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Three Things I Wish Non-Mormons Knew about LDS Baptism for the Dead


Yesterday, the Salt Lake Tribune reported that despite the LDS Church's repeated assurances that it would no longer baptize Holocaust victims, someone in the Dominican Republic has recently done precisely that. For Anne Frank, no less.

Moreover, she has been baptized in this way before, only to have the ordinance invalidated because of public complaints about Mormon insensitivity. 

The last two weeks have seen an unprecedented display of media attention to the LDS ritual of baptism for the dead, or "proxy baptism." As for the semantics, both terms are correct, but you can certainly see why in recent years the LDS Church has sought to use the "proxy baptism" label to avoid misunderstandings. (A member of my own extended family, for example, was once convinced that Mormons exhumed the bones of dead people and dragged them forcibly to LDS temples. Aside from the obvious ick factor [as Buffy would say, "raise your hand if eeeewwww"], the logistics of such an undertaking would be seriously daunting.) 

I've been following much of the recent media coverage and the popular response. I've already issued a public plea for Mormons to exercise better judgment when thinking about baptizing any deceased Jews, not just Holocaust victims, and explained some theological points of contention. Here I want to focus instead on the actual practice of proxy baptism, and clear up several misconceptions about how and why it takes place.

1) Proxy baptism is a surprisingly decentralized process. 

In a podcast interview on Mormon Matters this week, I made the argument that the public perception of the LDS Church as somehow authorizing Holocaust baptisms is the Church's own fault. That's not because the Church has equivocated in any way about Holocaust baptisms; it has repeatedly insisted that they are simply not acceptable. It's because the Church has a well-deserved reputation -- one that it constantly encourages -- as being a top-down centralized organization that runs a very tight ship.

The problem is that temple work, which includes baptism for the dead, isn't remotely a tight ship. 

Temple rituals happen when individual Mormons around the world -- not the official organization in Salt Lake City -- submit the names and dates of deceased ancestors through software called TempleReady. The first time I ever did this back in 1994, I was surprised by the lack of bureaucratic oversight in the process. I had been doing genealogical research on my ancestors. I submitted those names to the Washington, D.C. temple for approval, then set a date when a group of people from my ward in New Jersey could come with me to perform the baptisms. No one at the temple checked to make sure those names were those of my actual ancestors (though they were). For such a hierarchical organization, the Church's approach to temple work was highly individualistic, even laissez faire. Some oversight has been instituted since 1995 to prevent baptisms of Holocaust victims, or of celebrities unrelated to the church member who submits the names, but it's still all too possible for an individual Mormon to "go rogue" in this matter. I'm almost never one for stricter controls on the part of the LDS hierarchy, which already wants to dictate too much of Mormon life, but in this case greater supervision is essential.

2) Proxy baptism does not equal posthumous conversion.

This week I stumbled upon the hilarious website, a satirical approach that lampoons Mormons' heavy-handedness with the dead and the living:

Sadly, many Mormons throughout history have died without having known the joys of homosexuality. With your help, these poor souls can be saved.

Simply enter the name of your favorite dead Mormon in the form below and click Convert! Presto, they're gay for eternity. There is no undo.

Don't know any dead Mormons? Click the "Choose-a-Mormon" button and we'll find one for you. You're welcome!

I got a great laugh out of this -- and I "converted" an alleged Mormon named Janet Lee into being gay. But despite the welcome humor, the site is predicated on two errors: a) that any name listed in the International Genealogical Index is of a Mormon (the vast majority are not Mormon, just as the vast majority of the human population is not Mormon); and b) that a proxy ordinance "converts" any individual in the hereafter. As I said in my post last week, it may not matter to outsiders that this is not a ritual of conversion but one of opportunity -- individuals on the other side of the veil are absolutely entitled to refuse the ordinance if they choose -- but it would be nice if outsiders at least knew the facts about what Mormons actually think they are doing. (As a Jewish friend of mine put it last week in an email conversation, he understands that Mormon proxy baptism is like getting a credit card offer in the mail: it's up to him to activate it. He's still not interested, thanks.)

