Beliefs Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Baptizing Mom

LDS temple in Nauvoo, Illinois

Two weeks ago, I was baptized for my mother.

For me, this was the fulfillment of a long-held dream. When Mom was dying, she and I had several conversations about the possibility of an afterlife. She wanted to believe in it, she told me; she very much craved to see her own mother on the other side. Yet she had no certainty this would come to pass and worried that it was all just wishful thinking.

I told Mom there were very few things I was sure about in my faith, but that my belief in heaven was rock-solid. I also said that if she wanted to be with her own mother there, I was sure a loving God would make that happen—and that if she did not want to be with her ex-husband, my father (she certainly didn’t), a loving God would not require that. She would call the shots.

She asked me if I planned to take her “name to the temple” after she died, which is Mormon-ese for submitting a deceased person’s records so that proxy rites such as baptism and endowment can happen. Though she was not a Mormon, my Lutheran mother was very knowledgeable about Mormon temples and had gone with me through the Nauvoo, Illinois temple during the public open house before its dedication.

She understood what it meant. She understood, too, that baptizing a deceased person in an LDS temple does not “make” that person a default Mormon; it merely opens a ritual door in case the person in question might someday wish to walk through it.

I said I did want to perform those rites for her, but only if she was amenable.

“If it gives you comfort” was what she told me. Loving to the last, my mom only wanted whatever would mitigate my own grief about her death. Even if that meant agreeing to a rite she didn’t believe in, she was more than willing to grant her permission if it might alleviate my own devastation.

IMG_2663And so, in the same Nauvoo temple that she and I once toured together, I was recently baptized for my mother.

It was one of the most beautiful spiritual experiences I’ve ever had. There were no dramatic visitations, but there was a profound sense of presence, a sense that my earthly mother and my heavenly parents were with me in the temple on that day.

I wasn’t shy about telling the people I encountered that this day was special, this day was for my mother. So it was that the man who performed the baptism was as choked up as I was as he guided me under the water, and the woman who anointed me in the initiatory was so overcome with emotion that she could barely speak the words. We were all that much more vigilant for the holy.

In three hours in the temple I was baptized, washed, anointed, and endowed on behalf of my mother. I was given the knowledge that the woman who named me has a sacred name of her own, a name I was privileged to speak and charged to always remember.

Of the experience I would say that the baptism is what I will remember most. Baptism is different, somehow. Here, there are visible signs of invisible grace: your hair is dripping, your white jumpsuit sodden with living waters. You take these things with you when you rise from the font.

Just as I will take with me, always, the love of my mother.


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About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

28 Comments

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  • WOW! That choked me up and brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for sharing such a sacred and holy experience. I am thrilled for you and your mother.

  • So this was all about you, what make you happy and teary eyed, and absolutely nothing about your mother and utter disregard for the faith that sustained her. While I expect it out of your missionaries, I do find myself stunned by a daughter’s contempt.

  • I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but if they ask you to take their name to the temple, they had their chance in this life. While they will not go to hell, they will not be given a celestial body either.

  • Jana, you’ve written about how close you and your mother were, and how devastated you have been by her loss. I am confident that God already knows us, knows our name as you say, whether we are baptized in the Lutheran church, or the LDS Church.

    This piece gives your readers the impression that you believe that God didn’t recognize your mother’s Lutheran baptism (I am assuming she was baptized, and there may be personal issues that of course are nobody’s business), and that she died unbaptized and not part of the body of Christ. Is that what you intended to say, that mainline Protestant baptisms (or is it just Lutheran’s) aren’t recognized by God? That’s an LDS idea that we hear a lot, which is hurtful to us, and I think contributes to hostility and separation.

  • No, not at all. That is not what I believe, so I’m really glad you brought it up so I can clarify.

    I was incredibly proud of my mom when she decided — in her early fifties — to be received as a Lutheran. (Her baptism had happened when she was a baby in another Protestant church, so she did not need to be rebaptized in order to make a confession of faith as a Lutheran.) She was absolutely part of the body of Christ, and I felt nothing but love from her church toward our admittedly weird family. When she was dying there were so many caring people trying to visit that I sometimes had to shoo them and their food offerings away just so Mom could get some sleep! There can be no better witness of the love and care of Christian community than what I saw in my mom’s congregation, and from her pastor, who is one of the most special people I’ve known in the family of God.

  • Are you so in tune with the mind of God that you know my mother’s specific eternal fate? What a load of baloney. I can see why you don’t post under your real name.

