LDS baptisms of the dead explained & contextualized

Via RealClearBooks, here’s a sensible explanation of the Mormon practice of baptizing the dead by Samuel Brown, which he argues is part of a universalizing impulse as well as reflective of the faith’s nineteenth-century origins:

First, it is a solution to what some scholars call Christianity’s “scandal of particularity.” By this they mean that Christianity claims that salvation comes only through Christ. If that is true, though, what about those who had no conceivable way to hear of Christ, let alone to confess him? What justice is there in a Gospel that arbitrarily denies heaven to people merely by token of their place of birth? Joseph Smith and his Latter-day Saints answered emphatically, “None.” The Mormon solution to the scandal of particularity was not that Christ is unnecessary, but that Christ can be brought to everyone in the afterlife. While the notion offends many modern ears, the solution has a sort of ambitious coherence.

Second, baptism for the dead is a reflection of early Mormon ideas about the nature of family and human relationships. Though in the 20th century Mormons emphasized a more Victorian interpretation of these beliefs, early Mormon beliefs about family were stunningly universal. The family of heaven encompassed essentially every human being in early Mormon belief. Mormons understood baptism as the mechanism by which individuals were adopted into that vast family of heaven. On this view, baptism for the dead represents the hope that all of humanity will be united in the afterlife as one harmonious family. Mormons, rather than looking down at the damned with pious glee, are exploring every possible avenue to get the supposedly damned into heaven. That they employ the very physical rite of baptism to unite the human family reflects more than anything the assiduously literal and physical bent of Mormon thought.

Baptism is all hokum to me, whether it’s infant baptism, adult baptism, or baptism for the dead.  I certainly understand that people are resentful of what they see as the imperious baptism of their dead relatives, especially relatives who weren’t of any branch of Christianity, but if you don’t share LDS beliefs, it shouldn’t really matter, should it?  (And if you secretly believe postmortem Mormon baptism works, then maybe you should get yourself to the nearest stake and convert!)

72 thoughts on “LDS baptisms of the dead explained & contextualized

  1. Re. outrage at Mormon rebaptisms: it’s not just Jews. Some Church of England bishops in the 1970s refused permission to the Mormons for microfilming parish records precisely because they were offended by the rebaptism process.


  2. Well as recently as 2008, the Vatican forbid their records (ie those held by the diocesans in whatever country) being accessed by the LDS for this reason. I doubt they’ve changed their position on this. I also remember some controversy when the UK archives made a deal with the LDS over digitising the census a few years back, but I can’t remember the nature of the controversy now and can’t find a quick google reference.

    The CofE in the UK are in a harder position to refuse as many of their records are no longer held by them anymore.


  3. “Religions don’t run other people’s lives, other people do. Religion is just a handy tool and convenient place to hide. If the @ssholes weren’t whacking you with a holy book, they’d be whacking you with something else.”

    So why this weird insistence that Jews aren’t allowed to be offended by Mormons whacking away at them with Mormonism and their Mormon “holy book”?

    I think it’s really interesting that we’re supposed to take a bunch of (Mormon) cultists at their word about why they’re engaging in wholesale colonization just because the people they’re colonizing are (Jewish) cultists.

    It seems to boil down to Mormon cult practices aren’t offensive either because a) the Mormon cultists say so or b) their aggression is just against other cultists who have no standing to be offended because they’re also cultists.

    So Mormon cultists are defended on religious grounds while secular objections to Mormon cult practices are pooh-poohed as an “over the top false equivalency”. When comes the lecture about how secular leftists are making the religious-tolerant lefists LOOK BAD?!?

    Also, it’s not a false equivalancy: the underlying *secular* principle is the same. Keep your damn religion to yourself even if you’re only aggressing against fellow cultists. Because the type of “religious tolerance” being argued for here really *is* a slippery slope.


  4. I’m neither Rachel #1 or #2–another Rachel altogether. I didn’t read the entire thread, but, Historiann, just in case no one answered your question, Mormons do not baptize infants. They believe in an age of consent (teenage years, I think), just like another Christian movement that began at the same time–the Campbellite movement. Adult water baptism for these folks! (I’ve done some research on LDS for my dissertation on religious experiences and ethics in the antebellum era.)


