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Thursday, February 23, 2012

Huffington Post: Mormon Baptism For the Dead: History and Explanation of an Unusual Ritual




by Samuel Morris Brown      Posted: 02/23/2012 1:14 pm



Mormons are known for many things, from their love of corporate attire and organization, to their almost uncanny cheeriness, to their scandalous history of polygamy. They are also known as the chief sleuths of genealogy in the modern world. There is a purportedly dark side to their interest in the personal side of world history: the rituals performed for deceased individuals identified through genealogical research. Best known among these rituals is a version of the familiar Christian rite of baptism. Called "baptism for the dead," Mormons have performed such baptisms since their founding prophet introduced the practice on the banks of the Mississippi in the early 1840s. In this rite, Mormons receive baptism "for and in behalf of" a deceased individual and are themselves immersed, just as they were at their own baptism into the Mormon Church.

In one caricature, Mormon baptism for the dead is merely the bizarre extremity of the proselytizing juggernaut of the Mormon missionary program. Even if you managed to turn down those boys in white shirts and black name placards in life, this caricature goes, they will have their way with you in death. There have been more extreme caricatures over the years, including the stunning and idiosyncratic claim that Mormons actually immerse corpses, but by and large outsiders have seen the practice as a strange and insensitive expression of Mormon exclusivism. In context, though, this ritual has rather different meanings.

Mormon baptism for the dead is at least two things.

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.

With this context -- baptism for the dead is fundamentally inclusive and universalizing in conception -- it is little wonder that the Latter-day Saints would perform baptism for all the dead whose names they manage to uncover in the world's archives. This enthusiasm, mixed with historic insularity, has led to controversial episodes in which Latter-day Saints have performed baptism on behalf of Jews, including victims and survivors of the Holocaust. While the chastened LDS Church eliminated the entries of such individuals from their records and forbade further such baptisms, a trickle of individual Mormons -- with more enthusiasm for their own religion than empathy for a people for whom forced conversion is a bitter thread in a long history of brutal religious intolerance -- have continued to perform intermittent baptisms on behalf of the Jewish dead.

Mormons have protested that their rite does not convert the dead, it only facilitates such conversion should the dead choose to accept it. They emphasize that they see their rituals as enabling rather than restricting choice. Debates over the Mormon practice of baptism for the dead demonstrate a lack of empathy -- the capacity to imagine the world as the other group does -- on both sides. Mormons have not always understood why their explanations do not satisfy critics. Latter-day Saints should strive harder to understand where and when their answers are not persuasive. They would do well to consider what forced conversion has meant for Jews over the centuries. On the other hand, outsiders would do well to try to imagine the universalist impulse underlying Mormon baptism for the dead.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/samuel-brown/mormon-dead-baptism-explanation_b_1279739.html?view=screen

You can also read more about Baptism for the Dead on wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baptism_for_the_dead

38 comments:

  1. I kind of knew this part, and I hope that if Mormons are "right" like Southpark says my progeny someday baptises me.

    I had no idea about the marriages or "sealing" after death from Mormon Girl's post. That seems way, way worse to me.

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  2. I actually was going to report this phenomenom to you guys as it is VERY disrespectful to say the least - apparently they decided to "baptize Anne Frank.. HELLO! Jews don't believe in Jesus and much less in Mormonism... This is awful!

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  3. that is just gross

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  4. PBS had a series on Mormons a couple of years ago. One of the topics shown was the baptism for the dead. If memory serves me correctly, this baptism goes on 24 hrs a day! There's a pc where the priest(?) can read the names as they pop up from the database. I'll check and see if I can link it to the blog.

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  5. Oh yes, before I go, if you watched Big Love on HBO, Bill Hendrickson performed a baptism for his dead mother-in-law (Margene's mother) in their backyard pool. Seems Margene was upset because the urn containing her mother's ashes fell off the top of her car and burst sending her mother's ashes into the wind (and down the railroad tracks.)

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    1. Now that is poetic justice

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  6. The whole Jewish controversy is bizarre. I mean, if you don't believe in Mormonism, then the Mormon ritual is meaningless to you, so why would you care who they name in their meaningless ritual?

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    1. Its simple really. The Mormons were baptising Holocaust victims who had no choice in the matter because they were dead. It would be like taking a person who was a devout Muslim all their life and baptising them after death into the Mormon church. The dead didn't ask for it and if alive probably would not have agreed to be a Mormon.

