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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. Michael

    I don't care what deity you believe in and you shouldn't care what deity I believe in. Be positive, do good unto others and most likely everything will work out fine in the end.

    February 17, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
    • David in Cincinnati

      How can things work out in the end if an enormous proportion of us Americans are incapable of thinking rationally?

      February 17, 2012 at 6:50 pm |
  2. tim

    They don't baptize the dead, they baptize themselves with the very strange notion that somehow having some person's name read off while they are baptizing themsleves will affect said person. Logic apparently is not a Mormon strongpoint. (or theology for that matter)

    February 17, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
    • MomOf Plenty

      What you suggest isn't exactly applicable just to Mormons. The same could be suggested of all religions, such as whether taking a sacrament truly saves you, whether last rite rituals are necessary for salvation, or whether sprinkling water on you saves you. Mormons have traditions and practices like other religions.

      February 17, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      "Mormons have traditions and practices like other religions."

      Thats true, all of them have nutty ideas and magical rites.

      February 17, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
  3. bhicks

    http://www.ldsvideo.org/p/video-index.html

    February 17, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
  4. Jay

    I find it funny that people get offended by this, If you don't beleive in the Mormon Church then why would you care what they do. I certainly don't care if the Church of Scientology does something with the name of my ancestors, because it does not matter – why the hell would I care??

    February 17, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
    • cheetos

      Agreed! If you don't believe it then why get worked up about it. I doubt the Mormons do it out of spite. They do it as a service, why don't we take our anger towards something that is actually harming people.

      February 17, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
    • MomOf Plenty

      Bravo Jay & Cheetos!

      February 17, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
  5. Too bad

    I really don't care what people do to/for me posthumously. Even if they are odd, it's nice to encounter a religion, once in a while, that doesn't insist everyone else is damned to Hell. As far as Christians go, Mormons are one of the few who aren't just Christian in name only and are more Biblically correct in their beliefs than many other Christian denominations. Christians and atheists shouldn't care about this because to them it's a futile and irrelevant effort. It's not like they're digging people up and dunking them in water, they're doing religious ordinances by proxy, so where's the harm?

    February 17, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
  6. MillyM

    Christians have a hard time accepting The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (or mormons) as Christians. The name of the church is self explanitory. I am a member of the church and if you would like to say I am not Christian because I don't believe in the Trinity that is fine. However I do believe that God is my Eternal Father, I believe in HIs Son Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost. I believe them to be seperate beings. So deduct what you will but I do believe in Jesus Christ as my Savior. I believe that I can live with Heavenly Father in Heaven after I die...if I live my life according to the laws of God. One of these laws is baptism-by immersion. The reason I do baptisms for the dead is to give my ancestors the opportunity to be baptized as I was baptized and as Jesus Christ was baptized. I understand that not everyone will accept this baptism after they die, but I am offering something to my ancestors that I hold sacred and which is necessary to salvation. After they are baptized they are also given the gift of the Holy Ghost(which is to have the Holy Ghost to always be with them). This is done by the power of Preisthood(which I believe to be passed down from Peter, James, and John). Every member of the church that has been baptized can do geneology and help with this work. Call it what you will. I understand it seems strange to people that don't know much about the doctrine of the church. However, it is true and when you understand the foundation of the gospel of Jesus Christ you can understand this important work for the dead. 1 COR 15:29 Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?

    February 17, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
    • jimtanker

      You're not a true Christian.

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

      How do you immerse a dead body you don't have access to?

      February 17, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
    • rick

      Two things here you need to understand. One, God is NOT your father, your biological farther is. If you mean spiritual father, Jesus Christ is. Jesus Christ said, "Non shall come to the father except by me", King James version. Secondly, if you read Chronicles, you will read that some people slept with their fathers and some people just died. There is a big difference between sleeping and died. Read the Bible all the way through, not just those things that seem convenient to you.

      February 17, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
    • VanHagar

      Milly...consider: "And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment(.)" Hebrews 9:27.

      Why do Mormons insist on contradicting the Bible?

      February 17, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
    • Too bad

      Gotta love how "Christians" twist passages that don't say what they claim it says to mean what they say it means. But in every other case you have to take the Bible literally, except if it indicates the Mormons might be right. Rick, study your Bible...

      February 17, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
    • VanHagar

      Rick...respectfully, your understanding of who Jesus is vis a vis the trinity is wrong. Jesus is not the "Father" in the verse you cite. While God is one, God consists of three distinct personalities (for lack of a better word).

      February 17, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
    • Too bad

      Van, where is the contradiction? Again, twisting...

      February 17, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
    • VanHagar

      TooBad...that first sentence should be taken outside and shot.

      February 17, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
    • cheetos

      Thank you Milly
      @ Rick – It's Corinthians not Chronicles... 🙂

      February 17, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
    • Too bad

      Typical, can't respond to the question... Just like an ignorant Christian

      February 17, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
    • Too bad

      Here, let me break it apart for you. Men die. Only once. And at some point after death we are judged. Your own Bible states that all men will be judged on one "great and terrible" Day. So yeah, no contradiction. Keep digging.

