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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. Beer Summit

    I cannot support the baptism of either infants or the dead. Baptism is a choice to be made by the believer. Anything else is meaningless.

    March 9, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
  2. Dobro

    Time for muslims to step up and convert by proxy all mormons to islam, including those alive.

    March 9, 2012 at 11:55 am |
  3. Darrien

    Before stating my opinion on this particular piece, I would like to state that I am in no way trying to bash the Mormon religion, or any other religion for that matter.
    I do believe that baptism of the dead is wrong. I do not think that you should attempt to baptize the dead, or take it upon yourself to think that they want the opportunity to be baptized. The families of the deceased should be contacted and spoken with first, and if they do not have any family members recent enough to personally know the deceased, they should leave them be.
    Mormons just recently baptized Jewish Holocaust victim Anne Frank into their religion. The LDS church vowed to stop baptizing Jewish Holocaust victims in 1995. I do believe that this was wrong. Anne Frank belonged to the Jewish faith, and therefore she was already practicing religious worships. By baptizing her into the Mormon religion, this could be seen as very disrespectful towards people belonging to the Jewish faith. Anne Frank had her religion decided before Nazi Germany took over, and therefore she had her opportunity to be saved in her own religion.
    I do not think it is morally right to think that all people want a chance at everlasting life. Everlasting life with God does sound amazing, but this is a choice that should be decided by the individual at hand. For someone to baptize someone else into their religion, it seems like they are taking the power of decision and religion choice into their own hands, and deciding what is best for someone else.
    The intention of the Mormons is completely understandable; giving those the chance that never got to find God and be saved a chance to do so. It is a very generous and thoughtful ceremony, but it also seems so wrong at the same time. These people they choose to baptize are already dead, and therefore they don’t really need to decide whether or not to be saved and go to Heaven. They probably would have their religion decided while they were alive, and their beliefs may contradict with the baptism completely.
    The LDS church does not see the baptism as making the dead a Mormon, but it provides them the chance to join the church and practice their faith. This is also debatable because you don’t know whether or not this person wanted the baptism in the first place. This is introducing them into a faith that they may not accept.
    My main point of doing this is to express that I think the Mormon baptisms are morally wrong.

    March 9, 2012 at 10:33 am |
    • BradT

      Darrien, I appreciate your thoughtful analysis. I would like to point out that there is a policy similar to your suggestion about limiting baptisms without permission. The system will block submissions of names of people that lived within a recent period (I think it's currently 100 years), unless those submissions are made by family members. For names that go further back, it would be a huge undertaking to contact and get permission of all living decedents.

      I think the key to understanding proxy baptism is choice. We believe performing a proxy baptism does not force anything upon the intended recipient without their consent. It does not make them members of a church, just as Christ's proxy sacrifice can only have effect on a person who chooses to accept him. We do believe that a person's existence continues after death, and that existence includes the wonderful gift of choice, and offering the choice of accepting this ordinance is done out of love.

      March 9, 2012 at 11:32 am |
    • FactsRBad

      Darrien,

      In addition to the thoughtful ideas you expressed, my principal problem with this practice is the message that it conveys to its members and those outside the LDS church – that being that our way is better than yours, you could not be happy with the life that your religion provided, and therefor you should have the opportunity to join us. How arrogant!

      March 9, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
  4. Rob F.

    Paul was referring to the Christ when he mentioned baptism for the dead. If the Christ is not risen then why do you get baptized? Jesus (the Christ) had instructed his followers to be baptized. If Jesus (the Christ) did not rise from the dead then why are you doing what he instructs, lets eat drink and be merry. The 'for' references the act of doing something because someone asks or instructs.

