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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. Hasa Diga Eebowai

    There are no such things as ghost, spirits (unless its booze), or souls. You have only a few 1,000 days left if you are lucky.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
    • blondie

      Oh GOD! NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!

      February 17, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
  2. Kurt Kammeyer

    This is one of the best-written articles that I have read on this subject. Why would Mormons go to all this effort in behalf of their ancestors, if they didn't sincerely believe in it? There's no monetary gain, no fame, no worldly benefit at all to be derived from it. Other faiths believe in burning candles or saying prayers in behalf of the dead – the Latter-day Saints believe in the same concept, but taken to the next level: that we really can open a portal to salvation for every human on earth, if they want it.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
    • Peter

      agreed.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
  3. tyra

    moemans are trying to do what they think is right . they want to help everybody have a chance at living in heaven . i am not a morman i am catholic but i admire their dedication to the lord

    February 17, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
  4. Dr.lizardO

    Mormonism is MORONism! These clowns are nothing but cult wackos. I've been to Utah, polygamy is still rampant there – marrying off their 14 year old daughters to dirty old men. Ask them about their "magic underwear" sometime! And the ultimate nonsense is, to try and legitimize their wacko cult – they try to pretend they're the Lost Tribe of Israel!! That's why they tried to 'baptize' the late Simon Weisenthal. Yeah, good luck with that one! So, my question is: when will you finally admit your cult was actually started by a drunk in the throes of the DTs?!

    February 17, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
    • Peter

      HAHA Dr. LizardO, Interesting that you wrote that the church was started by a drunk... Arn't Mormon known for not drinking? wait a minute.... you're not actually a doctor are you?

      February 17, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
  5. paganguy

    Stupid is as stupid does. But this practice is absurd.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
  6. Mike

    Please read I Corinthians 15 in its entirety and you'll find that the chapter has nothing to do with "baptizing for the dead" as the Mormons practice it but rather the fact that baptism is symbolic of the death, burial and resurrection. If there had been no resurrection then why baptize??? You would go under (symbolically death and burial) but never come up. Paul is making the case that Jesus did in fact rise therefore our faith is firm and the act of baptism associates you with the death, burial and resurrection and shows others (those living) your choice and association with Christ.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
  7. blondie

    If the Jews are going to the Planet Kolob, where God lives, according to Mr. J. Smith, then I really don't see what the BIG deal is.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
  8. William

    Does this really hurt anyone? NO then why even complain about it. More important problems in the world to focus on.

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

      It does hurt people. Would you want to be baptized after death into the church of Satan or insert name of any church you don't believe in? Would you want that to happen to your deceased family members?

      February 17, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
    • William

      As long as they do not desecrate the remains then NO I do not care if some wack job thinks by saying a few words gives me a chance for everlasting life.

      Its not like they dig up the bodies to do the Baptisim.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
  9. No Polygs fo prez thx

    It's America's Taliban!

    Nearly half of the 131 women killed between 1994 and 1999 in Utah were slain by husbands or boyfriends, according to a report released by state health department officials. They urged judges, prosecutors and clergy to pay more attention to the signs of domestic violence and to intervene before it escalates. USA Today

    The New York Times clearly illustrates a recurring problem within the Mormon Church–child abuse. Child abuse is consistently higher in Utah than in the nation as a whole. It is a blight on Mormonism. Utah social workers have been quoted as being "blackly pessimistic" about the problem in their state.

    All of this flies in the face of the projected image of Mormonism as a society which places the family at the highest level of its concern.

    Of course Mormon authorities love children and want what's best for them. The failure of Mormonism stems from its hidebound structure. This is the religion of polygamy, patriarchy, and Blood Atonement. Such a culture simply doesn't have the ability to wave a wand of psychobabble over the Church and make everything right. Mormon social problems are systemic.

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

      I find your ignorance amusing. So should we base the rest of the Christian faith by the actions of the Branch Davidians? Or how about we bucket all Muslims together based on what the Taliban do.

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

      you cited a lot of statistics about the population in Utah and incorrectly aligned them with the LDS church. While some estimates put the percentage around 60% – they do not take into account the significant number of members on record that do not support or follow the church. The church will keep someones name on record until they formally request (in writing) to have it removed. The Church has around 6 million members in the USA and the bloated Utah numbers represent 1.7 Million (I believe there may be 500K faithful in the state). There are more Mormons in California than in Utah. There are more Mormons outside of the USA (8 Million) than inside. It is a worldwide church of color ('whites' are the minority) that only has its headquarters in Utah. I like a piece of this article that said "in that sense Mormonism is the most nonexclusive religion in the Christian world,” Givens says...

      February 17, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
  10. CT Vince

    My thought is that any religious practice that seeks positive blessings from God for human beings newborn, adult and dead should be exonerated not demonized.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
  11. Maggy

    I don't believe that the LDS chuch has a right to decide who should be saved or not. That is God's decision and no one else's. I have had several friends who are LDS and had lengthy discussions regarding these practices. I believe that we should be baptized as Jesus was also, I just think that accepting Jesus Christ is a personal decision for every person. It seems disturbing that they are trying to make that choice for them. Don't they consider that God has taken it into account the deceased ones situation during their life? For example, people who have never been taught the word or ever heard of Jesus Christ or God for that matter? I just feel it undermines God's authority. He is GOD, he will decide your final resting place not a bunch of flawed human beings. That includes us all. We are not Saviors. Only Jesus Christ can bestow that honor.

