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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. Blasphemy

    While explaining their arrogance perhaps Mormons (and almost all other religions) can explain why they build massive gaudy edifices on the backs of the poor to flaunt their righteousness.

    February 17, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
    • Too bad

      Couldn't be that Biblically there's been temples since Old Testament times and even Jesus revered temples as the House of God... Seriously, do people think before they post? Just state you think houses of worship are stupid or better, don't, and get on with what passes for a life.

      February 17, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
    • Blasphemy

      Amazing how simple and narrow their thinking can be when it suits them. Which is most of the time.

      February 17, 2012 at 6:05 pm |
    • MomOf Plenty

      And exactly how are they built on the backs of the poor? They are built with voluntary donations. And temple-building dates back to Old Testament times. Go find something better to do, will you?

      February 17, 2012 at 6:14 pm |
  2. clinky

    SMS, You don't really get it. The task is not merely "daunting." Practically all of history's dead can never be traced because of nonexistent historical records. God can identify them. Humans can't. Mormons are pretending to have God's power.

    February 17, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
    • zambonie3

      Why did Paul do it then?

      February 17, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
    • flyin high

      We don't really "pretend" that much.

      February 17, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
    • AnybodybutObama

      So you're saying, in your way of thinking, that God can identify each and every person because he loves them. But, God would never help people on earth provide the saving ordinance he required of his children for them to return to Him. Even though He probably could He would rather see those who, only by virtue of being born in some place that didn't allow Christianity (like Iran), were without baptism be sentenced to misery. What makes you and me more special to God that we get to know about Christ but another one of his children born in Iran have to suffer for no fault of their own? That is not a loving and just God.

      February 17, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
    • MomOf Plenty

      Clinky – you are obviously no scholar of Mormon doctrine. They have accounted for that problem – it's just not addressed in this article.

      February 17, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
    • David in Cincinnati

      flyin hi: No, you're pretending enormously. What about the golden-plate theory of the Book of Mormon?

      February 17, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
    • SMS

      Actually Clanky I DO get it. I am sorry you feel I do not. This argument is designed on the premise that there is not an after life. Do you believe in Christs resurrection..the joining of the soul with the body one again? If this comprises a person, then when death comes, where does the soul go.. PARADISE? The gospel is taught to those who did not have the chance to accept in this life..so they are taught after death and have an option to accept the baptism given them through proxy....I taught this dotrine full time as a volunteer for two years of my life...and saw miracles and a world unseen by many. I discount respectfully your argument that I do not have an idea..

      February 17, 2012 at 9:47 pm |
  3. 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’.
    Its high time the LDS church and Mitt to repent on that racism.

    February 17, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
    • tarnations24

      You could have at least changed a few words around before you regurgitated this again.

      February 17, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
    • MomOf Plenty

      Try living in 2011. May work better for you.

      February 17, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
  4. forgone

    If you don't like the concept then answer Pauls question:

    “Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead not rise at all?” “Why are they then baptized for the dead?” Corinthians 15:29.

    Is Paul "Weird", "Cooky" and part of a cult?

    February 17, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
  5. Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

    Mormons please baptize me when I'm gone. Or now if possible.

    February 17, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
    • Please hurry

      I don't have much time. He's coming. Should I abjure the trinity?

      February 17, 2012 at 7:08 pm |
  6. clinky

    What really is the stance of Mormons performing these baptisms? Like they're doing the dead a favor? "You know, I can fit five deadies between my golf game and the trip to the jewelry store."

    February 17, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
    • soundoff21

      What?

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

      Yo, have your mom proof read your posts.

      February 17, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
    • clinky

      "I'll perform five baptisms for the dead when I get around to it, between my round of golf and getting another diamond broach for my wife."

      February 17, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
    • flyin high

      You have never bought a girl a diamond, have you clinky......

      February 17, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
  7. Seek&Find

    If I'm not mistaken baptism is expected if entrance into Gods kingdom would be permitted (Mark 16:16). If one believes the Bible to be true, then would the loving God whom Christians believe in deny millions of His children entrance into His kingdom because they never had the opportunity to be baptized during their life on earth? My impressions of a God who is perfect must in His plan for Salvation prepare an opportunity for these individuals to be saved. The doctrine of baptisms for the dead in consistent with Gods perfect love for His children and the unwavering justice required by His laws for entrance into His kingdom. Because it is different than what you have been taught, that does not automatically make it false.

    February 17, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
  8. soundbite

    Someone explain to me how the billions of people living before Christ were saved? Or anyone who never knew of him after he was alive is saved? Did you just need to be born at the right time and right place? Lucky sperm salvation? What is the bigger picture?