    March 4, 2012 at 8:53 am |
  5. BPM

    Dear Reverend,
    You misinterpret the doctrine. Rickjana and DG are both correct. The argument is not as you stated. What the Apostle Paul is saying to the Corinthians is thus: "Why do you think we baptize for the dead if the dead were never to rise again?" But then he goes onto to defend the doctrine of the resurrection by saying about 10-12 verses later, that "Indeed Christ did rise again and because he lives we too can live. The resurrection is real and it is a gift offered to all of us." That is why the ancient christian church baptized for the dead. The Church of Jesus Christ of Lattter day saints, or Mormons as they are also known, follow this same practice today. Your argument that baptism is not enough is true, but it is still essential to salvation. The Savior taught that in John 3:5. Calling baptisms for the dead something "condemned by God" as you put it is blaspheme. Who is man to condemn the things of God? Wouldn't God want all men to be baptized and come unto him.
    You quoted Ephesians saying "Only grace through Faith in Christ Jesus are you saved and that not of yourselves it is a gift from God not of works lest any man should boast." You misinterpret this scripture. What Paul is saying is that "no man can be saved by his own works. We all need Christ." But please notice in the scripture you quoted that it says "Only grace THROUGH FAITH in Christ Jesus" can we be saved. The Bible teaches that "faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without the works and I will shew thee my faith by my works." James 2:17-18
    Baptism is a work of Faith! Those who have faith in Christ will accept baptism as an act of faith and will then do service and good works to their fellow men as acts of faith thus enabling Christ's GRACE to reach them and to save them. That is true doctrine. I am grateful to all who give of their time and service to bring souls unto Christ. Baptisms for dead seems to me as another way that those who have passed on can be brought to Christ through the gate of baptism if they did not do so while living.

    March 1, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
  6. Kaare Bye

    Why are you attacking the Members of "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? http://www.lds.org
    I have heard the same story since 1954, butso far we have nut found that record, and what member submudet it

    I think some Christian do into others have lost it??

    February 29, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
  7. Timothy

    It is as if MORMONS just went out and spray painted SWASTIKAS on the graves of the Jewish Holocaust Victims.

    It is just as disgusting and desecrating.

    NoMormonInWhiteHouse

    February 28, 2012 at 6:43 pm |
  8. GeorgeBos95

    Wait ... do you feel that? I think I was just baptised pre-posthumously by the LDS whack-jobs.

    And it feels ... completely ... LIBERATING!!!!!

    I return the favor by adding the LDS whackos to the guest list for servicing Satan. Feel it getting warmer yet?

    February 28, 2012 at 4:28 pm |
  9. Bill Fitzgerald

    So Melvins lizard, Are you saying that if a person lives in lets say China and is not allowed to get baptized or even know about the Savior then he or she is condemned forever for not even knowing the truth and will never get to hear it??? CRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAZY! You believe in a Heartless god!

    February 27, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
  10. NorEaster TC 6

    Dear Rickjana and DG,

    You both misinterpret 1 Cor.15: 29, The Apostle Paul is not here speaking of baptizing living believers in place of either believers or unbelievers who have died. There is no assignment of saving efficacy to baptism. The argument is: Of what value is it for one to trust Christ and be baptized in the ranks left vacant by the believing dead, if there is no resurrection for the believers.

    Baptism is required for practical purposes (of recognizing the unity of the holy trinity "Elohim " in Hebrew, three person yet one God) in fulfilling the great commission Matt 28:19 however baptism does not save the sinner.

    Baptism by proxy of the dead is not biblical; No member of any christian church or christian cults regardless of their church rankings can change the apostles doctrine If it is done or practice, it is labeled an HERESY by the apostles and condemn by God.

    Only grace through Faith in Christ Jesus Ephesians 2:8,9 are you saved and that not of yourselves it is a gift from God .
    not of works lest any man should boast.

    Have this clear understanding the Mormons Latter Day Saints and their beliefs are another gospel which the apostle Paul identify it as a false doctrine. The Mormons & their belief system about God and Christ, baptisms, ascension into heaven just to name a few are totally bizarre.

    If u are a bible teacher or a serious bible student who truly studies the bible to show himself approved unto God 2 Tim 2:15
    will spot these false teachings from christian impostors like the Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, Seven day Adventist, etc

    The Reverend

    February 25, 2012 at 6:52 am |
    • Kaare Bye

      Why attack Jesus Christs doctrine as revealed in the last days.
      As a Jew my self I have no reason to argue this doctrine.

      February 29, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
    • mllama32

      Dear Reverend,
      Just FYI, Elohim in Hebrew means God or Gods, but not Trinity. Just thought you should know, sorry if I misunderstood you, but that's how it read to me.

