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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. Bill

    My only question is does a list exist of those baptized? Concern that relatives have been baptized without their knowledge, and if memory serves the Catholic faith does not consider Mormons a valid religion so if someone is baptized after death how does this affect their Catholic faith.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
    • Hadz

      As Ron pointed out below. It doesn't mean squat if you don't see it as valid.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • Mark

      Bill, great question! I also responded to Hadz' question. As a practicing Mormon, yes, a list does exist and is relatively small compared to the billions who have lived on the earth. There is nothing in the practice of performing baptism that requires the recipient to receive it. In our churches and temples we practice all of the same ordinances that Jesus Christ practiced on the earth including baptism, sacrament, and others. In the temple those same ordinances (including baptism) are performed individually for each person who lived but did not receive the ordinance while alive.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  2. RON

    It amuses me that people think that some magic words or ritual mean anything at all.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
  3. NoReligion

    Mormons say, ‘No, salvation is open to all people. – I don't want your salvation or baptism, MORONS (wow, how close is mormon to moron)

    February 17, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
    • ana

      +1 LOL

      February 17, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
  4. Hadz

    Big question for Mormons out there. How is it possible to baptize everyone who ever lived? There are millions of people who have died without any record of their existence. It's impossible to find records on everyone who ever lived.

    So, the answer I suspect that you'll give is that God will take care of those who we cannot find records for. If that is the case, why can't God take care of all of them, and let you Mormons do other things with your time.

    The real reason, is that the Mormon church wants it's members doing baptisms for the dead. Not for the dead people, but they for the living member of the church. Now, why would they want that?

    February 17, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
    • tony

      I think the correct number is about 14 Billion previously dead.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
    • Ivan

      There is a second coming of Christ or a new millenium where Christ will rule again. After performing all the work that we can do through our own genealogical research, the rest of this work can be accomplished during that time.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • Mark

      Hello Hadz–As a practicing Mormon we believe one of the purposes of the millennial period (the 1,000 year return of Christ to the earth) is to complete the promise in the Old Testament's Malachi 4:6 to turn the hearts of the children to their fathers, and fathers to children. The load will be heavy, but at that point the resources of course will be available to connect the whole human family.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
  5. OBXJewel

    I DO NOT want up to four generations of my ancestors names listed in the Mormon genealogy data base after they have been "baptised" by proxy. NONE OF MY ANCESTORS WAS EVER A MORMON and that is a fact from our family genealogy studies. I still think baptising is better done when a person is ALIVE than dead.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
  6. Truthship

    Ivan, maybe you need to re-baptize yourself and your 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 12:27 pm |
  7. Jim

    so.......dunking a dead body in water does what????? Wait – I know. It gets the body wet. Geesh.....no wonder our planet is in such trouble.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
    • BYUROX

      The dead body is NOT baptized Jim. The baptism is done by proxy. In other words, I as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ, can do the work for the person who has died by being baptized for him. The deceased person can then choose whether or not they want to accept that baptism. It does not, nor ever will, take away the free agency of that person.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
  8. Doug

    The statement "Catholics have taught that only Catholics are saved" is not true.

    From the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

    "Furthermore, many elements of sanctification and of truth" are found outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church: "the written Word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope, and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, as well as visible elements. Christ's Spirit uses these Churches and ecclesial communities as means of salvation

    The Jewish faith, unlike other non-Christian religions, is already a response to God's revelation in the Old Covenant. To the Jews "belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ", "for the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable."

    The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind's judge on the last day."

    Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation.

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

      What about "those, through no fault of their own" have not been convinced that a god even exists?

      February 17, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
  9. steven

    You can not say "no" when you are dead.

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

      Its religious molestation.

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

      You cannot say "yes", either.

      Even Mormon doctrine says that!

      So baptism for the dead is meaningless!

      But it sure is offensive to other religions!

      February 17, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  10. Joe Christianson

    Mormonism is another made up religion and yes I understand they are true believers with only noble purposes BUT we know the road to hell is paved with just that kind of thinking. Leave people alone... if they want Jesus they will accept him. If not let God sort it out in his mercy.

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

      Amen to that, Mr. CHRISTianson.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
    • Maggy

      Exactly the point I was trying to make, I believe God can handle it on his own.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
  11. norelegion

    Imagine a wonderful world where there is no church, no synagogue and no mosque. No priest, no rabbi and no mullah.

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

      It was called Communist Russia in the 20th century. Didn't look so pretty after they stamped out the churches in the 20s and 30s. Now you can go back to enjoying Western civilization freedom which was built on Judeo-Christian values.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
  12. Vanka

    The funny thing about baptisms for the dead is that Mormon doctrine itself makes the practice meaningless!

    In Mormon theology, "salvation" is a muddled concept. In its most basic sense, salvation simply means "resurrection", and every single person who has ever lived will be resurrected, no matter what they do. You do not have to believe in Jesus, or repent, or be baptized or "confirmed", or do good works to be resurrected. All people will be "saved" from death, according to Mormonism.

