Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Strange Mormon Customs #7: Baptisms for the Dead

There are few Mormon customs that sound as spooky as baptisms for the dead. Plus, the ordinance takes place in our temples--buildings that are off limits to the general public--which, I suppose makes it seem even more likely that we are up to no good. Let me assure you that we are not pushing dead people underwater. If anything, this sacred ordinance has little to do with death and everything--everything--to do with Life.  

One of the basic principles of our doctrine is that in order to be saved one must be baptized by someone with the proper authority. Baptism opens the gate to the path to heaven and is therefore essential. All who hope to be exalted must first be baptized. 

But let's be realistic. Not everyone who has ever lived on the earth has been baptized. Millions of people have come and gone without even hearing the name Jesus Christ. It would not be fair or just if God only allowed the people who heard about the truth and were baptized to live with Him. That would be like saying only those who have a flat screen tv will be saved. So, sorry to the people in Africa and Siberia who are too poor to have flat screens. Sorry to the people in North Korea who are not allowed to have flat screens. Sorry to all the people who still own old-fashioned tvs, and a super big sorry to everyone who ever lived before flat screen tvs were invented. You are just out of luck.

But the Lord loves ALL his children and it seems He always has a plan to help people get back on the boat. If we can find any record that a person existed on this earth they will have a chance to be baptized--even if it is after they have died.  

This is why Mormons are crazy about family history. We spend hours and hours searching through churches, graveyards, journals, lists, and census records so that we can find every name we can. The names and dates we find are added into a great database of genealogy. You can see what we mean by going to familysearch.org. You might be able to find some of your ancestors there, too. 

Once a name is found there is a protocol. We don't just immediately baptize any name we find. If the individual was born within the last 110 years, the baptisms must be done by the next of kin or a direct descendant who has permission from the next of kin. We also cannot be baptized for famous people unless we are directly related to them (spouse, parent, child, sibling). We have been doing this for a long time, and we've learned to tame our over-exuberant zeal to baptize everyone else's ancestors.

Also, men can only serve as proxy for men, and women for women. The records are carefully kept and recorded. This is not something we take lightly.


The baptisms are performed in a temple, our most sacred sanctuary. The only people who can enter into our temples are members who can say (by their own admission) that they are honest, chaste and clean. So only someone who is doing their best to live a Christ-centered life can stand in the place for someone who has died and be baptized for them. Interestingly, many of the baptisms are performed by teenagers, ages 12 to 18. 


Sometimes people who are not of our faith feel uneasy about this practice because they think we are forcing people to become Mormon. I understand how that might irritate or even anger someone.  But performing the ordinance for a deceased person does not commit them to the gospel. Their names are not added to the membership of the church. Baptism only opens the door for them to accept the gospel in the next life if they want it. It is their choice.

Now, baptizing everyone who ever lived is a daunting task. And what about all of those children who died? And infants who never even had a name put on their headstone? How could we ever baptize all of them?


This brings up one of my favorite doctrines of our church: children are innocent. Completely innocent. They are too young to know how to choose between right and wrong, and they are automatically covered by Christ's atonement. That is why we reject the idea of infant baptism. Children should only be held accountable when they understand right from wrong. So there is no need to find all the children that ever lived and died, for they are already saved. 

Incidentally, all of the temple baptismal fonts are placed on the shoulders of 12 oxen. 
This is symbolic of something so secret that I cannot tell you about it. 


Just kidding. I can tell you. The 12 oxen symbolize the twelve tribes of Israel. Baptizing those who didn't get a chance to accept the gospel in life is how we believe we are gathering the lost tribes and bringing them back to the House of Israel. Another way to look at it is that the ox is symbolic of the tribe of Ephraim, and it is the tribe of Ephraim that will shoulder the responsibility of gathering those who are lost.

We see doing baptisms for the dead as a great act of love and service. Everyone should have a shot at salvation.

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