      There's a holocaust survivor who explains his feelings on the matter in the video I posted from PBS.

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    2. I suppose we must simply agree to disagree. For myself, if house cats develop their own religion in the future and decide that they need to bestow a cat hair blessing upon me posthumously by coughing up a hairball for and on behalf of me, I would hope that my descendents would a) allow them their freedom of religion and b) realize the cat hair blessing cannot possibly affect me, or them (unless they believe in the new cat religion).

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    3. It is a problem because they ALSO baptized Adolf Hitler a few years ago. So. If they are RIGHT about the afterlife, there's a bunch of AWKWARD going on right now.

      If they are, as I believe, just purely insane, the best case scenario is that they offended an entire group of people by saying "You were wrong, so now we will give you the choice to join our group." It all ties in to their "The LDS is the ONE TRUE church." thinking.

      Furthermore, the LDS "apology" over this states that to proxy baptize something you have to be a relative. They try to imply that the 9 times Anne has been baptized in the mormon church (I guess the first 8 didn't take??) probably WERE done by familymembers. These people are so overzealous in their geneologies, I'm sure several can trace themselves back to her...some distant cousin or something.

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    4. Sorry, typo above, I was saying the lds church tried to imply that the 9 times Anne was baptized was by rogue members, but yet we all know that is a lie, because it probably was done by family members...etc etc

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  7. If I were a meaner person, I would undertake a campaign to posthumously convert Mormons to something they find reprehensible...

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  8. I am no longer active in the LDS church but have participated in the baptisms for the dead. Just to clarify, there are no corpses involved. Participants are given a name to be baptized for and on the behalf of those who had gone before. A lot of these times, those included were names from one's personal antededents. The baptism is done by a living person standing proxy for the family member no longer living. That being said, the family/individuals who receive baptism in this way, still have the choice of whether or not they wish to accept it. Nothing is forced upon anyone. That being said, I can certainly understand that this, observed from the outside looking in, could seem a little bizarre. However, I have never seen a more beautiful concept. The idea is for the hearts of the fathers to turn to the sons, and the hearts of the sons to turn to the fathers, and I would add, the hearts of the mothers towards the daughters and daughters towards the mothers.Basically everyone who would like to be connected in the hereafter would receive the opportunity to be. But there is always choice; no one in the afterlife has to accept the baptisms/temple work/ etc,,,

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    1. What exactly happens to the baptised after death person who exercises their choice not be a mormon in the afterlife? Are they sent to another heaven? Are they sent to hell? Are they sent to wait for eternity inbetween heaven and hell? What happens to the buddhist family waiting for their father in the afterlife, but he never shows because he was baptised as mormon after death and is now in mormon heaven?

      Would a non mormon in life have the same privileges as a devout mormon in the afterlife? And if yes, then what's the point of going through all the rituals - titheing, temple recommends, serving missions, or in the case of fundamentalist being married to at least 3 women to reach the highest level of heaven - when all that needs to happen is to be baptised after death?

      So please, don't tell me it's not that way. If there was an easier way to reach the highest level of heaven, mormons wouldn't be putting themselves through so many challenges to attain it during life. So it's logical to assume there IS a difference, and a mormon baptised after death does not hold the same priveleges as devout mormons baptised in life.

      I suspect this is an underhanded mormon way to populate their afterworld with slaves to serve their new mormon masters and their multiple wives and offsprings on their master's planet.

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  9. Being a Christian (be it Mormon, Catholic, Protestant or whatever confession) is not about some formal baptism. Even if you've never ever heard about Jesus he will not reject you from heaven just because you weren't baptised.

    If you've lived your life as a good person you will get into heaven. No earthly baptism is necessary and to baptise a person without their express consent is absolutely disrespectful! A dead person cannot consent and their descendants cannot conscent in their stead either. This practice is outrageous!

    ~Sarina

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  10. If someone started a new fad by uploading a youtube video of themselves with closed eyes, baker's hat on head, wearing an apron and hopping on one foot saying "eenie meenie jelly beenie you are now a fan of Def Leppard" would this be equally outrageous?

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    1. If they "baptized" me by proxy into their Def Leppard religion, yes absolutely outrageous!

      I'm a David Bowie fan!

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  11. Gotta say I'm with anon 12:44 who made the cat hair religion comment. I'm a dog, and I have to say it wouldn't bother me either because I wouldn't believe it, and I would have been dead anyway. I think the LDS are misguided but not evil as a group. I don't care if they say Border Collie over and over in some ritual. Or am I wrong.

