Baptism for the Dead

An overview of the religious reasons behind the practice of trying to baptize the world's dead and the continuing controversy about it.

Daniel Peterson
Daniel Peterson is a Brigham Young University professor and the author of many articles and books on LDS doctrine.

What is it specifically [about baptism of the dead] that Jews, ... Holocaust survivors, are offended by? ...

Many Jews in general are troubled by the notion of proselytizing. I remember speaking with a rabbi in Jerusalem, very nice guy, who said to me simply that to convert a Jew is the equivalent of killing a Jew, especially because Judaism has been so threatened, obviously particularly in the 20th century. I understand the sensitivities on that score. In terms of Holocaust victims in particular, there's the sense that they died -- whether they were religious or not -- they died for being Jewish. So to take people who are in effect martyred for their Jewishness and then be baptized as Christians posthumously really offends a lot of Jewish sensibilities. That I understand.

I think the church has tried to be sensitive on this, but we are caught on this doctrine. And the doctrine is this: Ultimately anyone who is saved must be saved through Christ, and that means at some point explicitly acknowledging Christ and accepting baptism. And that goes for everybody who has ever lived. So in a sense we're not theologically free to say to anyone, including Jews, that we just won't do this, and in our viewpoint, in fact, at the end of time, people would say thank you for this.

But in the meantime I understand the offensiveness of it, and it's a very, very troubling thing, and we go out of our way, particularly the church in the 20th and 21st centuries, to be religiously sensitive, and we're genuine about it. There's genuine friendship between the church and Jews and Catholics, and in a certain level Muslims. We've been cultivating those ties, so we don't want to be seen as people who trample on other people's religious sensibilities, especially since it's been done to us quite a bit.

I gather that there was a promise to desist, but then it continued.

Yeah. The problem as I understand it -- and I haven't followed it really carefully -- but there was a promise made not to single out Holocaust victims. But it's hard to enforce that with potentially millions of people turning in names of people to have ordinances done for them. And there isn't necessarily a mark in anyone's record saying "Holocaust victim." ...

Now, if they're just turning in lists of Holocaust victims they've taken off the walls at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, then obviously someone might catch that. But if you're just finding the name in some other way, it's hard to tell, and we don't have the bureaucracy in Salt Lake to necessarily monitor that. My impression was that the promise was made in good faith; the violations were probably made in good faith, by people who probably didn't even know what the church policy was. But nevertheless it's embarrassing. ...

Marlin Jensen
Marlin K. Jensen is the executive director of the LDS Family and Church History Department and a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy.

Please talk about the baptism for the dead and all of its urgent, ambitious aspects.

When I think of the temple, I think of it really in two grand divisions. There's a part of what happens in the temple, it happens for those who are living right now. We go there; we can be endowed, which is essentially blessed with knowledge and the opportunity to make certain commitments to God to live our lives in a certain way. And we can be married there as a husband and wife. Those things happen for living people.

But the temple in its second dimension answers a question that is still very topical among theologians today, and the question is, if Jesus is the savior of mankind and if hearing his Gospel and living life the way he proscribes is necessary for salvation, what about those who have never heard of Jesus? As far as I know, the only really complete answer that can be given to that question is given by our church. And the answer is if they don't hear it in this life -- and there have been millions of people who have lived at times when that wasn't unavailable or have lived in areas where it wasn't preached -- they, we believe, go to a spirit world following this life. It is in that realm that they're able to hear the Gospel, and their agency is still very much active. They can decide whether they're going to accept it or whether they're going to reject it.

If they do accept it, then we believe that there is still a need for certain essential ordinances or religious ceremonies to be performed for them on their behalf. And these ceremonies are earthbound. One of those is baptism, and another would be marriage, and another would be the endowment I mentioned. And for men it would also involve ordination to the priesthood.

So in God's foresight and in his comprehensive plan, he's given those of us who have the Gospel now the opportunity to do these ordinances for our deceased ancestors in hopes -- and we don't have a knowledge ever as to whether they've accepted this or not or whether we're doing it in vain or whether it's efficacious. ...

So it's a tremendous labor of love, and there's a linkage then, a linking of us to our ancestors that, again, provides a tremendous anchor to our souls. And in that process of discovering who our ancestors were, we come to know about them and to love them and to be inspired by their lives. There's just a solidarity there that is missing, I think, in many families and in many societies today in many cases.

And yes, the work of genealogy is a tremendous endeavor for the church. We have the finest genealogical library in the world. If there's a Mecca for genealogists, it's our Family History Library in downtown Salt Lake City, where people from all over the world come. We're engaged in a tremendous endeavor to really build the family tree of all mankind. It's done for religious purposes; it's done out of our love and our hope that these people are hearing the Gospel and accepting it and that they need these ordinances performed for them.

You want to reach everyone?

We have [2.4 million] rolls of microfilm, I think, in our storage vaults, containing about 2 billion names, and we've just made a good start on the history of mankind. So yes, it is ambitious, and it's a costly undertaking in a way, but it's a labor of love, and there is a lot to be gained. We have a Scripture that says, "They can't be saved without us, and we can't be saved without them." There is this feeling of interdependence, I think, that goes on. …