There has been stories in the news recently saying how the Mormons have endeavored to perform baptisms in behalf of deceased holocaust victims or celebrities. Being a card-carrying, faith-filled member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I’d like to give you an insider perspective on this story.
Let me assure you that I’m disturbed by these reports as you are, and I think the vast majority of my fellow church members are as well. The way the reports sound make it appear as if all the members of the church are in a conspiracy to do this, and might even sound like we are attempting to lie and cover-up our actions.
To help you better understand, think for a moment about people you know from all walks of life who have good intentions, but go about doing them in the wrong ways. From people who send gifts to their favorite television characters on their fictional birthday; parents who corner you at work and relentlessly insist you donate to their daughters girl-scout troop; people with political or religious pamphlets who don’t know when to stop shoving them into your face; or someone who has a message to share and emails everyone in an address book multiple times. People often have good intentions and sometimes get carried away in their actions. Those misfires often hurt their cause by tarnishing its image.
I believe something similar is happening in this situation. One bad apple is making the entire barrel look bad.
The process of performing baptisms for the dead begins far outside of the temples. Individuals are encouraged to research and discover their own personal family ancestry. It begins with individuals who scour all sorts of public records – birth, marriage, and death certificates, census records, emigration rolls, parish records; baptism certificates and cemetery maps. As people learn of their heritage, they are invited to contribute that information to a massive genealogical database. By sharing who your parents and grandparents were, a distant cousin may locate you, and together you might share information and help each other discover more. Professional and amateur researchers alike find it incredibly fun to learn and document more of their own personal history.
Optionally, those conducting this research can contribute the names and basic information about the people they find to the temple records. There are rules about name submission – primarily that you must be related to the individual, or have some direct personal connection. If you are not personally related, it is part of the requirements (and just plain good common sense) to seek permission from the living family members, where that is possible, before sending the names to the temple’s general file.
Once those names arrive at the temple, they print up a 3″ x 5″ card for each person. The individual’s name, birthday, and birthplace are printed on blue or pink cards, for men or women respectively. When known, the parents or spouses names may also be printed on the card in smaller font, to help identify the individual better. Those cards arrive at the baptismal font.
Now if you attend a typical baptism ceremony in most any religion you expect a few things. Prayers will be offered, perhaps a speech or two made, and general pomp, circumstance, and celebration surrounding the rite and the individual experiencing this life event. This is often true when a living person is baptized in the Mormon church too. Without knowing any differently, you might expect that Mormons are lighting candles and making a big production when they perform a baptism for someone who is deceased.
Temple baptisms for the dead, however, have a bit more industrial feeling. The officiator and the person being baptized (the proxy) stand in the baptismal font. The officiator says a prayer similar to the very short prayer offered when a living Mormon receives baptism, with the added phrase “I baptize you for…” and then he reads the name on the card. After the “amen,” he then immerses the living proxy underwater. The proxy stands back up. Two witnesses seated font-side nod that everything happened according to proper procedure. They pick up the next 3″ by 5″ card with another name printed on it, and they do it again. This happens very quickly – imagine about 4 or 5 times a minute in rapid succession (spending about 12 to 15 seconds for each name). The proxy might repeat this for 10, 20, 30, or 40 deceased individuals in a row, depending on how many people are waiting in line to have a turn.
Please don’t misunderstand me. Though it moves somewhat mechanically, I don’t want you to think that it is a meaningless performance. The feeling of the Holy Spirit is there. So why would they want to do that? To the minds of the Mormons, that ordinance of baptism is being provided for someone who cannot physically receive it. They are emulating an aspect of what the Savior did when he took upon Him the sins of each of us, who were unable to do so for ourselves. A checkmark is placed next to their name in the database so that it is known that the ordinance has been performed, and need not be repeated. Once that act has been performed, Mormons believe that in the world where spirits dwell after this life, that personage will be informed that this work has been performed in their behalf, and they will have the opportunity to accept or reject it of their own choosing. The choice will be theirs, just as they will have the opportunity to accept or reject the atoning sacrifice made in their behalf by the Savior Jesus Christ.
Drawing back to make my main point: In this fast moving environment at the temple, the people in the font probably don’t know the person they are representing, whether it be a celebrity, holocaust victim, king or politician, or otherwise. The proxy is probably more concerned with breathing in-between submersions. Sometimes the person who comes to the font to be baptized brings her or his own researched names, but usually not. More often they just accept a stack of 3″ by 5″ cards with names and birthdates printed on them, which have been submitted to the “general file” by church members who enjoy doing genealogical research.
When a famous identity is given the rites of baptism in the temple, there is probably no ill-intent happening at the baptismal font. Most likely there is not even a realization that it happened. No, if there is any intention to put names forward which are contrary to common sense or established guidelines, it is taking place in the process of research and name submission.
