This morning I had the privilege of participating in a youth temple trip to Chicago. My job was to act as a witness in baptisms for the dead. While many Mormons revere this ordinance, people outside the Church often take offense. In fact, a story in tomorrow’s New York Times describes how the Church is under fire again for baptizing Jews.
The controversy has its origins in the practice of baptizing Jewish Holocaust victims. In 1995 the Church agreed to remove the names of such people from its records, and agreed to cease baptisms for the dead without prior approval of descendants. Just recently, some Jewish groups are claiming that the Church breached this agreement, though others are not convinced by the latest claims:
Some Jewish genealogists agree with the Mormon interpretation of the agreement. “I have a copy of the agreement,” said Gary Mokotoff, the publisher of Avotaynu, the International Review of Jewish Genealogy. “The wording is vague in some places, but it definitely does not obligate the Mormons to scour their own archives on an ongoing basis.”
I have not seen the agreement, but this description has a ring of truth to it because the Church has always been somewhat laissez faire with respect to baptisms for the dead. That is, we have tended to err toward permissiveness and inclusion. As far as I know, there is little centralized control of the process of submitting names.
Indeed, as I witnessed the baptisms today, I was struck by the incompleteness of many of the entries (in some cases, just first names) and the inexactness in which the ordinance was performed. Most of our names today were of German origin, and a couple of the men who were performing the ordinance obviously did not go to Germany on a mission. The resulting mispronunciations were pretty painful, but the temple worker explicitly instructed us not to belabor the issue.
While it is tempting to be dismissive of those who object to this ordinance, their concerns are heartfelt. I wrote a short note awhile back on Russian reactions to baptisms for the dead. It seems likely that we will be facing this issue on an increasing basis unless some changes are made in the way that we administer the program to provide more comfort and input from descendants.