When Doctrine and Dimwits Meet: Why Mormons are Accused of Baptizing Dead Jews

Baptismal font
A temple baptismal font.

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One recurring complaint about the Church is that we insist on “baptizing dead Jews.”  Most recently, there was a report that a handful of Jewish victims of the Parkland, Florida shooting were submitted to our temples to be baptized.  The problem stems from a combination of a misunderstanding of the doctrine of baptism for the dead and the persistent obnoxiousness of overzealous members of the Church who can’t follow simple instructions.

First, the doctrine.  The entire notion of proxy Christian baptisms for deceased Jewish people can smack of anti-Semitism, especially if people don’t understand what proxy baptisms are all about.  There are some basic doctrinal principals that underlie the practice that, if understood, can help non-members understand that it is neither anti-Semitic nor completely crazy:

  1. We believe that our Father in Heaven established a plan by which all of His children could be saved. Yes, we believe that plan includes redemption through Jesus Christ and the performance of certain saving ordinances, the most fundamental of which is baptism.
  2. We believe that not everyone will have an opportunity to hear the fullness of the gospel during their lives nor be in a position to accept it. If God made no allowance for such people, then the vast majority of our Father in Heaven’s children would be irretrievably lost (a result which the rest Christianity quietly accepts).  As far as plans go, that would be a lousy one.  We believe and teach that God can do better than that.
  3. We believe that everyone will be given, either in mortality or after death, an opportunity to hear and accept the gospel of Christ. But if that takes place after death, then those people still could not take participate in earthly ordinances like baptism and would be out of luck.  So…
  4. We believe that God has given us the authority to perform in our temples essential ordinances for those who have died. Since we don’t know who will or won’t accept the gospel, our goal ultimately is to perform those ordinances for everyone, without regard to whether they accept it.  (Personally, I’ve performed proxy ordinances for relatives for whom I have some serious reservations.  If you knew my family, you would understand).
  5. We do not believe that this compels anyone to accept Christ. We do not believe that it “makes them Mormons.”  We do not count dead people as members of our Church.  We do not dig up and baptize dead people (although I’ve heard that icky accusation more than once).  We make no judgment, good or ill, about any deceased person and whether they should receive baptism.

That’s the basic doctrine.  You don’t have to agree with it, but it isn’t intended to be judgmental or condemning of anyone.  It reflects our belief in the universality of the atonement of Jesus Christ and our hope that our Father in Heaven has made it possible for anyone to receive the blessings He has promised to His children.  It is, for us, the opposite of any sense of exclusivity:  We believe all men and women can be redeemed, not just a chosen few.

Unfortunately, some of our members get over-exuberant and, frankly, foolish when it comes to submitting names to our temples for such baptisms to be performed, and that can create real problems for us in terms of the perceptions of non-members of the Church.  In the past, people have submitted names of famous people, Holocaust victims, notorious historical figures and so forth, in some cases thinking they are doing good and in other cases probably just to be obnoxious.  Unfortunately, like any organization, some members of the Church don’t have the common sense that God gave a rock.  It is just our burden to bear.

The Church has counseled against this time and again, and official policy prohibits it (quite expressly when it comes to Holocaust victims, because we are trying to do some good here and not just irritate people).  We are supposed to submit names of family members, and that’s it.  But when you have millions of people submitting names (“millions” might be an overstatement, as the number of members like me who have yet to catch the genealogy bug is considerable), you can’t control what every knucklehead might do.

I am speculating about what happened here, but I’m about 92% sure that I am right.  Some member of the Church (probably more than one) has made it their personal mission every time there is a tragedy to collect up names of the victims and submit them for proxy baptism.  They probably think they are doing a lot of good, but in reality they just create embarrassing bad press for the Church, especially when watchdog groups discover that some of those victims are Jewish.

Count me nutty, but I really do believe in the doctrine of proxy ordinances for the dead.  I think it is a hopeful and beautiful concept.  But members of the Church aren’t helping us when they ignore specific instructions and do things that reflect neither wisdom nor order.

California Native. Texas lawyer. Long-time Mormon. Zen master wannabe. Confident that Mormonism is about more than casseroles and plodding music, and insisting that the Gospel isn't as hard as some people make it.