Answers to a rabbi, part 3: Baptizing dead Jews

Know then that ev’ry soul is free,
To choose his life and what he’ll be;
For this eternal truth is given,
That God will force no man to heaven.

He’ll call, persuade direct him right;,
Bless him with wisdom, love, and light;
In nameless ways be good and kind;
But never force the human mind.

—Know This, That Every Soul Is Free (LDS Hymn)

Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? Why are they then baptized for the dead? – 1 Corinthians 15:29 (New Testament)


In a recent letter to the editor of The Jewish Week addressing Mitt Romney’s candidacy, Rabbi Mordecai Schnaidman posed three questions about LDS beliefs. I have answered two of them in previous posts, and will now address the third. Given that the topic is a sensitive one—posthumous immersions for the dead – it is especially important to remember that honesty and clarity often trump agreement in interfaith dialogue.

Q: [The Jewish Week Editor Gary] Rosenblatt acknowledges that only victims of the Holocaust were exempted from the Mormon doctrine of baptizing the deceased, but that otherwise the practice continues unabated. How does such an approach to persons, although deceased, jibe with the principle of individual autonomy that is the very foundation of modern democratic society?

A: This question contains two questions: 1) Are Jewish Holocaust victims in fact exempted from LDS temple ordinances? 2) Do Mormons believe that these ordinances somehow obligate the dead to accept them in the afterlife? In both cases, the answer is a resounding ‘no.’

Mormons believe that a prerequisite for reaching heaven is to receive certain ordinances, including baptism. One can receive these ordinances in person while on earth (as LDS Church members do) or by proxy after death. In the latter case, Mormons acting on behalf of the dead receive the ordinances in their name during temple rituals.

In the past year some Jewish leaders have publicly proclaimed that Jewish Holocaust victims are exempted from this requirement in LDS theology. This is a mistaken belief. The only people for whom temple ordinances are not performed posthumously are children who die before they are eight years old (the age of accountability, when they are deemed capable of sinning). Those young spirits get a free pass to heaven. The rest of us need to receive the ordinances that God has prepared for us.

Just to be absolutely clear, Mormons believe that people who need temple ordinances in the next life in order to live in God’s presence include victims of the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide, and other extermination campaigns where victims were targeted because of their race, nationality, or religion. Those who argue that Holocaust victims don’t have to receive the ordinances that are required for all of God’s other children are inadvertently making the case that God loves a group of Jews less than He loves everyone else. This certainly does not square with our theology.

Mormons have an obligation to perform temple ordinances for their deceased relatives. Indeed, we believe that we will not reach heaven without our kindred dead who have accepted the rites. However, church members have no such duty towards others’ relatives. For decades church leaders have asked members to perform temple ordinances only for their own ancestors. In the past, a small number of Mormons inappropriately performed temple ordinances for Holocaust victims who were not related to them, in violation of church policy (for more details, please see my first and second blogs on the subject). This understandably raised the ire of Jews, and a series of discussions took place between LDS and Jewish leaders over many years.

The understanding that was finally reached between the two groups led to further steps taken by the LDS Church to try to prevent temple ordinances from being performed for Holocaust victims by non-relatives. In addition, the church will continue to delete names of these victims from its ordinance database when evidence is produced that an unauthorized ordinance has been performed for them. These are the only concessions made to Holocaust victims. If a granddaughter of a victim converts to Mormonism and wants to perform temple ordinances for her grandmother, she has not only a right but an obligation to do so.

Now we come to the question of “individual autonomy” and temple rites. Mormons believe that our freedom to choose between good and evil, truth and error will continue beyond the grave. Just as we are not compelled to accept religious truths on earth, we will be free to accept or reject religious principles and rites in the next life as well. If a Mormon has performed ordinances by proxy on behalf of an ancestor in an LDS temple, the potential beneficiary is under no obligation to accept them. Thus the foundational principle of individual autonomy in religion cherished by Rabbi Schnaidman remains inviolate. In our belief system, if someone who was not a Mormon on earth becomes a Mormon in the world to come, it will be because he has chosen to become one.

The importance of free will in the LDS concept of an afterlife becomes clearer when we look at proxy immersions. When I first started discussing posthumous temple rites with Jews, I quickly noticed that they only raised objections to the ordinance known to Mormons as “baptisms for the dead.” Even though Mormons perform several ordinances for the deceased, Jews focused almost exclusively on that one. [I have never heard a Jew object to the eternal marriage by proxy of a husband and wife who perished in the Holocaust, for example]. Most Jews may not know a whole lot about Christianity, but they do know that a “baptism” means someone has just become a member of a Christian church.

It’s not always easy to explain to them that with Latter-day Saints, things are a little different: While living Mormons are baptized into the LDS Church and do become members, the dead are baptized by proxy and are not listed as members of the church. The difference? Consent. The living can freely consent to be baptized, while it is impossible to objectively discern whether the dead have accepted the ordinance.

It is for this reason that I use the term “proxy immersion” to refer to LDS proxy baptisms for the dead. Not only is the word “immersion” far less emotionally charged for Jews than “baptism,” but the term is more accurate. The “baptism” for a dead soul only becomes a true baptism (i.e., entry into the church) if he ultimately accepts it. If he doesn’t, it becomes an immersion that was performed for naught. Since the dead who are baptized by proxy are not considered to be members of the LDS Church, I think it’s a good idea to use a different, more accurate term than “baptism” when discussing the ordinance with Jews. In addition, use of the term “immersion” avoids giving non-Mormons the impression that the practice automatically confers membership in the church, as do baptisms in other Christian churches.

I thank Rabbi Schnaiman for taking the time to write his thoughtful letter, and hope that my answers to his questions have been helpful. Shabbat shalom.

Mark Paredes blogs for the Jewish Journal, the Deseret News, and Meridian Magazine. He will be leading a tour to Israel for Morris Murdock Travel next spring. You can contact Mark at and follow him on Twitter @jewsandmormons.