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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. scoto

    This is as crazy as it gets. And some of you want to elect an individual to President of this country who holds these beliefs?

    February 17, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
    • Mike Castillo

      Dear Brothers and Sisters of The World,

      Our Heavenly Father Lives, we are his children and he loves us very much. Our Heavenly Father has provided us with a plan of salvation, a way for us to return back to his presence, so that we may live with him eternally. Jesus Christ lives, he is the Savior of the World and only thru him shall we be allowed to enter the presence of our Heaven Father. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is the only True Living Church of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is at the helm and all are invited to Come Unto Christ. Through the Plan of Salvation that our Heavenly Father has provided, we are given a True Living Prophet, Thomas Spencer Monson who receives devine revelation to help guide The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Joseph Smith, Jr. was a true living prophet of our Heavenly Father and through him, the gospel of Jesus Christ was restored to its fullness to the earth. The Book of Mormon is another Testament of Jesus Christ and all that read this sacred book will discover that Jesus is the Christ and all that Repent and Come Unto Christ shalle be saved and live eternally with our Heavenly Father. This is my testimony to the world and I leave it in the name of Jesus Christ, AMEN.

      February 17, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
  2. leo

    They do it because the lack the integrity to respect people's beliefs when they differ from their own. I swear, if any Mormon baptizes me once I"m six feet under I am coming back to haunt them!

    February 17, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
  3. BHoz

    Because they are morbid, creepy soul harvesters, that's why.

    February 17, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
  4. clinky

    You get into some insane ideas here. Just how badly do you want to baptize all the dead? Even though most of those deceased are now forgotten, there are still billions of non-Mormon people who once lived and can be identified, and you can baptize them. But how many thousands of hours and dunkings is every Mormon going to take on this? I haven't done the math, but it might take more than the lifetime of each Mormon alive and still not come close to getting the job done.

    The problem is that baptizing the dead isn't some nice way of commemorating ancestors that you find in Eastern religions. In the East, ancestor worship is not driven by the fanaticism of salvation. But to Mormons and Christians, baptism is a matter of saving a soul from eternal exclusion. There lies the disconnect from spirituality. We are all part of a unity to begin with.

    February 17, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
  5. Tevii

    the answer is: because they are stupid. Its an entire religion created by a known and convicted con man. He conned just a handful of people. They in turn passed the lies and deceit onto their children and what started as a simple con job turned into todays religion. It spread like wildfire because of how many children they have. But hey the act of baptizing the dead is in and of itself harmless, so have fun.

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

      Considering number of con men as Christian leaders, it's hard for me to see Christians as non-other than innocent people taken advantage of by the devil....

      February 17, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
  6. Dr.Fritz

    Mormonism also teaches the whites are superior to people of color. And no one objects to that.

    February 17, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
    • Lybi

      Absolutely untrue. We are taught that all "are alike unto God, black and white, bond and free, male and female." We believe that every person on the earth is equally loved and important to God.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
    • leo

      Except for the gays and for women who have to share one husband with all their sisters.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
    • Dr.Fritz

      Lybi: Another thing that's creepy about Mormons is that they lie to outsiders about what they believe.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
    • Lybi

      Actually that was a direct quotation from the Book of Mormon, which defines it as what we believe.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
    • Dr.Fritz

      WHY WAS JOE SMITH WHITE AND THE INDIANS NOT WHITE? ASK THE BOOK OF MORMON.

      MORMONS ARE SOOOOOOOOOOOO CREEPY.

      February 17, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
  7. meme

    We baptize the dead so that those that have died without an opportunity to not only recieve the gospel but also to recieve sacred ordinances that are required to enter the highest Kingdom, where our Father in Heaven lives. In the spirit world, where those who have died and where righteous, will have an opportunity to accept the gospel and these ordinances (baptism, sealed marriage, etc) so that they are given an equal opportunity to the blessings that God has instore for us. No one is required to accept them and many will not.

