Monday, June 15, 2009

She Said: Baptism for the Dead

FYI, Dr. B.--I looked on the IGI and the temple work for Julius Scaliger was done in Provo in 1993--so Hugh Nibley could very well have done these ordinances for his hero.

I enjoyed reading Dr. B.'s article on Helen Radke and the LDS practice of Baptism for the Dead. Because I am LDS, I see quite clearly the rationale behind the desire of members of the Church not only to provide ordinances for their own deceased relatives, but for everyone who has lived on the earth. I do sympathize with non-members who have requested that we refrain from associating their family members with our Church, but I have to confess that I have no strong feelings on this issue. It seems to me that if someone does not believe in the Mormon Church, these actions might easily be dismissed. If someone baptized my grandmother into the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, I would scarcely take notice, other than to laugh. But I have no wish to offend. If the following joke makes you cringe, then you will probably be able to appreciate, better than I, the affront that non-members take at our practice of vicarious baptism:
"I cannot condemn the Mormons’ posthumous baptisms, because I myself have been tasked by God Herself to baptize dead Mormons into my church and then bless them with posthumous plural interracial gay marriages. In fact, here comes another marriage right now…


Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to Mr. Joseph Smith, Mr. Brigham Young, Mr. Idi Amin, and Mr. Pol Pot. What God has joined together let no man put asunder!"

The Church's current policy attempts to straddle that fine line between avoiding offense to others and following religious dictates of our own. Publicly the Church tells members to submit only their own family names to the temple, but because there is no formal restriction on names that are submitted, in practice anyone can submit any name they would like.[1] With the new family search program, a member can clear names for temple work on their own home computer. Though the program warns the member to check for duplicates, or to have certain names cleared, members can choose to override these cautions and submit the name nonetheless. The names are printed out on a sheet of paper and taken to a desk at the temple, where it is a mere formality to prepare the pink or blue name slips which will allow the ordinances to be completed.[2]

Even with the attention that Helen Radke and others have brought to this practice, I see no change contemplated for the procedure of submitting names to the temple. And other religions are becoming increasingly aware of this. In response, the Catholic Church has instructed parish priests to discontinue the microfilming of parish registers by the LDS. This was freely allowed in the past. And Jewish leaders have issued statements protesting the "wrongful practice of baptizing the Jewish dead," noting their reasons that they believe it is disrespectful and harmful.

There will likely be continued tension between those who feel that the receipt of LDS ordinances is vital to the salvation of all mankind, and those who are offended by the suggestion that their family members' chosen religion or lack of religion was not good enough.

[1] Church policy states: "Please do not submit the names of deceased celebrities and historical personalities, including those of royal or noble lineage or early LDS Church leaders and their families, or of persons born in European countries prior to A.D. 1500, regardless of your relationship to them. Though the names may not yet appear on the Ordinance Index, temple work for most of the people in these categories has already been done. Sometimes when we study about such people, we feel a spiritual affinity to them, but we should not submit their names for temple work. If names are sent in counter to this policy, they must be cleared by the Temple Department. The Medieval Family Unit (1-800-346-6044) can help you avoid duplicating ordinances for those born before A.D. 1500."

[2] Because the formal "clearance" by higher Church authorities is not always sought before the name is presented at the temple, individuals such as Adolph Hitler and Ervil LeBaron have been baptized posthumously. It does not follow that a General Authority approved of the ordinance.


  1. If some group or religion or person does not want one of their own baptized, then great. I have no problem honoring that request. At the same time, it still baffles me WHY most of them care. Some Christians fear that an LDS baptism will actually damn their ancestors, in which case, I totally understand. Otherwise, I just don't get it. If someone wants to baptize me, enter me into a gay polygamous union, perform some black magic in my name, etc. etc. after I'm dead, GREAT! Have at it. I don't mean to sound callous, and I'm more than willing to respect the wishes of others, but I still don't understand why it's such a big issue, despite having read numerous explanations.

  2. It's a matter of heritage. Lets face it, baptism for the dead rewrites history. Suddenly, the popes and Martin Luther are supposed to be Mormon and show up on Mormon lists.

    You might find it odd as well if Marxist-Leninists had erected a monument celebrating the Mormon pioneers as forebears of communism.

    If you would not care then you do not appreciate the importance of monuments and other symbolism. There is a reason why states and religions go to great lengths keeping records and building monuments. They are a source of power and identity.

    Besides, the very act of baptism for the dead invalidates other people's religion. When you tell someone that their religion is deficient, of course, that creates anger.

    It is true that many religions claim to be exclusively correct but doing so by invoking the family members of non-believers is extraordinarily aggressive.

    Mormons who do not get that must be living in a bubble. Try a little harder to live the golden rule and you'll have no problem understanding why some non-Mormons find it offensive when their family members get baptized posthumously.

  3. I absolutely understand the offense. But I think it's a basically inevitable part of living in a religiously pluralistic world. Mormons offend other religions by doing what we think is right with regard to baptisms for the dead, some other conservative religions offend Mormons by preaching against Mormonism outside our temples, and yet other religious people offend both groups by supporting same-sex marriage.

    So I think we're stuck in this situation. I suppose one might argue that, ultimately, one side or another is ontologically correct in the debate and therefore should win out. But while we have a plurality of belief systems, these sorts of sharp elbows are probably inevitable. I think the best we can do is be attentive to each others' pain and try to increase our own levels of tolerance for other people's provocations.

  4. "Try a little harder to live the golden rule"

    *trying* Thanks for the advice. ;)

  5. There are limits to liberty, Roasted Tomatoes. When you impose on other people's freedom, you cannot invoke religious liberty.

    The Brethren have it right. You should not submit names to whom you are not related. When you do, you insult other people and impose on their heritage.

    If our religion is right then there is enough time in the millenium to take care of vicarious ordinances. Therefore, it is not essential for us to infringe on other people's heritage.

    Basically, the Mormon policy is sound. Only submit your own relatives. There needs to be a quality control system. For example, it would be pretty easy to require that every submission of names be accompanied by an affidavit.

    Another possibility would be to include a question in the temple interview.

    It's really pretty simple to resolve those issues.

  6. Hellmut,

    There are limits to liberty, Roasted Tomatoes. When you impose on other people's freedom, you cannot invoke religious liberty.

    Give me a break, dude. This is not "imposing" on anyone else's freedom. It doesn't re-write history to baptize someone for the dead. It does not insult them. It does not infringe on their heritage.

  7. Hellmut, you remind me a lot of Brother Brigham--you are prone to hyperbole. Mormons are not erecting monuments to these people by performing a baptism which they may accept or reject. You do have a point, we need to be respectful of others' religious sensibilities. But don't overstate it, or you lose your thunder. I'd love to brainstorm some ways we can create a win/win situation here. Is there some way we can record the ordinances without implying that they have now joined the Church or are Mormon?

  8. By the way, Blake put up an excellent post which captures my view on this here. I would call out this line specifically from the opening paragraph:

    "There are also Jewish groups who are offended that LDS do work for their dead. I think they take this work to be an implicit message that we judge their progenitors to not be good enough as Jews so we must make them Mormon. However, imputation of such motives is itself a judgment of Mormon by attributing motives which I don’t believe could possibly explain this work for the dead."

  9. My grandfather, who lived his life in Maine, had his work submitted and done by someone in Arizona with whom I cannot establish a relationship. That would not be bad, except that he had his death date in 1917, before my dad was born, instead of 1977. Probably a typo, but let's strive for thorough research and accuracy, please.