Mormon Proxy Baptisms

John Turner

As the fate of Mitt Romney (and, for those of us in Mormon History / Studies, yet another golden age of national attention surrounding all things Mormon) hangs in the balance, Mormon-Jewish relations have dominated religious news coverage over the past two weeks.

The Mormon practice of "proxy baptism" or "baptism for the dead" typically strikes outsiders as odd, but it offends some. For nearly twenty years, a variety of Jewish groups have complained about proxy baptisms done by Mormons on behalf of Holocaust victims, and the Catholic Church has also expressed concerns about the practice.

Many good essays and posts have appeared over the last ten days that place this ritual in its historical and theological context and attempt to mediate between Mormon and Jewish concerns. In particular, see Jana Riess's Religious News Service blog post and Samuel Brown's Huffington Post piece.

I chime in here. I can certainly understand the complaints of non-Mormons that proxy baptism violates the memory of their ancestors.

Still, in my mind there are primarily two ways to understand the rite. For Mormons, proxy baptism is a sacred task of bringing their ancestors into celestial glory, of rebuilding family connections that will persist for eternity. The church is attempting to provide an opportunity for the departed to respond to the gospel in the afterlife. From the earliest days of the ritual (which Joseph Smith introduced in 1840), Latter-day Saints have not always been content to provide for their own ancestor's salvation. Early Mormons were baptized for George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and the explorer Zebulon Pike. If memory serves me correctly, Latter-day Saints were baptized for deceased American presidents, with understandable delays for Martin Van Buren and James Buchanan. Technically, though, all of the recipients of proxy baptism are non-Mormons, whether related to Latter-day Saints or not.

For non-Mormons, all of this is nonsense. While historians and pundits continue to debate whether the Founding Fathers were Christians, no one believes they were Mormons. Same for Adolph Hitler and Anne Frank. I would be amused, not offended, to learn that Mormons had been baptized for my grandparents (one of whom, technically a step-grandfather, was Jewish). If one doesn't believe that proxy baptisms in the basements of Mormon temples actually provide a opportunity for those gone to the spirit world to posthumously obtain salvation, then there really is very little cause for concern.


Anonymous said…
Coming from a Mormon family and having chosen not to be Mormon I have to argue that proxy baptism is in fact offensive and unethical. Bottom line: I do not care what they believe they are accomplishing. I have chosen not to be associated with their institutions and their practices. I do not want one of my "well meaning" relatives to associate me with their faith after I die. This topic is even more offensive when the individual they choose to associate with them threw this practice died a victim of one of the most horrendous acts in recent human history; the Holocaust. In my mind proxy baptism is another way of victimizing the dead for their heritage. The Mormon church should stop this practice all together.
charlesrichter said…
While there is certainly an element of offense over a breach of propriety at play, I suspect that the concern regarding baptisms for the dead lies (at least in part) in an unacknowledged anxiety that they possess some real effect--that the baptism ritual can somehow alther the substance of a soul.

If one already believes in cosmology in which one's own acts can have effects on the souls of the dead, via prayers and rituals, than one must entertain the idea that competing prayers and rituals may also have the same potential for effect. Thus, people speak of baptisms for the dead as "making" the dead into Mormons. I think this shows that many people conceptualize the category of religious affiliation as something that transcends mortality--not only did Granddad live a Catholic and die a Catholic, he remains a Catholic in the afterlife. This conceptualization is somewhat at odds with the notion of a unified afterlife that validates a particular denomination's or sect's cosmology. But in a pluralistic society, is there any other real choice? That is, when people of various traditions become accustomed to the existence of competing truth claims in the world, that model of religious diversity bleeds over into the spiritual realm as well.

That is why I don't think that it is as easy to say that Mormon baptisms for the dead are simply "nonsense" to non-Mormons. While on one level, they can be dismissed just as you say, there is another level of anxiety that produces an interpretation of them as ultimate threats.
John G. Turner said…
Thanks for the responses.

Charles, perhaps you are correct that there are deep-seated reasons why proxy baptism produces "anxiety" about ancestors, I very rarely see that in the complaints of those who are offended by the practice. There is a fear that future generations might misrepresent those who have been baptized by proxy.

I simply don't think that any one is victimized by this ritual. Moreover, especially once one understands the theology behind it, it seems even less offensive.

In a nutshell, I'm simply more interested in how religion leads people to treat each other in this world, rather than in rituals designed to shape family relations for eternity.
charlesrichter said…
I didn't mean to give the impression that I found any victimization at play here; I am in complete agreement with you that a dispassionate understanding of Mormon theology would likely prevent offense being taken.

