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. coder

    Why not acknowledge christians didnt exist before the claims of christ

    jesus, mohammed, moses – all of the prophets that profit – must be very proud of the turmoil their followers murder each other over – way to learn the lessons you claim to preach

    and i thought the u.s. congress was crazy
    this morman stuff here
    its about the most disgraceful and disrespecting practice i've ever heard of by a group of religion believers
    pillaging the dead -disgusting

    February 17, 2012 at 11:53 am |
  2. Mopery

    This just proves that in the word Mormon, the second "m" is silent...

    February 17, 2012 at 11:53 am |
  3. Guest

    Well, so much for Mitt Romney.

    February 17, 2012 at 11:51 am |
  4. JJ Jukebox

    I don't know what to say.....this is so childish and stupid. I didn't know this kind of thing happened before I read the article. I agree with Mitch Monster....Religion is prehistoric and weird.....with the emphises on weird.

    February 17, 2012 at 11:50 am |
  5. Jared

    Come on CNN... quit with the bull crap rhetoric. All they're doing with this pointless article is trying to push Obama's re-election campaign. Anyone who says this isn't a direct bash against Mitt Romney is a moron. The link the the article is incredibly offensive. Why don't they question religous traditions all the time?

    February 17, 2012 at 11:50 am |
    • Lacking Evidence since 14 Billion BCE

      they should since all religion is BS just Mormonism was created less than 200 years ago so the idiocy is still quite fresh, not quite as fresh as Scientology but just as stupid.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
    • Jared

      So, basically, it's fine to bash Mormons because Mitt Romney is running against their candidate Obama. But, they won't touch the issues with Obama's religon? Jeremiah Wright's hatred of the US?

      February 17, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
  6. NCJN

    Come on, CNN. You guys knew this would start out as a "wholesome" discuss about how the LDS church is wrong, lives outside of the Bible, and is just downright erroneous; and that it would eventually (as these things tend to do), turn into a firestorm of insults about one's typological error or misspelling. This happens because we get so puffed up in our pride instead of actually asking questions or trying to investigate. No problems will EVER be solved or doctrines understood under the pressure and disorganization we introduce through pride and anger.

    My friends... If you don't want to learn more about the "Mormon" Church, fine. You have the choice to not read or leave a question. But please don't turn things sour for everyone by misusing the comments.

    February 17, 2012 at 11:50 am |
  7. Jay

    What a bunch of stupid morons. What dope would believe in this garbage? Does anyone in this country have an education? Go back to the middle ages you dub asses.

    February 17, 2012 at 11:50 am |
    • longtooth

      Yes, they are dub, aren't they?

      February 17, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
  8. olepi

    Seems harmless enough. They're not sacrificing cats too, are they?

    Of course, not to be taken seriously by any sane, thinking, adult.

    February 17, 2012 at 11:48 am |
  9. Doug

    Religion itself baffles me at times... and then I read stuff like this. WOW! Just... WOW!

    February 17, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • Truefax

      My bologna has a firstname it's C R A Z Y
      My bolonga has a second name R E L G I O N S
      Crazy Relgions have a way of spelling B O L O G N A

      February 17, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
  10. am

    Question: Why do Mormons not allow Non-Mormons to enter their Temple? I understand that Mormons consider the posthumous proxy baptisms as an inclusive act. But what kind of act is not allowing Non-Mormons to enter the Temple considered to be. Secrecy?

    February 17, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • HHGuy123

      The reality is that a Mormon can go into the temple if they are following all of the basic commandments of the gospel. If they are not, then they cannot. The ordinances performed in the temple are sacred not secret. We can explain to you generally what they are about, but unless you go through the actual process, it won't benefit you. Look at all these comments and how people are blowing out of proportion and condemning a practice that is actually quite beautiful.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
    • Mike

      Yes, it is inclusive, but the distinction is living vs. dead. The non-LDS living are more than welcome to enter our churches where baptism for the living is performed and even receive baptism themselves. The vast majority of the work that goes on in the temple is for the dead. It is sacred, coming near to the work/atonement that Christ himself performed for all of us. Because it is sacred, only worthy member of the church can perform the work. There is nothing secret about it. It is open to everyone who qualifies.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
    • W247

      MIke – listen to the words you use and tell me if this is a welcoming and inclusive place. Jesus never excluded anyone from His ministry. You use the word "worthy", where Jesus saught out the unworthy and drew them closer to Him.

