly

    How do these clowns have the right to do this to anyone's family? It is amazing with all the noise about freedom of religion, freedom of choice and on and on by the right wing and various religious sects that they don't see the irony of doing something like this. we don't want your bogus "salvation"

    February 17, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
    • Alexandru

      Jota,You don't seem to realize how afaird you guys sound by continually attempting to tie Barack Obama to the monster of the week. This week it is Hugo Chaves. Next week it will be Ahmadinejad. And so it goes. You use the liberal label as if it is a cuss word, a curse upon a candidate. Frankly, that's pretty pathetic. You call him a socialist, though I am impressed that conservatives have finally retired the communist label, realizing that communism is a dead horse. These labels and these attempts to tie particular candidates to this or that bad guy are quite childish and do nothing to add to a real debate on the issues at hand. Stop being afaird of those who will do things differently in this nation. Liberals aren't afaird of conservatives ruling this nation. Why are conservatives afaird of liberals ruling this nation?Cast out your fear boys. It is time to be men.

      September 9, 2012 at 3:50 am |
  17. JL

    For starters, nowhere in the bible does it say anyone is saved by their baptism. All Christians should be baptized as they are commanded, but we can only be saved by God's grace through a repentant faith in Christ.
    Secondly, there were saints before the first coming of Christ as the bible says. They were saved through faith looking forward to Christ as opposed to those who look back. It's not that difficult a concept if you understand God sees the whole universe from the beginning to the end of time.

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

      well put.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
    • Rich

      Exactly.

      And I found the part about “Historically, Christians have been exclusive" to be histerical (and a tad hypocritical), considering it says clearly in the Bible that ALL people are welcome to accept salvation, and Mormonism itself is a scary club(cult). This article is more evidence.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:23 pm |
    • Greg s

      Mormons follow a GOSPEL taught to them by an angel, It does not follow the New Testament. The Apostle Paul teaches to ignore any gospel other then the one preached by Jesus Christ, even if taught by an Angel. It should be accursed. Both Muslims and Mormons had there gospel taught to them by an angel. Most Christians dont know this because they dont read there bibles. So they believe it when Mormons say we are Christians too, But there Not there Mormons, Muslims are Muslims and Christians are 100 other things.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
  18. Corry

    If Mormons are wrong about how the whole baptism for the dead things work, then no harm done. But if they're right, what a trmendous service they're doing for humanity.

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

      you are kidding right?

      February 17, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
    • SMS

      Someone has got it!!!

      February 17, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
    • A. Wolf

      Unfortunately, this logic could be used to defend any practice, no matter how ridiculous.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      you can make exactly the same statement about every single religion that exists or has ever existed.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
    • Steve

      Idiots......

      February 17, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
    • Art M.

      I'm seriously going to get my Muslim friends to start converting dead Mormons.

      After all – if they're wrong, no harm done, RIGHT?
      And if they're right – you mormons might just get 72 virgins.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:28 pm |
    • Paula

      Thank you Cory. That was a very wise thing to say.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
    • Greg s

      There wrong, When your dead all of you that matters has moved on, The lights are off and nobody's home. But Mormons feel differently...so no Harm no foul, But Christians need to be wary of these non Christian beliefs. Stick to the Bible.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
  19. Tom Najar

    F the F'ing MORMANS !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    February 17, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
  20. Sophia

    ASK MITT

    February 17, 2012 at 4:11 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.