    February 17, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
    • clinky

      soundbite, That's the tune I've been singing on this board. YOU CAN'T EVER IDENTIFY ALL OF HISTORY'S DEAD. That makes the practice senseless.

      February 17, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
    • Too bad

      As opposed to just insisting they're all damned to Hell? Yeah, I'd prefer a religion that "wastes it's time" trying to save people than one who goes around damning people to Hell.

      February 17, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
    • MomOf Plenty

      Clinky – again, it's just that you're clueless on Mormon doctrine. Do you seriously think a short article on CNN should be the entire reflection of their doctrine and that should base all of your opinion on an excerpt only?

      February 17, 2012 at 6:19 pm |
  9. college_student

    The mormons want to save and convert centuries of deceased to their faith and are on a world wide campaign to bring in the rest of the world since Mormonism is the only way to God. These are deeply held convictions such that all young men must go on mission to spread these ideas. How would these ideas affect the judgement of a MORMON president?

    February 17, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
    • Obama2012

      To start, the idea that we could have a president that "Thinks" at all would be an improvement.

      February 17, 2012 at 5:26 pm |
  10. Just wondering

    How do you check if your name is on the list and how would you get it removed?

    February 17, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
    • Seek&Find

      Your name can't be on the list for baptisms for the dead, if you are living. Once you pass away will you really care? Perhaps you will

      February 17, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
    • MomOf Plenty

      HAHAHAHA! Think before you post. This is baptisms for the DEAD – I am assuming you are not posting on CNN's wall from the other side. 😀

      February 17, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
  11. Khazarian

    Sorry, I had a hard time understanding what that obscure reference from Corinthians instructed. I have a less hard time, however, understanding what Jesus' direct words "..........I say unto you turn the other cheek" and "Let he who is without sin, cast the first stone" imply, and yet Christians of all stripes still support the death penalty in enormous numbers.

    February 17, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
    • Seek&Find

      The "obscure reference" 1 Corinthians 15:29 in Corinthians only makes sense in context because Paul was speaking to a group of people who were practicing baptisms for the dead yet they did not believe in the resurrection. Paul was pointing out that their two beliefs were contradictions. Since resurrection is a true doctrine and the dead will rise, the practice of proxy baptisms makes perfect sense.

      February 17, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
  12. Sam I. Am

    The funniest line in this entire story?

    "There is no way for a person to prevent himself or herself from being baptized by the LDS church after death."

    Ya don't say? 😉

    February 17, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
  13. clinky

    I pride myself on being a tolerant person, but the purpose of baptism after death makes no sense when you look at it objectively for just one minute. YOU CAN NEVER IDENTIFY ALL OF HISTORY'S DEAD. End of story. And, as others have pointed out here, if you're a Christian then it seems like Christ dying on the cross took care of the world's salvation, and it flies against Christianity for Mormons to baptize the dead. It arrogates Christ's gift of sacrifice to what present-day Mormons do in their passtime, and that sounds mighty ego-inflated by Mormons to me.

    February 17, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
    • GodShocked

      Indeed. If they really mean it the Mormons should be about it night and day nonstop.

      February 17, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
    • zambonie

      Christ dying on the Cross saving everyone is not what Christians believe. They believe it only saved Christians. So if you were a kid in China, who never heard of Christ and never accepted him, and dies is basically sentenced to "Hell'. Is that just?

      February 17, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
    • SMS

      It is about the effort. The church tirelessly pursues geneology and requests memebers to participate in the work,but rest assured there is an understanding that the task is daunting. But we will not stop moving forward making as much progress as we can!

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

      It took me less than 5 mins on Google to find that Mormons believe that posthumous baptisms will continue to be performed during the millenial period where Christ is prophesied to reign upon the Earth before the end. Not too much of a stretch to suppose, if you were Mormon, that you would have the help of Heaven identifying those who had not yet been baptized during that period of time.

      February 17, 2012 at 6:04 pm |
    • MomOf Plenty

      Exactly how many times should you post the same basic comment to the message board? I mean, really. Do you have anything else to say???

      February 17, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
    • MomOf Plenty

      TooBad – good job! I'm impressed! Someone who tried to do their homework for posting a gajillion comments with the same point. Amazing what you can learn on the internet that you can't find on CNN alone. 🙂

      February 17, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
  14. Too Much Hate

    Too much hate, disrespect and intolerance in this world. By your fruits you shall be known...

    February 17, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
    • David in Cincinnati

      Too much ignorance.

      February 17, 2012 at 6:48 pm |
  15. WachetAuf

    If the dead are now saved, then maybe they should also vote.

