Baptisms for the Dead

December 20, 2003 | 9 comments
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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.

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9 Responses to Baptisms for the Dead

  1. Ronin on December 21, 2003 at 10:21 am

    I am a convert to our Church, and when I first went to the Chicago Temple to take out my Ordanances, the group from our Ward also did Baptisms for the dead. And I included the names of some of my departed relatives. Now, I am an immigrant from India, so all my family are devout Hindus. So, when I told my parents about having baptised the departed members of our family, they were livid, so much so, that they have disowned me, and since that day, we have had no contact whatsover!!!!! Looks like a lot of people , not just Jewish folks, take umbrage at this practise of your Church!!!

  2. Ronin on December 21, 2003 at 10:23 am

    Sorry about t he typo – the last sentence of my first comment should have read -”take umbrage at this practise of OUR Church”, not “your Church”.

  3. Gordon on December 21, 2003 at 9:17 pm

    Thanks for the correction, Ronin. I am sorry to hear about your family. Just curious: why do they find baptisms for the dead so offensive? Is it because they believe that the ordinance can actually have some eternal influence on the person? Or because they believe you are dishonoring their memory? Or something else?

  4. ronin on December 22, 2003 at 8:13 am

    Well, to answer your question, I think they are angry because, (1) they, like a lot of devout Hindus, seem to have a great deal of animosity towards any form of Christianity, so that animosity is extended to our Church. Plus, these days, with the ascent of fundamentalist hinduism in the political sphere, tyhe rhetoric seems to have induced a mass, seige-mentality, where a lot of Indians see Christianity as a huge conspiracy designed to devalue traditional Indian values and Indian culture.
    (2) Indian society, and thus families are very authoritarian – so, my joining our Church of my own volition is interpreted as a slap in the face, because, I did it on my own, without seeking the permission of my parents and other elders in the extended family.(permission would have been denied anyways). I guess they just cant deal with the concept that I might want to be my own thing, make my own decisions, without my parents dictating how I live every aspect of my life. More of a social thing here.
    (3)the baptisms for the departed grandparents was interpreted as a sneaky, underhanded attempt to “convert” my late grandparents into “Christianity”. Again, this was interpreted as an insult to the entire extended family. To the point, that other members of my extended family that have migrated to the USA and Canada, refuse to have anything to do with me!!!!!

  5. Nate on December 22, 2003 at 11:15 am

    Way back when I was a blogging neophyte, I posted something in response to Eugene Volokh on Baptism for the Dead. You can check it out here:

    http://goodoman.blogspot.com/2002_12_08_goodoman_archive.html#85894696

  6. William on December 25, 2003 at 2:28 pm

    This article in the Jerusalem Post (link at bottom) provides an interesting perspective that is contrary to the point of view expressed in the New York Times piece:

    Respect the theology of our friends

    Shmuley Boteach
    Dec. 25, 2003

    Jewish officialdom is up in arms, the Mormon Church is on the defensive, and frankly I don’t give a damn. I refer of course to the controversial Mormon practice of baptizing deceased non-Mormons into their faith.

    In 1995, the Mormon Church agreed to stop posthumously baptizing dead Jews. But according to Ernest Michel, a former executive vice president of UJA-Federation of New York who helped broker the 1995 agreement, the church has rebuffed attempts to remove Jewish names from its 400-million-strong database and thus violated the agreement.

    That may be so. But what a waste of time for everybody involved.

    I could not care less if the Mormons baptize me after I’m dead.

    It won’t affect me. I’ll always be a Jew, in this life and the next. If this is part of Mormon practice and belief, and they do it in the privacy of their own ritual, and it doesn’t affect me in the slightest, why should I care?

    People’s beliefs are their own business. It’s how they treat others that is everyone’s business. What I care about is how much the Mormons support Israel today, not what they do with Jewish souls in what they regard as the afterlife. Far from being my sentiment alone, this is a pivotal Jewish teaching: “It is the action [and not dogma] which is most important.”

    In my first few years as rabbi at Oxford University, I befriended a doctoral student by the name of Michael Taft Benson, whose grandfather, Ezra Taft Benson, was at the time president and prophet of the Mormon Church. Not only did Mike become and remain one of my dearest friends, he served as vice president of my L’Chaim Society and regularly brought groups of hundreds of Mormon students to our Sabbath dinners to learn more about Judaism.

