What baptism for the dead means to Mormons

Toward the end of May, 1970, I stood waist high in water in a baptismal font of a temple in … Continued

Toward the end of May, 1970, I stood waist high in water in a baptismal font of a temple in Hamilton, New Zealand, while the name of my deceased father was read aloud. Moments later, on his behalf, I was buried in the biblically mandated full-immersion baptism that is so powerfully symbolic of rebirth and entry into the kingdom of God.

That first visit to a temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints –and my first experience of what Mormons call “baptism for the dead”–was one of the most intensely significant religious experiences of my life.

I was 22 years old in 1970, but I had never personally known the father for whom I had just been baptized by proxy. During World War II he had served with the British Army. After action in France, he was captured by Rommel’s forces in North Africa and spent the next three years behind barbed wire as a prisoner of war in Libya, Italy and Germany.

Robert Otterson photo courtesy of Otterson family.

Four years after he returned from the deprivations and hardships of war, at 37 and with most of his life seemingly ahead of him, he was thrown from his motorbike on a Welsh country road and killed. I was just nine months old. Through my childhood, my mother would occasionally share stories of my father, but I grew up with no personal memory of him — only a vague sense of loose ends and unanswered questions.

The temple experience, however, changed all of that. Leaving the temple that day in 1970 started me on a quest to learn all I could about my father. I conducted interviews, discovered letters and journals and found memorabilia. I retraced his footsteps in Germany from the time his POW camp was liberated. I know the title of every one of the dozens of books he read during his captivity. No longer a cipher or question mark, he has become for me a real person, and my love for him has become every bit as real as for that of the mother with whom I grew up.

For me and Latter-day Saints like me, these deeply held feelings are not just the consequences of a highly developed hobby. They reflect a key practice in our faith and are rooted in biblical teachings. They are fulfillment of the prophetic writings found at the end of the Old Testament, in the very last verses of the Book of Malachi.

“And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers….”

Mormons attach great significance to this scriptural verse, as they do also to New Testament references to preaching among the dead. If Jesus Christ preached to the spirits of those who had left this life, it presupposes they had the moral agency to accept or reject what he was preaching. What extra things was he teaching them that they did not know already? Combined with other references and a specific mention of baptism for the dead in one of Paul’s letters, these scriptures form the theological underpinnings of Mormon temple work.

This entire labor of love, as Mormons view it, rests on the premise that those who have passed on have the choice to accept or reject the gesture. I knew when I performed the proxy baptism for my father that he was a devout Christian, christened as a baby in the rites of the established Church of England. My gesture in his behalf took nothing away from him, the life he lived and who he was at his core. If there is an afterlife – a belief clearly shared by both of us – then I added opportunity to the goodness of a short but purpose-filled and worthy life. In the doctrines embraced by my particular faith, my offering opened up eternal possibilities, including the eternal “sealing” of his marriage to my mother. Far from slighting my father’s religious persuasions, he retains every ounce of his own free will and moral agency to accept what I did on his behalf. In my own heart, I want to believe he accepted it, but I cannot know that now. What I am certain of, however, is that in whatever cognizance of this life that exists in heaven, that my father will not be offended for a gift generously intended and sincerely given by his son. The worst I can imagine is a “Thanks, but no thanks.”

Mormons all over the world cultivate a caring attitude for their departed families. Whenever and for whomever they are rendering temple service, Latter-day Saints ponder the time and place the person was born, and reflect on what their lives may have been like as the offering is made for them. It is because we value and respect every life and its eternal potential that we do what we do.

Last week, this same Mormon practice of baptism for the dead found its way into news reports because someone violated church policy and submitted for baptism the names of some Jewish Holocaust victims to whom they were not related. That improper action sparked a good deal of misunderstanding about this sacred belief.

First, no one can force acceptance of a religious rite on others after they have died – the very concept of abridging personal agency is anathema to Mormons. In other words, in no way does this practice forcibly “convert” a deceased person to Mormonism. Secondly, Jewish Holocaust victims have been specifically excluded by the church itself from temple baptisms unless there is a direct-line relationship between the Latter-day Saint submitter and the deceased person – a rare occurrence where the Holocaust is concerned. The policy itself is a highly significant and unprecedented gesture of respect to those who gave their lives in the Holocaust.

