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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. Truthship

    So glad the Mormon Church apologised 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 apologised for that racism.

    February 17, 2012 at 11:57 pm |
    • funnyguy

      I'm sure the mormon church will apologize if the catholics, baptists, methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and egyptians apologize first.

      February 18, 2012 at 1:15 am |
  2. Damien Leung

    Posthumous proxy baptism is complete nonsense, just as most Mormon teachings are! While the quoted verse (I Corith 15:29) is hard to understand, there is at least no inference of salvation whatsoever. Note that resurrection does not equal salvation. Everyone will be resurrected at the end, just to stand before God's judgment seat to be judged, with those who have received salvation escaping condemnation.

    February 17, 2012 at 11:34 pm |
    • funnyguy

      Looks like you got it all figured out! thanks for sharing you mythological theories with the world, i don't know what we would have done had you taken this knowledge with you to the grave.... got any sources? just 1 question? Dinosaurs? Before or after Garden of Eden? Did they all perish in the flood? Thanks in advance

      February 18, 2012 at 1:10 am |
  3. mishara

    Why would a people who detest government intrusion into their LIVES – and by this I mean living breathing LIVES – allow a religion to interfere with their DEATHS?!
    Can't Mormons just leave the dead with their own dignity intact?
    This practice is arrogantly presumptuous, and incredibly meddling + intrusive.

    February 17, 2012 at 8:18 pm |
    • Ray Ward

      Hmm. The Mormans can't possibly think that the dead can pay 10% of their gross income to them, like living members are required to do, can they?

      February 17, 2012 at 8:57 pm |
  4. Commonman

    Thanks to you all for helping fulfill the prophecy given to Joseph Smith in 1823 that his name "would be had for good and evil in all the earth."

    February 17, 2012 at 7:49 pm |
    • Rebeckah

      That's what a rational person recognizes as a "self-fulfilling prophecy". L. Ron Hubbard's name is also taken for both a "good" and an "evil" but that doesn't make Scientology true.

      February 17, 2012 at 8:20 pm |
  5. Vic

    I have been baptised and confirmed ALREADY as a Christian, not an LDS, and it is between me and God whether or not I have accepted Jesus Christ as my saviour. FYI – the mormons themselves do not believe that Jesus is the son of God, but rather a prophet on the same level as Joseph Smith. And if you haven't been baptised as a mormon then you will not go to heaven is their belief. Not sure who died and named the LDS church as God, but I've already warned the mormons that I know, should you or anyone else take it upon yourself to baptise me after my death, trust me, I will come back and haunt you for the rest of your life! My soul in the afterlife is between me and God – no one else.

    February 17, 2012 at 7:23 pm |
    • C from Iowa

      Hi Vic,

      Although I am not an expert in Mormon theology, I thought I would correct a piece of misinformation in your comment. Mormon theology clearly recognizes Jesus Christ as the son of God. They believe that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, as was Moses, Abraham, and other prophets in Biblical times. In fact, I respect their belief that God has not changed and still communicates with man in the same way that He did in times of old. I've never understood those who claim that God suddenly changed and no longer speaks with man.

      February 17, 2012 at 7:27 pm |
    • SMS

      The Muslims consider Jesus Christ is a prophet and not the Son of God

      February 17, 2012 at 9:22 pm |
    • Truthship

      Thats the rub Vic, the LDS church claims it is 'Christian', but if you have been already baptized a Christian you have to be re-baptized again. Mormons trying to have it both ways.

      February 18, 2012 at 12:06 am |
    • funnyguy

      wrong on so many levels. Thanks for trying though.

      February 18, 2012 at 1:12 am |
  6. David in Cincinnati

    This posthumous baptism is peculiar, but is no more offensive than unbidden prayer that maybe helps the person praying. I was baptized three times humously, but am still not offended, even though they did not take. Baptism of the dead doesn't compare to the peculiarity of belief in the golden-plate theory of the Book of Mormon. How could a president with such a belief handle real issues rationally?

    February 17, 2012 at 7:03 pm |
    • John Wilkes Booth

      same comment could be made about Black Libertarian Theologists..... and all other non-scientific religions.

      February 17, 2012 at 7:14 pm |
    • George Angerbauer

      Is belief in God rational? Every modern president invokes God to bless America, it would seem they all have some faith in their make-up (or put on a good show).

      February 17, 2012 at 7:19 pm |
    • b4bigbang

      @david in cincinnati: How could a president who believes the Mormon tale be rational and handle reality and serious issues?

      The answer, i believe, is "compartmentalization". Catholics do it too, with intelligent members believing in transubstantiation, ie, the priest blesses the bread and wine, the blessing miraculously transforms it into the actual body and blood of Jesus. It still appears as bread and wine, a lab test would confirm it to be bread and wine, but the belief is that it's been transformed.