      February 17, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
    • VanHagar

      TooBad...I'm not twisting. The contradiction is plain on its face...Mormons apparently believe in some after-life procedure for salvation where the Bilbe says (basically) "no, you live and then are judged." (Period.)

      February 17, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
    • VanHagar

      TooBad...sorry, you now have me completely confused. I'm saying that there is no post-death salvation, and that is consistent with the verse I cited. Do you agree with that interpretation of the Bible (regardless of whether you believe it)?

      February 17, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
    • MomOf Plenty

      jimtanker – doesn't sound like you are either.

      February 17, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
    • MomOf Plenty

      Ummm, people... yes, judgment comes after death, but I don't remember anything that says judgment is IMMEDIATELY after death. Show me where it says that in the Bible. I can say dinner comes after lunch, but that doesn't mean that there aren't other things in between. Until the rest of you can show exactly in scripture how it will all happen, then I think you can't automatically shoot down the concepts presented here.

      February 17, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
    • Too bad

      No, Van. Biblically there is a stretch of time between death and judgment. Nowhere does it say there is nothing between, only that those are two defined points. Now if the verse said, "It is appointed for men to die once and nothing happens between this and judgment" I would agree with you. All this verse establishes is two points in time, men die (can only happen once, you don't live between this period and judgment) and after men die there is a judgment. As anyone who has read the Bible knows, that will be an event, a Day, where all men will be judged. There is a time period inbetween this, where one would assume the souls of men wait for judgment, but not necessarily passively.

      February 17, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
  7. Because....

    It's the one time they can force themselves and your beliefs on you and there is nothing you can do about it.

    February 17, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
  8. dr.kno

    why don't they have one big baptism for every person who ever lived?

    that would end it once and for all!

    February 17, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
    • clinky

      Because you can't identify all of them individually, yet that is the Mormons' ambition.

      February 17, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
    • Khazarian

      Because then they would have nothing to do. The devil makes work for idle hands.

      February 17, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
  9. jimtanker

    Because they are delusional enough to think that there is an afterlife even though there is NO evidence for it.

    February 17, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
  10. DCKeene

    Wonder how this country would react if Muslims did something similar for dead Christians so they were able to have many virgins in the afterlife? Christian nutbaggery would explode in anger. As a Jew, this makes my stomach churn.

    February 17, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
    • MomOf Plenty

      Wrong. I'm a Christian, and I couldn't care less if Muslims or anyone else did it, too. Just because you have a problem with it doesn't mean the rest of us do. They aren't hurting anyone. Leave them alone.

      February 17, 2012 at 6:05 pm |
  11. LWZRGHT

    I baptize by proxy. Anyone within 25 feet of me, at any point in my life, is baptized. And this is now retroactive too, so anyone that I have EVER been within 25 feet of is now baptized. Enjoy!

    Silly Mormons. Baptism is a choice. You have to be alive to make a choice. Dead people don't get to make choices. And God is pretty specific – people are to worry about their own salvation, not that of others. The teachings of Paul himself go further than God himself did, and we need to take Paul with a grain of salt.

    February 17, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
    • jimtanker

      There is NO evidence that there even is an afterlife.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
    • TxLady204

      You believe it's a choice only available to the living, but Mormons believe that spirits also have the choice. If they're correct, they are doing something beneficial. If they're wrong, it's really irrelevant.

      February 17, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      "If they're correct, they are doing something beneficial. If they're wrong, it's really irrelevant"

      You can use that argument about every religion.
      Heck you can even say it about the Spanish Inquisition if you wanted......they were only trying to convert people to save their souls, so if they were right they were doing a good thing.

      February 17, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
  12. Phil

    Because they are mental like all other religious people.

    February 17, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
  13. David

    I have a question: what do Mormons believe happens in this spirit prison? Say I'm a Jew whose died and is sent to the spirit prison. If all I had to do was accept Jesus to get into Heaven, I would do so. I would think that the mere fact that I am in the spirit prison would prove the Mormons right. It doesn't seem like much of an ultimatum. Thank you.

    February 17, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
    • ron

      Good question! We believe to a certain extent it's not that unlike life as we no it. It's called spirit prison because they are held captive only by their own sins. That's the short answer.

      February 17, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
    • MomOf Plenty

      Spirit prison isn't like what you would think of a prison. It is a place of rest where those who have not had the chance to hear the gospel of Christ can be taught by other spirits who have also passed on. All there await the resurrection and judgment, as well. I don't think those in prison probably recognize it as such – it is a form of heaven – a place we wait after we die until our judgment.

      February 17, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
  14. Chazbo

    It is absolutely beyond my ability to comprehend how people can believe this garbage. There is absolutely no basis in fact for any of this; just a bunch of people scared about the great oblivion into which we are all headed. What rubbish!!!!!!

    February 17, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
    • Ben McEntire

      What is that scripture in the bible about? They practiced baptism for the dead.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
    • SMS

      What is fact? Is there a GUARANTEE that the sun will rise tomorrow? Many facts are popular beleif accepted as fact.