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    1. The issue is that for people who have suffered (in many cases, extremely suffered) in life for not denouncing their religion and not turning their backs on their beliefs, it is a slap in the face to have someone come up and say "poof, we don't believe your jewish faith is a true faith and you are now one of us." Kind of like what Hitler (and others) had tried to do during their lifetimes - getting the Jews to not be Jews.

      Imagine yourself having complete faith in something and then as soon as your back is turned (in this case - died) someone tries to refute that and change it without your knowledge or consent. Even though it may not "mean anything" in reality, it is hurtful and insulting to those left behind.

      If you were persecuted for your beliefs and tortured for those beliefs but survived with those beliefs intact only to have someone denounce your religion after you were no longer able to communicate your wishes and adopt you into theirs. I just think that it is selfish and extremely inconsiderate to say that "my beliefs" and "wishes for my afterlife" are more important than yours....so who cares, you are now one of us.

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    2. Totally agree, well put!

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    3. Totally agree with Anon 1:30! I'm surprised more people haven't commented on how persecuted Jewish people have been throughout history for their religion! I am not Jewish, but grew up in New York City. One of my earliest memories is seeing a woman in a bus with her arm raised - I could see the number tattooed on her arm from the time she spent as a young woman in a Nazi concentration camp.

      I hope the world never forgets

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  12. The above post anon 11:52 is me, Border Collie. Was not able to sign in as such. Sorry. Hope it works this time.

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  13. Many religions have peculiar rituals. And many use water as a key part of the ritual.
    Although this Mormon one is a bit bizarre....ehh, whatever..!!!

    CJ, I do remember the scene from Big Love when Bill performed the posthumous baptism for Margene's mother.
    My reaction was "Huh??....really???....similar to "blessing the dead" except that the purpose was to ensure the deceased' soul to the *Mormon* heaven.

    Bottom line for me...
    It seems to be more a ritual designed for the bolstering of faith and control for the *living participants* than for the dead !!

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  14. This practice completely disregards the religious freedom of the people being baptized by proxy. It's truly reprehensible to many. and has made genealogy far more difficult as many religions and countries are reluctant to provide information as a result. More than once asking for information by phone or in writing I had to swear I would not use it for baptism.
    And my cats must have already started practicing the fur ball religion since they leave them everywhere and that's fine with me.

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    1. Does this mean we will all be Cats in the afterlife now?

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    2. Well....I wouldn'd mind that, or being a dog, either! However, no disrespect to Border Collie, Austin Mastiff, or Boston Corgi but...Dogs have people, cats have servants (or so my cats tell me. My dog doesn't say much; being 11+, she just licks my hand and goes back to sleep).

      I had a distant cousin who repeatedly said growing up that if there is reincarnation, she wants to come back as her mothers' dog. (Everyone always laughed; no one seemed to realize what that said about her mothers' mothering skills)

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  15. There's a saying @Bar's that 2 things U never talk about is religion & politics!!...lol B/c although everyone has their own opinions, that doesn't necessarily mean they are right or wrong, its just what they believe or stand for!
    Now, on that note, I'm gonna have to disagree w/ Sarina about just living ur life as a good person will get U into heaven. But, it really all comes down to what each individual believes. As for Christians, were taught to believe that we must confess & repent of our sins & then accept Jesus Christ as our personal Lord & Savior & then live accordingly to his Word & teachings from the Bible & believing in the Trinity: God, the Father; Jesus, the Son, & the Holy Spirit. Also, spreading his Word to others, living by example, so that others will have a chance to be "saved" as well. The road of the righteous is long & narrow.
    Our baptism ritual is done only after a person has been "saved", accepting Jesus, etc...Water baptism signifies, a New Birth, thus "Born Again", repentance for the forgiveness of sins...They are baptized by the Holy Spirit INTO Christ, becoming a child of God....
    I believe were all gonna stand before God to be judged & held accountable for things we knowingly did was wrong, living as hypocrites, & not asking for forgiveness, etc...
    But honestly, I also believe that if I died right now & stood before God, I wouldn't be worthy to enter his kingdom b/c even tho, I believe in the Trinity, have accepted Jesus as my Savior & have benn baptized + I'm a good person...I really haven't been living a Christian life as I should, & these are my own spiritual convictions & beliefs. I'm not saying they're right or wrong, but its what I believe & that's all that really matters to me b/c we're all gonna be judged individually. Here also, I believe, that Christians, i.e. Preachers, "prophets", Deacons,servants of the church, etc...who are living as hypocrites will have more to be accountable for...
    On another note, my husband comes from a Mormon, LDS, background & they practice the baptism of the dead ritual...so of course we agree to disagree on this matter & religious beliefs all together. He knows my beliefs U where I stand when it comes to religion & vice versa.