      February 17, 2012 at 10:25 pm |
  7. One one

    How many gods are there to believe in?
    God has angels, Satan has demons.
    My god and religion are real and true.
    YOUR religion is just a pile of bull poo.
    They say there’s only ONE god to believe in.
    If you don’t believe, it’s the ultimate sin.
    No more Zeus, Odin, or Thor, MY hero.
    We’re just one god away from the true number…. ZERO.

    February 17, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      We need to talk. It's about God's Brother.

      February 17, 2012 at 7:20 pm |
    • qlbhat

      can you say: Dao... [Tao to most English speakers}

      February 17, 2012 at 9:49 pm |
  8. jwajmmkmc

    How is it that people continue to contend that mormons believe they are converting anyone through proxy baptism? It has been explained that mormons believe the baptism has no meaning unless the person, for whom the ordinance was performed, accepts the baptism. There is absolutely no understanding of anyone being forced to become a mormon.

    February 17, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
    • One one

      How does a person "accept" a baptism if they are dead?

      February 17, 2012 at 6:34 pm |
    • pastmorm

      It's the very arrogance that you mormons believe that unless someone – alive or dead – is a mormon, they are not going to gain any salvation or be with god. If this were coming from a religion that was perhaps a couple thousand years old, it might not get so much negative feedback, but your cult is less than 200, created by a man that believed in a theocratic monarchy. So basically you're getting this negative press because your beliefs are finally hitting the media and people are repulsed by it.

      February 17, 2012 at 6:43 pm |
    • Too bad

      Presumably because most Christians believe the soul continues to exist after death. Mormons simply believe that while they continue to exist and wait for Judgment Day they can make the choice to accept the Gospel and posthumous ordinances performed on their behalf.

      February 17, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
    • Too bad

      Presumably most Christians believe the soul continues to exist after death. Mormons simply believe that while they continue to exist and wait for Judgment Day they can make the choice to accept the Gospel and posthumous ordinances performed on their behalf.

      February 17, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
    • John Wilkes Booth

      @pastmorm
      All legitimate religions teach that their way of life is essential for a return to heaven. If a religion teaches that there are multiple ways to heaven, then the consumer (believer) would shop around to find the easiest path to heaven. Would you rather have hundreds of religions teaching that anyway of life is ok for god?
      The only real choice here is athiesm vs. theism. because all other religions are just as silly as the mormon religion.

      February 17, 2012 at 7:05 pm |
  9. BC

    They claim the right to baptize and indoctrinate the living, to the point of exclusion and separation from those family members who choose not to embrace their faith. This is, by definition, a cult.

    February 17, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
    • One one

      They are all cults. Same book, different covers.

      February 17, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
    • George Angerbauer

      Is Catholicism a cult? By your definition, any faith that qualifies or disqualifies membership on the basis of its own rules or doctrines is a cult. Sorry, that's not society's accepted definition of a cult.

      February 17, 2012 at 7:25 pm |
    • Nate

      George has a point - to my knowledge, Catholicism wouldn't be considered a cult, because it's 1) Not new and 2) Not popularly considered bizarre. ~2000 years ago, it definitely qualified as a cult to the Romans. But after centuries of power and political domination... taa-daa, not a cult.

      Personally, I like to think of Catholicism as "the cult we know" 🙂

      February 17, 2012 at 9:26 pm |
    • buddyboy

      live by the sword, die by the sword. Every argument i've ever heard against mormonism can equally be used against any other orthodox christian religion. The evangelicals need to be cautions when attacking and mocking other religions as the argument will ultimately return upon them. If mormonism is a cult, then so is catholicism and all the unauthorized religions that branched from it.

      February 18, 2012 at 1:34 am |
  10. mittreagan

    If Mormons are adopted by baptism into the Abrahamic Covenant, why do they baptize dead Jews?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OFtApFNVZSI&feature=channel

    February 17, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
  11. mittreagan

    "Take a Walk on the Mormon Side" any my interpretation of Lou Reed's classic!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qm_iq1lSlpo

    February 17, 2012 at 6:14 pm |
  12. Jessica

    This is a "FALSE" doctrine based on the visit of a cursed "angel/demon", if this even was the case... Gal 1:8 "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!"
    Mormonism is a deviation from the truth which is the Word of God AKA his Son Jesus Christ. Whoever believes this is on the wrong path. Study the Word and you will see that the Apostles had the empowering of the Holy Spirit, they were witnesses of Jesus and their word is what we follow today. Not Pope's, people, Angels or demons but the New Testament written by those Jesus gave the power to by the Power of the Holy Spirit!