The IGI question is interesting. Last week Elie Wiesel called upon Mitt Romney for moral reform when Wiesel learned that his own Jewish parents were listed in the IGI. But as I said above, the IGI is not an index of non-Mormons who have had temple rituals performed for them; there is a much smaller database of those names. The LDS Church through its genealogical program scans parish registers, census data, military records, obituaries, marriage licenses and the like for many nations and many centuries and consolidates them into a huge public record that is available to all. Some fraction of the people listed in the IGI have had ordinances done, but most have not. So when I "converted" the IGI's Janet Lee from being "Mormon" to being gay, chances are actually better that Janet was Anglican, Catholic, or agnostic than Mormon.

3) Mitt Romney is probably not dissembling when he says he hasn't participated in proxy baptisms for a long time.

This is a minor point, but I have gotten the feeling that some members of the media doubt Mitt Romney's veracity when he claims to have participated in proxy baptism in the past, but not in a long time. This isn't flip-flopping. In Mormon tradition, proxy baptism is a ritual usually performed by teenagers and young adults, not middle-aged or older folks like Romney. For many Mormon youth, proxy baptism is their first introduction to a Mormon temple. Although the ritual itself is basically the same as any live baptism performed in an ordinary meetinghouse and open to the public, it takes on a new significance within the "sacred space" of the temple. 

Mitt Romney's older grandkids are probably doing proxy baptisms for the dead nowadays, but Mitt and Ann wouldn't be unusual if they hadn't done so in some time, except perhaps as chaperones on a youth temple trip. 

My last argument is a very basic one. Mormons generally have the best of intentions when they perform proxy baptism, and their belief actually benefits the world in a specific and tangible way; because they pour so much energy into collecting geneaological information and making it publicly available, they provide a gift of recordkeeping to the world.

Even considering that, Mormons should try harder -- much harder -- to understand why some people view baptism for the dead as offensive or commandeering. 


Photo of temple baptismal font from RNS Archives.

Tags:, anne frank baptized in mormon temple, elie wiesel, flunking sainthood, international gene, jana riess, mormon baptism for the dead, mormon matters podcast, mormons in dominican republic, mormons to baptize only their own ancestors, proxy baptism, salt lake tribune


  1. Thanks, Jana, for helping to set the record straight.  If I may, I would add a couple of comments.

    First, Mormons do not believe that deceased Jews are in hell; THAT is the doctrinal teaching of many, if not most, Christian denominations.  By contrast, according to the 1832 revelation recorded in Doctrine and Covenants Section 76, good Jews, like Good Christians, are bound, sans baptism by Mormons, for the Terrestrial Kingdom, a level of heaven which, as far as I can tell, appears to fulfill all of the classic expectations about heaven that most people look forweard to.  The point of a Mormon vicarious baptism is to give both Jews and Christians the opportunity, post-mortem, to be raised through Christ’s grace into an even more blessed level of heavenly happiness. 

    So from the Mormon viewpoint, deceased Jews can look forward to happiness in eternity, and through temple baptism, even more happiness than most.  On the other hand, the classic traditional Christian viewpoint is that all deceased Jews are irredeemably in hell forever.  Which of these views is more positive toward the Jews? 

    Second, I am a former prosecutor, so I have a tendency to look for mens rea (guilty intent) when I see misconduct.  Since the Church has been so emphatic about the policy of not baptizing people who died within the last hundred years, unless they are our relatives, anyone actually submitting the names of someone like Anne Frank with the intent to have her baptized vicariously appears to be acting in defiance of the Church’s apostolic leaders. Is there a possibility that such acts of defiance are being done deliberately? 

