There has been an outpouring of outrage over several Jewish names that have been entered into the Church’s family history database. The level of outrage is sometimes difficult for us as Mormons to comprehend. We believe this is an act of love and compassion. Asking us not to do baptisms is akin to being asked not to love someone.
But, upon deeper reflection, I have come to a better understanding of what they may be feeling. There is a long history of forced conversions of Jews. Especially during the time of Nazi Germany, many Jews turned to their Christian neighbors to help save their families. Their children were often baptized to hide their background. Try to imagine turning our children over to the Southern Baptists for baptism, knowing that they would be forced to turn away from our faith. It would be a very difficult event for us.
Given that background, we can understand how the word “baptism” is laden with emotion and bad feelings for Jews. There are terrible German children’s books from the late 1930s that talk about the “poisonous mushroom” in referring to Jews. In one story two girls are observing a Jewish couple coming out of a synagogue. While the story is offensive, we are repeating it here to give you an understanding of the depth of hatred at the time. Remember, this is a children’s book.
The story goes like this (Warning–offensive material to follow):
One girl, Anne, starts by saying, “Do you know our girls’ leader once told us: ‘Just as little as a Negro can be made into a German by baptism, can a Jew be made into a non-Jew.'”
Grete stamps her feet angrily on the ground: “I do not understand these priests who go on baptizing Jews even today. By doing so they admit a criminal mob into the churches.”
Anne concludes: “I believe a time will come when the Christians will curse the clergy who once allowed Jews to enter the Christian Church. For the Jews only want to destroy the Christian Church. And they will destroy it if our clergy go on allowing Jews to enter. There is a saying:
‘If a Jew comes along Wanting a priest to baptize him, Be on your guard and beware; Jew remains always Jew! Baptismal water helps not a jot. That does not make the Jew any better! He is a Devil in Time And remains so through Eternity!'”
We as Latter-day Saints should be hypersensitive to anti-Semitism. I am grateful that I have never had to endure the level of antagonism that the Jewish people have had to endure over the centuries.
I was thinking of my relationship with several anti-Mormons and the oft-repeated phrase, “I’ll pray for you.” Of course, my initial thoughts are fine, go ahead, I need all of the prayers I can get. But, then I think about the times this phrase was used as a pejorative expression instead of being an act of love. It is sometimes used as a public rebuke or condemnation. I consider that usage to be offensive depending on the sincerity of the speaker.
Baptism for the dead is not meant to be a public condemnation as it is performed in the sacred space of our temples. But, certain individuals and the media have brought this very private respectful ceremony, this act of love, into the public eye and turned into a condemnation. It is no wonder that people are upset.
I am reminded of a loose film dramatization of the book Ivanhoe. In that movie, the Templar Knights were trying to condemn a Jewish man. He pointed out that they drew their authority from the Church and as he was not a member, they had no power over him. In frustration, they held the man down and “baptized” him. The Jewish man was then asked if he accepted Jesus Christ. He of course said “no.” They then claimed they had the authority to punish him because he was baptized a Christian and was now a heretic for rejecting Christ.
Nobody would truly believe that the Jewish man was Christian, against his will, from a forced baptism, any more than someone should believe that a posthumous baptism would make someone Mormon. That’s because there are two parts to baptism. One is the simple ordinance, or act, of the baptism. The other is the commitment and covenants made with that baptism. Baptizing someone for the dead within our temples may fulfill the ordinance part, but the commitment and covenants have to come from the choice of the individuals involved.
In any case, we have to be sensitive to the beliefs of others and recognize that the nature of family history work is eternal. I’m sure that so long as we are diligent, God will make a path for all of his children to receive the ordinances that they need. Meanwhile, it is very important that we follow Church policy.
Here are two Official Church statements on this issue:
Here is an article written by Michael Otterson.
This article comes from the monthly FAIR Journal.