    February 17, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
    • Seek&Find

      Are you certain that the gospel being preached to you and by you is the exact same that the Apostles in the New Testament taught? Have you ever considered that perhaps you are preaching the "other gospel"

      February 17, 2012 at 6:40 pm |
    • Josh

      "other than" is the key phrase here, Jessica. You are implying that the Gospel of Jesus Christ taught by Mormons is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If they teach the true Gospel, then this scripture only bolsters their case and cause.

      February 17, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
    • John Wilkes Booth

      Were those Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans preaching that gospel in Galatians? No, i don't think so, therefore i can assume from your interpretation that these religions are teaching the "other gospel".

      February 17, 2012 at 7:08 pm |
    • George Angerbauer

      You are correct that the true gospel was taught by the Apostles, through the Holy Spirit, and were themselves witnesses of Jesus Christ. If you believe that, you're describing the doctrine, organization and modern revelation that the LDS church professes. It's the same thing, just restored to its original form (tell me of any other faith that claims to receive revelation through 12 apostles, a prophet, and is led by Jesus Christ through them).

      February 17, 2012 at 7:31 pm |
  13. BoldGeorge

    For true Christians, baptism DOES NOT SAVE anyone. Baptism is a faith-based decision where the believer makes a public statement of faith AFTER having been saved by grace through Jesus Christ. First you believe, then you follow the command to be baptized. Salvation is not based on any works, merits nor self-righteousness. If baptism were to save, than Jesus wouldn't have saved the thief on the cross to His right, who lived a sinful life and was never baptized, nor did anyone had to be baptized after his death so he can go to heaven. This thief just acknowledged his sinfulness and the need for salvation in the after-life, not here on earth as he knew he was finished...hence, the reason why he asked Jesus to remember him in the after-life and then Jesus announced that he will be with Him TODAY in paradise, not after someone decides to get baptized on his behalf.

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

      Yes, because Jesus' words were "say you believe in me then do whatever the hell you want because you're saved." Have you read the Bible?

      February 17, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
    • Seek&Find

      So is paradise the same as Heaven?

      February 17, 2012 at 6:26 pm |
    • GodPot

      They are all mistranslations, he really said "we will be with him in "paradox", and we all know paradox means any person, thing, or situation exhibiting an apparently contradictory nature... which would be true of just about everything in the bible.

      February 17, 2012 at 6:52 pm |
    • George Angerbauer

      The purpose of Jesus' life was to show us the way. He was baptized, to show us the path we all must go. He explained that to Nicodemus - that without baptism one cannot enter the Kingdom of God. His teachings were to believe, and to live that belief through faithful works.

      James said it best: "Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works. Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble."

      February 17, 2012 at 7:47 pm |
  14. clinky

    And I thought the underwear thing was weird.

    February 17, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
    • George Angerbauer

      No weirder than Jewish caps, or praying the rosary, just another symbol expressed a different way. Do you ridicule Jews and Catholics equally?

      February 17, 2012 at 7:49 pm |
    • buddyboy

      I've always thought priests wearing the collars and nun's wearing their dresses was wierd. The nun's remind me of pilgrims. Why would god want them to dress like that?

      February 18, 2012 at 1:39 am |
  15. Dr.Fritz

    Mitt Romney's favorite novel is Battlefield Earth by L. Ron Hubbard. THINK ABOUT IT.

    February 17, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
    • SMS

      Is 1984, Animal Farm, Brave New World YOUR favorite books? L. Ron Hubbard happens to be a great distopian author. What if he said is favorite book was the Hunger Games? He will be a president sending kids to fight to their death?? WHO CARES if he likes Battlefield Earth?

      February 17, 2012 at 9:28 pm |
  16. Dr.Fritz

    Google THE SECRET WORLD OF MORMONISM.

    February 17, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
    • Seek&Find

      What is the best source of truth?

      February 17, 2012 at 6:37 pm |
  17. GodPot

    What do Mormons believe is happening in heII each time they baptise a corpse? Is there a very disappointed demon with an empty pitchfork with a bewildered look on his face?

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

      Well, I understand my Bible says that when you die that's it until judgement time. Problem is that I had some good friends die before I knew the importance of accepting Jesus before you die. Now, on occasion when thoughts of my firiends come to mind I say a prayer for their peace and ask Jesus to cover them with his love and mercy. I believe Jesus will do that.
      I am totally convinced there is much more to this life than I know and that the love of God is greater than I can imagine. Based on that I think it is helpful and certainly could not do any harm.
      What the Mormons are up to I have'nt a clue.

