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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. Tex71

    Mormons baptizing the dead is like a university conferring honorary doctorates posthumously. "Degree holders from University of Tex71 include George Washington, Isaac Newton, and Jesus Christ." Gives you a very tenuous air of grandeur. Only I don't get why they would baptize Hitler and Stalin.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
  2. jeff szabo

    This 'baptizing the dead' is just blatantfalse teachng. Jesus said, "He that believes and is baptized shall be saved; that that believes not shall be damned." The book of acts is a book of the acts of the Apostles. Every person was baptized after they believed! Take note those who sprinkle babies too: It was a believer and the Greek word for baptism meant immersion! That is why John baptized Jesus where there was 'much water' and Philip, in the Book of Acts, went out into the water to baptize the Eunich. The Mormons don't like the Bible; mock it in their own writings re people are fools to think there is one book, the bible! Their books contradicts the complete word of God, besides adding to it! They believe that they are equal to God; and will inherit a planet, after the judgement; just like their Gods have; to make star-children for eternity! To believe in Jesus is to reject anything and everything else, besides the bible. Jesus said, if you love me, KEEP MY COMMANDMENTS! Mormons are as much of a Christian as is a Mulim or Jew. They both 'believe' in a Jesus, but do not follow Him at all! Do not be deceived, God is not Mocked! Jesus said, in Matthew,that many will sayto Him, on thatgreat & terrible day, that they believed in Him, sacraficed for Him and did 'many wonderful things; and he will say HE NEVER KNEW THEM, THOSE THAT WORK INIQUITY (outside the Law). How did He 'never know them'? If they were Christians, and fell-away, he could not say that! he said it that way because they were NEVER true Christians; only believing they were! He will be saying that to al those false churches where you can't find all their teaching in the bible nor can you find 'their' churches. As denominationalism has taught us, if you don't love the bible and its teaching, just go out and start your own church and write your own 'bible!' May God continue to point us to His true word!

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

      There is so much hatred and anger in your tone, you are doing a huge disservice to your fellow Christians (assuming you are a Christian).

      February 17, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
    • denver2

      Does it blow your mind to know that A) other people disagree with your interpretation of biblical scripture and that B) neither of you can ever be objectively right?

      February 17, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
  3. denver2

    I still can't understand why anyone is upset by this. All religions compel their adherents to believe and do strange, irrational things. This is just one more strange, irrational thing.

    Mormons have found a way to ring your doorbell in the afterlife. As silly as that sounds, it's no worse than ringing your doorbell while you're still alive.

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

      Nicely put.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
    • Joe B

      Good comment, that is a great way to understand what they are doing.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
  4. Ben James

    Note to all Mormons: When I'm dead leave me alone!!!

    February 17, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
    • MusicisthePassion

      Great answer! The "missions" should cease when people die. Don't keep after them!

      February 17, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
    • blaqb0x

      Join this group if you don't want to be baptized after your dead...
      http://www.facebook.com/groups/dontbaptizememormons/

      February 17, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • **

      blaqb0x,

      Here's a site to learn the correct usage of "your" and "you're":

      http://www.elearnenglishlanguage.com/difficulties/youryoure.html

      February 17, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
  5. lol@lol.com

    Mormonisn, jehovahs witnesses, and scientology are among the most retarded of the religions, even though all religion is retarded.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
  6. Amber

    I have to admit, this sounds like a beautiful doctrine. It is nice to see something inclusive in organized religion, for once.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
    • Mikey

      Inclusive??? Thanks but if I wanted to be a Mormon I would join the LDS Church while I was alive. I can't stand proselytizing at the best of times but after someone is dead is really very disturbing.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
    • penquin

      You cannot even go into their temple unless you are a Mormon. They are one of the most closed off religions.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
  7. Come out of babylon

    XAV – "Christ himself 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. " HUH? If Christ is our example, there is certainly no scriptural evidence that shows we must baptize for the dead...for Christ would have said so. OOPS! I forgot, your teaching/beliefs comes from Mr Joseph Smith(Book of Mormon).

    February 17, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
    • RPM7

      If you read the article a little closer you will see that the scriptural reference used comes from the Bible's New Testament, where Paul having a discussion regarding the resurrection, asks why would followers of Christ at his time perform baptisms for dead if there were to be no resurrection. Joseph Smith simply was following what an Apostle of Jesus Christ taught.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
  8. MusicisthePassion

    Just another way the Mormons can preach to the world even after people die. If they can't convert you, by God then they will surely see to it that they have the last word on your soul. Kind of creepy, and ritualistic if you ask me. Why do they need to push their religion on everybody? Alive or dead. Religion in itself is fine, just so long as people do their own thing!

