Baptisms for the Dead: A Normal Mormon’s Perspective

Okay. Enough is enough. I’ve read too many articles over the past few days that just grossly misinterpret and misunderstand the Mormon practice of baptisms for the dead. I have no idea if any of you out there are wanting my take on this, but you’re going to get it anyway. Let me provide the theological context for it first.

It breaks down like this. We believe–like most Christian religions–that you need to be baptized in order to return to live with God. However, we also believe that not just anybody can baptize anybody. We believe that for a baptism to “count,” you need to be baptized by someone who has the authority–given to them by God–to baptize. This is why if you’ve already been baptized in another Christian religion and convert to Mormonism, you still need to be baptized again. We don’t believe other religions have that authority.

Got that? So in order to return to live with God, you need to be baptized Mormon.

This is pretty much in line with the theological view of Christianity for hundreds and hundreds of years. Only relatively recently has there been this gush of acceptance of other baptisms. But I don’t want to get into that. This isn’t about that. (Nothing in this article should be taken as an attack on other religions. It’s simply an explanation for why Mormons do what we do. If you disagree with us, fine. But at least understand us.)

The problem with the “Mormon Baptism or Bust” doctrine is that it’s inherently unfair. We’re up to something like 14 million church members living right now. There’s 7 billion people on the earth. If the only way to get into heaven is to be baptized Mormon, then heaven’s going to be a pretty empty place, relatively speaking. How is it fair that someone who never had the chance to hear about our beliefs and choose whether or not to be baptized ends up on the outside looking in?

That’s where baptisms for the dead enter into the picture.

We believe that you can be baptized for someone else–by proxy, essentially. I step into the water, get immersed, for another person–a deceased person (since if you’re still living, you’re here and able to make the “thanks/no thanks” decision about becoming Mormon). At that point, the person I’ve been baptized for has the chance to accept the baptism or reject it.

Here’s the thing. You know those annoying Mormon missionaries who keep showing up at your door when you’re trying to watch the latest episode of Game of Thrones? We believe that’s something that keeps going after we die. We’ve got this nutty idea that our religion is actually true, and that life continues after death, and that the goal of life (becoming more like God) continues as well. So the Mormon missionary effort continues on both sides of death. The only thing is, you need to be baptized while you have a body. No body = no baptism. But once someone has been baptized for you by proxy, you can choose to accept or reject that baptism.

Essentially, we believe baptism for the dead empowers those people who have passed on to decide for themselves whether to be baptized or not.

We don’t believe those souls are forced to accept Mormonism. We don’t count them as Mormons. We feel obligated to have the ceremony performed for each individual, and then we move on to the next. It’s one of the main reasons the church is so big on family history work.

Now, the church has agreed out of respect for victims of the Holocaust to not perform baptisms for the dead for those individuals.

Problem: any time you have 14 million members of your church kicking around the earth, some of them are going to do some really stupid things. I’ve heard stories that Elvis has been baptized something like 14 times. (That is, assuming he’s actually dead I suppose.) Chances are, if there’s someone famous and dead, they’ve had the baptism done for them, possibly multiple times. Is it stupid? Yes. Unfortunately, not all 14 million members have half a brain. Some of them want to feel special, or are mega fans of somebody. I don’t know why they do it–I do know that they have a fundamental misunderstanding of why they’re supposed to be doing baptisms for the dead.

So yes, mistakes happen. Stupid people are found everywhere, in every religion.

But again, even according to Mormon belief, baptisms for the dead don’t automatically “convert” that deceased individual. It’s still up to that individual to accept it or posthumously tell the Mormons to get lost.

People are saying the practice is highly offensive. It’s certainly not meant to be. I try to view this from an outsider’s perspective. If I found out some other religion had “baptized” one of my dead uncles, or my deceased grandparents, how would I feel? What if it were a religion my deceased relatives absolutely loathed?

Well, chances are I’d think that religion was a bunch of phooey, and in which case, I’d think they were stupid for doing what they were doing. If a bunch of Christians or Muslims or Hindus or Whoevers want to get together and dunk themselves in water while saying my dead ancestor’s name . . . that’s kind of strange. But if I believe they’re a bunch of deluded chuckleheads, then why get upset about it? If they’re digging up the bodies of my dead ancestor, that’s one thing. But this?

In the end, I’m not in a position to be able to impartially say whether what the Mormon church does should be offensive to other people. I’m too closely tied to it. I realize that. What I really just wanted to do was explain it. If someone’s going to be offended, they should be offended for what we’re actually doing–not for what somebody says we’re doing.

As always, I’m happy to answer sincere, respectful questions. But I won’t put up with any tomfoolery. Start mindlessly bashing my religion–or anyone else’s–and you’re gonna get your comment and question deleted faster than I can say “you’re an idiot.”


4 thoughts on “Baptisms for the Dead: A Normal Mormon’s Perspective”

  1. I am Mormon; thought this was well-said. Just wanted to chip in that people are supposed to do baptisms for their own ancestors/relatives, and get permission where applicable.

    Take the deceased uncle example. If there’s next-of-kin — say wife or kids — anyone interested in doing a baptism is supposed to get their permission. All the Mormons I know are sadden by a “no,” but also respect those wishes. And…in my experience, most of the time, people say “yes.” Even if they don’t believe in the church or an afterlife, it’s usually viewed as a loving gesture towards the deceased.

  2. I have an aunt who seems to be a little baptisms-for-the-dead-happy. Like you said, some people just want to feel special. Unfortunately they just end up making Mormons look even crazier than the world believes. Too bad really. I’ve known some crazy Mormons, and even had some creepy Sunday School teachers, but overall Mormons are pretty nice people.

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