  5. Interesting discussions. Disclaimer, “I am a Mormon.” But I’ll do my best to be abstract and think out of the box. :)

    A couple have already done a great job of attempting to highlight the subtle points about the LDS’s theology’s prime directive that “the Agency of the Soul” is paramount. And how this jades just what proxy baptisms are, and aren’t. I notice some seem to try and appreciate that, others are too busy to get it. To shed some light on the other questions and issues that I see, and these are of course my answers only, not official ones, go to to get the quotable/definitive answers before reading my ramblings as authoritative proof of anything…

    + Is the Mormon baptismal ritual accepted by other Christian creeds? If not, why not? I’m not aware of any cases where it is. There may be some edge cases. Many will talk about theological differences. In my opinion though, it’s much simpler than that. LDS don’t accept the baptismal ritual of any other Christian creeds, so turn-about ends up being fairplay. Among the reformationist sects there’s a sort of “free trade” agreement. But the LDS faith puts a huge store on modern revelation, where “revelation” is actually a pretty broad idea, including authority. To become a member of the LDS church, you have to be baptized by an authorized priesthood holder, little wonder that other faiths don’t reciprocate by validating the LDS baptism. The latter day saints take the authority to perform rituals quite seriously, to levels similar to that found amongst the levitical tribe’s rights found in the Old Testament.

    + Why does the LDS church have a pact with the Jewish community, but not other religious communities, such as the Catholics or Anglican bishops, both who have at times in the past, raised a similar stink? The church’s BYU Jerusalem Center is really important to the church. At the time the church was granted to build the Jerusalem Center, the agreement regarding posthumous baptisms was granted. I guess it was deemed worth the cost. Theologically, it was probably a justifiable exception, given the Jewish people’s “reserved” status in the LDS understanding of the bigger picture (i.e. they’re the Lord’s covenant/chosen people and he’ll make sure it all works out with them). But if it weren’t for the Jerusalem Center, and a feeling that the church needs to have some presence in the Holy Land, I don’t think you’d see the church granting special exceptions to Jewish ancestry.

    + Does the practice of proxy baptism serve a practical purpose? I mean other than it’s theological roots in Paul’s statements and the revelation received by modern day leaders? I think it does. In general, the practice helps members focus on something other than the here and now. Regardless of whether the persons the baptisms are being performed for are close family ancestry, or just a name on a piece of paper, it’s a time to reflect on the past. As well as the future. Regardless of the validity of a mythology around a practice that helps people think a little bit past the immediacy of the here and now, the practice is a good thing for people. The other reality, is that for many LDS, when performing proxy baptisms, they may be reminiscing about their own personal baptism, recommitting to what it means for them. It’s a sort of a loophole for the fact that for LDS, baptism is a one time thing (as opposed to other reformationist creeds that allow repeated baptisms, every time feeling you need to re-up on your contract with God).

    + Is a liberal schism imminent in the LDS faith? I seriously doubt it. But will there be a wave of people who are about ready to peel off and leave the LDS faith behind, headed for more “englihtened” and “less encumbered” grounds? Probably. This won’t be anything new for the LDS faith. As many as 15% of the church body left the church near the end of their 3 year stay in Kirtland OH in the 1800’s. A number of people left the faith during the secession crisis (there were more saints in the British Isles during this point than there were in the US actually). And when the church traded the practice of polygamy for statehood, there were many who left or at least set themselves aside, so to speak. These cycles of conversion and apostasy are rooted throughout the entire narrative of the Book of the Mormon. The Old Testament provides a similar narrative of leave and return to the faith.

    + Thoughts on offense. I find this the most interesting part of this debate, as it rages across various blogs and websites. Offense is a choice that the offended makes. It’s not like being hit in the arm, where the pain you feel is not in question. When someone says something about me, or does something that doesn’t deal with me, I make the choice to be offended. Or not to be offended. I’m not trying to be harsh or indifferent or offensive. But the choice for a person to be offended is that person’s. I could choose to be offended every time someone mocks or belittles what I take seriously. I’m a good guy that contributes to society in positive ways, I take care of the poor and sick, give when I can, try to raise a moral family, etc, so why then do I have to put up with ripping mormons left and right, usually on baseless and hurtful terms. I can choose to be offended by this, or not. It is up to me. Frankly, giving up my agency to determine what makes me happy, giving it to the actions of someone else so that it is out of my control, is silly of me. I could choose to be offended that the Jewish people of the past chose to crucify a so-called-Jesus-person and don’t recognize the gravity of what that might mean. That would be silly of me. Ask yourself this. If these newsworthy baptisms had happened back in the 50’s, long before the Jerasulem center existed, long before there was a Mormon or two in the political limelight, would you still be “so offended” by it?