However, dispassionate understanding of competing theologies is rather hard to come by!
Rachel said…
While this post is quite sympathetic to Mormon theology and practice, it betrays an ignorance of Jewish theology. That is, setting aside social and historical reasons for Jews taking offense (which are quite reasonable to me as well), there is a theological argument as well: Jews may violate any law (e.g., Shabbat, kashrut, etc) to save their life EXCEPT 1) "chillul hashem" -- taking God's name in vain, which includes blasphemy and idolatry (which for practicing Jews would include accepting Jesus or any other figure as a God figure) and 2) murder (though there are exceptions for self-defense and war). Thus for Jews, the matter of Mormon proxy baptism is not simply a social offense, but a theological one. Baptism (by proxy or otherwise) is one of very few things Jews cannot do to save their own lives. Hence to baptize a Jew without their consent, posthumously or otherwise, strikes at the center of Jewish belief and practice. It demonstrates an intense disrespect for Jews as Jews -- and while the Mormon Church may not care about that, informed commentators should. If you want to justify proxy baptisms as being somewhat mild give the Mormon theology behind them, then you also need to take into account the Jewish theology that makes them so egregious to many Jews.
John G. Turner said…

Thanks for your very thoughtful comment.

You're quite correct that Mormon proxy baptism of Jews represents a disrespect for Jews as Jews (or Catholics as Catholics for that matter, etc.).

Let me see if I understand you correctly. If a Jew sought baptism, it would violate "chillul hashem." Thus, for a Mormon to be baptized on behalf of a Jew is asking that Jew to commit blasphemy against God? I think I understand the theologcial point -- I can understand why the ritual is offensive to outsiders and perhaps particularly offensive to Jews. I do think it's worth keeping in mind that Mormons are only doing this for non-Mormons, and I think most non-Mormons if asked would prefer that Latter-day Saints don't do it for their ancestors.

I appreciate you raising the point so cordially. It probably would have been wiser for me to attempt to more fully understand the depth of outrage with which some Jews have denounced the practice.

For me, it struck me as akin to the offense many Americans take when someone attempts to witness to or convert them. If someone else thinks I'm going to hell (in this case, to a lesser tier of glory) without doing x, I don't take offense if they recommend I do x. For them to think I need x and not offer it to me is rather callous. [I was once rather stunned to hear a Mormon complain that after he returned from his mission folks from Campus Crusade for Christ tried to convert him -- the nerve!]. I suppose I'm fine with everyone sharing their religious solutions, in life and aftewards. I realize that doesn't mitigate the offense from the theological perspective you outlined.
Rachel said…
John, thanks for your response.

I think this sentence, "Technically, though, all of the recipients of proxy baptism are non-Mormons, whether related to Latter-day Saints or not" gets at the crux of the issue for Jews. Even if it is a Mormon undergoing the actual baptism on behalf of a non-Mormon, the ritual is still a baptism that requires taking something other than God, as Jews understand God, as a salvatory means. Thus this is quite different than being approached by missionaries (of any sort) on the street: when approached by a missionary one can reject the offer whereas when someone has been baptized on behalf of another (Jewish or not), the ritual has already occurred, the opportunity for rejecting it never offered. Even if Mormons would differentiate between the proxy baptism and a "real" one, Jews wouldn't because someone has in fact been baptized, has accepted Jesus/the restored Church/etc as a means to salvation. That the offer lingers out there in the cosmos is irrelevant.

It may also help to keep in mind that in Judaism -- contra Christianity -- ritual is more significant than belief. Hence an orthodox Jew could keep the sabbath strictly without believing in God; hence, the ritual of baptism itself is a true affront, even if Mormons believe that the dead would still need to accept it. For Jews, it doesn't matter whether the dead "accept" it; the baptism has occurred, someone has accepted Christ for a Jew, and that is a desecration.

This probably still seems very convoluted, but I think that the 2 key issues are: 1) for Jews, claiming to have accepted Christ (or anyone else) as a savior is engaging in idolatry. Someone doing it on behalf of a Jew is idolatry by proxy (clearly not the Mormon intent, but the Jewish read nonetheless) not simply possible-opportunity-for-salvation by proxy. And 2) for Jews, rituals matter. A lot. Jews who identify as Jewish* would never partake of a baptism. Wish a non-Jew well on his or her baptism? Sure. Undergo one? Nope. So even if there is wiggle room for Mormons on whether proxy baptism actually means conversion per se, for Jews baptism--real or by proxy--signals conversion and that lies at the core of heresy/idolatry/etc.

*Jews for Jesus being an exception, I suppose, though Jews don't accept JfJ as Jews, for the acceptance of Christ nullifies the being "Jewish" for Jews.
Rachel said…
One more thing -- although most Jews aren't reacting to Mormon proxy baptisms through theology, per se, I think this is an instance where the intuitive rejection and offense taken is, in fact, ultimately derived from theological reasoning even if it's not the reason proffered. That is, even if the vast majority of explanations are social and historical and most Jews wouldn't know to offer the theological rationale, the instinctive offense taken at baptism is actually quite theological in nature. Maybe that's a particularly Jewish worldview, in that practice is discussed so much more frequently than belief, theology, or God, but I think it accounts for a lot of the outrage.
Alex Burgess said…
Good post, John. Perhaps you've already seen this, but in case not ...
John G. Turner said…
Thanks, Alex. I had seen that, which made a similar point more eloquently.