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Baptism for the dead

Baptism for the dead by proxy (or "vicarious baptism") is an ordinance practiced by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, some Native American religions, and other Mormon churches. A living person as a proxy is baptized by immersion in typical Mormon fashion, except that the prayer accompanying the baptism states that the baptism is being performed for and in behalf of a deceased person whose name has been submitted for that ordinance.

According to the LDS Church, the Mormons base this practice on a revelation Joseph Smith received. Joseph Smith first taught the doctrine at the funeral sermon of a deceased LDS member, Seymour Brunson. In a letter written on October 19, 1840 to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles[?] of the LDS Church (who were on a mission in Great Britain at the time), Joseph refers to the passage in 1 Corinthians 15:29 (http://scriptures.lds.org/1_cor/15) (KJV):

I presume the doctrine of "baptism for the dead" has ere this reached your ears, and may have raised some inquiries in your minds respecting the same. I cannot in this letter give you all the information you may desire on the subject; but aside from knowledge independent of the Bible, I would say that it was certainly practiced by the ancient churches; and St. Paul endeavors to prove the doctrine of the resurrection from the same, and says, "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?" (History of the Church, 4:231)

Other LDS scipture (Doctrine and Covenants 124:29 (http://scriptures.lds.org/dc/124), 127:5-10 (http://scriptures.lds.org/dc/127) and 128 (http://scriptures.lds.org/dc/128)) expand upon this doctrine and command that such baptisms are to be performed in Temples, of which there are in 2001 more than 100 world wide. Vicarious baptism is performed in connection with other vicarious ordinances in LDS temples. The LDS Church holds that deceased persons who have not accepted or had the opportunity to accept the faith in this life will have the opportunity to accept the faith in the afterlife, but in order to do so they must receive all the LDS ordinances including baptism. For this reason, genealogy forms an important basis of research in the LDS Church's efforts to perform temple ordinances for as many deceased persons as possible. As a part of these efforts, a number of high profile people who have had temple ordinances performed on their behalf have received particular attention including: the Founding Fathers of the U.S., Presidents of the U.S., John Wesley, Christopher Columbus, Jewish Holocaust victims, Ghengis Khan, Joan of Arc, Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin and Buddha. Vicarious baptism does not mean that the decedent actually accepts the ordinance performed for him or her; it merely means that the decedent may accept the ordinance and the benefits which the LDS claim it provides. However, LDS leaders have stated that the people in the afterlife for whom these ordinances have been performed will rarely reject it.

While LDS members consider it a great service to perform vicarious ordinances for the deceased, some non-members have taken offense to what they see as an arrogant practice. To be sensitive to the issue of vicariously baptizing non-Mormons unrelated to Church members, in recent years the LDS Church has emphasized a policy that generally its members should only perform temple ordinances for their own direct ancestors. For example, the LDS Church is in the process of removing sensitive names (such as Jewish Holocaust victims) from its International Genealogical Index[?]. D. Todd Christofferson[?] of the LDS Church's Presidency of the Seventy stated that removing the names is an "ongoing, labor intensive process requiring name-by-name research....When the Church is made aware of documented concerns, action is taken...Plans are underway to refine this process."

Christian opposition

No other Christian denomination accepts the Mormon interpretation of 1 Corinithians 15:29; they differ greatly on what the passage is intended to mean. The more common position is that this verse is only an aside to the central issue contemplated in that chapter chapter (http://bible.gospelcom.net/bible?1cor). Paul is arguing to Christians in Corinth against those who do not believe in the bodily resurrection of both Jesus and His followers. Paul was trying to catch the disciples who did not believe in resurrection in a logical contradiction since they were also baptizing the dead.

Another counter-argument is that most Christian churches have not historically practiced baptism for the dead, and have never held the Mormon interpretation of this passage. Therefore it fails the test set forth by Saint Vincent of Lerins, that Christians should believe that which "has been believed by all Christians in all places at all times".

Jewish opposition

A long time Mormon practice has been to vicariously baptise the Holocaust's Jewish victims. When this information became public, there was a backlash against the LDS Church from Jewish groups, who found this ritual to be insulting and insensitive, but not rising to the level of anti-Semitism. As a result of public pressure, LDS leaders in 1995 promised to stop the practice, unless specifically requested by relatives of the victims.

In the last year information surfaced that members of the LDS Church had not stopped this practice despite directives from the LDS leadership to its members, and criticism from Jewish groups began again. The Simon Wiesenthal Center[?], Los Angeles, is on record as opposing the vicarious baptism of Holocaust victims. Rabbi Marvin Hier[?] of the Center holds "If these people did not contact the Mormons themselves, the adage should be: Don't call me, I'll call you. With the greatest of respect to them, we do not think they are the exclusive arbitrators of who is saved." Recently Mormon leaders have agreed to meet with leaders of the World Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors[?].

Researcher Helen Radkey[?] has published a report showing that the 1995 promise to remove Jewish Nazi victims from its International Genealogical Index seems to have been broken; her research of the LDS Church's database uncovered the names of over 20,000 Jewish Nazi victims who have been baptised after they died. Geneaologists estimate that the total number may be over 100,000.

Jewish geneaologist Bernard Kouchel[?] conducted a search of the International Genealogical Index, and discovered that many well known Jews have been vicariously baptised, including Rashi, Maimonides, Albert Einstein, Menachem Begin, Irving Berlin, Marc Chagall, and Gilda Radner.

See recent CNN (http://www.cnn.com/2002/US/West/12/10/baptizing.the.dead.ap/) and Salt Lake Tribune (local paper) (http://www.sltrib.com/2002/Dec/12122002/utah/10420.asp) articles on the Radkey controversy.


  • (B. H. Roberts (editor); History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints; The Deseret Book Company; ISBN 0-87579-490-4 (revised 2nd edition, softcover, 1975))

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