    But saved from sin? That is different. According to Mormonism, ONLY those who repent will be saved from sin. Repenting is a "change of mind, i.e., a fresh view about God, about oneself, and about the world... a turning of the heart and will to God, and a renunciation of sin to which we are naturally inclined."

    Mormons' notions of "salvation" are all over the map. Without scriptural support for doing so, they distinguish between "salvation" (resurrection) and "exaltation" (a "continuation of the seeds forever and ever"; see D&C 132). Of course, you need multiple wives as brood mares if you are going to achieve your "exaltation"!

    But baptism is NOT required for salvation (resurrection)! Neither is Mormon "confirmation, nor the temple "endowment".

    So, again, to paraphrase Paul, What the heck are Mormons baptizing for the dead, if the dead not only cannot repent, but also baptism does NOT SAVE? Why are they then baptizing for the dead?

    If you ask a Mormon these questions, prepare yourself for a blubbering, nonsensical, obfuscation followed by a passionate "testimony"!

    February 17, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
    • Lee

      Vanka,
      As a life-long Mormon, I will say that our doctrine is not nonsense as you presume. It teaches that the souls of the dead are still very aware as if they are alive. They are taught by the spirits of the righteous dead (see D&C 138). The souls of the dead have the opportunity to accept the teachings of Jesus or to reject it. They must repent of the sins they committed during life. If they have faith in Christ and repent, they accept the baptism done in the temple for them and be exalted. If they refuse to believe and repent, they reject the work done in the temple. You are correct that all will be resurrected (or saved from physical death) but you must be obedient to the commandments, including being baptized to gain exaltation (and no, you do not have to have multiple wives, one is enough). I'll spare you my testimony.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • Vanka

      Lee,

      Please provide scriptural proof of the following:

      1. That salvation and exaltation are different
      2. That salvation is given to all as a free gift, and merely means "resurrection."
      3. That you CAN "procrastinate the day of your repentance" because you can always repent after you are dead.
      4. That "outward ordinances" such as baptism "qualify" a person for anything, much less "salvation".

      If you can prove these things scripturally, I will let YOU baptize me into the Mormon Church.

      Deal?

      February 17, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
    • W247

      So does that mean that I can whoop it up in this life on earth but repent in my spirit life because I was "taught" by the spirits of the righteous and then all will be okee dokey???? Sweet!

      February 17, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
  13. CHuck

    Go back to Ephesians Chapter 2 versus 8,9. We are not saved by WORKS. They are performing a WORK for other people, which will not provide salvation for anyone. The actual act of Baptism is a work, not GRACE. Grace is what provides salvation when you believe and have Faith in Jesus Christ.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
    • denver2

      Do you think your statement here has suddenly resolved a theological debate that has spanned millennia?

      February 17, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
    • jeff szabo

      We are saved by grace thru faith. it is a working faith. please read the book of james. It is the works of man that won't save him; however, jesus said, "Work the works of God. Jesus also said that 'belief' was a work.That condradicts ur statement even more.To say works are useless, is to say that belief and all the other Godly works are unnecessary. that is not biblical.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
  14. blaqb0x

    If you don't want to be baptized after your dead go here:
    http://www.facebook.com/groups/dontbaptizememormons/

    February 17, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
    • **

      ...and if you want to speak correct English go here:
      http://www.elearnenglishlanguage.com/difficulties/youryoure.html

      February 17, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
  15. Dl

    Why doesn't an LDS minister get in a plane & bless the entire planet from the sky & be done with it... I'm sure that would 'count'

    February 17, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
    • Vantari

      Re-read the article. That will answer your question.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
    • neniatak

      Because there are no ministers. No ordained nor educated leaders. Just lay leaders.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
  16. Ivan

    The LDS Church's reasons for baptising for the dead is pulled from the following biblical scripture. Please note that baptism for the dead is in the very same chapter of the New Testament that talks about the resurrection of the dead.

    Spiritual Death, Physical Death, and the Spirit World

    As “children of the Most High[,] ye shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes”, (Psalms 82:7) who is Satan. And in the moment of physical death, “then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it”, (Ecclesiastes 12:7) Just like Christ said to one of the thieves when crucified, “Today shalt thou be with me in paradise”! (Luke 23:43) “By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison”. (1 Peter 3:19) For is it not prudent to “preach the gospel to every creature”? (Mark 16:15) “For this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit”. (1 Peter 4:6) There is “one faith, one baptism”! (Ephesians 4:5) “If the dead rise not at all[,] why are they then baptised for the dead?” (1 Corinthians 15:29)

    Resurrection of the Dead

    “For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” (1st Corinthians 15:21-22) “The dead shall be raised incorruptible, and [ye] shall be changed. This corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory”. (1st Corinthians 15:52-54)

    Judgment Defines Celestial, Terrestrial, and Telestial Degrees of Glory

    But “All flesh is not the same flesh” (1st Corinthians 15:39) “The dead [will be] judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.” (Revelations 20:12) There are “celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial: but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars: for one star differeth from another star in glory. So also is the resurrection of the dead”. (1st Corinthinans 15:40-42)

    The Importance of Following Christ

    Which is why “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17) “Till [ye] all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ”! (Ephesians 4:14)

    February 17, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
    • tony

      Pity religious types don't do "math". There are about 14 Billion earlier dead that they still have to do. I wonder when they will find the time?

