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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. Vanka

    Mormons preach that "you must not procrastinate the day of your repentance"..."this life is the time to prepare to meet God...for that same spirit which doth possess your bodies at the time that he go out of this life ...will have power to possess your body in that eternal world" (Alma 34: 32-34). Mormons teach that human life was "prolonged...that they might repent while in the flesh" (2 Nephi 2:21).

    In other words, the dead cannot Repent in the "night of darkness" called death (see John 9:4).

    Changing your mind and heart toward God in such a way as to "accept" a proxy Mormon baptism certainly counts as "repenting".

    Even the great Mormon "scholar", Hugh Nibley cited ancient texts and Mormon scripture to support this idea that "the dead cannot repent".

    In short, Mormons baptize for the dead, who are incapable of "accepting" those worthless baptisms anyway!

    So, to paraphrase Paul's query to the Corinthian believers:

    "Else what shall the Mormons do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead cannot repent? Why are they then baptized for the dead?"

    February 17, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
  2. Su Lynn

    Oh ya, I want a Mormon president!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Not. How dare they profane my right to religious freedom? That's just plain evil.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
  3. Brad

    Simply stated, Mormons and anyone else who put over emphasis on the act of baptism, dont understand that the act of baptism DOES NOT SAVE YOU!! ONLYTURNING FROM YOUR SIN AND TRUSTING JESUS CHRIST, THE LAMB OF GOD, THE SON OF GOD AND HIS DEATH, BURIAL , AND RESURECTION FOR THE FORGIVENESS OF YOUR SINS SAVES YOU FROM THE WRATH OF GOD BECAUSE OF YOUR SIN. BAPTISM IS JUST LIKE A WEDDING RING, ITS A SYMBOL, A PROCLAMATION, BUT IF YOU ARE MARRIED AND YOU DONT WEAR A RING, ARE YOU STILL MARRIED? OF COURSE!! THATS HOW BAPTISM SHOULD BE UNDERSTOOD.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
    • jeff szabo

      There are commands to be baptized as well as commands to believe, repent and confess; how can you say you believe i Jesus and then ignore His commands to be baptized? You obey all the commands. you may, incorrectly say, that John 3:16 doesn't mention baptism; however, it does not mention specifically repentance or confession either. Is that not necessary then? The verse of john 3:16 makes it apparent that the 'belief' mentioned is and all encompassing faith, believing all that Jesus commanded. One verse does not cancel out another verse. if it did it would not be God's word.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
  4. No Polygs fo prez thx

    Statistics in Utah still reflect a depressive, judgmental, suppressive, negative social atmosphere of control. The prevalence of poor mental health: 41.4% 1st of 50 states, Birthrate per 1,000: 21.2 1st of 50, Physical exercise: 83.1% 2nd of 52 (US Census 2004-2009). Therefore, the poor mental health (highly-prevalent depression) does not stem from a lack of exercise, smoking or drinking as required by the LDS Church Word of Wisdom dictates.The church leaders do stress to get married early and to have lots of children. Seminary classes teach that Missionaries have to get married within six months of coming home from their mission and to get married and have children while still in college. Women are taught that their importance comes only through having a husband who holds the priesthood (which they have erroneously been denied) and having lots of children and not from obtaining their education as their career should "be solely in the home".

    February 17, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
  5. Fairplay

    I look forward to the same level of scrutiny being given to Obama's religion.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
    • Su Lynn

      How many dead people do you think he baptized?

      February 17, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
    • J Mann

      Guess the birth certificate wasn't enough for the whack-a-doodles. Seriously, President Obama says he came to his faith later in life because he saw in Jesus a living example of principles he could try to live by. I respect that way more than you snake handlers who cry out that if you don't believe in just the right way, you go to hell. He takes his children to church every week, loves his family, is faithful to his wife. He does not pray to Allah or practice Satanic rituals in the wee hours. Here, thanks to our founding fathers, a man's religion, including the President's, is his his own business.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
  6. Jeff in Oregon

    Cults, they are all cults.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
  7. TheBossSaid

    Nothing like a bunch of dead people baptizing even more dead people.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
  8. Guest

    It is my personal opinion that Joseph Smith was a con man, and quite possibly mentally ill. Nothing supports my theory better than this ritual of the Mormon faith.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
  9. Jake

    Crazy religion, same as the Taliban. There's no explaining crazy, it's just crazy, abnormal, bizarre, whacko...

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

      what a disgusting thing to say. Not being one but nowing many mormon people myself I am offended by this.

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

    Better question. Why do young Muslim American children attend madrasi in Indonesia, then come back to the states and become radical socialist community agitators,then, before entering politics suddenly become Christian and attend a Church where the pastor "damns'" America?

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

      Be careful – you called him an American and your brand of crazy doesn't believe that.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
    • GDW

      "radical socialist community agitators"...LOL

      Was this "young Muslim American children" also wearing a suicide vest?

      February 17, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
    • Awesome

      This is so exciting! Beginning of a flame war!

      February 17, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
    • johnj

      Did you ever go to school? Your email suggest – not.

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

      get a brain

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

      Why did you choose to respond to this article about a totally different faith and ideology with a politically charged, non relevant topic?

      February 17, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
    • J Mann

      tea troll in the house.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
  11. cjp

    Do not put my name on any list to be baptised when i'm dead. No one has sin until they commit a sin, so that goes for all religions that baptise babies. Its all mumbo jumbo and religious control from the beginning of time. Keep the population scared and they will follow like sheep.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
  12. damonfan

    Baptism for the dead is a waste of time. I am not bashing Mormons but I fee sorry for them that they cannot enjoy the true freedom of salvation they are trying to buy their salvation by good works you don't need to do that its a free gift

    February 17, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
  13. sortakinda

    Why do Mormons baptize the dead? Because most people who are alive wouldn't stand still for it.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
  14. manhandler

    All Religion is based on outrageous myths.....but this is one of the weirdest practices I've ever heard. What if the dead person never wanted anything to do with Religion when alive? The stupendous arrogance of religious nuts is overwhelming.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
  15. jon

    Mormons baptize the dead because they're running out of the living to baptize.

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

    Those who believe in the Easter Bunny are also saved, and go to a part of heaven where they become happy children whose baskets are always full of candy. The Flying Spaghetti Monster also may grant salvation. Santa Claus has no such power, but is worthy of respect as is the Tooth Fairy (who, for reasons obvious to all) prefers "Tooth Angel" these days.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
  17. djwazu

    Religilous= irrational= nonsense= retarded= enough said.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
  18. No Polygs fo prez thx

    They do claim them as part of the total members of the church. I lived around these people in southern Idaho and I've seen and heard some pretty weird stuff. Anyway, R.I.P., all you dead people.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
  19. Tim

    CNN: you need to rethink this whole "Belief" blog thing. I'm as big a supporter of the 1st amendment as anyone, but the only purpose this blog serves now is as a spleen venting freak show.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
  20. us1776

    Mormons are downright creepy !!

    .

    February 17, 2012 at 12:06 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.