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. longtooth

    I can't trust the judgement of anyone who totally embraces the teachings of their religion, whatever religion it may be. I left catholicism at the age of fourteen, and never looked back. If we were taught to worship the moon, what difference would it make?

    February 17, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
  2. FrankJBones

    How do they handle zombies that want to convert?

    February 17, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
  3. Truthship

    Maybe Mormons need to re-baptize themselves and their own dead?
    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’

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

      Truthship – I don't think any church has a perfect history on diversity – I think the Mormon Church is the most racially integrated church in America. If you don't believe me, visit one in a ethinically diverse area. There are black Bishops, Stake Presidents, and General Authorities. Gladys Knight is Mormon. Visit Mormon.org and search for black members.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
  4. Beth

    I grew up in Utah as a "gentile" – the Mormon word for non-Mormon. I remember my friends in junior high school getting the day off school to go to the Temple to get baptized for the dead. I always thought it was really strange.....and yes, it was strange to me that they got the temple garments (the sacred underwear) when they went on missions or got married. But they're nice people and it's not hurting anyone. If you believe, like me, that baptizing the dead is nonsense then don't worry about it. It's not going to change anything... "Sealing" is also done after people die so that they can be married forever. Brigham Young has had thousands of women sealed to him after he died. That's another weird one. I'll never forget one of the librarians at the genealogical library in Salt Lake City comforting someone who had just discovered that someone had "sealed" the wrong woman to the wrong man – "don't worry, I'm sure Heavenly Father will sort it out correctly."

    February 17, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
  5. Jesucrisco

    Mormonism is a crazy cult. Read about their history and what they believe.

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

      Every religion is a crazy cult. It's for cowards afraid of the real world.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
  6. Joe B

    If Mormons want to say the name of my dead grandmother and jump in a bathtub it wouldn't bother me. There are worse things they could be doing in their spare time I guess, better things also.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
  7. Mike.

    Why do mormons baptise the dead?

    Arrogance and pride.

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

      Actually, it stems from a desire to have everyone who ever lived be given the opportunity to enter God's kingdom. Christ said that "except a man be born of water and of the spirit, he can not enter into the kingdom of God." (John 3:5)

      February 17, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
    • W247

      DAVE – in reference to John 3:5 "except a man be born of water and the spirit, he can not enter into the kingdom of God." (John 3:5) I believe John was using water as a way of being immersed in the spirit. The same way that it was used in Ephesians 5:25-26 25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing[a] her by the washing with water through the word,

      In Ephesians, water is used to symbolize immersing oneself in the word – or husbands immersin their wives – in the word. It doesn't literally mean that husbands should hose down their wives prior to reading the word to them.

      February 17, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
  8. bunniebzr

    I take issue with the statement in the article that Evangelical Christians say that you can only attain salvation if you confess according to their tradition. Confession and baptisim is NOT a evangelical tradition. It comes directly from the Bible when John the Baptist was baptizing the people in the river after they confessed their sins. Then he baptisized Jesus. It was a command stated by Jesus himself to " go out and make desciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. It is not a tradition made up later on by men but a command by Jesus Christ.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
  9. rationalt92

    Mass baptismal fraud, when heaven finds out that their border is so easy to get across, I expect a wall will be built leaving all Mormons out..... Religion is insanity perfected to normality...

    February 17, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
    • JJ Jukebox

      wow! I like that last line you wrote, religion is insanity reduced to normality. so true.....

      February 17, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
  10. Anna

    I understand that women cannot accend to Heaven without being "invited" by a man. Example: a man must extend his hand and invite his wife (wives) to join him in Heaven. Also, Mormons also believe that there are different levels of Heaven depending on church leadership, contributions, etc., hence the drive for money and power within their communities.

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

      Not true. A man cannot receive the highest Celestial glory without the woman either. They need each other. Also, just because someone is not married in this life, does not mean they will be alone forever. Some things will be worked out after Judgment.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
    • GyspyJoe

      wow not being a Mormon i do know more than a bunch of you clowns do, heck if you want to get some side of a story go to the source, if you want to know about the Baptist, go to http://www.southernbaptist.com if yopu want to know about the mormons go to http://www.lds.org or smethink like that people are funny they hear things and by the time they tell Sam and it gets to ellen it is so different just like the press put anything out there and people will believe it

      February 17, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
    • jack

      Not correct. Neither is the man without the woman, nor the woman without the man, in the Lord. Mormons believe eternal life is not exclusively an individual experience – but attained and experienced together in the most fundamental familiy unit – a husband and wife, married to one another, who need one another to attain and experience heaven. The woman and the man walk in together hand in hand as equal partners. I wouldn't want heaven any other way than with my dear wife with me and me with her – just as we were side by side when we were married, when our children were born, when our house burned down, and through many other experiences that have made us strong.

      I second the comment that if baptism for the dead is ineffective, then it is just a misguided but compassionate act of service that does no harm, and actually has played a role in the massive collection of geneologic materials around the world that everyone benefits from. If it is effective, then won't we all be glad! Either way, Mormons are some of my favorite people. So are Baptists. So are Catholics. So are Jews. So are Muslims. And so are people of any or of no faith but who are people of good will. There's enough space out there for us to give each other respect and deference and room to worship or not as we each see fit.