      March 1, 2012 at 11:56 pm |
    • mllama32

      Oh, and how does your belief of grace only being needed (no works) work with James 2: 17? (Faith without works is dead being alone....). I would love to hear your thoughts.

      March 2, 2012 at 12:00 am |
    • Quigly87

      I love how everyone rushes to tell how they see things and then justifies it with some scripture from the bible. Let the believe what they want. As for the rest of you that have all of your biblical "evidence", get real. What makes you an expert on the word of God? Do you talk to him? Do you have him explain what he really meant to say to you? Unless you can at least claim that you talk to God then your arguments are pretty much worthless.

      March 6, 2012 at 11:40 pm |
    • Shelstin

      What gives anyone the right to tell how someone else should worship, or even if they should? These arguments are why I have become agnostic. I support the Mormons in this. It is much less hypocritical than believing, as the Catholics do, that only they can be saved. The Mormon faith seems to be much more tolerant than others in that regard. I was raised in the Baptist church, and it is much too conservative for me. It's nice to know if my soul is lingering in Purgatory, so to speak, that I will have an option after I die. I will give the Mormon's a thumbs up for that!

      March 9, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  11. Rob

    a member of one religion says a prayer for, performs a ceremony for, whatever for the blessing/ help/ salvation of another person and people become outraged, take offense, throw a fit... what is the big deal? Note to anyone of any religion; feel free to pray for, have a ceremony for, have a blessing for the salvation of any of my ancestors family me etc. I promise not to be offended

    February 24, 2012 at 7:14 pm |
    • Norma

      Thank you Rob:)

      February 27, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
  12. hybarney

    Your ancestors are not just baptized and confirmed as members of the mormon faith. Also necessary for salvation are initiatory and endowment ordinances. All names submitted to the temple are baptised, confirmed, recieve initiatory and endowment, and are then "sealed" to family over an altar. The temples frequently run out of names and "recycle", so temple work is frequently done many times per dead person.

    Initiatory involves washing and anointing, partially clothed (the proxy, of course), in preparation for becoming a king and priest, or queen and priestess unto the most high god, hereafter to rule and reign in the house of Israel forever. The proxy then recieves their new name, sacred and holy, never to be repeated outside of the temple. I feel safe revealing mine, as I am an exmormon. My temple name was Ruth, as were all other ladies in the temple that day. When I returned to do the work on behalf of dead people, they recieved names like Naomi, Eliza, Abish, Esther, Lucy, and Martha.

    The endowment involves watching a film, (or live action in select temples), which details the mormon view of the creation. A series of special handshakes and passwords are learned to ensure access to heaven. Mormons are strongly cautioned to keep these ceremonies secret, though they prefer the term sacred. Penalties, spiritual and physical, are threatened if confidentiality is breached. As I've left the church, I feel safe! Details of these ceremonies can be found with a simple google search.

    February 23, 2012 at 12:22 am |
    • Judas Priest

      You own your own soul. It cannot be taken from you, it can only be given. No matter what they tell you.

      February 24, 2012 at 6:43 pm |
    • Judas Priest

      Which i meant by way of congratulations. Sorry, left that off.

      February 24, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
  13. Jimbo

    Is there a way to find out if a family member has been baptized posthumously?

    February 22, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
    • Bridgette

      you can look on new.familysearch.org

      February 22, 2012 at 7:01 pm |
  14. Brian

    The woman in the video has admitted that she has used the church records by sneaking into church members user accounts. Who's to say that she isn't entering "Mickey Mouse" or other controversial names and then accusing the church of wrong doing? The whole thing smells like a set up. And the bottom line is, the church has put in place every effort to stop the practice. They cannot control the actions of members who disobey the rules, nor can they protect against those who use the system to make the church look bad.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
    • King Kong Kolob

      I am Mickey Mouse, come live on my planet and have all the whacky tobacky and fizzy lifting drinks that you and you're wives can handle.

      February 21, 2012 at 12:33 am |
  15. Lone Gunman

    Go to http://www.donotbaptize.com if you want exempted from the Mormon baptisms.