    You know that there are always a number of people who have lost their belief in Mormonism, and there are always a number of such people who are Mormons in Name Only.  Such folks who have become disaffected from the Church but still have residual temple IDs have access to many web sites where they commiserate, and which would facilitate a few of them deciding to carry out precisely this kind of small rebellion in an effort to toilet paper the temples, so to speak.  This would explain the burst of alleged instances involving Jews with prominent names all coming within a few days of each other and timed to not only attack the Mormons but also candidate Mitt Romney, who is a lightning rod for all things anti-Mormon simply because a lot of people don’t know any other Mormons.  Such is the case apparently with Mr. Wiesel, who would have better luck talking to the president of the nearest Mormon temple.  I would not be surprised if we are tereated, in the not too distant future, with one of these MINOs bragging about his actions, and applauded by the same people who applauded Bill Maher for his attacks on Ann Romney for having her Dad baptized vicariously.  Exactly when did it become Maher’s business what the family of Ann Davis Romney does within a religious context?

  2. Tere ya go. Blaming ex-Mormon’s for some conspiracy to make Mormons look creepy as though their baptising dead Jews doctrine (original, revised, truncated, withdrawn or hidden)  doesn’t make them look foolish enough. Yes, a conspiracy reaching all the way to the presidential elections ...  I’m sure that’s it.

    And the Mormon fundamentalists who continue to adhere to Jos. Smiths and Brig. Young’s admonishment to practice polygamy,...they’re just doing it to make the “real” LDS church look bad.  As though the peculiar timing of the “revelation” to quit polygamy,happening to be in synch with Utah’s bid for statehood,  doesn’t make the church look hypocritical enough.

    And the “revelation” that overturned the ban on “the acursed” Blacks entering the priest hood (reserved only for the “delightsome whites”), wasn’t a transparent response to the civil rights movement. How could that make the LDS church look like anything other than self serving?

    Nah, I don’t buy this apologetic, anymore than I buy the Scientologist’s indignation over being declared a giant cult and money making scheme.

    As for it being “Maher’s business” -  it is “the business” of social commentators to point out, unmask, expose and as appropriate ridicule injustice, stupidity, patently offensive or just plain insipid actions, polices, and behavior of the public at large, and institutions. 

    That said- I’d say that conducting a superstitious ritual upon the non-existent spirit, of devout Jews who by definition rejected the divinity f jesus, or a relative of Romney’s who was a life long avowed non-believer,  pretty much covers the gamut of criteria to warrant commentary, as well as ridicule and disdain.

  3. Afterthought:
    I wonder what the reaction of the Mormon community would be if Satan worshippers took names of deceased Mormons and conducted a ritual in their name that would transfer their soul to Satan’s service as an act of kindness and generosity to those otherwise lost and deceived Mormon souls.

    While no doubt Mormons would actively counter such a notion, declaring it impossible since the souls of their dead are delightsomely white and happily ruling their own planets as gods ( pause here to consdier the absurdity), I’m guessing there would at least be some degree of indignation by those Mormons who genuinely believe in souls and Satan, and supernatural magical rituals.

    But hey, why should Satanists worry about Mormon sensibilities? 


  4. I totally agree with Bart—only let’s take it one step further. Let’s assemble every single religion and belief system into a day where everyone converts every single dead Mormon to their religion. No undo. We could do it online just like the [they won’t allow me to list it but it’s for gays and it’s listed above] do, only with a fill-in-your-religion field. We just have a mass proxy conversion of all of the millions of dead people who are members of the Mormon church. How much you wantta bet that flies? Oh, sure, the heads of the church complain. Oh sure, they can’t really do anything about people doing it on their own. But they sure can excommunicate people who speak out. They should be held accountable for this despicable act. And until they do so, let’s hold a convert-dead-Mormons day.

  5. Would some one explain how a sect such as the Mormon church enjoys such massive prosperity throughout the world? They are richer than the Catholics, and surely hold more real estate, all LDS cults included, than the scientologists. I believe they are arrogant to hold the concept of proxy baptism as desirable to my ancestors, Jewish and Christian alike. It is a superstition, and appears to be nothing more than empty majick.

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