I am thankful for the Jewish rabbis who understand the situation well and spoke up promptly to help defuse a sensitive situation. With more than 14 million members around the globe, the Church is no more able to guarantee compliance of every member with its policies than other worldwide faiths are able to guarantee theirs.

Despite the church’s best efforts, there will continue to be individual violations of policy and we will continue to address them and minimize such instances. The church is looking at every way it can both to educate its members and address the deficiencies of technology. I am confident that it will continue to do all it can to resolve legitimate concerns while preserving the core doctrines of the faith.


View Photo Gallery: “The Mormon story is a quintessentially American tale,” writes On Faith columnist Lisa Miller.

More On Faith and Mormonism:

Otterson:Why do Mormons tithe?

Kathryn Skaggs: For Mormons, this moment is personal

Otterson: Mormons want acceptance, not assimilation


Michael Otterson is an On Faith panelist and heads the worldwide public affairs functions of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

  • mqpham

    This is much ado about nothing. The proxy baptism does nothing for the dead. The livings may fight about it, but the deads don’t care.

  • ezrasalias-socialize

    This posthumous baptism is an insult to the living of the deseased, not to the dead.

  • ezrasalias-socialize

    As a Secular Humanist, I hereby announce that Joseph Smith and Brigham Young atheists and can now rest in peace.

  • AnewPerspective

    As a secular humanist you wold also announce the following:

    FIRST: Religious humanists regard the universe as self-existing and not created.

    SECOND: Humanism believes that man is a part of nature and that he has emerged as a result of a continuous process.

    THIRD: Holding an organic view of life, humanists find that the traditional dualism of mind and body must be rejected.

    FOURTH: Humanism recognizes that man’s religious culture and civilization, as clearly depicted by anthropology and history, are the product of a gradual development due to his interaction with his natural environment and with his social heritage. The individual born into a particular culture is largely molded by that culture.

    FIFTH: Humanism asserts that the nature of the universe depicted by modern science makes unacceptable any supernatural or cosmic guarantees of human values. Obviously humanism does not deny the possibility of realities as yet undiscovered, but it does insist that the way to determine the existence and value of any and all realities is by means of intelligent inquiry and by the assessment of their relations to human needs. Religion must formulate its hopes and plans in the light of the scientific spirit and method.

    SIXTH: We are convinced that the time has passed for theism, deism, modernism, and the several varieties of “new thought”.

    SEVENTH: Religion consists of those actions, purposes, and experiences which are humanly significant. Nothing human is alien to the religious. It includes labor, art, science, philosophy, love, friendship, recreation–all that is in its degree expressive of intelligently satisfying human living. The distinction between the sacred and the secular can no longer be maintained.

    EIGHTH: Religious Humanism considers the complete realization of human personality to be the end of man’s life and seeks its development and fulfillment in the here and now. This is the explanation of the humanist’s social passion.

    NINTH: In the place of the old attitudes involved in

  • AnewPerspective

    As a secular humanist, you would also announce that your atheist beliefs mirror those of; communism, socialism and marxism.

  • rbmarkham

    Michael Otterson’s is a clear and in-depth description of an important and sacred practice. This is a labor of love for those who have passed on.
    The focus of this practice and belief is to further efforts to build eternal families.As Otterson mentions, church members all over the world have a caring and loving attitude toward departed family members.

  • Sara121

    Secular humanism is about dignity and respect for all people. Communism, socialism, and Marxism, in practice, especially as the practicing groups get larger, are authoritarian regimes that denigrate and demean people. They often turn into personality cults, not unlike the personal-god religions of Abraham. You also fail to account for the low religious belief/high quality of life countries in Scandinavia that are not Communist.

  • Sara121

    And secularism and atheism are not interchangeable words. There is a lot of overlap between the two groups of people, but they are not identical.