    February 17, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
  16. Sam Christian

    Other Christians find this quite silly and unsubstantiated by common scripture. Mormons should quit while they are ahead. Apart from such weird doctrines, they have much good to contribute to Christendom.

    February 17, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
    • thatswhy

      Under the reformed Christian belief system which of the following individuals would be saved:

      Adam, Eve, Seth, Abraham, Noah, Enoch?

      Answer: None, because they weren't "christian".

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

      Then please explain the Biblical quote from the article where Paul mentions baptisms for the dead. I am surprised there is a Biblical reference to this, but there it is! You say all Christians find this silly because it is "unsubstantiated by common scripture," but it is clearly stated in the New Testament. How is it unsubstantiated in common scripture when the Apostle Paul spoke about it? And why is it silly? A doctrine that extends salvation to all should be lauded, not feared.

      February 17, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
  17. Apostolic1976

    First I would like to know how the dead will know they have been baptized? Secondly, nobody can get baptized for another person...God did not set it up that way. Everybody will be judged according to what they know, from Adam up to the present day world. Today, many do not know that Jesus Christ established one church....with one set of directions for all believe and follow. The 120 that were filled with the Holy Ghost on the Day of Pentecost was the beginning of the church. Peter preached his first message under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost concerning God's plan of salvation...not religion. The same message that was preached to the Jews, was preached to the Gentiles (every nation outside of the Jews). This is to show that the plan of salvation is the same for everybody. Acts 2:38 – Repent and be baptized every one in the name of Jesus Christ for the remissions of sins and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. No change can ever be made to this invitation for the saving of the soul. No matter who disbelieves it, speaks against it, It will stand up as a testimony against all religious ideas at the last day....judgment day.

    February 17, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
    • thatswhy

      That is what people were saying to Paul, to which he said:

      Corinthians 15:29. “Why are they then baptized for the dead?”

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

      So if Mormons get baptized and repent they're set, regardless of other beliefs. So, I guess you can stop caring... Or if you're sure the Bible is true, how about you read your Bible a little more and realize that Biblically there's more to do to obtain salvation?

      February 17, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
    • Didyoureadthis?

      Okay, of all the people's silly comments that I've read, this is the only one I care to comment about. I find it funny that you may believe that one person cannot do something in the name of another. From you comment I gather that you find it impossible for God to allow any one person to help another in any way? There is no ability for someone to serve as a "proxy" for another? God would not allow it? So answer me this as a Christian (assuming again from the rest of your comment that you may very well be one): How could one man (Christ) stand to take away the sins of others? Or does each person have to do that themself?

      February 17, 2012 at 6:55 pm |
  18. WachetAuf

    The biggest problem for Christianity, which it will never acknowledge, is that a select group of men gathered to decide what was authentic text and what was not. What they ordained to be authentic was then made a part of the Bible. What was not was left out. Then, for a period of several hundred years, they denied anyone the right to study the text except insiders who owed their loyalty, not to God, but to their bosses. The Reformation came only after the text was made widely available by translations into common language and the invention of the printing press. Does anyone truly believe that these insiders were ordained by God and pure enough to undertake the task without rewarding their friends and punishing their enemies? They were politicians, first and forever. At best they were human.

    February 17, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
    • thatswhy

      The restoration created the dummy in the middle out of reformists. It is either succession or full restoration.

      February 17, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
  19. forgone

    Half of you didn't care about your ancestors when they were alive.

    February 17, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
  20. college_student

    If all of those who have lived over the past thousands of years must become Mormons in order to be saved what is the thinking of a Mormon who wants to be president. If the dead must all be Mormons then what about the living? How is that going to affect his thinking?

    February 17, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
    • clinky

      That's just it. They're as greedy as Romney. They want all the living AND the dead.

      February 17, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
    • AnybodybutObama

      Here's how it works. When Mitt becomes president, his plan is to use all of the planes in the military to scoop up water, fly over all the cities in the US and at the coordinated minute, drop the water down to baptize everyone and he will pronounce the baptismal prayer. Then everyone in the US (whether they want it or not) will be Mormon. See, that is the secret plan that has been in place since the beginning. Then he do the same on the Muslim world, Israel, Russia, and so on. Thus, everyone will be Mormon and will be sent out on Missions and we'll achieve world peace. Bwahahaha...it's BRILLIANT I tell you!

      Come on! What do you think it means? Did JFK impose Catholic beliefs on everyone in the 60's when he was president? No! He was president. Romney will be a president and not the pastor in the White House!

      February 17, 2012 at 5:51 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.