    February 17, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
    • Dr.Fritz

      Tell us about KOLOB.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
    • Mortalc01l

      I DON'T WANT your weird religious interference in my LIFE or my DEATH thank you very much. Keep your grubby spiritual paws off the rest of us.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      and this comes from the NT 2.0 does it?

      February 17, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
    • clinky

      meme, False. There is no "equal opportunity" because the vast number of history's dead can never be identified. With a tiny number of exceptions, only dead people from the generations in record-keeping societies which preserved genealogy tables can be. In other words, only people from the last couple of centuries. It might be news to you that this is a very small percentage of the people who ever lived. All of the rest, by accident of having no record whatsoever remaining about them, have no recourse according to Mormon tenet.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
    • Lybi

      Clinky: we believe that after we have performed ordinances for everyone that we have records for, the work for the others (without records) will continue through revelation. So everyone WILL eventually get the chance to accept Jesus Christ through baptism (if they want).

      February 17, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
  8. Dr.Fritz

    Joe Smith said it was OK.

    February 17, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
  9. Jon

    The Bible passage acknowledges that Baptism for the Dead was practiced in ancient times. The apostle Paul refers to the practice, without condoning it (use of the word "they" implies the Corinthian church did not participate directly). The point of Paul's narrative is that people are having different experiences which would necessarily be useless if Christ had not been resurrected. However, that is not to say the practice isn't useless on other grounds. When Jesus was hung on the cross, He cried out to the Father to save a few of those who lacked a conscious awareness of their sins (Luke 23:33-34). It certainly appears the good Lord doesn't need our intervention - he saves whom He wants to save, baptism or no.

    February 17, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
  10. Not_Mormon

    Greg s: please keep in mind that as bad as "those liberals" are. Those conservatives believe that government should be small enough to fit into people's bedrooms (opposed to gay marriage). Also, they want small government but just big enough to legislate marriage laws, abortion and anything that allows them to force religion beliefs down people's throats but not big enough to do anything else. Freedom comes with a price of having to deal with things that don't match your beliefs, religious or otherwise.

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

      My name is Steve and I am not a mormon.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
  11. CEW

    Personally, I don't understand what the fuss is about. I am a non-believer myself, and couldn't care less if someone wants to have a ceremony to "save" my "soul." It makes them happy, and causes no harm.

    February 17, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
  12. Looking at the comments below

    You learn a lot about a person by what they take the time to say and how they say it.

    From the comments below, there are few people who make the effort to intelligently discuss, challenge, questions or explain.
    There are lot who think they are witty. I recommend interacting with more live people and discover how funny you are (or aren't).
    There are lot of folks who lash out. I recommend interacting with more live people to discover you aren't the only real person.

    February 17, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      You missed out the pretentious that think they are more intelligent than they really and like posting observational posts.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
  13. Wendy 548

    Why are Mormons the only Christian religion that actually accomplishes Baptisms for the Dead and builds Temples? Both are Biblical practices found in no other Christian church. This should and many other "unique" Mormon practices should not be an issue with Bible believing Christians.

    February 17, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
    • melvinslizard

      lmfao

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

      I agree, Wendy.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
  14. thinking

    The mormon church baptized Hitler? The mormon church baptized Jews who perished in concentration camps.

    The mormon church is also baptizing the dead relatives of all Americans? of Catholics, Evangelicals, Presbyterians, Methodists . . . .

    This disrespectful practice must end!!

    February 17, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
    • jjue

      Well, that's kind of the downside to forgiveness..."at what point do you just say no???" We have politicians that forgive mass murderers, rapist, etc, I think we should just let every prisoner lose as an act of forgiveness, independent of what they did. That way God will bless us and at the same time we can reduce our tax base. Everyone is happy!! Victims are expendable and victims are always quickly forgotten, but criminals live forever on the CNN website!!!!

