Mormons, proxy baptism, and the Jews

The Salt Lake City Temple is the largest of 128 currently operated by the Mormon Church

The Salt Lake City Temple is the largest of 128 currently operated by the Mormon Church

Jewish leaders have expressed renewed opposition to Holocaust victims being baptized by proxy by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Later Day Saints (Mormons) despite their agreement in 1995 to stop the practice. Many Jews find the baptisms offensive and a possible threat to identifying their relatives as Jewish victims of Nazi persecution.  Mormons, for their part, see the practice as an inoffensive expression of their care for the salvation of others and the matter touches on a number of their core religious beliefs.

Mormons, like many conservative Christians, believe that a person must be baptized in order to qualify for the highest levels of salvation, a.k.a. exaltation; but they believe that the baptism can be just as effective if conducted by proxy after the person’s death.  In his recent book God is not Great noted atheist and critic of religion Christopher Hitchens explains and comments on the practice as follows:

It must be said for the “Latter-day Saints” (these conceited words were added to Smith’s original “Church of Jesus Christ” in 1833) that they have squarely faced one of the great difficulties of revealed religion. This is the problem of what to do about those who were born before the exclusive “revelation,” or who died without ever having the opportunity to share in its wonders. Christians used to resolve this problem by saying that Jesus descended into hell after his crucifixion, where it is thought that he saved or converted the dead. … The Mormons have improved on this rather backdated solution with something very literal-minded. They have assembled a gigantic genealogical database at a huge repository in Utah, and are busy filling it with the names of all people whose births, marriages, and deaths have been tabulated since records began. This is very useful if you want to look up your own family tree, and as long as you do not object to having your ancestors becoming Mormons. Every week, at special ceremonies in Mormon temples, the congregations meet and are given a certain quota of names of the departed to “pray in” to their church. This retrospective baptism of the dead seems harmless enough to me, but the American Jewish Committee became incensed when it was discovered that the Mormons had acquired the records of the Nazi “final solution,” and were industriously baptizing what for once could truly be called a “lost tribe”: the murdered Jews of Europe. For all its touching inefficacy, this exercise seemed in poor taste. I sympathize with the American Jewish Committee, but I nonetheless think that the followers of Mr. Smith should be congratulated for hitting upon even the most simpleminded technological solution to a problem that has defied solution ever since man first invented religion.

Despite Hitchens’s inauthentic praise, most Americans find baptism for the dead to be an odd and bizzare practice.  Mitt Romney, the first Mormon with a legitimate shot at winning a major party’s nomination for president, was asked numerous questions about his religious beliefs earlier this year, including at least one about proxy baptism.  While acknowledging that he had performed such baptisms, he declined giving details and referred the reporter to the LDS Church for further information.  In my experience, Mormons typically don’t volunteer information on proxy baptism (or their other ordinances) to non-Mormons and seem somewhat defensive about the practices, which are all conducted in their temples which are off-limits to non-Mormons and even many Mormons who participate inadequately in the life of the church.

This statue of Jesus is a well-known image among LDS members

This statue of Jesus is a well-known image among LDS members

Most commonly, proxy baptisms are conducted by a relative of the deceased (thus, as Hitchens points out, the vigorous interest in genealogy research among Mormons) or with at least the permission of a relative of the deceased.  The church actively encourages members to conduct such proxy baptisms for as many people as possible.  In their eagerness to do this, some Mormons began using sources other than their family trees to find people to get baptized for, like concentration camp records and the Israeli archives.  Despite rules put in place, LDS members have been baptized for Catholic popes and saints, the aforementioned Holocaust victims, and even Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun.  At times, Mormon missionaries have baptised (living) people who clearly had no intention of becoming a Mormon, or even of understanding the event—the infamous “baseball baptisms“—just to preserve the people’s chances of salvation in the afterlife. Note that, according to Mormon dogma, the mere fact of a baptism—proxy or otherwise—doesn’t make a person a Mormon or ensure salvation; the person must, in the afterlife, accept various beliefs and such in order to make the baptism effective.

Despite what Hitchens wrote, baptism for the dead doesn’t solve all of the doctrinal problems.  Namely, what about those people who left no historical records or who had lazy descendants who couldn’t be bothered to do their temple work? Apparently, people who didn’t have a proxy baptism done for them will still be okay and able to become a Mormon in the afterlife through some mechanism or other that wasn’t made particularly clear to me (eschatological beliefs are frequently difficult to pin down).  If this is so, then doing a proxy baptism for someone seems superfluous, since they’ll be fine anyway.  It makes the ordinances just seem like busy work or worse.

Incidentally, I recently visited a Mormon discussion forum asking if the church had anything like a “do not baptize” registry that I could put myself on.  As with all of my conversations with Mormons, including the three I had with their missionaries this past summer (thanks for the free Book of Mormon and the discussions, Elders Humphrey and Poulson) the folks on the forum were very pleasant and polite.  After fielding their queries about why I’d want to take such a chance and their attempts to dissuade me (“just in case”) and I eventually obtained an address for the Family History Library in Salt Lake City and an indication that they might be able to handle such a request, but I’ve yet to write them to see if such an opt-out is possible.  Even if it is, I’m not sure I’d go through with it; I have Mormon relatives and I’d hate to cause them any grief just to make a point; that wouldn’t be a very loving thing to do. In any event the actuaries predict I have many decades yet to live.  Hopefully the Jews and Mormons can reach an agreement on how to proceed with this that demonstrates mutual respect and tolerance, though I think that’ll be tricky.


2 comments so far

  1. Seth R. on

    The common Mormon belief is that undocumented ancestors will be revealed after Christ’s return to earth – so we don’t worry about it much.

    You might then ask – so why not wait until then?

    Because work for the dead is more than just for the dead. It is also for the living. Namely – it is how we connect with our forebears, and how we bind ourselves symbolically with the entire human family. This is described in Malachi 4:5, 6 –

    “5 Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD: 6 And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.”

    This is repeated in LDS scripture. Mormons believe that the prophet Elijah appeared to the early LDS Church as a resurrected person and passed on the keys of redeeming the dead to Joseph Smith in fulfillment of this prophecy.

    Believe it or not as you like, but Mormons really do feel that we are on a mission to redeem the entire world, not just a select predestined few (like many Evangelicals believe).

    This might seem coercive. But keep in mind that merely doing a baptism for a deceased person does not automatically make them a Mormon according to Mormon doctrine.

    It merely offers the person a choice.

    So the deceased Holocaust survivor is merely offered the CHOICE of whether or not to accept the baptism. If she disagrees with it, she is free to reject it.

    Final point of order – the 1995 agreement between the LDS Church and the Holocaust Survivors group was NOT to end all baptisms of Holocaust victims.

    The agreement was that the LDS Church would halt such baptisms by all Mormons EXCEPT direct descendants of those Holocaust survivors. So it was still allowed when there was a direct family line involved.

    Now, the reality is, this agreement has been hard to police by the LDS Church. The LDS genealogical database is an open system and all Mormons are free to add names to it. Inevitably, some enterprising individual Mormon slips names in that the LDS Church is trying to keep off the general database (the one ANY Mormon can take names from to do temple work for). It happens.

    Technological upgrades have been made recently that should make the job of policing the database easier – so hopefully this improves things.

    But let’s be clear, the LDS process of posthumous vicarious baptism is no more “coercive” than a pair of local missionaries marking off which houses they already visited today. Or a member of one faith uttering a prayer for someone not of his faith.

  2. WA on

    @ Seth,

    Let me tell you how i feel when i read this very polite explanation: “Goal Nefesh”.
    You should look up those words in the bible.

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