  • Very nice that your mom had that understanding with you. Sorry for your loss. My mom passed away two years ago and now her grave is the only one engraved with an Angel Moroni in remote Odin, Indiana.
    I was vicariously baptized for my grandfather and great uncle as a youth. My grand-dad went between Baptist and Congregationalist- if he is not Latter-day Saint in the afterlife- that is up to him. No one is forced to accept priesthood ordinances in the temple.
    Some may not know that a huge reason we LDS go around the world preaching and reaching out through missionary work, as we shorten the word and call it proselyting, is that we believe the ancient and eternal priesthoods of God, those of Aaron and Melchizedek, are in effect and we are compelled to act with them to do good and bless everyone we know. All Christians are great but our understanding of authority is different. It may come across as superior and therefore offensive, but if it indeed is not true, Catholics and Jews and Lutherans need not worry. Please don’t take offense at our acts of love and what we believe to be crucial covenants of God. Likewise the Book of Mormon, we see it as complimenting the Holy Bible, while some inerrant apologists perceive see Joseph’s Smith translation as an existential threat to their Bible standing.

  • Qwerty, what point of reference are you using to make such a pronouncement? Do you understand the nature of why we do vicarious priesthood ordinances? If not, please call some local authorities or do some more studies. Temple work, the total essence of it, is to exalt as many people who want it.

  • As an LDS it is one of the highest acts of love. But I can understand why you might think it is against other faiths. 2,000 years ago many traditional religious folks were threatened (felt persecuted) by the “new” authority and ministry of Jesus.
    To us this is nothing new, it is power and authority of God that goes back to Adam, all the way back to God Himself.

  • I had always assumed you felt that way, and was a little surprised when I read your piece . Thanks for clearing that up! Glad you consider us part of the Body of Christ 🙂
    Your late mothers’ church indeed sounds like a powerful witness of Christ’s love.

  • Ed: I appreciate your assurances. Just so you understand why Catholics and Protestants get offended when told they must be re-baptized: it is interpreted as a statement that God doesn’t recognize our Baptisms (Jana has clarified that she doesn’t feel this way). In Catholic, and Protestant (and Eastern Orthodox) theology, baptism is what connects you to the invisible Body of Christ. It ingrafts you into the church, and is where Christ marks you as ‘his own’ creation. In Catholic theology, its more than that: it is the vehicle through which God gives grace.
    So, to a Protestant or Catholic, it can come across as saying that Catholics and Protestants aren’t ‘saved’, which may or may not be how its intended. Of course, the favor is returned, as many Christian churches don’t recognize LDS Baptisms, and I know some Mormons find that hurtful.

  • We do them because we are commanded to. D&C 76 (LDS edition) is clear as to the doctrine I’ve stated. Seeing that LDS leaders are chosen based on the size of their tithing checks rather than the Lord, I doubt any local authorities could even answer the question if I asked them.

  • No, I’m so in tune that’s I’ve read the scriptures. I’ve got family in the same boat. Making excuses for them will not save their souls.

  • Thank you for sharing this, Jana. I hope that knowing how grateful some of us are for your words and thoughts, beautifully expressed, will help to insulate you from the words and thoughts, contemptuously expressed, of others.

  • Deeply moving, thank you for such an inspiring and personal story. Jana, you are, as always. amazing!

  • Did you read the article? What a hateful pathetic comment you should have kept to yourself. This article simply shows a Mother’s love for a daughter. Simple and beautiful. You obviously are not either.

  • Jeff, the Roman Catholic Church does not recognize baptisms by any other church, only their own.

  • If you believe that LDS clergy “earn” their positions due to issues of lucre, I understand where you are coming from. One of us has a lot to learn. Thanks for sharing.

  • Jana, I’m so glad you found a ritual way to help you move through grief in regards to the loss of your mother. Unfortunately, baptism for the dead is a complete innovation

  • Nope. I have personally witnessed several re-baptisms because the priest did not accept the Lutheran, Methodist or UCC baptism. All 3 of those are Trinitarian churches. I’m also aware of more than one RCC priest who recognizes Only baptisms done by other RCC priests. Official RCC standards does not always match common practice, especially in rural, conservative areas of the country.

    (I work in the funeral business so I am well-acquainted with many clergy.)

  • Perhaps you should tell that to the Apostle Paul. Paul was familiar with the concept and used it as an example that folks of his time believed in the resurrection.
    I Cor 15:29

  • You believe that your assessment on priesthood leaders seeking or gaining their callings based on how much they make is a fact. Qwerty, what do you do for a living? You are either the smartest guy in the neighborhood or in reality pretty dumb. Can we make that option into a fact? Well, truly that is just a belief I have based on my judgment of your understanding of what facts are.

  • Your analogy doesn’t hold water. There a journal entries and reports of LDS leaders discussions on the practice. To say that because I know this I either know all or that I’m an idiot (all or nothing) doesn’t make any sense. What I do for a living is equally irrelevant.

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