What LDS baptism for the dead is and isn’t

In my guilt files are several stories about the Mormon practice of baptism for the dead. Many stories have just done an inadequate job of explaining this doctrine and practice of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

There’s this Huffington Post piece which said:

In 2002, the managing director of the Mormon’s family and church history department told The New Yorker magazine that as many as 200 million dead people had been baptized as Mormons.

Well, no. As the reader who submitted it to us said, indicating skepticism that the managing director’s actual views were being conveyed, “Proxy baptisms DON’T make dead people Mormons. It never has and it never will, other than maybe in the minds of non-Mormons who don’t hold the same beliefs as Mormons. In a crude nutshell: It does the paperwork for the dead, but the dead still have to sign on the dotted line.”

Or what about this Newsweek piece that said:

When asked by NEWSWEEK if he has done baptisms for the dead—in which Mormons find the names of dead people of all faiths and baptize them, as an LDS spokesperson says, to “open the door” to the highest heaven—he looked slightly startled and answered, “I have in my life, but I haven’t recently.” The awareness of how odd this will sound to many Americans is what makes Romney hesitant to elaborate on the Mormon question.

The reporter is someone named Jonathan Darman. And he must be quite the reporter to be able to report — as fact — that “the awareness of how odd this will sound … makes Romney hesitant to elaborate.”

The Mormon reader, after noting the reporter’s amazing mind-reading abilities, says he has another guess as to why Romney thought the question odd: “My guess is that his reaction wasn’t because he knew how strange it sounded, but because its something culturally teenagers do. Yes, its a bit of mind reading myself, but at least more likely out of my experience as a Mormon. I’d be a little taken aback myself if questioned by a non-Mormon and respond with the same answer. That isn’t to say adults can’t or don’t, but for the most part there is OTHER proxy work that adults focus on in the Temple. The reason is, again, a complicated theology I don’t have time to type about. Mostly it has to do with the the lower Aaronic Priesthood that teenagers are given and the higher Melchizedek Priesthood given to adults containing more responsibilities and tasks.”

So you can see how the lack of knowledge about some Mormon practices can lead to some reporting missteps.

But I wanted to highlight a recent story that managed to be accurate about the practice while also being very brief. I’m self-conscious about how frequently we’re suggesting the impossible — an accurate explanation of a doctrinal practice in a news brief. But it is possible.

Religion News Service ran a brief about an update to the database that chronicles Mormon proxy baptisms for the dead:

A technological crackdown has effectively blocked a prominent whistle-blower from accessing the Mormons’ database that chronicles so-called baptisms for the dead.

Church officials said the move helps prevent overzealous Mormons and mischief-makers from violating church policy by submitting the names of prominent Jewish figures.

The decision to suspend the New FamilySearch accounts of anyone searching for Jewish Holocaust victims or celebrities also freezes out Utah researcher Helen Radkey, whose baptism discoveries have embarrassed the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for decades.

The article reminds readers of some of the famous names she’s uncovered, including Anne Frank, Gandhi, Daniel Pearl and the parents of Simon Weisenthal. So what is this baptism for the dead?

Mormons believe that living people can be baptized on behalf of dead relatives and others, who then can either accept or reject the ordinance.

Accurate and with an economy of words!

If you’re curious about Helen Radkey, I highly recommend this profile of her from a couple of years ago by the Salt Lake Tribune‘s Peggy Fletcher Stack.

And this Washington Post profile of her is also good.

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  • Matt Jamison


    Do you typically see better reporting about Mormonism coming from journalists who have spent time in the Mountain West? While it is certainly a global religion, Mormonism definitely still has a strong regional flavor in the United States. I’m surprised at how many people I hear from on the East Coast simply have had no exposure to the Mormon culture that is hard to miss in the states bordering Utah. I wonder if this has played to Mitt Romney’s political advantage in Massachusetts in a way that it may not in a national race.

  • John Pack Lambert

    The Huffington Post quote also “dead people had been baptized as Mormons” makes it sound like The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is digging up dead bodies and putting them in the water.

    Having done baptisms for the dead many times, I know this is absolutely not the case. It is live people standing in on behalf of the dead.

    I know that the failure to make this clear has lead to confusion. I have read comments on articles where people suggested that Mormons should be prosecuted for desecrating the remains of the dead. So the media has a duty to be clear on what this practice is and what it is not, and they have often failed to be clear.

