Baptism for the dead
Baptism for the dead by proxy (or "vicarious baptism") is an ordinance practiced by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (and splinter churches), the Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran, some of the Neo-Apostolic congregations of Europe, and some Native American religions. Although all the mentioned religious groups practice baptism for the dead to some extent, the term "baptism for the dead" is used almost exclusively in reference to the ordinance practiced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a living person, acting as proxy, is baptized by immersion in typical Latter-day Saint fashion, except that the prayer accompanying the baptism states that the baptism is being performed for and in behalf of a deceased person whose name has been submitted for that ordinance. In addition to this, the baptism must be performed by an endowed Melchizedek Priesthood holder in one of the Latter-day Saints' Church's temples.
It is imperative that one understand the Latter-day Saint view of baptism before understanding the importance of the ordinance of baptism for the dead. John 3:5 states that man must be born of water and of the spirit to enter the kingdom of God. Mormons believe firmly that personal baptism is a required ordinance for those who desire to enter the kingdom of God. Baptism for the Dead allows this saving ordinance to be offered to all those who have previously passed on without hearing of the Gospel of Jesus Chirst. If baptism is a required ordinance as Mormons believe is evidenced by Jesus's own desire to receive it from John the Baptist, then this ordinance becomes a burden for all those who wish to spread the Gospel with all the inhabitants of the earth who have previously passed on to the afterlife.
According to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, their practice of baptism for the dead is based on a revelation Joseph Smith received. Smith first taught the doctrine at the funeral sermon of a deceased member of the Church, Seymour Brunson. In a letter written on October 19, 1840, to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the Church (who were on a mission in the United Kingdom at the time), Smith refers to the passage in 1 Corinthians 15:29 (KJV):
- I presume the doctrine of "baptism for the dead" has ere this reached your ears, and may have raised some inquiries in your minds respecting the same. I cannot in this letter give you all the information you may desire on the subject; but aside from knowledge independent of the Bible, I would say that it was certainly practiced by the ancient churches; and St. Paul endeavors to prove the doctrine of the resurrection from the same, and says, "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?" (History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints 4:231)
Other scriptures of the Latter Day's Saints' Church (Doctrine and Covenants 124:29, 127:5-10 and 128) expand upon this doctrine and command that such baptisms are to be performed in Temples, of which there are more than 110 worldwide and many more under construction as of 2003. Vicarious baptism is performed in connection with other vicarious ordinances in Latter-day Saint temples. The Church holds that deceased persons who have not accepted or had the opportunity to accept the faith in this life will have the opportunity to accept the faith in the afterlife, but in order to do so they must receive all the ordinances that a living person is expected to receive, including baptism. For this reason, genealogy forms an important basis of research in the Church's efforts to perform temple ordinances for as many deceased persons as possible . As a part of these efforts, a number of high profile people who have had temple ordinances performed on their behalf. Of particular interest are: the Founding Fathers of the U.S., Presidents of the U.S., John Wesley, Christopher Columbus, Jewish Holocaust victims, Ghengis Khan, Joan of Arc, Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, and Buddha. Vicarious baptism does not mean that the decedent actually accepts the ordinance performed for him or her; it merely means that the decedent may accept the ordinance and the benefits which the Latter-day Saints claim it provides. However, Church leaders have stated that the people in the afterlife for whom these ordinances have been performed will rarely reject it.
While members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints consider it a great service to perform vicarious ordinances for the deceased, some non-members have taken offense to what they see as an arrogant practice. To be sensitive to the issue of vicariously baptizing non-Mormons that are not related to Church members, the Church in recent years has publicized a policy of generally only performing temple ordinances for direct ancestors of Church members. For example, the Church is in the process of removing sensitive names (such as Jewish Holocaust victims) from its International Genealogical Index. D. Todd Christofferson of the Church's Presidency of the Seventy stated that removing the names is an "ongoing, labor intensive process requiring name-by-name research...When the Church is made aware of documented concerns, action is taken...Plans are underway to refine this process." Despite such "plans", some Mormons in Russia have allegedly attempted to purchase genealogical records with the intent of posthumously baptizing the people whose names are recorded in the cash-strapped archives, over the vocal objections of the local Russian Orthodox Christians.
Baptism for the dead was practiced by some Christian groups in the late fourth century and possibly earlier. John A. Tvedtness, a Hebrew and early Christian scholar at Brigham Young University, Utah writes:
- That baptism for the dead was indeed practiced in some orthodox Christian circles is indicated by the decisions of two late fourth century councils. The fourth canon of the Synod of Hippo, held in 393, declares, "The Eucharist shall not be given to dead bodies, nor baptism conferred upon them." The ruling was confirmed four years later in the sixth canon of the Third Council of Carthage.
Some argue that the fact that these two councils felt it necessary to explicity forbid baptism for the dead shows that there must have been a significant group of people practicing it, accompanied by opposition to it by the church's leadership. Others disagree with the classification of such groups as "orthodox", since the councils concluded that they were in fact unorthodox, at least with respect to that practice.
Some members of the LDS church see significant parallels between the Baptism for the dead and the prayers and requiem masses read for the dead in some churches( e.g. Roman Catholic), both historical and modern. Others see similarities to other doctrines associated with Purgatory. These parallels are disputed by many non-Mormons and Mormons.
