Another Look at Baptism for the Dead

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THE topic of vicarious or “proxy” baptisms performed by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has recently received a lot of attention, both positive and negative. (And both factual and lacking in accuracy, it’s fair to say.) I’m sure the topic will come up again, so even though it’s not at this moment a hot topic bouncing around the news, I’d like to share a few of my own thoughts about this issue and the way it’s been characterized as a horrible, disrespectful thing to do on behalf of the deceased.

Doctrinal Differences

Certainly, there are those who object to the practice due to a disagreement over whether the practice genuinely belongs in a Christian faith. I’ll briefly respond to this since others have already given this plenty of good coverage, including articles on the FAIR wiki and main website. We’ve always pointed to a verse from the New Testament where the apostle Paul asks,

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

Some object to this, saying that Paul wasn’t condoning the practice, but was referring to a group of heretics, not Christians. I would say that Paul isn’t discussing baptism here directly, but trying to give a convincing argument supporting the reality of the resurrection. Given that, it’s interesting that he uses baptism for the dead as something that apparently would be familiar to his audience and would provide a compelling reason to believe in the resurrection. That would be a strange thing to do if his point was to speak against—or even downplay—the practice of vicarious rites.2 Others deny the necessity of literal water baptism as a works-based salvation heresy or even simply say that it’s pointless because people who died without a proper Christian baptism are irrevocably condemned to damnation.

We’re used to that sort of dialog. We get that. What has been a newer experience3 is the claim that even attempting this work is a horrific, cruel, thoughtless act, for which we should be ashamed of ourselves. Yet more proof, in some people’s way of thinking, of the depravity of Mormons is that we would dare to plunder the afterlife to add souls to our religion through forced posthumous conversion to Mormonism, offending their surviving relatives.

This is honestly baffling because the characterization of the practice I just wrote, while I think fairly
representative of what many in the world have been voicing on this topic, is so utterly at odds with the way the LDS approach the practice, our initial reaction is to be shocked that it’s taken that way. We see it as an offering of inclusion for any to freely accept or reject, but we’re at least offering to share all we have in the afterlife with them rather than turning our backs on them for being outside our faith.

Outrageous Ordinances?

That’s not how some see it, and it’s taken me some time and effort to (I believe) come to understand why that might be. To explain why, consider first what this means to the Latter-day Saints. Like most Christian sects, the LDS believe that acceptance of Jesus Christ as savior and atoning mediator is a necessary condition for salvation and full reconciliation with God, and the participation in the physical acts of baptism and confirmation are essential components of how that acceptance is formally entered as a covenant relationship with God. We have a rather unique answer to the dilemma of what happens to the souls of those who never had the opportunity to make that choice for themselves during their mortal lives.

In LDS doctrine, God is universally just and requires the same entrance criteria to heaven of every human being who ever lived, but is likewise universally merciful and offers the same possibility of achieving it to every human being, and “he inviteth all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.”4 And, I would add, “whether born in a time, place, and circumstance where they could possibly, or would reasonably, accept this covenant, or not.”

Therefore, He provided a way for those still living to repeat the sacramental rites, (or “ordinances” to use the more familiar LDS term for them), on behalf of the deceased, standing in for them by proxy. What is important to note here is that at no point does the LDS church consider those deceased people to have received baptism or to be members of the LDS church or even Christianity by virtue of that act alone. All it means is that the required physical covenant-making ceremonies have been performed for them, so that in the event that departed soul makes the choice on their own volition to embrace it, then and only then does it have any effect.5

This is a crucial distinction to understand where the LDS are coming from for our part in this. The increasingly popular characterization is that we’re “stealing souls” by “converting them to Mormonism” or even “preying on the defenseless souls and robbing them of their heritage when they are powerless to resist.” As lurid as that spin makes this sound, putting it like that makes it hard for LDS to understand the point of view of those complaining, since it’s so very different from what we believe is even taking place. On one hand that complaint seems to indicate an acceptance that the proxy baptism actually has a real effect on anyone, which makes us do a bit of a double-take (“Wait, are you saying you believe our religion actually is right or has any real power in the afterlife?” If so, maybe it’s worth paying attention to… but if you don’t believe that, then you don’t believe anyone’s being affected at all by the practice anyway). On the other hand, not even the LDS believe they’re converting anyone, just opening a door for them should they (the deceased) choose to take it from there.

“What right do you have to do such an awful thing to my ancestors, or members of my faith or community?” they ask, and the LDS are genuinely puzzled with why it’s awful in the first place, as well as why anyone can really take it upon themselves to stand as the spokesperson for a previous generation and assert that they have the right to determine the choices they would have made if still living, when all the LDS are doing is offering a choice, not presuming to force them.

Working Toward Mutual Understanding and Cooperation

I’ve read a lot of what they’ve had to say about why they’re outraged. Setting aside ranting comments by people more interested in stirring up a controversy for its own sake, there remain a number of people who seem to me to have a reasonable point to make as to why the practice makes them uncomfortable. They have gone along the general theme that it is, they feel, disrespectful to the memory of these people, that (and I’ll focus here on the Jewish people here since that’s the current controversy) it is seen as robbing them of their Jewish heritage by “turning them into Mormons or even Christians.” The one point that hit home most to me was one writer who said he was offended because this practice was essentially saying that the Jewish religion was insufficient to get their people to heaven, and so the LDS must feel they have to step in and meddle in some condescending way, and showed the anti-semitic prejudice of the LDS.

And you know, I think I get that.

I can respect that point of view and understand how one would hold it and feel that way about all of this.