  • John Pack Lambert

    The RNS service article is very problematic. To begin with since Radkey had no official access to a restricted access system, RNS is mischaracterizing the whole matter by portraying it as a crack-dwon on the “whistle blower”. This leads to the question of how she did gain access, the Church accuses her of fraud and gaining access when people fail to accurately log off.

    Secondly “whistle blower” is totally the wrong term. Whistle blowers are insiders who expose corruption in a organization. Radkey is more like an inteligence gatherer, an outsider who ferrets out sensitive information on an organization. Beyond this, what she is exposing is not leadership fraud but member failure. Lastly, this is not fraud or corruption in the classical sense. It does not involve criminal activity.

    By calling Radkey a whistle blower RNS cheapens the term, undermining the real sacrifice of those who actually risk their employment to expose criminal actions.

  • Jeff

    It ought to be noted that cultural left-liberals “debaptize” historical figures all the time — minimizing or outright denying their religious faiths and the importance of those faiths to understanding those figures’ lives and their historical worlds.

  • carl

    Why is this a story at all? If someone asks the question “Did you know that the Mormons performed a proxy baptism on Anne Frank?” isn’t the proper response “So what?” Who is damaged? Who is violated? Who has standing to get angry and why? Are people actually offended because a religion dares to act on the presumption that its worldview is true? All this story really amounts to is “Mormons act consistent with their belief system.” You might as well write this story: “Roman Catholics perform Mass for the Dead” or “Roman Catholics place relic of dead saint in altar of new church”

    If I was a cynic I might suggest that the media was doing a ‘spooky Mormon story’ to damage Mitt Romney. Or perhaps it was doing a ‘spooky religious believer story’ to shock the reader and convince him that religious people should be kept far away from children and government. Or perhaps the message is “Look, they are trying to steal people into their religion even after they are dead!” If I was a cynic.


  • Jeff


    You wouldn’t be a cynic, you’d be a realist — on all counts.

  • Silus Grok

    As a Mormon, I’ve followed proxy baptism stories with a great deal of interest. Of course, they’re nothing new: they pre-date Mitt’s entrance onto the national stage by some time.

    The most distressing part of reading the articles has to be how difficult it is for reporters to get the underlying cosmology/theology correct. Yes; I get that our naming of the rite (“proxy baptism”) is partly to blame (“They baptize dead people! It’s zombie baptism!”) — but we’ve never been any good at naming things. Seriously.

    But is it all that difficult to use metaphor?

    “Proxy baptism is like leaving theatre tickets at will-call for a friend you hope will attend the show.”

    It’s a mitzvah.

    At any rate, the last quote above is a lovely bit of reporting. But it may be too little too late — the zombie ship has sailed.

    For another, worthwhile, take on the issue, I’d highly recommend the approach taken by Slate:


    Though, strangely, the article seems to be incomplete. It’s like there’s a second page, but I can’t find the button.

  • carl jacobs

    By the way. The Slate article was interesting but it seemed to me that it consisted of a bunch of non-religious journalists talking about a matter of religious doctrine. The perspective contained therein would of necessity be skewed.


  • CarlH

    carl (the other one),

    You don’t need to be a cynic, Jason Horowitz at the Washington Post‘s “PostPolitics” posted an article dated February 16, 2012 that connects the dots, so to speak, between Helen Radkey’s proxy baptism crusade and her own new effort to expose “Romney’s polygamy tree”:

    In Mormon files, researcher Helen Radkey seeks to cause a headache for Romney

    The fact that the larger story (and objections, particularly from Jewish groups) has been reported repeatedly before suggests that the recent spate of revelations from Ms. Radkey about surreptitious submissions of names for proxy baptisms would still be news. But it’s hard to completely dismiss the idea that there is no connection at all between how much coverage the newest “cluster” of her discoveries has gotten (and with so much of it mentioning Mitt Romney) and the fact that a Mormon is running for President.

  • Will

    Interesting that none of the cited stories mention I Corinthians 15:29, invoked by the LDS and the unrelated New Apostolic Church as theological foundation for the practice. Does this mean that journalists did not bother to ask about theology, or simply that they consider it of no importance?

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    I had to delete some comments for straying a bit too far off topic. I realize that the first Carl’s question, which I considered journalistic, could also be taken as a doctrinal question. And some people chose to respond in terms of doctrine.