    February 17, 2012 at 11:59 am |
    • Truthship

      They do it for love. Love of arrogance.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
    • MusicisthePassion

      They love the money is what the Mormon church loves! After reading this article this morning, I am convinced now that you all are a bunch of crazies! I once gave you the benefit of the doubt, but now this just seals the deal. Why don't you go baptize Joseph Smith again!

      February 17, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
    • RPM7

      Through proxy baptism the LDS church is not forcing anyone into their religion. The church believes that all should have an opportunity to accept or reject Jesus Christ as their savior. Baptism is a prerequisit to salvation, as per the LDS belief, the work is done on behalf of those departed without knowing whether they will or will not accept on the other side. Members of the LDS church are only to do the work for their ancestors. The church assist its members and non LDS in their genealogical work by providing names they have collected form multiple resources around the world, via various data bases.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
    • Know What

      LDS genealogical data is incorrect many times, including my family.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
  9. Casual

    This type of article, once read....just seals my opinion on God and religion.....I gotta go with Bill Maher and use his quote:
    "Religion is for retards"

    And it is one thing to believe in 'God', but throw the religion of that said religion in on it, and watch people tear eachother apart!
    They all believe in 'him' but, once you get to nitty gritty of exactly what they, say, interperate the Bible, and the talk starts to get louder all of sudden. Oh to be holy.....so loving...until we compare eachother's beliefs.

    February 17, 2012 at 11:59 am |
    • Amber

      I think it is actually very ignorant and disrespectful to toss around the work "retard" or "retarded."

      February 17, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
    • Amber

      I think it is actually very ignorant and disrespectful to toss around the word "retard" or "retarded."

      February 17, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
    • Bill C

      Ah, another enlightened comment from the tolerant. If we don't agree with you, we must be "retards." Nice term. Why don't you just use the N word?

      February 17, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
  10. BL

    It's ALL complete and utter, 100%, fairy tale, BS, mythological nonsense.

    February 17, 2012 at 11:58 am |
    • RPM7

      Please provide proof that all is false. i would certainly be interested to see what you have.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
  11. Lacking Evidence since 14 Billion BCE

    I love the irony of all the other types of christians thinking what the mormons believe is wacky but their belief is not.

    February 17, 2012 at 11:58 am |
  12. CommonSense

    Why do Mormon's baptize the dead? What difference does it make? It's childish to think that one can control the existence or future of others by reciting incantations.
    Any of you may also baptize your dead pets, last year's tomato plants and anything else you want. Just invent a poem, and recite some words and pretend that you speak to people who have died.
    To be offended by their practice is even funnier than the Mormon act itself. It means nothing! Oh, silly humans.

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

      Common sense should tell you there are too many m"s in Mormon! Guess which m should be removed?

      February 17, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
    • RPM7

      The LDS church is not interested in controlling anyone, only providing a way to salvation, as per their beliefs, to all that are willing to accept it. That is quite the opposite of controlling.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
  13. Unbelievable

    Mormons don't "baptize the dead." They baptize living people on behalf of the dead. Too bad CNN is so inept that it can't get it's headline's straight. Or was the headline intended to cast the Mormons in a bad light...

    Anyway, all you Christians here who want to bash on Mormons, why don't you take a good long look at your own religion, which worships a man who was sacrificed on a cross for BILLIONS of dead people. All Mormons do is put a living person under the water and bring him up again, no worse for wear.

    February 17, 2012 at 11:58 am |
    • Lacking Evidence since 14 Billion BCE

      Baptizing the dead, baptizing the living, either way it's stupid.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
    • Unbelievable

      Too bad I'm so inept that I can't spell correctly. DOH!

      February 17, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
    • Unbelievable

      That it is stupid or not is irrelevant. That CNN publishes false information... that should matter to people.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
    • jeff szabo

      That makes sense! Baptizing someone alive for someone who is dead that didn't believe? What did Jesus say about that? Oh, i forgot, Joseph Smith is equal to Jesus, right?

      February 17, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
  14. James

    I find it amusing reading the comments just how many "Anti-Mormon's" attack all things Mormon. These so-called Bible touting Christian anti-Mormons are anything but Christian .. They represent nothing more than the mindset of those who burn Korans for publicity..

    Baptism for the dead is Biblical, in that it's mentioned in the Bible but not explained, leaving the belief in or against such to be all in eyes of the beholder. For Mormons, the practice is a matter of faith. I believe it's more for the living than the dead. .The practice gives the living an activity to manifest their faith with. It harms no one, and if you don't believe in the faith, it means nothing. So why all the fuss? Unless some here are afraid it actually does mean something, which would mean they believe the LDS faith may in fact have substantial merit.