  6. Who gives a flying shit about Mormon excuses for their aggression against other people? Why should I, or any secular leftist, spend even a second caring about Mormon theology? It comes down to this: Keep your damn hands to yourself. Stop trying to indoctrinate people into your foolish cult even if they *are* dead.

    This: “Offense is a choice that the offended makes” is the same pile of self-serving shit that agressors always serve up when people object to their aggression.


  7. Prop. 8 is a better example in your favor, but it doesn’t forbid the gay marriage of *dead* people. Again, post-mortem baptisms may be distasteful, but it’s neither required nor enforced by law.

    I don’t know see how the law could productively intervene in the dispute here. Forbidding LDS post-mortem baptisms would be an infringement of the First Amendment, and I don’t believe that the dead are covered by the Bill of Rights or U.S. Constitution at all.


  8. I’m not advocating for the law intervening.

    I’m advocating for not tolerating intolerance under the (mis)rationale that only irrational people get offended by that particular intolerance.

    I’m advocating for not taking bigots’ word for it that what they’re doing isn’t bigotry.

    I’m reminding everybody that Mormon baptisms aren’t a stand-alone event, to be evaluated in the benign light they’d like you to take it. Rather, they’re of a piece with other Mormon intolerances and bigotry, such as Prop 8, such as a theology of racism, such as a theology of woman-hatred.

    I’m advocating for a secular, all purposes, standard of “keep your religion to yourself” which serves just as well in this instance as any other and serves the same purposes in all instances: confine your bigotry/hokum to the four walls of your bigoted/hokum-creating institution.

    The attitude expressed in this piece seems to be: “Well, since it only offends those deluded enough to take their own hokum seriously, what does it hurt? Meh, who cares.”

    It doesn’t offend me because I have a religion. It offends me because it’s bigotry forced on other people and, yes, it’s forced on living people, too — the ancestors of the “baptized” dead. It’s not a theological debate, though that’s where everybody seems to want it. It’s a civil society debate wherein forcing your religious beliefs and practices on others is a violation of a standard precept of civil society: keep it to yourself. And it’s a violation that isn’t sufficiently answered by: “It’s only offensive if you *think* it is.”


  9. Fine. Be offended–I just don’t think that’s a productive way to be about someone else’s religious beliefs and rituals. I don’t like most religious ideas, and in fact some offend me–I guess I can just open a window and holler, can’t I? But what good does it do?

    This post attempted to understand LDS post-mortem baptism on its own terms and the problems in Christian theology it engages. I don’t have a problem with their practices because 1) I don’t believe they’re accomplishing anything for the dead, merely annoying the living, and 2) that’s the way things roll in a pluralistic society.

    But, really: be offended by the Taliban. Be offended by Lubavitchers. There are lots of people who give offense.


  10. “This post attempted to understand LDS post-mortem baptism on its own terms”

    Why? Given this statement: “I don’t like most religious ideas”, why bother to engage this particular “idea”, i.e. the practice of forced baptism?

    You’re able to “defend” forced baptism in the name of (false) pluralism because your ox isn’t gored. Then when people complain about their oxen being gored, you dismiss that complaint as itself arising from the speaker’s own “hokum” and therefore valueless in a “pluralistic” society.

    Meanwhile, you show a distinct disinclination to situate the practice of forced baptism within all the other religious practices that Mormons would similarly force on everybody.

    Defending forced religious practices isn’t defending a pluralistic society. You’ve got the whole thing exactly backwards.

    Pluralism doesn’t require non-believers to graciously acquiesce to religious practices being forced on them because, in your estimation, all religious practices are “meaningless” “hokum” that are nothing more than “annoying”.