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

      Amen Jack.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
    • Dave

      Anna – I am not sure where you are getting your information – but you have been listening to someone with a serious axe to grind. I would check out Mormon.org or LDS.org to get better information. Regarding levels of heaven.. Christ himself said that "in my father's house are many mansions" (John 14:2) and the Apostle Paul talked about seeing a wonderful vision of the "third heaven" (2 Corinthians 12:2). Check it out.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • W247

      DAve- you need to take into context the cultural view of the world at the time. In Paul's reference to a "third heaven" he was talking about the spiritual world where the Lord resides, not a seperate level or tier IN heaven. Paul was refering to the spiritual vision he had at the time but was being humble and modest about it by refering to himself as a third person " I knew a man...."

      February 17, 2012 at 6:04 pm |
  11. Ski one

    I am not a Mormon but I don't really have a problem with this. The idea is they art not excluding alone from everlasting life. Nobody knows what happens when you die, I mean what if they are right? It's a traditional based in the spirit of generosity.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
  12. Jerry

    In the times before Jesus Christ, the only true Son of God, people were justified because of their faith in God. See the Bible, and read Hebrews chapter 11. After the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, salvation is through the belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God. For those who never ever heard of Jesus, and never ever had the chance their justification is by faith in God.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
    • Justin

      Correct, we are to believe in Jesus Christ and keep his commandments as a result. He gave the requirements and all churches have their own take on what he said and what he meant in this instance or that. The basics of the gospel are universal in most churches...it is the small differences which set us apart. I never understood those that would talk down another who believes in Christ, just in a slightly different way than I do. That being said, I like to discuss differences and see if there is something to gain from another's perspective and if they wish, to receive some of my perspective as well. We should be able to do that without labeling one another in a negative way.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
  13. Joe B

    Obama would crush Romney 58-35

    February 17, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
    • Dave

      Says you.

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

      He might, though your numbers leave a question. The only good news is if President Obama is elected again. We only have to suffer 4 more years. We can hang on for that long if we have too.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
  14. TooDark

    Obnoxious claptrap. It shows, not only the overall willful ignorance of religion, but it clearly displays the lack of regard for others it so staunchly claims as a tenet. Nevermind what the wishes and beliefs of the deceased were, which in reality only affects their decendents...the people who still exist in some form from which to object.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
  15. Gertrude

    The scripture that they are referencing is completely misunderstood by the Mormons. When you read the context and see that Paul was speaking on the subject of those who don't believe in the resurrection, but believed in baptism as Christians, you realize that he was saying that what is the point of baptism if you are only going to end up dead. Why be baptized if only to die? That is what he was saying.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
    • whatever

      wrong interpretation. you're an idiot

      February 17, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
  16. Aerosol

    How much information do you need on someone to do a proxy baptism? Is a name enough? I think people could start doing this at home like my Grandmother did for me in the kitchen sink.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
  17. Paul A.

    “Historically, Christians have been exclusive.... 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.”

    OK, this sounds fair enough. However, when you keep reading:

    " 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.’ "

    In other words, salvation is NOT really "open to all people"; it's only open to people who accept Jesus (even if after their dead). The assertion that "Mormonism is the most nonexclusive religion in the Christian world" is just an outright lie; they simply postpone the requirement that you're a Christian until after you die.

    It's just meaningless rhetorical bulldinky!

    February 17, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
    • Jerry

      The dead are dead. You can't proxy their salvation. Justify their past life and behaviors and sin by man's standard. Sins were paid for by Jesus Christ. That is why Mormonism is almost an occult.

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

      A baptism while alive does not guarantee salvation either, so baptisms for the dead is simply meeting the requirement that Jesus stated when he said that we all must be born of the water and of the spirit to enter Heaven. It is up to the individual to do the rest. Baptism is a requirement...and would a just God not provide another way for people to receive a chance to dwell with him simply because they didn't live amongst someone with the authority to perform it? It is a sweet/pure experience to be proxy for someone...whether they accept it or not. So how does following Jesus make a church like an occult? A church who hates the sin but loves the sinner...doesn't sound like a cult to me.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
  18. Zak

    In Dante's Inferno he describes a place in hell that was filled with good people. Moses, Saladin, Abraham, Virgil, were some of the people there. When asked why they had to spend an eternity in hell ,Virgil told Dante that these people never accepted Jesus Christ (even though they would have if they had the opportunity). To this day many Christians actually still believe that. I think the Mormon position sounds a lot more reasonable.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
  19. dpowell

    If Mormons are right, then baptism of the dead is a gift to the spirits of the dearly departed. If they are wrong, why would it matter to Jews, or anybody else, if Mormons perform what might be seen as a weird, ineffective practice. At the very worst, no one is harmed. At best, dead folks have a shot at salvation. Who could reasonably be against that and why? Maybe the spirits of Holocaust victims are in spirit prison crying "No! Stay out of this!." Who knows? Who's harmed?

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

      Amusing spin on Pascal's wager, there.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
  20. Pat

    I'm sure it has someting to do with tax-exemptions.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:02 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.