      February 17, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
    • Ivan

      Believe it or not, but Mormons are actually in the study of Calculus, the identifying of limits. Which in this case, the limit equals perfection or exaltation.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
    • jb

      Beware any scripture quoted by a Mormon. The root of their religion is in the twisting of the word of God. You cannot believe anything out of a Mormon's mouth, anything out of one of their books. I'm sure many are nice people, but their religion is an evil thing.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
    • Ivan

      Another limit is found with the age of all our spirits, which is the limit of eternity. “God is a spirit”, (John 4:24) “but there is a spirit in man”. (Job 32:8) “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee”. (Jeremiah 1:5) “[The Father of our Lord Jesus Christ] hath chosen [you] in him before the foundation of the world”. (Ephesians 1:3-4) “I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High”. (Psalms 82:6)

      February 17, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
    • Ivan

      jb, I'm just saying it as it is. If I can't prove my point using scripture from the Bible i so love and cherish, how can I prove my point? These are scriptures I pulled from my own research into the validation of my own spirituality. It wasn't taught to me in this manner from the pulpit. I studied and found these scriptures on my own.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
    • ContextisEverything

      If I were to show you a two second clip of a two hour film you would have no idea of the plot, characters, beginning, end, antagonist or hero. That is exactly what occurs when people take a scripture out of context. Context is defined as, "parts of a written or spoken statement that precede or follow a specific word or passage usually influencing its meaning or effect."

      The passage in Corinthians is about the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the hope that we have as believers in that truth.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • Ivan

      Yes, context is everything. To me this appears that more people than just Christ, himself, are resurrected. "If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable. But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the FIRSTFRUITS of them that slept. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. But every man in his own order: Christ the FIRSTFRUITS; afterward they that are Christ’s at his coming." (1 Corinthians 15:19-23)

      February 17, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • Ivan

      "And have hope toward God, which they themselves also allow, that there shall be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and unjust." (Acts 24:15)

      February 17, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
    • ContextisEverything

      Ivan, the context of the Bible is not in question, rather the interpretation by the LDS. Yes, according to the Bible true followers of Jesus Christ are resurrected into heaven in the company of Jesus Christ with God the Father at the appointed time, but LDS do not believe in heaven and hell proper, rather LDS profess that there are different kingdoms in the afterlife - this is one of many distortions of the nature of God, Personhood of Jesus Christ, and the means of salvation by LDS.

      The Bible teaches that to truly believe in and trust God means to trust in His Word, and all scripture is inspired by God, so all scripture comes from him (2 Timothy 3:16). There is only one way to receive salvation and that is to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ (John 17:3). It's not done by works (Jesus + good deeds), but by faith (Romans 1:17, 3:28).

      "Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which me must be saved." (Acts 4:12) I applaud your love for the Bible and encourage you to seek its truth.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • Melody

      I find your comment thread here interesting, but I do have one question...As the thief was there on the cross beside Christ, he believed and repented of his sins, and Christ told him he forgave him by taking him to Paradise with him that day. So where, in that time frame, was the theif baptized? I don't believe there is anywhere that the scripture says you must be baptized to go to Heaven. I do believe that we do it to follow Christ's example and to show forth a testimony of the spiritual work that happened in our soul. But I have yet to find a scripture where it says this is a requirement to be saved or enter Heaven. Do you have one? What of those who get saved on their death bed, or at the scene of a car accident and then die....do they not get to go to Heaven? This teaching confuses me...

      May 17, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
  17. scientomadology

    Why? Does being a moron play a role? Claiming the dead as part of your membership qualifies for tax breaks maybe?

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

    Maybe Mormons need to re-baptize themselves and their 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 12:24 pm |
    • joe

      better yet, google blacklds.org

      February 17, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  19. NonReligious

    Now this is some crazy stuff! I can't imagine having someone serving as president who actually believes this non sense.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
    • denver2

      You realize that the majority of our presidents have believed that a man died, went to hell and fought the devil, came back to life, and flew into the sky, right?

      Yeah, Mormon beliefs are so out there!!

      February 17, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
    • NonReligious

      Yes, and I can't wait to see the day that we have a non-religious president.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • yahmez the mad

      I don't think Mitt Romney's magic underwear is going to get him to the White House. I think most religions are pretty crazy, but Mormons win the crackpot jackpot. They are right up there with Scientologists.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  20. ddb880

    You would have to be dead or insane.

    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.