      February 17, 2012 at 5:26 pm |
    • MomOf Plenty

      That's fine. When they baptize YOU, you can still object to it in spirit prison. You won't have to believe then either. HAHAHAHA. 😀

      February 17, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
  15. edmundburkeson

    Some of us have simpler answer. They baptize by proxy due to lack of faith in God and the Bible. The Bible says that those who have never heard of the Bible will be judged by the light that they have. Mormons should stop trying to pick up the slack where they consider God to be lacking. That will be a hard one to explain. Gilgoff has reduced the position of all traditions to a single sentence. Maybe God will ask for his help when separating the wheat from the tares but I hope not. Many will bitterly and angrily protest in that day saying "haven't we done many wonderful things in your name." then will I say to them "Depart from me ... I never knew you."

    February 17, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
    • Ben McEntire

      What is that scripture in the bible about? They practiced baptism for the dead. Was Peter drunk?

      February 17, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
    • MomOf Plenty

      Please post your Biblical reference.

      February 17, 2012 at 6:09 pm |
  16. David

    This article states that the number of posthumous baptisms by the Mormon church are not known. I worked with several Mormons that were Bishops as I believe Romney is. That is how I first learned of this ritual. I was told that the data storage company Iron Mountain was first developed by the Mormons to store the records of all those who have been posthumously baptized. I specifically asked "when you are going through all of those death records to find people to save how do you know you are not just covering ground that some one else has covered?" and this is what I was told.

    February 17, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
  17. PDX_Atheist

    http://ireport.cnn.com/docs/DOC-653059

    February 17, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
  18. Vanka

    In Mormon theology, "salvation" is a muddled concept. In its most basic sense, salvation simply means "resurrection", and every single person who has ever lived will be resurrected, no matter what they do. You do not have to believe in Jesus, or repent, or be baptized or "confirmed", or do good works to be resurrected. All people will be "saved" from death, according to Mormonism.

    But saved from sin? That is different. According to Mormonism, ONLY those who repent will be saved from sin. Repenting is a "change of mind, i.e., a fresh view about God, about oneself, and about the world... a turning of the heart and will to God, and a renunciation of sin to which we are naturally inclined."

    But here is the rub. Mormons preach that "you must not procrastinate the day of your repentance"..."this life is the time to prepare to meet God...for that same spirit which doth possess your bodies at the time that he go out of this life ...will have power to possess your body in that eternal world" (Alma 34: 32-34). Mormons teach that human life was "prolonged...that they might repent while in the flesh" (2 Nephi 2:21).

    In other words, the dead cannot Repent in the "night of darkness" called death (see John 9:4).

    Changing your mind and heart toward God in such a way as to "accept" a proxy Mormon baptism certainly counts as "repenting".

    Even the great Mormon "scholar", Hugh Nibley cited ancient texts and Mormon scripture to support this idea that "the dead cannot repent".

    In short, Mormons baptize for the dead, who are incapable of "repenting" and "accepting" those worthless baptisms anyway!

    Mormons' notions of "salvation" are all over the map. Without scriptural support for doing so, they distinguish between "salvation" (resurrection) and "exaltation" (a "continuation of the seeds forever and ever"; see D&C 132. Of course, you need multiple wives as brood mares if you are going to achieve your "exaltation"!)

    But baptism is NOT required for salvation (resurrection)! Neither is Mormon "confirmation, nor the temple "endowment", which are also rituals Mormons do "for the dead!" Mormons are not only baptizing for dead people, they are "confirming" them members of the Mormon Church and "endowing" them with Mormon "priesthood blessings"!

    So, again, to paraphrase Paul, What the heck are Mormons baptizing for the dead, if the dead not only cannot repent, but also baptism does NOT SAVE? Why are they then baptizing for the dead?

    If you ask a Mormon these questions, prepare yourself for a blubbering, nonsensical, obfuscation followed by a passionate "testimony"... and maybe an offer of some funeral potatoes.

    February 17, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
    • JB

      Aweful long email to be incorrect on your analysis of the theology.

      February 17, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
    • MomOf Plenty

      You're mixing the concepts of repentance for those with knowledge and opportunity in this life versus accepting the gospel in spirit prison for those who have never been taught. If you put them in the correct context, all of the information you presented would actually make sense. There's no discrepancy – just your lack of insight and knowledge.

      February 17, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
  19. Alan

    Good idea to check your theology – Catholics have not and do not teach that only Catholics go to heaven.

    February 17, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
    • Blasphemy

      They do believe that you must be in a "State of Grace" to enter heaven.

      They believe that all sin

      They believe that one must confess and repent to achieve that "State of Grace."

      That generally means being or becoming a Catholic (or at least practicing like one) at the right time.

      February 17, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
  20. edmundburkeson

    Some of us have simpler answer. They baptize by proxy due to lack of faith in God and the Bible. The Bible says that those who have never heard of the Bible will be judged by the light that they have. Mormons should stop trying to pick up the slack where they consider God to be lacking. That will be a hard one to explain. Gilgoff has reduced the position of all traditions to a single sentence. Maybe God will ask for his help when separating the wheat from the tares but I hope not. Many will bitterly and angrily protest in that day saying "haven't we done many wonderful things in your name." then will I say to them :Depart from me ... I never knew you."

    February 17, 2012 at 4:49 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.