  • AnewPerspective

    Sarah,

    Humanity is about “dignity and respect for all people”.

    Perfect.

    I’ll look for your posts to confirm that.

  • kerryberger

    Any explanation from Mormons about why they feel they must baptize the dead comes across as an excuse for violating the rights of individuals and families who are not Mormons and a terrible way of displaying a total disregard for the beliefs of others who do NOT accept, nor do they want to accept the beliefs and practices of the LDS Church. Since these revelations, it becomes imperative that the LDS Church open a public channel of communication via the internet to enable people to confirm whether or not members of their families have had their descendants proxy baptized. I strongly feel that it may even take a class-action lawsuit to force the Mormons to cease and desist as there have been repeated promises made and ignored by well intentioned but ignorant believers and church officials who ignore basic common decency related to the respect for differences in belief. I will be writing to my Representatives and Senators in Washington to insist that this matter is investigated thoroughly and that a site be established to ensure non-Mormons can readily find out if deceased members of their family have been proxy baptized and that the lists will be purged of the names with some certification proving that names have been deleted. There should be legal recourse if the LDS refuses to comply in good faith and common decency.

  • AnewPerspective

    kerryberger,

    You might be onto something there you know.

    Please also mention in your letters to include a public apology to the mormons who had an extermination order put against them by a state governor.

    I’m sure also that mormon familes who had their homes, lands, farms, and temples destroyed or stolen will also enjoy an apology and the return of any/all possessions, materials, lands, homes, farms & etc, returned in full.

    I am also sure that mormons would appreciate a formal apology as well as a US Government financial payout/compensation for allowing so many mormons be murdered while ignoring the plea’s for help made by the mormons.

    I am sure that Senators in Washington will thoroughly investigate and find a way to compensate mormom members who’s deceased ancestors were pillaged, raped, murdered by mobs, US citizens and government officials.

    In your letter – please request that a website be dedicated to detail the specific names of those mormons who were so horribly persecuted against. Along with the financial compensation to their familie’s for the lives lost, women desecrated, children harmed.

    Of course, make sure your letter mentions legal recourse should your Representatives and Senators refuse to comply in good faith and common decency to rectify such actions against the then and now LIVING people of this country.

  • esedgwick2

    Christians pray for sinners?

  • ddoiron1

    The Dead can reject their Mormon Baptism as soon as they can Tear up those Baptismal Certificates.

    As if that could ever happen.

  • Sara121

    From the Council for Secular Humanism web site:

    “Secular humanism, then, is a philosophy and world view which centers upon human concerns and employs rational and scientific methods to address the wide range of issues important to us all. While secular humanism is at odds with faith-based religious systems on many issues, it is dedicated to the fulfillment of the individual and humankind in general. To accomplish this end, secular humanism encourages a commitment to a set of principles which promote the development of tolerance and compassion and an understanding of the methods of science, critical analysis, and philosophical reflection.”

    Key points in there are dedicated to the fulfillment of the individual and humankind, and development of tolerance and compassion. That is what secular humanism is all about. That is what it means to show dignity and respect for people. That is what secular humanists aspire to and they do it without need of supernatural dogmas.

  • PamDB

    There is a movement going on to turn dead Morans gay.

  • nihonsean

    I find it more than funny that people who do not believe in Mormonism, do not believe that it is either right or even a religion get all up in arms over them baptising dead people.

    I imagine if I approached the same people, put my thumb and pointing finger together, held them to my eye and then said “I’m crushing your head’ these same people would demand that I apologize.

    If you know that an action is not real, and cannot hurt you, what do you care?

  • ranyhyn

    Where do I join in?

  • ranyhyn

    Calling someone a foul name doesn’t hurt them in the commonly understood physical sense, but it is generally perceived as an insult, or at least harassment, which is a type of harm. The Kids in the Hall bit would be considered harassment by most folks. Maybe they wouldn’t want you to apologize, but they’d demand that you stop, because they might perceive it to be annoying, disturbing, etc. It’s a matter of perception.

