Why do Mormons baptize the dead?

RNS photo courtesy LDS Church.
Mormons practice baptism for the dead in special temple baptismal pools to offer salvation to ancestors who may not have had a chance to accept the Mormon faith.

Mormons practice baptism for the dead in special temple baptismal pools to offer salvation to ancestors who may not have had a chance to accept the Mormon faith.

(RNS) The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has apologized for a Mormon who baptized the late parents of famed Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal. But despite calls this week from Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel and others to rethink the controversial rite, the church is unlikely to drop it entirely.

Latter-day Saints trace posthumous baptism to the Apostle Paul, who wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:29, “Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? Why are they then baptized for the dead?” Mormons believe that Joseph Smith, their faith’s founding prophet, restored the apostolic practice after centuries of neglect by mainstream Christians.

Proxy baptism was also Smith’s answer to a classic Christian conundrum: What happens to people who, through no fault of their own, did not join the church during their earthly lifetime? Should they be barred from heaven?

Mormons believe that vicarious baptisms give the deceased, who exist in the afterlife as conscious spirits, a final chance to join the Mormon fold, and thus gain access to the Celestial Kingdom. To Mormons, only members of the LDS priesthood possess the power to baptize.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a Baptist or a Buddhist,” said Kathleen Flake, a Vanderbilt University scholar who has studied the church, “it’s about who has the authority to perform the sacrament.”

Flake said Mormons are encouraged to baptize at least four generations of forebears to seal the family for eternity. So the LDS church has built the world’s most extensive genealogical library in Salt Lake City with 700 employees and more than 2 billion names.

Baptisms need bodies, so young Mormon men and women dressed in white robes stand in for the departed souls in temple ceremonies worldwide. Mormons youths consider it an honor to be immersed in baptismal founts while the names of the deceased are recited.

LDS leaders emphasize that the spirits of the dead must accept the baptism — it cannot be involuntarily imposed. And Mormons are instructed to only baptize family members, particularly after Jewish genealogists discovered in the 1990s that 380,000 Holocaust survivors had been vicariously baptized. In response, the church imposed safeguards and spent $500,000 removing Jewish names from its baptismal registries.

But with 13 million Mormons worldwide, the church insists that it cannot control “pranksters or careless persons” who submit Jewish names or famous people such as President Obama’s late mother, Stanley Anne Dunham. And the church considers the ritual too essential to forswear.

“With deepest respect to our Jewish friends, the church cannot abandon fundamental aspects of its religious doctrine and practice,” the church writes on its website, “and it should not be asked to do so.”

About the author

Daniel Burke

Daniel Burke worked for Religion News Service from 2006-2013. He now co-edits CNN's Belief Blog.


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  • And mormons wonder why they bare dismissed as a cult, and generally laughed at for their inane beliefs (as if vanilla Christianity could be made to appear any more foolish than it already does).

    Perhaps the LDS church should take a que from Tom Ehrich’s Feb 14 RNS ariticle on Customer Service 101. .

  • Let me get this straight Bart, you are suggesting that Mormons take a “Customer” view to their religion and base their doctrines on what will appeal to people and be popular? Wow, may I respectfully ask what church you go? For a doctrine, does it simply tell people what they want to hear?

    For any Christian who believes that baptism is an essential rite, which makes less sense: performing proxy baptisms for the dead, or condemning the bulk of the population of the world that was never baptized to hell?

  • EJ,
    Sense? You’re asking me what makes less sense?

    Neither baptizing the living, the dead, or believing in an imaginary place of eternal torture makes sense. To rate what makes less sense would be an exercise in the absurd.

    As for “customer” perspective, yes.. I do suggest the Mormon heirarchy evaluate how they are perceived and think about their doctrine accordingly. It’s not like that’s a new concept to them.

    They did that when they got this sudden “revelation from god” in the 1870’s that polygamy wasn’t god’s will anymore, coincidental timing since the Fed Gov’t was going to refuse to admit them to the unioin till they dropped it.

    They did it again in the early 1970’s when they got the “revelation from god” that not letting blacks become priests wasn’t very inviting to blacks and made them look like the racist jerks that they are. Interesting timing with the civil rights movment.

    So, yes – revising their silly doctrine of baptizing of the dead which offends the families of Jews, might be a good idea…and guess what… they recinded that doctrine about 20 years ago, incase you haven’t been paying attention, which likely you haven’t. That it sprouted up again is likely more of an embarrassment to them than their laughable magic underwear / sacred garments.

    Now, go pray for me as you folks like to say you’ll do. And in return, I’ll think for you.

  • Oh, you asked what church I belong to. “The First Church of the Gooey Death and Discount House of Worship.”

    We believe that if Jesus existed he’d want us to douse ourselves in pure Vermont maple Syrup and only shop wholesale.