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Jews v. Mormon Baptism


I realize I may be the only Jew in America who feels this way, but if the Mormons want to perform provisional proxy baptism ceremonies for my dead forebears, abi gezunt. I write this on the first Yahrzeit of my mother, may she rest in peace. I'm reasonably confident that should a couple of LDS brothers come knocking on her celestial door and politely ask if she'd like to avail herself of the opportunity, Mom would politely decline and go back to her piano. That's what she did in this world.

And this world is really what this long-simmering controversy is about. With appreciation to fellow RNS blogger Janna Riess, Jews do not have a very well developed sense of the relationship between this world and the next, and how actions here may effect existences there. Naturally, we are sensitive to the idea of involuntary initiation into another faith, smacking as it does of the occasional practice of forced conversion in pre-modern Christianity and Islam. But truth to tell, plain old violent persecution looms far larger in Jewish collective memory than forced conversion. 

No, what's really going on here is the Jewish need to have Christians (i.e. baptizers) acknowledge--or at least not publicly deny--that our Covenant remains as intact as ever. Let a Southern Baptist say that God does not hear the prayers of a Jew and we go nuts. Likewise when a Mainline Protestant denies our right to the Holy Land or the Vatican seems to back off Nostra Aetate. So we feel dissed by Mormon proxy baptism, which is based on the conviction that there's no other way for non-Mormons to make it to the top. As LDS apostle Quentin Cook told NPR's Howard Berkes a couple of years ago:

The savior said that everybody had to be baptized to enter into kingdom of heaven and so, by proxy, there is a baptism for all of those who are deceased. Now, we concentrate, first of all, on our ancestors and then for the people in the world at large.

This baptism is not binding on them unless they accept it, so we consider this a great effort of love and accomplish our Father in heaven's plan for his children that are deceased.

As I said, abi gezunt. It's a free country.

Topics: Faith, Doctrine & Practice
Tags: judaism, mormonism


  1. I fail to see the problem. If the religion in question has no validity what difference does it make what they do?

    I don’t believe in Voodoo so if a Voodoo priestess cast a spell on me I would not be affected in the least.  If a Native American did a rain dance I would still check the TV forecast to see if I needed an umbrella.

    If the Mormons want to waste their time performing a needless ceremony that is their business.  It would have no impact on me. 

    Additionally, if they spent more time reading the New Testament instead of the Book of Mormon they would see that baptism is for those that believe in Christ, repent of their sins and want their sins washed away.  Absent those criteria any baptism for someone else is a waste of time and effort. 

    On the other hand, if they are correct, what does it hurt? 

  2. I’m going to defend Mark’s position and expound upon it somewhat in response to GEOCOOK.  First, we have to have context.  GEOCOOK, I don’t know your religious affiliation—so feel free to respond politely and correct me where I may have gone wrong.  But, I would gather you are probably not Jewish.  I am not Jewish either, but most of my friends are Jewish and I am very sympathetic to Jewish perspectives and worldviews—they resonate very much with how I have independently come to see the world.  And so I think I totally understand what animates Mark’s point about the offensiveness of a Mormon trying to baptize his deceased Jewish mother.  GEOCOOK, for the sake of argument I’m assuming that your family background may have at one time included observant Christians, the issue of baptism whether practiced on the living or in the case of Mormons, upon the dead, would have little meaning for you.  Perhaps you easily rejected baptism, easily changed confessional and/or denominational affiliation, or simply because you live in a largely self-identified Christian nation, feel no threat from another Christian sect like Mormonism deciding to do what are admittedly strange baptismal rituals.  For a Jew the issue of Baptism, and the thought of powerful Mormon persons baptizing and/or authorizing the baptism of deceased Jewish persons; in and of itself does not raise suspicions.  But, it rings a sour note.  Mark rightly points out that Jewish collective memory has been seared by persecution.  Ever since Christianity became the state church of the Late Roman Empire under the Emperor Constantine, Jews have faced stigmatization, randomized popular violence when rulers wanted to deflect mass anger and societal frustration, and have seen their communities subjected to harsh legal and religious prescriptions based on the dubious arguments that Jews bore responsibility for the murder of Christ.  For instance, the Jewish community in Rome—which incidentally predates both the rise of Christianity and even the fall of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70CE—suffered mightily under the thumb of Papal Christian rule in Rome.  Jews living in the Roman ghetto endured restrictions on movement, high taxes, and enforced Mass attendance to hear sermons from Catholic prelates denouncing Jewish beliefs and traditions and encouraging Christian baptism of Jewish infants and young children.  About the only place a European Jewish community actually thrived and achieved relative social equality with non-Jews was in the medieval Spain ruled by the Moors.  And with the fall of the Moors to the Catholic monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand in the late 1490s came the Inquisition, the fitting precursor to the Holocaust.  And then the Holocaust itself was the defining moment of 20th century Jewish cultural history—when 2/3 of the population of European Jews were systematically gassed and murdered—and very few, even in America’s Jewish community and political leadership cared much to stop that genocide.  So, given the specters of nightmares past from Jews living in predominantly Christian societies over the past 1500 years; the picture of a Mormon baptizing a deceased Jew rightly causes a little bit of unsettlement given its cultural context.  The luxury of a Christian or a denizen in a predominantly Christian society like America that offers political rights to those unaffiliated with a church being to downplay concerns about Mormons baptizing dead persons as no more harmful than voodoo witchcraft is not a luxury afforded Jews given history.

    I’m sorry if the writing isn’t perfect or if I was careless in expressing my arguments—as I have had limited time to offer a response—but I felt compelled to at least think about this issue further.

    Nick Dahlheim

  3. Nick,

    It was not my intention to belittle Mark’s opinion but to assure him there is nothing to be afraid of.

    I am aware of the persecution of Jews throughout history.  However I have worked with and studied the Mormons and hope to relive you and Mark by informing you they have no intention of doing any physical harm. No torture, no burning at the stake, no hunting down and forcefully dunking unwilling people as other anti-Christians have done in the past.  No, they are good, kind and gentle people, albeit misinformed and misguided about the teachings of Christ.

    The apostle Paul, in his letter to the church at Galatia, was amazed they had departed from the gospel of Christ unto another gospel.  He warned them, “If we or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed” (Gal 1:6-9).  Why anyone would still grasp a different gospel alleged to have come from an angel is beyond my understanding.  But that is for another forum.
    It was not my intention to bring up the anti-Jewish pogroms, the inquisitions or the holocaust.  I simply wanted to alleviate the Jewish readers of any anxiety they may have toward the Mormons.  They mean no harm and their practice of getting wet (I don’t consider it true baptism) should be of no consequence.

    May the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob bring you peace!


  4. Hey GEOCOOK,
      Thanks for the kind response.  I see where you are coming from in trying to ally Jewish concerns.  And, you are right that the Mormons, in fact, present no threat whatsoever to the Jews.  However, an admittedly non-rational and totally understandable fear on the part of Jews about “conversions” done by anyone in a nominally Christian society—given the awful last 1500 years of Christian persecution of Jews—should at least be addressed in some fashion.  What that is, I’m not sure.  Perhaps a dialogue with Mormons encouraging them to adopt a more pluralistic theology?
    Nick Dahlheim

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