    Personally, I see these baptisms, if done to people who were not religious or of a significantly different religion, as an insult to the memory of the dead. The actual dead can’t care, as they no longer exist, but to the living, insulting a dearly held memory causes emotional pain, which does have chemical consequences for the brain and body.

  • AnewPerspective

    ran,

    if what you say is true “insulting a dearly held memory causes emotional pain, which does have chemical consequences for the brain and body.”

    Then there are a lot of folks who owe a lot of mormons an immediate apology.

    Not only did “insults, harassment” against mormons take the form of words, but also physical actions. Here are some of them as copied from an earlier post:

    “Please also mention in your letters to include a public apology to the mormons who had an extermination order put against them by a state governor.

    I’m sure also that mormon familes who had their homes, lands, farms, and temples destroyed or stolen will also enjoy an apology and the return of any/all possessions, materials, lands, homes, farms & etc, returned in full.

    I am also sure that mormons would appreciate a formal apology as well as a US Government financial payout/compensation for allowing so many mormons be murdered while ignoring the plea’s for help made by the mormons.

    I am sure that Senators in Washington will thoroughly investigate and find a way to compensate mormom members who’s deceased ancestors were pillaged, raped, murdered by mobs, US citizens and government officials.

    In your letter – please request that a website be dedicated to detail the specific names of those mormons who were so horribly persecuted against. Along with the financial compensation to their familie’s for the lives lost, women desecrated, children harmed.

    Of course, make sure your letter mentions legal recourse should your Representatives and Senators refuse to comply in good faith and common decency to rectify such actions against the then and now LIVING people of this country.”

  • AnewPerspective

    sara,

    A duck, by any other name, is still a duck.

    “bring to Earth, through “humanism” the greatest peace Man has ever known.”

    Does this quote sound familiar?

    Here’s the real quote:

    “By psychopolitics create chaos. Leave a nation leaderless. Kill our enemies. And bring to Earth, through communism, the greatest peace Man has ever known.”

  • Sara121

    Actually the quote was not familiar, and you changing out one word doesn’t automatically imply any connection between humanism and communism. You could switch it out for any word, including Christianity, nazism, Shintoism, Islam, Republicanism, or any other ism you like. So I’m not sure what your point is. WHat makes humanism different particularly from religious isms and political isms like communism or nazism, is that dignity is inherent to humanity, not inherent only to those who follow that ism. That is part of why political isms and religion are so divisive.

  • andrewpatejr

    Few doubt the sincerity of the Mormon belief in this practice. But to baptize a deceased person of another faith or no faith and without any of his or her relatives consent or knowledge is clearly not a practice condoned by most Christians, nor is it based on an interpretation of scripture that can bear up under scrutiny by the best of biblical scholars. The practice is an affront to many Christians, myself included.

  • MarsHelper

    The quote “let the dead bury the dead” comes to mind. If there is an afterlife, I think God wants people to concentrate on the living, not waste time on the dead. I hope they don’t count the corpses as Mormon now. I see it as a waste of time and money, but whatever… 1 Corinthians 15:29 does indicate that Paul did not disapprove of the practice, rather he seems to be using the practice as an example to those that baptized the dead of what the baptism is for: subservience to God and everlasting life.

  • AnewPerspective

    Mars,

    You’re playing with a deck of quotes – against a deck of scripture and prophecy.

    Even from a scientific and mathematical standpoint – the probability of you being on this earth, breathing and able to write your comment is far less likely than to believe in a supreme creator.

  • aussiebones

    Can’t wait to Baptise Rush!

  • uaachamp

    Talking snakes and GHOSTS……………………….WOW

  • handcockjohn

    No matter how much lipstick you put on the LDS pig, it’s still a pig.

  • plattitudes

    So… you believe government should be able to step in and tell a religion how to run its affairs? Separation of Church and State was DESIGNED to prevent that.

  • PennyWisetheClown

    Why do these people think they have a right to do that if they wanted it done they would have done it in life not leave it to be done by someone else after death.

    What a seriously warped way of thinking the LDS people have.

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