According to the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, "Tertullian believed that Paul referred to a custom of vicarious baptism (Res., 48c; Adv. Marc., 5.10). There is evidence that the early church knew such a practice. Epiphanius mentions a tradition that the custom obtained among the Cerinthians (Haer., 28 6). And Chrysostom states that it prevailed among the Marcionites." All of these supporters were considered heretics by the early Church: Tertullian died outside the church as a Montanist; the Cerinthians were a Gnostic group that also denied that Jesus Christ was crucified; and the Marcionites were yet another Gnostic group who followed Marcion, who was also excommunicated from the Church before forming his own sect.
Other Christian denominations do not generally accept the Latter-day Saint interpretation of the aside to the issue of bodily resurrection contemplated in 1 Corinithians 15:29 , and no contemporary Christian church practices a similar ordinance. In this chapter Paul is arguing to Christians in Corinth against those who do not believe in the bodily resurrection of both Jesus and His followers. While there are different approaches to the meaning of this aside, some Christians believe that Paul was merely showing the logical contradiction between the practices of these local Christians and their lack of belief in the resurrection. Others believe that Paul was referring to "The Dead" as Christ (Why are you then baptized in to Christ, if he rise not at all), or that Paul is referring to the symbol of Baptism - the death, burial and resurrection of the individual as they begin their new life as a disciple of Jesus Christ. Other scholars are not sure exactly what Paul meant by the comments (see links below).
Another counter-argument to baptism for the dead is there is little or no record (or incomplete, or disputed) of any mainstream Christian denomination historically practicing it, and therefore it fails the test set forth by Saint Vincent of Lerins, that Christians should believe that which "has been believed by all Christians in all places at all times."
Among the major reasons that many Christians dismiss this practice is that it appears to make salvation dependent on the religious works of others. It is a central Christian belief, also reflected in the Jewish views described below, that every person is personally responsible in the face of God. The practice of Baptism for the Dead appears to some Christians to abrogate this personal responsibility, by allowing others to change the standing of the dead in God's eyes.
Holocaust Victim Controversy
Believed to be a long time practice of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been to vicariously baptize the Holocaust's Jewish victims and other prominent individuals. However, Church policy states that Church members submit their own names for these type of ordinances, and require that a surviving family member's permission be obtained for any Baptism that is to be performed of deceased individuals that have died within a certain time period (usually 50-75 years).
However, some Baptisms were done for Holocaust Victims, without proper approval or permission. When this information became public, it generated vocal criticism of the LDS Church (though not rising to the level of anti-Mormonism) from Jewish groups, who found this ritual to be insulting and insensitive (though not rising to the level of anti-Semitism). Partly as a result of public pressure, Church leaders in 1995 promised to put into place new policies that would help stop the practice, unless specifically requested or approved by relatives of the victims.
In late 2002, information surfaced that members of the Church had not stopped this practice despite directives from the Church leadership to its members, and criticism from Jewish groups began again. The Simon Wiesenthal Center, Los Angeles, is on record as opposing the vicarious baptism of Holocaust victims. Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Center holds: "If these people did not contact the Mormons themselves, the adage should be: Don't call me, I'll call you. With the greatest of respect to them, we do not think they are the exclusive arbitrators of who is saved." Recently Church leaders have agreed to meet with leaders of the World Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors.
In December 2002, independent researcher Helen Radkey published a report showing that the Church's 1995 promise to remove Jewish Nazi victims from its International Genealogical Index was not sufficient; her research of the Church's database uncovered the names of about 19,000 who had a 40 to 50 percent chance of having "the potential to be Holocaust victims...in Russia, Poland, France, and Austria."
Genealogist Bernard Kouchel conducted a search of the International Genealogical Index, and discovered that many well known Jews have been vicariously baptized, including Rashi, Maimonides, Albert Einstein, Menachem Begin, Irving Berlin, Marc Chagall, and Gilda Radner. Some permissions may have been obtained, but there is not currently not a system in play to ensure that these permissions have been obtained, which has angered many in various religious and cultural communities.
In 2004, Schelly Talalay Dardashti, Jewish genealogy columnist for The Jerusalem Post noted that Jews, even those with no Mormon descendants, are being rebaptised after being removed from the rolls. In an interview, D. Todd Christofferson, a church official, told The New York Times that it was not feasible for church to continuously monitor the archives to ensure that no new Jewish names appear. The agreement referred to above did not place this type of responsibility on the centralized Church leadership.
See also: ancestor liberation
- Roberts, B.H. (editor); History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; The Deseret Book Company; ISBN 0-87579-490-4 (revised 2nd edition, softcover, 1975)
- Tvedtnes, John A.; Baptism for the Dead: The Coptic Rationale; Retrieved Aug 19, 2003, from http://www.fairlds.org/apol/misc/misc23.html
Additional links about Baptism for the Dead
Links about unauthorized proxy baptisms
- Mormons meet with Jews over baptizing Holocaust victims from CNN.com
- LDS Church Reaffirms No Proxy Baptisms of Jews from The Salt Lake Tribune
- Vicarious baptism of Jews continues in 2004