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. J Secrist

    I don't so much care either way about the Baptism of various dead by Mormans who share our name. I do resent the theft of the family record page from our 19th century Bible, by a Morman guest who shared our name and came to our house as a dinner guest while doing research on the family. This information we shared freely with him, is now lost to us and the Bible damaged by the knife that cut the page out..Shame on him , what happened to thou shalt not steal! We want our page back!

    February 17, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
  2. cindy

    They are so stupid. Really.

    February 17, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
  3. Bobby B.

    Terryl Givens, may be an expert on Mormonism at the University of Richmond, but he certainly isn't when it comes to Catholicism. Catholics do not maintain that one must be Catholic to achieve salvation. The notion is absurd.

    February 17, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
  4. chris

    Because that's what crazy people do.

    February 17, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
  5. Brady

    Your article does not mention there are fees payable to the church for each baptism performed. Talk about a boundless revenue stream!

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

      You need to check your facts. There are absolutely no cost involved in these ordinances. It is done in a spirit of love, both by the individual performing the ordinance and by the church.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
    • Juxtsupose

      This is not true.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
  6. Daniel

    Mormans needs to stop doing this. It is incredibly offensive to people who aren't Morman. That is the stupidest thing ever. I am engraged that this could happen to Holocaust victims. Being a Jew I cannot explain my angry and fury towards the Mormans.

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

      I'm the granddaughter of holocaust survivors, and frankly, I couldn't care less. I don't believe in the process, but I also don't see the harm, and if it makes them happy without harming anyone, then whatever.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
    • welcomedat

      I am a Jew, and I don't care. If you research LDS and Jewish relationships, you will find that we are closer with Mormons than any other Christian church.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
  7. Truthship

    So glad the Mormon Church apologized to Jews for Baptizing their dead. Now how do I get that same consideration?
    Speaking of apologies, if Romney wins Republican nomination it would be interesting if Obama asked Mitt how he explained his support for the black mans Mormon ‘Mark-of -Cain’  when he was on his LDS mission in the 1960’s.  Google ‘Mark of Cain’
    Now its time the LDS church and Mitt to repent on that racism too.

    February 17, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
  8. john316

    The Choir is good and that organ.....WOW.....................................the rest.......not so much.......

    February 17, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
  9. uisignorant

    "Bring out your dead"
    "But I'm not dead yet"

    February 17, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
    • Denise

      You will be soon. Now get on the cart.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
  10. vinni gambini

    What do you expect from Morons

    February 17, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
    • Blasphemy

      I "expect" them to be less arrogant.

      But I am generally disappointed.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
  11. opinion0731

    I am sorry to hear so many negative opinions about Mormon's and practice of baptisms for the dead. The practice is centered on caring for the well being of those that have gone before, Uniting families through the generations(Malachi 4:6), and giving those who didn't have the opportunity to accept Jesus Christ in life the opportunity in death. The Mormon people are trying to give the world and those that have gone before a gift, and it is a gift that means a great deal to them because it is a gift of their deepest faith. If you had a friend that gave you one of their most prized possessions, a gift truly from the heart, would you knock to the ground and spit on it. It doesn't remove choice from the individual, it merely gives them an opportunity. If you feel that the religion is baseless what does it matter, it certainly isn't hurting anyone, and the world is benefiting from extensive genealogy work.

    February 17, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
    • tickled

      Soooooo you actually believe in all this stuff, huh?

      February 17, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
    • Steve

      Give them the opportunity to rest in peace. The bugs can will do the rest.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      oh enough with the 'gift' nonsense. It is insulting to all those they perform baptisms for, and for their families. It is saying you made a mistake with your life, and we know better so we will correct your mistake.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
    • Daniel

      You are incorrect. It is extremely hurtful to people who lost their loved ones in the Holocaust and anyone who isn't Morman. This is a travesty and should be stopped now

      February 17, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
    • Friend of God

      It's unfortunate that there are those who claim to know God's will but make up their own religious practices...as if works are going to open the door to heaven...time to read and believe the true word of God...not a man made gospel of Mormonism...however that being said the real test will come when we meet God face to face...the judgement of God is eternal...I don't find anywhere in the Bible where it says that you can live the way you want in this life then die and be saved through baptism After the fact...

      February 17, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      " If you had a friend that gave you one of their most prized possessions, a gift truly from the heart, would you knock to the ground and spit on it."

      If by doing so he said I had made a mistake choosing my current prized possession and that he knew better and was going to force his possession on me, then yeah, I think I would.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
    • Steve

      Do Mormons prepare the dead wearing "magical Underwear"?

      February 17, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
  12. ML

    One delusional group upset with another delusional group...Say it isn't so!

    February 17, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
  13. Brian

    This reminds me of a comment my psychology professor made. He said "Religion has all the symptoms of a mental illness. We don't consider it as such because so many people go in for it."

    February 17, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
  14. paul las vegas

    You guys are missing the bigger news...

    They baptized Hitler and the nazis too...

    check the west jorden temple recored or just Google it...

    Its nuts....then what do you expect from a man made up faith.

    February 17, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
    • zambonie3

      Pull your head out Paul.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
  15. jlw

    Necrophelia. And to think they're all weirded out over gay marriage

    February 17, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
  16. wisdom4u2

    I think I know how they got the name Morons ......I mean Mormons. Sorry, but baptizing the 'dead' makes about as much sense as not believing in a Creator.

    February 17, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
  17. Dr.Fritz

    Baptizing the dead is one of many wacky things Mormons do. It's a wacky cult. Do you know the story of the fist Mormon Baptizing? It's nutz.

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

      Very peculiar people indeed. 1 Peter 2:9

      February 17, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
    • Dr.Fritz

      Ron: It's not the same. Mormon baptism is nutty. Look into it. Oh, I'm sorry. you're a Mormon. Of course. By the way, you belong to a creepy cult.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
  18. Blasphemy

    "so Mormons seek out every last person who ever lived and baptize them.”"

    If they think this is the right and moral thing to do why are they promising to stop?

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

      Mormons believe that baptism for the dead will continue after Christ comes again and that everybody will have the opportunity to have their baptism if not sooner than later. I think that it's not that they are stopping but more putting it on a long pause because of the sensitivity of the situation and their desire not to offend their "friend and neighbor."

      February 17, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
  19. felix_in_Mass

    The more I learned about Mormonism, the more I was turned off. I've been to Salt Lake City and seen their museum and genealogy center and it's all pretty creepy. Heaven would be pretty boring with that lot in it.

    February 17, 2012 at 4:28 pm |
  20. rob

    They can stay away from any of my dead relatives. they do not have the legal right to be doing this. Further to that they can stay away from me when I croak too. I am quite happy being worm food and nothing else.

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

      Actually they do have the legal right to do that.

      The question is of the "moral" right. It is condescending and not very polite behavior.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:35 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.