    A great lover of Israel who has visited there more than 10 times, Mike chose to write his doctoral thesis on Harry Truman’s support for the creation of the Jewish state. Through Mike, I was granted a meeting with the current president and prophet of the Mormon Church, Gordon B. Hinckley, who is Mike’s grandfather-in-law.

    We spoke about Israel, his admiration for the Jewish people, and the Mormon dedication to Israel’s prosperity and survival. I am regularly invited to address Mormon audiences in Utah who thirst for knowledge of all things Jewish and who treat me like a wise elder brother. Mike even arranged for me to launch my book Judaism for Everyone at the University of Utah, and he and I are currently planning a Jewish studies center for Snow College, where Mike serves as president.

    After meeting with Jonathan Pollard at the federal prison in Butner, North Carolina, it was Mike whom I called to ask for his support in meeting the two Utah senators on Pollard’s behalf. He quickly arranged for me and Esther Pollard to meet with senators Hatch and Bennet of Utah, who received us most graciously.

    The Mormons are our brothers, the Christians are our kin. So long as they support and defend the Jewish people through their current persecution, that will always be so, whatever their beliefs, and we owe them our gratitude.

    The same is true of those righteous evangelicals who love Israel like it is their own country. Many Jews are alarmed at the steadfast support of evangelical Christians for Israel claiming it is insincere. It’s an end-of-days strategy, they say. Jesus can’t come back until the Jews have returned to Israel. The evangelicals aren’t real friends because at the Second Coming, they believe, all Jews will become Christians.

    What an absurd complaint. To tell people who send tens of millions of dollars to poor Israelis and who place enormous pressure on the Bush administration never to abandon Israel that they are not real friends is to be ungrateful at best and treacherous at worst.

    Who cares what their beliefs are? They are our greatest friends in the world. What will happen when Jesus comes back? Hey, we’ll talk about it then.

    In the meantime we’ll show them unstinting appreciation for their love and support against an insurgent Islam that wants to wipe Israel from the map

    I of course don’t mean to be flippant about any of this. My point is a very serious one. Friendships are not based on creeping into the innermost sanctums of the other’s heart and discerning their motivation. Friendship comes down simply to the affection with which people treat each other.

    If Jews are troubled by Mormon and evangelical Christian theology and propose to focus more on these groups’ beliefs than on their actions, the logical outcome would be for the Jews to be far closer to the Muslims than to Christians.

    After all, theologically speaking, Islam and Judaism are closer than any two other religions. Both are pure forms of monotheism which utterly reject the deification of a man as God, neither accepts any division in the Godhead, like a trinity, and both are based on a written law and on an oral legal tradition (Halacha and hadith).

    So why aren’t we as close to the Muslims as we are to the Christians? Simple. The Christians, whatever their belief, treat us as beloved brothers; the Muslims, however monotheistic, murder our children.

    Let’s stop with the silly insecurities that have us looking to scratch the skin of a friend and find underneath a closet anti-Semite.

    The writer is author of 14 books. His latest is The Private Adam: Becoming a Hero in a Selfish Age.

    This article can also be read at http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?pagename=JPost/JPArticle/ShowFull&cid=1072239539026

    Copyright 1995-2003 The Jerusalem Post – http://www.jpost.com/

  7. Nathan on December 30, 2003 at 12:59 pm

    The major question I have is what is in the agreement for the Mormons? What did they promise us? Frankly, the agreement would be more of a curteousy than anything else. On top of that, I think that religiously Baptism for the Dead is far too important to make any agreements. Just let them wallow in their biased hatred. Generally I am as willing to try and placate others’ feelings as best as possible. However, when it comes to issues such as the Temple I will not give in to the arm of flesh.

    In fact, I would say the only reason the LDS Church even considered this agreement is the religious belief that Jews are off-limits to preaching anyway as a whole. In our trying to be seen in better light is the Church giving away our souls for solice?

  8. Steve on June 15, 2004 at 2:03 pm

    Thank you William for that article from Shmuley Boteach. I enjoyed it geatly!

    To Brother Gordon Smith and Brother Nathan, When I read your comments I get the feeling that efforts to steady the ark are at play.

    I’m sure you feel, as I do, that this church is led by the living God through His living prophet. God knows what’s up and how best to deal with what’s going on. And “surely [He] will do nothing but he reveal his secret unto his servants the prophets.” (Amos 3:7) So His prophets also know what’s up and how best to deal with what’s going on.

    God speed Brethren. Have faith in the capability of God’s kingdom and its priesthood leadership to keep doing things the Lord’s way:)

  9. Anonymous on December 18, 2004 at 5:21 am