    But if you could look at it more as a “what’s the news value?” type of question or find another journalism angle to respond to, that’s better.

    We got pretty quickly into the weeds and we have to be careful when discussing these things to stay as focused as possible on journalism and not doctrinal disputes and the like.

  • JL Fuller

    Have you noticed that writers are asking for official Church policy more and more? In the past such writers often used “The God Makers” gobbeldygook variety.

  • sari

    carl asked:

    “Why is this a story at all? If someone asks the question “Did you know that the Mormons performed a proxy baptism on Anne Frank?” isn’t the proper response “So what?” “

    That the story repeatedly resurfaces, with or without the help of Ms. Radkey, suggests that it’s meaningful and newsworthy. The question as relates to your post should be “Why now?”, since it’s long been established that Jews and possibly other non-Mormons find the practice offensive. Several of the journalists took the time to interview Jewish leaders, including at least on Chabad Rabbi (Bais Menachem is the giveaway), but that’s trivialized as unimportant and non-newsworthy.

    The little I know about LDS theology suggests that Jews were targeted, at least in part, because they are considered ‘relatives’. My Mormon friends tell me that at some point they are assigned to a particular tribe of Israel, mainly Efraim and Menashe, though I am acquainted with one Levi. Knowing this, a reporter might seek to explore how the Church of LDS views the Jewish people. As I said earlier, it is very clear that proxy baptisms are not done with malice. Which leads to another question, why do the baptisms continue when the Jewish community has stated that they find them repugnant?

  • Jettboy

    “The little I know about LDS theology suggests that Jews were targeted, at least in part, because they are considered ‘relatives’.” Wrong, and actually backwards and mixed up. Everyone is “targeted” who has ever died, although ideally only family relations should be put in for the service with few exceptions. I would guess that Jews, particularly Holocaust survivors, were granted an agreement for more than just mortal reasons that also played a part. Since Jews are already considered “The Chosen People,” it is conceivable that they can wait their turn as the last to get the work done for them. Part of this is because one of the reasons for baptism, as JL Fuller mentioned, is adoption into the House of Israel. G-d can do with the Jews as a special people anything He wants to at any time since they have the first rights to the Priesthood.

    All of this is a complicated theology that simplistic newspapers will hardly report, much less with accuracy. These are also reasons that, baring some pressing mortal reasons, Hindus and others with similar objections will probably never get a similar agreement. History and theology is on the Jews side with this.

  • sari

    I apologize if I offended, but you helped make my point. None of the articles address the reasons underlying proxy baptisms of Jews, particularly Holocaust survivors, or the LDS’ view of its relationship with the Jewish People.

  • Jettboy

    No problem Sari. The word “targeted” did set me off and the last question is a good one, but often asked by critics rather than sincere observers.

  • JL Fuller

    I am not sure what Jettboy was getting at. But if the subject is LDS theolgiocal views of the tribal covenants then it certainly is not a subject most people can understand in a couple of paragraphs. In fact I dare say it is so deep that a BYU professor should weigh in. It is kind of subject a doctoral thesis is written on.

    But if the subject is who gets an opportunity to hear the gospel and accept it then that one is easy. Everyone who has ever been born will have an equal opportunity to hear about and accept Christ.

    Someone said Mormon temple work is like leaving theatre tickets for Heaven at the “will call” window for late arrivals. I like that. The unasked question isd who left the tickets. That one is Father Abraham by way of his adopted Mormon decendants as authorized by Jesus Christ aka Jehovah.

  • Jen G.

    Though not LDS, I pursued genealogy as a hobby for about 10 years and volunteered at a local LDS Family History Center as well as made a couple trips to SLC. From that experience I can say that Jews were not “targeted” for any particular reason other than that their names are easily accessible. There are a number of cases where members (for various reasons) essentially went through an assembled record and submitted the names of everyone in it. Yes, Holocaust Jews were one. So was pretty much everyone born in Scotland between 1855-1875 and all Quakers up until the late 19th century. The common denominator in all cases is that the records were compiled and indexed already.

    What most stories have failed to miss is that it is the members who submit the names, not the Church hierarchy. The names are supposed to be cross-checked against ordinances already done (and names on a restricted list), but minor variatons of spelling and dates can cause things to slip through. On the whole, however, the system assumes the good faith of the one submitting the name.

  • Silus Grok

    Maureen Dowd. Feckless shill.