Mormons and Baptisms for the Dead

Much has been made recently in the news about how some names of Holocaust victims were submitted to the temple work system of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Church released a press release about the matter. In the release the Church stated,

“The Church keeps its word and is absolutely firm in its commitment to not accept the names of Holocaust victims for proxy baptism.

It takes a good deal of deception and manipulation to get an improper submission through the safeguards we have put in place.

While no system is foolproof in preventing the handful of individuals who are determined to falsify submissions, we are committed to taking action against individual abusers by suspending the submitter’s access privileges. We will also consider whether other Church disciplinary action should be taken.

It is distressing when an individual willfully violates the Church’s policy and something that should be understood to be an offering based on love and respect becomes a source of contention.”

In the 1990s the Church made it a rule that the names of Holocaust victims could not be submitted to the temple for proxy ordinances to be performed for them. This was in response to Jewish leaders who found the practice offensive. The only condition under which the names could be submitted is if a direct descendent submits them her or himself. So since the mid 1990s, it has been against church policy for church members to submit Holocaust victim names. The Church has safeguards in place and it takes”willful violation” and “a good deal of deception and manipulation” to get around those safeguards. The Church does not look kindly upon those breaking the rules in this matter.

I’m going to offer my perspective on the matter of proxy baptisms (and other ordinances) for those who have died. Some outside the Church find the work offensive, others do not care either way (without any statistical evidence I’d guess that most people do not care about baptisms for the dead). There are varying reasons for taking offense at the actions but I will only cover the doctrine of baptisms for the dead.

First, proxy ordinances for the deceased is not a new creation of the LDS Church. It is Biblical (“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?” 1 Cor. 15:29) but the LDS Church does not rely completely on written scripture, we believe in modern day revelation with living prophets who speak God’s words, just as prophets did anciently. Living prophets have also taught of the importance of proxy work for the deceased (e.g., this talk by an apostle of Jesus Christ).

Why is this work important? We believe that in order for people to return to live with God again, they must receive certain necessary ordinances, including baptism and confirmation. Baptisms in the LDS Church occur when individuals are at least 8 years old, when they are old enough to choose for themselves (particularly choosing right from wrong) and start to understand the baptism. We believe that all people must receive this ordinance. So what happens to all those who died without the opportunity? Are they forever damned? No! God provides a way for them to have that work done on their behalf. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can attend LDS temples and do this work on behalf of those who have died. Proxy work is not a new concept – ancient Jews believed and practiced it (the law of Moses includes many proxy ordinances) and ancient Christians did as well. Jesus Christ offered the greatest of all proxy work – that of the Atonement for all humankind. He did what we could not do for ourselves – overcome sin and death. In a like manner but on a much lesser scale, we have the opportunity to help those who cannot  perform this work themselves – those who are dead.

To truly understand LDS baptisms for the dead, it is necessary to understand LDS theology regarding the purpose of life, what happens after we die, and our relationship to God. That’s more than I can cover in this post but suffice it to say that a portion of what people might find offensive about these baptisms for the dead is based upon misinformation about the purpose of the work. I’m not saying that people are only offended because they misunderstand, I’m saying that there is a lot of contextual doctrine that needs to be understood before the reason and goals of these proxy ordinances for the dead can be understood.

We believe that when people die, they enter a period of rest and learning and yes, even suffering. Some people will suffer for the wrongs they did, others will just have to learn more, and still others will be involved in teaching those who need more knowledge to continue to progress. What is important though is that agency – the ability to choose right from wrong – is never taken away. After we die, we are still the same people, just without physical bodies at the time and with a little more knowledge than we had while mortal on earth. Once a baptism is performed for someone who is dead, it does not make them Mormon or even Christian. If that person accepts the work then they can become part of God’s Kingdom but again, the choice is never made for him or her – it is an individual’s responsibility to accept or reject Christ.

So let’s say that Ms. Jane Brown died in 1854 at the age of 16. Her physical body was buried and her spirit went to the Spirit World (which is here on earth) to be with family members and friends. Jane was never baptized in The Church of Jesus Christ by one holding God’s Priesthood; she had been baptized as a child but it was not done with God’s authority (that does not mean it was meaningless, just not valid – that’s a big distinction). We believe that God’s priesthood – the authority and power to act in His name and perform the necessary ordinances and rituals – is found only within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Down the road, one of her relatives (let’s say a great-great-great niece) is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and wants to offer her the same opportunities that she has; so, she performs work in an LDS Temple for and on behalf of Jane.

The work is done – baptism, confirmation, sealing to parents (assuming their work was done as well) – but it is up to Jane to accept it or not. Those who are deceased are never forced to accept the work performed on behalf of them. If they do accept the work, they will have done what is necessary – exercised faith in Jesus Christ and repented. This is not much different than how it works in this life. The gospel of Jesus Christ is inclusive, not exclusive. Christ beckons all to come unto Him. He does not want to save just those who lived in times or places where His gospel was taught, He wants to save all who accept that salvation. Baptism (in life or by proxy in death) by those with God’s authority is an essential step in returning to God again. This is why baptisms for the dead are performed – to offer all the opportunity to return to live with God again.

There are more reasons for baptism for the dead. There is a lot more I could write. I’m not trying to justify the practice to those who are offended, I’m simply offering theological background to the practice. We Mormons view it as a great act of love to perform this ordinance for others; it goes beyond that as well, we view it as something that has to be done. It is ideally done for our own ancestors but we are asked to help perform the work for others. When people submit names to the temple to have work performed for them, those submitted names should be those of their ancestors, generally not random people to whom they are unrelated. At some point in the future, baptisms will have to be performed for everyone who ever lived on earth but much of this work probably will not be done until the Millennium, a time when Christ has returned to earth to rule and reign.

A lot of the problems come from misinformation and misunderstandings by people on both sides of the issue (i.e., within the church and without the church). Both sides would do well to have increased communication and information about each other’s concerns and practices.

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