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

      Those that sincerely believe in the Lord and have an open heart will truly understand the Lord. Baptisms for the dead is a sacred ordinance that has been practiced since the beginning of this earthly life. Were are not "Mormons" as everyone refers us as for we are followers of Christs' literal church, who he himself guides and directs through prophets just as in times of old. The full name is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Latter-Day Saints just refers to the last dispensation of times or the "last days" before His return. The Lord loves all of His children no matter what religion they belong to, however all must follow Him and and thus for the reason He has established His church here upon the earth which is the only true church The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter- Day Saints, why because it is His church and Christ is perfect. I challenge all those who's faith may waiver ask the Lord your God which His church is and if you ask sincerly with an open heart He will give freely and you will know! The Lord is our Redeemer and He lives!!!!! I testify of this in the name of Jesus Christ Amen

      February 17, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
  15. Tusken Raider

    "Why do Mormons baptize the dead"?
    Because they a religion, and people who are religious are odd.
    Why point out another odd practice of a cult?

    February 17, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
    • Tusken Raider

      are*

      February 17, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
  16. longtooth

    Tell me a guy who's running for the republican nomination for president of the US does not wear magic underwear. Please, tell me!

    February 17, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
  17. Stay away !!

    Reasons why Atheism is TERRIBLE and unhealthy for our children and living things!

    † Atheism makes you stupid, ignorant & blind.
    † Atheism is a disease that needs to be treated.
    † Atheism makes you post stupid things.
    † Atheist are satanic and have gothic lifestyle.
    † Atheists causes problem in our religious society.
    † Atheists are mentally ill, that's why they have no faith.
    † Atheism won't take you to kingdom of heaven and paradise.
    † Atheism making you agree with Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot & other terrible mass murder leaders.
    † No traditional family lifestyle, boring and feeling 'outsider'
    † Atheists are angry, alcoholics and committ the most crime.
    † Atheist try to convert people over internet because they feel "safer" behind closet.
    † Atheists do not really exist, they just pretend that they don't believe in God and argue with religious people.
    † Atheists have had terrible life experience, bad childhood and not being loved.
    † Most Atheists are uneducated... No Atheists could run for presidency.
    † Atheism brought upon the French Revolution, one of the most evil events of all of history.
    † Atheism cannot explain the origins of the universe, therefore God exists.
    † All atheists believe in evolution, which means they don't believe in morality and think we should all act like animals.
    † The Bible says atheism is wrong, and the Bible is always right (see: Genesis 1:1, Psalms 14:1, Psalms 19:1, Romans 1:19-20)
    † Atheism have no holidays, no culture, no nothing. Waste of living in this planet...

    †† Our Prayers goes to Atheists to be mentally healthy and seek their creator ††

    February 17, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
    • Kangaroo123

      Get some help – the bible was written by people smoking dope!

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

      I'm not an atheist. I'm an agnostic. Your post is ridiculous.

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

      You just made a fine case for atheism.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      I saw a lot of hyperbole and opinion there, nothing worth taking note of though.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
  18. Adrian

    I find this to be not only creepy but this practice totally invalidates the entire concept of Christ and Christianity! If someone can be 'saved' after they are dead than why did Christ even bother to die on the cross for? what's the point of making disciples and 'spread' the Word? Might as well just set up like a call center with millions of wooden bathtubs and perform millions of baptisms of dead people........Another fact is there is also nothing in the Bible which equates baptism to salvation... nevermind the fact that the person actually going through the baptism is doing it for some dead stranger or relative he may have never met!!!

    Yikes!!!!!!!

    February 17, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
    • melvinslizard

      exactly.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
  19. Kathy

    Is there any religion on earth creepier than Mormonism?????

    February 17, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
  20. Moroni

    Why do Mormans believe any of the weird things they believe. Google a non morman site and look at the weirdness. Secret handshakes, secret underware, naked oil baths, confessing to elders (yeah a morman president would be controlled by a morman elder) etc. Ask them about the gold tablets? and the author of their "bible" who licked toads that have a psychogenic compund in their skin that causes hullicinations wrote then wrote inspired words. WEIRDNESS

    February 17, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
    • Nathan

      It's mormon, not morman, dipstick!

      February 17, 2012 at 5:01 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.