    Pluralism requires that nobody have religious practices forced on them, at all, ever, regardless of the personal meaning or non-meaning any particular person may find in those practices.

    And, also, you’re really going to take Mormons’ *word* for it that they’re just being *nice*?

    And, you know what I *am* offended by the Taliban. I *am* offended by the Lubavitchers. But it’s exactly my vision of pluralism that means that they don’t get to force their religious views on me.

    Your vision of pluralism would have us defining some forced theocracy as ok, because essentially meaningless, and some not ok because, you know, something that “really” mattered was affected.


  11. “This post attempted to understand LDS post-mortem baptism on its own terms.” Why?

    Because I am a historian and this is a history blog. MOST of the ideas I engage here I’m not terribly wild about, especially those in my research field, but it’s my job.

    Defending forced religious practices isn’t defending a pluralistic society. You’ve got the whole thing exactly backwards.

    Forced religious practices? You’ve got to be kidding me. You continue to ignore the fact that we are talking about the baptism of the dead.

    You’re done here.


  12. The idea that a Mormon might baptize me without my knowledge/consent, alive or dead, annoys me a fair amount. But it only annoys me exactly as much as a Christian praying for my soul to change.

    That is the real equivalency here – stopping the phenomenon of people praying for people who don’t wish to be the subject/object of other people’s spiritual lives.

    Praying for people is presumptuous and offensive and jerky true believers a)don’t see it that way, b)will never stop, and c)are offending mostly in their own minds.


  13. Oh Travis, you couldn’t let well enough alone could you? Where to begin? Have you never heard of Marriner Eccles? You never heard of George Romney? Or maybe Reed Smoot? Sigh, it’s not about current politics. It is about theology and pluralism.


  14. Feminist Avatar, even when C of E records are in a county record office, you need permission from the parish to film them. And diocesan records can’t be filmed without the bishops permission. I once had a long – and in retrospect funny – exchange with a PCC to get permission to film a parish register.
    (Just thought I’d bring history back in…)


  15. Pingback: Mormon secrets revealed! : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  16. So. I converted to Judaism, and there is nothing worse than a convert. I was appalled and insulted when I found out that the Mormons baptised Anne Frank post mortem. I had a similar repulsive experience at the death bed of my Jewish friend. Our mutual christian friend insisted on praying over him CHAPEL PRAYERS! To ensure his entrance into Heaven. It’s so obnoxious, it is beyond my understanding.


  17. “Posthumous baptizing — and I’ve always had it explained to me that the person is now and forever retroactively Mormon, in LDS beliefs, which is rewriting history”
    “forced conversion”

    Seems these sorts of ideas are the crux for all the “offense” and “outrage” . Yet not only are they patently untrue, they were debunked in this very thread. Yet people are still offended. Seems to me that many of you guys don’t actually WANT to understand the LDS people and their beliefs, that you’d PREFER to remain in ignorance so as to justify your own prejudices, and that’s far more offensive than anything the Mormons are doing.


  18. It is ridiculous to try to justify the morons. They are the most disrespectful people on the planet. Good luck to me as my mom joined the moron cult 20 years ago. She has spent those years doing the genealogical thing and has done hundreds of proxy baptisms on my Jewish and non Jewish ancestors on her side of the family as well as my fathers side. It really sucks because I believe my ancestors were soul raped as will my name be blasphemed eventually and we have no say about it. Believe me as an outsider whose family member is in that cult, the intention is evil not good. Their belief is that the men will be gods in the afterlife. This proxy baptizing is about populating their planets with slaves and prostitutes for their own pleasures. You can say its all hocus pocus and it doesn’t matter but it’s an insult and causes trauma and emotional harm to the living who believe as I do that their relatives are being legally tortured by this insane cults desecration of the non believers name. I hate the moron cult and all their evil ways. My related moron has the temple recommend obviously because they’re constantly going to sl temple to do their nasty stuff. It’s so gross. They also have on many occasions stolen from and taken advantage of vulnerable non-lds family members. They have no values in regards to non-morons. The problem is people who put up with crap and actually defend it. Go to and if you’ve had a Mormon family member you will see that now all your ancestors were Mormon. That’s what your descendants will find out about you too. Disgusting cult.


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  20. Pingback: Mormon secrets revealed! | Historiann

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