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  16. Actually how dependent your afterlife experience is on your baptismal status varies depending on your brand of Christianity. This is one of the reasons for different ages of baptism, although I believe the last pope changed the purgatory rule for unbaptized infants a few years back.

    I am not a believer in any afterlife and while I could go the "to each his own" way, it still leaves a bad taste in my mouth. From the POV of a believer it is very kind of them, but it also implies that I am wrong in my beliefs and don't have the right to my religion (or lack thereof).

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    1. It wasn't ever purgatory for unbaptized infants. Purgatory is believed to be a place like hell, you suffer fro your sins, but for a finite amount of time, and then you can get into heaven.

      At one time Catholics were taught that unbaptized infants went to a place called limbo. They didn't see God, but were not in a place of punishment. Catholics are now taught unbaptized infants go to heaven, as they are sinless.

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  17. Revert to Islam. All your problems get solve.

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  18. Should burning an effigy be punished the same way as burning a person?

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    1. Let's hope Mormons don't resort to burning non-Mormons, and then baptising the ashes into the Mormon religion!

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  19. Mormons sure must be powerful strong if they can deny dead people freedom of religion.

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  20. I think it's a very disrespectful & unnecessary ritual. The very fact of the matter is that once you die, your spirit, your SOUL is gone from that body and what's left is nothing but an organic shell. Baptizing a dead body is useless. That's why people are given "last rites" BEFORE they die.

    Caramel Brownie I was sorry to hear you say you wouldn't feel worthy right now. I hope you meant that as all of us would have to feel that way - is anyone really worthy? Who lives that kind of life? It's asking for forgiveness, repenting and doing your best that counts.

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  21. Just to clarify, one of the reasons the Holocaust survivors were so upset was the way the LDS church originally went about obtaining the names from sources not intended for that purpose. Individual Mormons can do research and submit the names of their ancestors to have temple work done (by them or by someone else on their behalf.) However, most Mormons don't do much genealogical research and most of the easy work has been done, hence there aren't sufficient names through these sources to keep Mormon temples busy.

    To get around this, the LDS church has a record extraction program, now largely automated, whereby publicly available records, such as birth records, are scoured for names and those names are use for temple work. In the 1980s/early 1990s, the LDS church obtained access to Holocaust records and converted these into tens of thousands of temple ready names which people could voluntarily use.

    To reiterate, the primary cause of the first protest was that the original records were not provided for this purpose. As part of the agreement to pull these records, the church agreed to allow no other temple work for Holocaust victims unless they were direct ancestors of someone who was LDS. I don't think high level church leaders knew about these latest offenses beforehand, but they are culpable for failing to put safeguards into place and failing to be very direct with their members about the rules. (This is due, in part, to a desperate need for names. It's also due to a few very zealous members believing that they have the right to do this anyway, which is rather perverse--in order to obey God's commandments they feel justified in breaking God's commandments.)

    Incidentally, several localities, governments and other Churches have taken steps to ensure the LDS church doesn't hijack their records like this, which has hampered all genealogists (the LDS church isn't the only one to blame. Several companies, including Ancestry.com, have upset many organizations and countries by obtaining records, sometimes under false pretenses, and then turning around an charging for access to them.)

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  22. Gosh, I just don't get it. Must have come from the Book of Mormon, not the Bible. I have never seen such an all changing religion. What's next?

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  23. Baptism for the dead has no historical relationship to the bible. the entire concept is to give yourself to god by saying that you believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God. If you have not uttered those important words while you were living, I doubt this ritual will make a difference. Only God can judge a person and decide. This is nothing more than fanfare gobbled-de goop. Very impressed with this blog and the work done to educate us all on all the different aspects of the Mormon culture. It gives a better glimpse into Kody's world, but also the FLDS and what is going on in their heads. Obviously, there are hopefully many God fearing good Mormons. The very leary if I were a Mormon, that God may just see you as serving two Gods, a false one, Joseph Smith. This being a good example of that.

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