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

      excuse me while I vomit

      February 17, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
    • hintofaspark

      Did you even read the article? Mormons aren't trying to make decisions for people. They believe that they are giving deceased persons an opportunity to choose:
      "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."

      February 17, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • Patrick

      Did you even read the article? The baptisms only give those who have passed away the opportunity to accept the baptism. The choice is still theirs as to accept or reject the work done for them. There is no forcing of anyone, individual agency remains intact.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • Guest

      You are 100% right on, Maggy! Let "Blondie" vomit because the truth repulses her.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • Maggy

      Yes, I read the article. I don't agree that the LDS chuch should have a say on my salvation if I choose in life not to be a member of their church. I understand their intentions but they are assuming that I need assistance from them when I have passed on. How do they know that God hasn't already granted me salvation through his grace? That is my point. I just feel it is not their right to "offer" me salvation when I have already passed away. They have no idea of other's relationship people had with God when living.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • Peter

      did you even read the article?

      February 17, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
  12. Chris

    Mormons like to say they did it in Bible times, but think about it. What were the temples used for then? Sacrificing animals, cleansing, etc. Jesus supposedly taught in the temple. Besides that one verse taken out of context, there is NOTHING in the Bible that indicates anything to do with baptism for the dead. In fact, baptism itself is only introduced in the New Testament. The whole mormon religion is bogus. If you really look into it and it's history you would see that the words of their so called prophets of their own past has been discarded and instead what they follow is a religion that has changed to help their bottom line. Money

    February 17, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
  13. Robert

    There's a very simple religion that's been around for some time. It's called Deism and Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine and a few other American Founders believed in it. Deism is the belief that God created the universe and then left it alone to run itself. That's it.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
  14. sortakinda

    Catholics DO NOT PREACH THAT ONLY CATHOLICS CAN BE SAVED, contrary to this article which says “Catholics have taught that only Catholics are saved." It is always amazing how much ignorance passes for "reliable information." Terryl Givens may be an expert on Mormonism (if you can believe THAT), but Givens is no expert on Catholicism.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
    • Kurt Kammeyer

      Um... actually, if you check your Catholic history, you will find that for centuries the Catholics enforced their brand of salvation at the point of the sword. The Inquisition, the Reformation and the history of South America all clearly show what the Catholic Church felt about heretics. In the past several centuries they have backed off from that position, but if you carefully read the wording of the newly-released Mass, you will see that the Church has now backtracked – salvation is only available to those of the "faith".

      February 17, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  15. KJM1968

    After they baptize the deceased, do the Mormons then sue their estate to get the 15% mandatory donation?

    February 17, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
  16. jeff szabo

    I would expect an attack from those who the words of the bible 'cut to the heart.' I guess when the Apostles spoke the word o God and made people mad, they were all just mean people too. You say you believe in the bible; how is that so? you cannot believe both; that is illogical.

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

    Because it's a creepy grave-robbing way to say "Mine is better than yours".

    February 17, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
  18. No Polygs fo prez thx

    Discussion of the issue inevitably falls along Utah's traditional fault lines. Some suggest that Utah's unique Mormon culture–70% of the state's population belongs to the church–requires perfection and the public presentation of a happy face, whatever may be happening privately. The argument goes that women in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are beset by particular pressures and are not encouraged to acknowledge their struggles or suppression. "Look around, you can easily find people who take them. I think it's the cultural environment," said Helen Wright, whose three grown children also take antidepressants. "Most men here would just as soon their wives take pills than bother to delve into the problems, and maybe find out they might have something to do with the problems." Utah also leads the nation in the use of narcotic painkillers such as codeine and morphine-based drugs, the study found. "It's like HappyValley here," Cindy Mann said, describing the SaltLakeValley. "It's a scary place sometimes. People don't talk about their problems. Everything is always rosy. That's how we got ourselves into this mess–we're good at ignoring things."

    February 17, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
    • Lrn4yourself

      It is interesting to read your perspective. Anyone can look through any published media and find a spin on a topic that meets you agenda. The fact is that the issues you speak of are not because the people are members of the LDS church but in fact this is what happens in any society of humans living as close together as we do in large cities. Maybe the fact is that they talk more about it and that is why it appears that it happens more often. It is pride and lack of self control that is the issue. After all, we are human and we all make mistakes(not that this justifies their actions).And to clarify... The LDS church does the baptisms for the dead because this is an ordinance that is to be done in the flesh. By having members do this by proxy, those who have died have the opportunity to chose for them selves to accept the ordinance. This is not the church forcing anything on anyone, it is enabling the ability for the choice to be made.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
    • Peter

      I feel for you. I'm sorry your heart is so full of hate for a people you think you understand...

      February 17, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
  19. Tex71

    It is either amusing or disturbing (maybe both?) how some folks post abstract
    metaphysical religious dogma as if it were empirical, incontrovertible fact.

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

      Isn't that the definition of "Religion"?

      February 17, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
  20. nimesh

    The LDS church is doing everybody a generous free service. what is the downside for believers?
    And why were the Jews so insecure about these baptisms when they don't believe in the LDS doctrine

    February 17, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
    • Hasa Diga Eebowai

      Loss of a grasp on reality would be a start

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

      Because it is an insult to the beliefs of the dead, their families, and others of their faith, that's why.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:22 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.