      February 17, 2012 at 6:10 pm |
    • NoMoreLabels

      While the 'spirits' wipe the sweat off their brow, the Devil is furiously zapping the sulfur-laced air. I don't think he got the memo...

      February 17, 2012 at 8:52 pm |
    • EvolvedDNA

      Fred..convinced, greater than I can imagine, on nebulous stuff like god..Yet on the crazy in your face real actions of a religious folks like you you have no clue. They are doing the same as you.. but in public..it just sounds crazier because it written down.

      February 17, 2012 at 9:04 pm |
    • fred

      Evolved DNA
      When you think of a loved one that is gone I would hope it to be kind thoughts. My thoughts are kind in the same manner. If GodPot is correct and there is no God then my prayers are but thoughts as yours were. Where is the crazy in that?

      As to the verse quoted 15:29 Paul was addressing those who were baptized in order to be resurected with others who were also being lifted up. It was forward looking not a hindsight baptism for those that were not baptized before death. His entire chapter related to the resurection of Christ where because he was raised on the 3rd day we also have hope in being raised. If Jesus did not raise from the dead to sit at the right hand of God Christianity has no basis and even I would join GodPot in rejecting God.

      February 17, 2012 at 10:00 pm |
  18. Sheila

    Being a Catholic, I take offense that the "expert on Mormonism" says that Catholics believe that only Catholics can be saved. That has NEVER been the teaching of the Catholic Church. If you find a Catholic who says that, they are mistaken and need to brush up on their catechism.

    February 17, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
    • Blasphemy

      Do you have to be baptized to go to heaven?

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

      Does the Catholic church believe that if a baby is not baptized before it dies it will go to hell? If they do believe that would you please explain to me why and how that doesn't follow what the writer said that "Catholics believe that only Catholics can be saved"? I just want to understand. Thanks.

      February 17, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
    • John Wilkes Booth

      Total WIN on the baptism comment!!!! nice job. maybe they'll think next time.

      February 17, 2012 at 7:10 pm |
    • b4bigbang

      @Sheila: Actually, the RCC taught prior to the Vatican 2 conference (1962 i believe) that there was no salvation outside of the Roman Catholic Church. They changed their doctrine at the conference, deciding to label non-Catholic Christians as being "our separated brethren".

      February 17, 2012 at 10:40 pm |
  19. poundforpound

    My question for years is, how does Christianity handle the non-christian factor? Seems Paul had that question back then too, and did baptism for the dead. Seems strange, but logical.

    February 17, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
    • b4bigbang

      @poundforpound: A cursory reading of the verse in question seems to indicate baptism for the dead is proper, and i wondered about it myself the first time i read it. But after more study i found that it's one of those passages that have to be weighed carefully.

      Notice Paul is teaching on the resurrection rather than baptism in this chapter, and also notice that he uses the words "they" baptise the dead rather then "I", "myself", "us"," me" or "you". He was merely underscoring the fact that lots of different sects (some not even Christian) believe in some kind of resurrection, as well as many sects (again, some not even Christian) also practicing baptism.

      February 17, 2012 at 10:55 pm |
  20. clinky

    I'd really like to know: Does every Mormon perform 100 baptisms for the dead every week? Or is it just on a casual basis? Because either giving dead souls a chance at eternal salvation is the most important thing you will ever do, or this conviction of your church is a sham and you have been conned. Now, which is it?

    February 17, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
    • Seek&Find

      Why would 100 be sufficient? If you expect perfection from Mormons you will be disappointed. If you expect them to live their religion and practice what they believe, you will find that Mormons who participate in proxy baptisms which by definition means they have met the worthiness quidelines to enter the temple, they are among the most committed Christians you will associate with.

      February 17, 2012 at 6:34 pm |
    • John Wilkes Booth

      iI don't think this comment is in tune with the new testament. Revisit the chapter about Mary & Martha....

      February 17, 2012 at 7:11 pm |
    • Commonman

      Dear Clinky,

      Since some members of the church live thousands of miles from a temple it would be a bit difficult to get to the temple, let alone do 100 baptisms per week. Similarly there are young families who have limited resources and time to attend the temple regularly, and older folks and some ill people who cannot attend to these ordinances. Some members are not active in the church at all. Those of us who are active and believe in this work take every opportunity to go to the temples and do this work. Taken together with accepting God myself, marrying someone like myself who believes, raising fine moral children, serving those who are poor or sorrowing, doing missionary work for those who are living who have not yet heard the gospel, and doing work for the dead, I consider all these things to be of supreme importance and try to live what I believe. As top whether it is true. You can ask God and find out for yourself. I don't need to get your answers for you.

      February 17, 2012 at 8:02 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.