    February 17, 2012 at 11:56 am |
    • Bible thumper

      They do it because the dead can't get up and run out of there. Bunch of nut balls all of you.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
    • MusicisthePassion

      I would not want anyone saying my name in a ceremony after I was dead, except maybe just the the term R.I.P. ! Where's the privacy here? Are you saying any Mormon can look up anybody in the world even if they know them or not, and proceed to use their name in their own baptism ceremony? That's just wrong!

      February 17, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
  15. jj

    Just when you think you can't hear anything more stupid than the things you've already heard....BAM!

    February 17, 2012 at 11:56 am |
    • Lacking Evidence since 14 Billion BCE

      don't forget the magic underwear.

      February 17, 2012 at 11:59 am |
  16. ironic

    Why does CNN want Obama to win the election so bad?

    Can we not believe what want??? Can I not be mormon?

    February 17, 2012 at 11:54 am |
    • bob johnson

      Ironic: yes you can its one of your freedoms, but then I am just as free to make fun of your silly beliefs

      February 17, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
    • Blessings

      The Catholic Church taught that only Catholics would be saved...
      Ture, but that has changed. It seems the Church grew up. The Catholic Church teaches that everyone who has a heartfelt religious belief and practices whatever belief it is, accepts Jesus Christ in their own way.
      The author bundles Mormanism with Christians and that doesn't work. Mormons are not Christians.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
  17. Julie

    "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. "

    So basically they get to the pearly gates and there's a guy there wearing a white button down shirt and a tie that hands you a pamphlet? Bwahahaha. That's awesome. People will believe anything.

    February 17, 2012 at 11:54 am |
    • CEC

      You forgot the magic underwear.

      February 17, 2012 at 11:59 am |
    • W247

      so I can live like a complete fool on earth then ask my kids to baptize me after I die, and all will be good with the Lord?

      Sweet!!

      February 17, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
  18. Sandor Israel

    if you want to do something worthwhile for all those who died in the Holocaust..Recite the following:

    May the great Name of God be exalted and sanctified, throughout the world, which he has created according to his will. May his Kingship be established in your lifetime and in your days, and in the lifetime of the entire household of Israel, swiftly and in the near future; and say, Amen.
    May his great name be blessed, forever and ever.
    Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled, honored elevated and lauded be the Name of the holy one, Blessed is he- above and beyond any blessings and hymns, Praises and consolations which are uttered in the world; and say Amen. May there be abundant peace from Heaven, and life, upon us and upon all Israel; and say, Amen.

    He who makes peace in his high holy places, may he bring peace upon us, and upon all Israel; and say Amen.

    KADDISH TRANSLITERATION

    Yis'ga'dal v'yis'kadash sh'may ra'bbo, b'olmo dee'vro chir'usay v'yamlich malchu'say, b'chayaychon uv'yomay'chon uv'chayay d'chol bais Yisroel, ba'agolo u'viz'man koriv; v'imru Omein.
    Y'hay shmay rabbo m'vorach l'olam ul'olmay olmayo.
    Yisborach v'yishtabach v'yispoar v'yisromam v'yismasay, v'yishador v'yis'aleh v'yisalal, shmay d'kudsho, brich hu, l'aylo min kl birchoso v'sheeroso, tush'bechoso v'nechemoso, da,ameeran b'olmo; vimru Omein.
    Y'hay shlomo rabbo min sh'mayo, v'chayim alaynu v'al kol Yisroel; v'imru Omein.
    Oseh sholom bimromov, hu ya'aseh sholom olaynu, v'al kol yisroel; vimru Omein.

    February 17, 2012 at 11:54 am |
    • Troy

      Tried it. No effect. You might be as wrong as the rest of them!

      February 17, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
  19. Matt

    Reason #1234012398401928340192834081234 you should not trust CNN reporting on religion...The author of this article seems ignorant of the fact that Paul wrote TWO letters to the Corinthians.

    February 17, 2012 at 11:54 am |
    • jj

      Ahhh, brings back memories of the Corinthian Leather that Ricardo Montalban used to talk about.

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

      actually he wrote 3, we only have 2. (if you read 1 Cor., Paul talks about an "earlier" letter he wrote). :O

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

      Bible people are retards

      February 17, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
  20. Steve

    "How do people who lived before Jesus walked the earth – receive salvation?" The same way we in the N.T. era do, by confessing our sins and putting our faith in Him. Jesus said "Abraham saw my day and rejoiced at it". There's no record that he was every baptized yet he is called the "father of the faithfull".

    February 17, 2012 at 11:54 am |
    • Dane

      There's also no record that Abraham bathed on a regular basis or slept at night, but we can assume that he did it. The Bible is not a record of every thing that ever happened to those who are mentioned in it. It is material that has been edited by humans, then edited again, then edited again, then translated dozens of times. If the Bible is the beginning and the end of all truth, then it's no wonder that we're in so much trouble.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:53 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.