      He saw EVERYONE as worthy of the Lords grace and salvation. ALL HAVE ACCESS TO HIM, with out the need of secret rituals by "higher religious" officials.

      February 17, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
  11. scoobypoo

    Please ask Mitt about how he's going to rule his very own planet when he dies and become [gasp] an actual god, while his wife births 'spirit babies' to populate this new planet. Wow.

    February 17, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • lmc2

      Quit trying to make something political out of it.

      February 17, 2012 at 11:53 am |
    • David West

      Mormons believe in eternal progression – i.e. the concept that our learning and development as the offspring of a divine being are not stopped at death.

      Ever consider the meaning of the word "damned"? It means something (usually water) is stopped. I know the Living Water flows eternally. As a child of God, I have the potential to grow and develop in my Father's image. I don't think anyone has ever said that because I'm a Mormon, I get to be a god when I die. But they have said I have the potential. I will always worship my Heavenly Father as my creator, and Jesus Christ as my Savior, but that does not exclude me from becoming more like them every day.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
  12. Joe B

    They aren't harming anyone, these are bizarre people who believe in a relatively harmless theology straight out of science-fiction. They think they are doing something nice for the jews. What happened to that famous jewish sense of humour they should just laugh off this foolishness.

    February 17, 2012 at 11:47 am |
    • tony

      But what happens if a dedicated one gets to be President of the most powerful nation on Earth? "oh I didn't do anything for my faith, because I didn't think you guys would be interested. . . ."

      February 17, 2012 at 11:52 am |
    • Joe B

      Tony I agree with you 100%, I don't want a follower of this wacky cult in the White House either.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
  13. Speak the Truth

    And Romney obviously believes this nonsense. That's what we need, a president who believes in spirit prisons, that god is a man that lives on another planet, that Jesus is the brother of Satan, that Jesus visisted the 10 lost tribes that had moved to central America after their captivity under the Assyrians, that Jesus lost gospel, printed on gold tablets, traveled magically under the ground from Central America to Palmyra New York where Joseph Smith found them (and then magically disappeared later), and a host of other ridiculous Mormon articles of faith. All religious beliefs are crazy, but this wins the cake (or at least ties with Scientology).

    February 17, 2012 at 11:47 am |
    • Jared

      Yeah, and Obama's religon of hate was so much better? Or, do you just ignore Jeremiah Wright?

      February 17, 2012 at 11:54 am |
    • Speak the Truth

      Don't be ridiculous. Wright was just another crazy Christian preacher. Obama was free to move away from such madness, and since moving into the White House has only gone to church a few times (recognizing how foolish this practice really is). Romney was an Elder in his church and an advocate for Mormon beliefs. If you can’t spot the difference, I can’t help you.

      February 17, 2012 at 11:58 am |
    • Laurie


      February 17, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
    • Jared

      K, so what you're saying is it's ok to go to church just to get votes, but it's wrong to actually believe in it?

      February 17, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
    • Mike

      You cannot argue that, doctrinal differences aside, the greatest work the LDS church is engaged in is to do good to ALL humankind. It cannot be matched in terms of man-hours of service and dollars spent. Helping those in need is the most Christian of all else.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
  14. mitchmonster

    Religion is prehistoric and weird.

    February 17, 2012 at 11:46 am |
  15. Meh

    Why do Mormons wear magic underwear?

    February 17, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • Truefax

      Wouldn't you want to wear magic underwear that were so absorbant that if the girl ginding on you made you giz your pants you could still get away with it. OBVIOUSLY

      February 17, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
  16. TYler

    If your not a mormon, why do you care?