If you have followed the news stories, you may have heard that the church has taken steps to closer watch the names being submitted, and prevent them from entering the system improperly. This truly is the best place to put the effort. With millions of volunteers submitting names, however, it will be impossible to police them all. A few bad apples are going to submit names which may even get past the spam-filter. The checks and balances of the system will catch that, and suspend their activity, or even initiate disciplinary action toward their church membership when they are knowingly or willfully rebelling against the rules.
That sort of thing happens here on earth. Those dead persons have lived here, and now on the other side hopefully understand that we can’t always control the overzealous few with good intentions. The deceased souls always have the option to say “Thanks but no thanks!” on the other side.
So hopefully they won’t be offended there, and hopefully their family here won’t take offense either. It is a gift of our time offered in love, with no strings attached.
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For a detailed discussion of the doctrine why these baptisms are performed, I’ve included below an excerpt from “The Hearts of the Children Shall Turn” by Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
The Ministry of Elijah
Elijah was an Old Testament prophet through whom mighty miracles were performed. He sealed the heavens, and no rain fell in ancient Israel for 3½ years. He multiplied a widow’s meal and oil. He raised a young boy from the dead, and he called down fire from heaven in a challenge to the prophets of Baal. (See 1 Kings 17–18.) At the conclusion of Elijah’s mortal ministry, he “went up by a whirlwind into heaven” (2 Kings 2:11) and was translated.
“We learn from latter-day revelation that Elijah held the sealing power of the Melchizedek Priesthood and was the last prophet to do so before the time of Jesus Christ” (Bible Dictionary, “Elijah”). The Prophet Joseph Smith explained, “The spirit, power, and calling of Elijah is, that ye have power to hold the key of the … fullness of the Melchizedek Priesthood … ; and to … obtain … all the ordinances belonging to the kingdom of God” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith , 311; emphasis added). This sacred sealing authority is essential for priesthood ordinances to be valid and binding both on earth and in heaven.
Elijah appeared with Moses on the Mount of Transfiguration (see Matthew 17:3) and conferred this authority upon Peter, James, and John. Elijah appeared again with Moses and others on April 3, 1836, in the Kirtland Temple and conferred the same keys upon Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery.
Scripture records that Elijah the prophet stood before Joseph and Oliver and said:
“Behold, the time has fully come, which was spoken of by the mouth of Malachi—testifying that he [Elijah] should be sent, before the great and dreadful day of the Lord come—
“To turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the children to the fathers, lest the whole earth be smitten with a curse—
“Therefore, the keys of this dispensation are committed into your hands; and by this ye may know that the great and dreadful day of the Lord is near, even at the doors” (D&C 110:14–16).
The restoration of the sealing authority by Elijah in 1836 was necessary to prepare the world for the Savior’s Second Coming and initiated a greatly increased and worldwide interest in family history research.
The Spirit and Work of Elijah
The Prophet Joseph Smith declared: “The greatest responsibility in this world that God has laid upon us is to seek after our dead. … For it is necessary that the sealing power should be in our hands to seal our children and our dead for the fulness of the dispensation of times—a dispensation to meet the promises made by Jesus Christ before the foundation of the world for the salvation of man. … Hence, God said, ‘I will send you Elijah the prophet’” (Teachings: Joseph Smith, 475).
Joseph further explained:
“But what is the object of [the coming of Elijah]? or how is it to be fulfilled? The keys are to be delivered, the spirit of Elijah is to come, the Gospel to be established, the Saints of God gathered, Zion built up, and the Saints to come up as saviors on Mount Zion [see Obadiah 1:21].
“But how are they to become saviors on Mount Zion? By building their temples … and going forth and receiving all the ordinances … in behalf of all their progenitors who are dead … ; and herein is the chain that binds the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the children to the fathers, which fulfills the mission of Elijah” (Teachings: Joseph Smith, 472–73).
Elder Russell M. Nelson has taught that the Spirit of Elijah is “a manifestation of the Holy Ghost bearing witness of the divine nature of the family” (“A New Harvest Time,” Ensign, May 1998, 34). This distinctive influence of the Holy Ghost draws people to identify, document, and cherish their ancestors and family members—both past and present.
The Spirit of Elijah affects people inside and outside of the Church. However, as members of Christ’s restored Church, we have the covenant responsibility to search out our ancestors and provide for them the saving ordinances of the gospel. “They without us should not be made perfect” (Hebrews 11:40; see also Teachings: Joseph Smith, 475). And “neither can we without our dead be made perfect” (D&C 128:15).
For these reasons we do family history research, build temples, and perform vicarious ordinances. For these reasons Elijah was sent to restore the sealing authority that binds on earth and in heaven. We are the Lord’s agents in the work of salvation and exaltation that will prevent “the whole earth [from being] smitten with a curse” (D&C 110:15) when He returns again. This is our duty and great blessing.