    February 20, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
  16. Acroyear

    This whole thing just smacks to me of incredible arrogance. "Nobody can really know the almighty without us to baptize them first. All knowing, all powerful, all seeing... but without John in Utah he just can't seem to get his message out. I think what god really needs is a good radio repair man. It's just another way for one group of human's to elevate themselves. "Look, god needs me, a very special person, to get his message to you!" Pathetic. Look...if there is a god, I'm pretty sure something as incredibly powerful as it would have to have been to make the entire universe could talk to someone without the need of Mike from Canmore. Oi...

    February 20, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
  17. DM

    This should all be really simple, and full disclosure up front – I am a convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
    But no matter where you stand, there's only two possibilities:
    1) Our Doctrine is true and we are doing a great service for the deceased that they cannot do for themselves.
    2) Our Doctrine is false and we are accomplishing nothing besides shouting out someone's name as someone else gets dunked in the water in the temple basement, and drawing a check on a piece of paper with the shouted-out name, harming absolutely no one and making no difference in the world.
    Having spent most of my life not as a member of the Church in family almost entirely made up of non-members, I still cannot wrap my head around how this is an issue worth spending any time on. My guess is a lot of this comes from the same crew who like to park outside Temple Square when it's time for Conference and tell me how obeying the commandments and trying to serve others will send me to Hell.

    February 20, 2012 at 11:30 am |
    • Sherri

      Very well said !!! Thank you for putting in perseptive!

      February 29, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
    • K

      The fact that people are being baptized with out their knowledge or consent by as you put it people being immersed in a church basement and recieving checks for it is what I have a problem with. I understand that it is being done with good intentions but as Theodore Bikel said "I do not know who there is among us that can claim to know God's purpose and God's intent." it should not be done with the rationalization that its God's intent or will. I feel the Mormon faith has an obligation to notify family members of the dead that their loved one has been put forward for proxy baptism or any other rite sheerly out of respect.

      I have nothing against the Mormon faith I would be a hypercritical Christian if I had any prejudice against any faith, religion etc. I feel that I was given a Christian Baptism and chose to be confirmed in my faith when I was of age and try to live my life as a good Christian abiding by the golden rules and taking into account that if I live my life the best I can, and when its my time to go that its ultimately God's judgement as to what happens to me when my physical body is no more. No one can say if you do or don't do this you won't be allowed in heaven its not our call to make. All we can do is be the best people we can be while on this earth and trust in God and his plan what ever it may be.

      March 4, 2012 at 9:31 am |
  18. Reality

    Since there never were an Adam and Eve, Garden of Paradise or talking serpent, there never was any original sin i.e. baptism is a silly supersti-tion.

    ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

    February 19, 2012 at 11:58 pm |
    • Peaceful

      Keep in mind that Mormons do not accept the concept of original sin. Their article of faith states that [they] believe all mankind will be punished for their own sins and not for Adam's transgression. While they agree that baptism serves to wash away sin of that same individual who is being baptized, irrespective of that, it also stands alone as a commandment that needs to be followed in order to inherit eternal life. John 3:5 "Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." Baptism, by mormons, is often referred to as a gate that must be passed through symbolic of the death and ressurrection of the Savior. So to do mortals lay down their old life by being buried/immersed in water and rise again perfected through the atonement of Christ. Although Mormon's don't often use the term "Born Again" in reference to Baptism....It is exactly what it is- being "Born Again" a new life committed to following the Savior Jesus Christ by following his example, and keeping his commandments.

      February 21, 2012 at 10:35 am |
  19. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    February 19, 2012 at 8:02 pm |
    • Chuck

      But religion is downright deadly for them.

      March 9, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
  20. Batter Up

    Baptism of the dead is "a practice that ancient Christians practiced and that the LDS Church has reintroduced"? Really?!?!? PROVE IT.

    February 19, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
    • Baptism is for the Living

      It can't be proved. There are no records of it either in the Apostolic Church nor in the Roman Catacombs.

      February 19, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
    • R2D2

      The Catholic Church Fathers make no mention of it either.

      February 19, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
    • rickjana

      The article already answered that for you– 1 Corinthians 15:29. It was being practiced, and Paul was defending the practice.

      February 19, 2012 at 9:07 pm |
    • DG

      Did you read the reference quoted in the article? 1 Cor. 15:29 clearly indicates that the Apostle Paul while teaching the doctrine of the resurrection referenced a practice in the church knows ans baptism for the dead.

      February 22, 2012 at 2:20 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.