    February 17, 2012 at 11:46 am |
  17. Connie

    It's all bunk! Religion, that is . . . Just the one paragraph about the different salvation traditions makes my point. How can they know? They can't, because it's all made up. I came to that conclusion decades ago. Yes, I'm an atheist, and if the Mormons want to baptize me after I'm dead, it won't do any good, because I'll just be dead.

    February 17, 2012 at 11:45 am |
  18. sftommy

    All religions try to reassure their faithful that their vision of a path to God is "real". Because there is doubt in all religions many act out scenarios that give those faithful a feel good kick of brain chemicals. "Saving" someone, in their vision long past saving, gives them that feel good kick of brain chemicals. This is a biological, feel good phenomena, hijacked by a social power structure to reinforce itself, not a path to God.

    February 17, 2012 at 11:45 am |
  19. Voiceinthewind

    Because live people won't let them Baptize them.(LOL)

    February 17, 2012 at 11:45 am |
  20. Xav

    to answer some questions. We the LDS faith believe that for a man to receive slavation one must be baptized by the proper authority and live the gospel of Jesus Christ. if a christian lived a good life and kept the commandements they still need baptism by proper authority, we baptized in their behalf so they can have the choice we are not making them "mormon" this authority which we believe was restored through the prophet joseph smith. Christ himslef was baptized to show us that we all need baptism, even he needed baptism not because he was sinful or needed sins removed but to give us an example of what we need to do on this earth, and not only did he get baptized but he did it at the hands of john the baptist who held the authority to baptize at that time. To those who hate on the LDS faith, remember that contention is not of Christ and if you have those feelings against anything or anyone then your master must not be Christ. I know the LDS faith is true.

    February 17, 2012 at 11:45 am |
    • Beth

      Why do Mormons baptize Christians who have already been baptized in their own church? Do you not recognize those baptisms as valid?

      February 17, 2012 at 11:55 am |
    • Marty

      Does that make you feel better Xav, to tell us all about your heartburn (I mean burning in the bossom/a$$)?? Extra brownies for you in the Celestial Kingdom!!

      February 17, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
    • Laurie

      You say "I know the LDS faith is true". Well that is your opinion and your opinion only. It has been proved over and over that so many things that Joseph Smith said are untrue. It has even made the news that the Mormon Church is very concerned because now that their members have access to the internet they are going to find out the truth that the leaders have not been forthcoming in telling.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
    • SLS

      Sorry Xav, but several things you mention I take issue with. One, Jesus never said one must be baptized to be saved. He said one must be "Born Again". We can discuss what that means if you like. Second, as a believer in Jesus Christ we profess our faith and trust in Christ as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. His finished work on the cross assures my salvation-nothing I can do of myself can assure salvation...not baptism-not good works-nothing. I also believe that Jesus was completely human-and completely God. Christ was and is the Creator-not a created being himself. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
    • Mike

      SLS, if you want to interpret away what is clearly taught in the Bible, I guess you have that choice. Christ is THE WAY. Christians should follow his example and do ALL that he did. We must be born of "water and the Spirit", that was Christ's example to us, showing us THE WAY. Are you going to argue that Christ wasn't baptized by immersion? What does "straightway coming up out of the water" mean?

      February 17, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • W247

      MIKE –
      I have to concur with SLS on this one. "Water and the Spirit" does not mean actual water, or else husbands would be constantly hosing down their wives since Christ told husbands in EPH 5: 25 – 25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing[b] her by the washing with water through the word

      I feel sorry for your sife is she is being constantly "Cleansed" with water before reading her bible!

      The John verse that speaks of "water and spirit" is the same here. Baptising means immersing, being immersed in the spirit. Washing of water through the word means immersing her in the word so the she can be spotless, without blame, holy.

      February 17, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
    • Dan


      If everything on the internet is truth, then sweetie you've got all sorts of problems.

      February 17, 2012 at 6:31 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.