But if I may respond with a gentle rebuttal giving a better view of what’s going on from the LDS point of view, perhaps I can help foster a little more mutual understanding.

Anti-Semitism and Mormonism

In reality, you’d be hard pressed to find a Christian denomination more pro-Israel, one would even say philo-semitic, than the LDS. Beyond the usual association common to Christians that our religion is a continuation from the foundations of Judaism, that we hold the Hebrew scriptures among our other holy books as scripture, that we also worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and see Israel as God’s ancient covenant people, the LDS go further by taking literally the concept that the righteous people of the Gentile nations will be “grafted in” to Israel and adopted into the covenant. We speak of the church as Zion, we even go to the lengths of receiving a blessing at the hands of our patriarch, whereupon we are given the name of the actual tribe of Israel we’re adopted into.

In the part of the Book of Mormon we were studying in my Sunday School class recently, there’s a passage which does as good a job as I can think of to illustrate the LDS view of the Jews. The passage isn’t directly even about the Jews. It’s about how people will reject the idea of more scripture (such as the Book of Mormon itself), but in addressing that, the writer pauses to throw in this sentiment about the Jewish people:

And because my words shall hiss forth—many of the Gentiles shall say: A Bible! A Bible! We have got a Bible, and there cannot be any more Bible.

But thus saith the Lord God: O fools, they shall have a Bible; and it shall proceed forth from the Jews, mine ancient covenant people. And what thank they the Jews for the Bible which they receive from them? Yea, what do the Gentiles mean? Do they remember the travails, and the labors, and the pains of the Jews, and their diligence unto me, in bringing forth salvation unto the Gentiles?

O ye Gentiles, have ye remembered the Jews, mine ancient covenant people? Nay; but ye have cursed them, and have hated them, and have not sought to recover them. But behold, I will return all these things upon your own heads; for I the Lord have not forgotten my people.

And it shall come to pass that my people, which are of the house of Israel, shall be gathered home unto the lands of their possessions; and my word also shall be gathered in one. And I will show unto them that fight against my word and against my people, who are of the house of Israel, that I am God, and that I covenanted with Abraham that I would remember his seed forever.6

A religious sect who sent one of their leaders across the globe in 1841 to climb the Mount of Olives and offer a prayer of dedication, asking God to bless the Holy Land for the return of the Jews, is hardly anti-semitic.

At least in the eyes of one Jewish co-worker I chatted with on the subject many years ago, LDS devotion to Israel was, she felt, somewhere between “flattering” and “a bit annoying”—much as an older child feels when their younger sibling follows them around everywhere trying to emulate everything they do. I accept that the attention isn’t always what the older sibling wants (I was the eldest in my family—I speak from experience here), but you have to admit it’s driven from love, not hatred or even disdain.

In trying to get we LDS to understand how offensive our practice of “trying to save” our ancestors is, some have asked rhetorically, “How would you feel if we gave your ancestors, or you yourself a posthumous bar mitzvah, or circumcision, or if a coven of Wiccans performed a Rite of Dedication for you, or was handfasted in your name, or what if a Buddhist, or Muslim, or Hindu, or Catholic, or Baptist, performed any manner of their religious rituals on your behalf after you’re dead, how would that make YOU feel, huh?

Honestly? I’d be honored. I’d be grateful that you thought enough of me to offer.

Let other groups shut them out of the afterlife they see for themselves, or consign them to a fiery doom. We aren’t even trying to push them into our vision of the afterlife. We’re just setting a place at our table with their name on it, and leaving the door open for them. The rest is literally up to them.

And we do the same for everyone. For this, we’re told we’re insensitive monsters.

Maybe I still don’t quite get it.

As a Jew, I am less interested in what other religions teach about the fate of Jews in the next world than in how they affect the fate of Jews in this world. Rafael Medoff, a scholar of America’s response to the Holocaust, notes that Mormon leaders were outspoken supporters of efforts to rescue Jews from Nazi Europe at a time when many mainstream Christians were silent. For example, Utah Senator William King . . . strongly backed legislation that could have saved Anne Frank and her family.

Outraged by proxy baptisms? Count me out. As my stunted family tree attests, the Jewish people have very real, very dangerous enemies. Mormons undergoing peaceful rituals in their own temples aren’t on the list.

—Jeff Jacoby, in his article “Outraged by Mormon Proxy Baptism? Not This Jew”


11 Corinthians 15:29

2It’s also interesting to note how differently we approach the concept of the scriptural reference. Members of Protestant sola scriptura traditions assume we’re just proof-texting an entire practice gleaned from a single verse fragment (“Hey, Paul mentions something called ‘baptism for the dead,’ we better get busy doing that!”) and are a little baffled by that. From the point of view of a church based on the idea of continuing revelation, we think it is cool and all that Paul mentioned it in his day, but that’s more of a supportive role. The basis for the modern practice is a modern revelation (e.g., D&C 124), by modern prophets (e.g., D&C 127).

3Of course, on this point and throughout this entire entry I’m speaking only for myself, my opinions, beliefs, and experiences. I’m no sort of spokesperson for FAIR, let alone all Latter-day Saints or anything.

42 Nephi 26:33. Also, Acts 10:34 (God is no respecter of persons).

5In fact, nowhere in any of the rituals is the deceased person directly told anything like “I baptize you…” (as is the case for a living convert). Rather, the living person is addressed directly, and told that they are being baptized… on behalf of someone else. That’s not just semantics, it’s extremely significant.
62 Nephi 29:3–5, 14.

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