Mormons (a nickname for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) have an unusual and interesting practice called Baptisms for the Dead. This practice is often talked about by those who are not Mormon but is generally misunderstood. The ordinance is mentioned in the Bible, but is a subject of debate among experts as to what it means.
29 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)
The ordinance is performed in a Mormon temple and is a proxy ordinance. This means a living person is baptized in the name of someone who died. Mormons submit the names of their ancestors for this ordinance after doing genealogical research. The research is also made available to the public at no cost to help them with their own genealogical research.
The ordinance does not make the ancestor a Mormon. No one can do that. During a person’s life, he must voluntarily choose conversion in order for it to have meaning; the same holds true for conversions that occur after death. If the ancestor rejects the ordinance, it will have no effect and it will be as if it never happened.
Why do Mormons do baptisms for the dead? The Bible teaches us that baptism is a requirement for entrance into God’s presence after death.
Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God (John 3:5).”
38 Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost (Acts 2:38)
This, of course, poses a serious problem, since many people died without ever having been baptized. Many, in fact, never even knew they were supposed to be baptized or died so young they never had the opportunity to choose baptism. Some were baptized improperly. Some did not receive a personal revelation as to which church to join or to the need for baptism.
Mormons believe that God is loving and fair. He loves all His children equally and wants all to have an equal chance to return home to Him. They believe He would never place a person in a situation that would condemn him for eternity without giving him an opportunity to make an informed choice. Christianity has long struggled with this problem—how to reconcile and loving and just God with the possibility that some will be denied exaltation and salvation through no fault of their own. Many religions have worked to create explanations for this problem, but none fulfill the twin needs of justice and mercy.
A careful reading of the New Testament demonstrates that the solution was known at the time of Christ.
By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison (1 Peter 3:19).”
6 For for this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit (1 Peter 4:6).
We learn from these verses that Jesus, after His death, preached to the spirits who were there, those who had died, in order for them to be judged properly. This is because God will never punish us for what we didn’t know. In order to be fairly judged, they needed to learn the gospel and what God expected of them. They then needed an opportunity to decide whether or not they were willing to accept those responsibilities.
If the person who has died makes a commitment to live the gospel of Jesus Christ, he still has a problem. The commandment to be baptized is still in force, but it cannot be done in Heaven. This is where baptism for the dead comes into play. As mentioned earlier, the ordinance was mentioned by Paul while working to teach his followers that resurrection was real. He asked them why they were performing these ordinances if the dead weren’t resurrected—if there is no resurrection, there is no need for baptism at all. It is very clear he was referring to a current and very real ordinance, one everyone knew about and that therefore needed no explanation. His instruction also served as a reminder that we must carry out ordinances knowingly, understanding what they mean and why they are doing them.
Proxy ordinances have a long religious history. The greatest proxy ordinance, of course, was the atonement of Jesus Christ. Jesus took the sins of all human beings—without first asking their permission while they were living in mortality—on Himself, in order to make it possible for them to be saved.
However, while everyone benefits at least in part from the atonement of Jesus Christ, in order to benefit from a proxy, baptism, the person must accept the gospel and agree to live by its teachings. The conversion is not forced on anyone, since free will, or agency, is key to God’s plan for us. An involuntary conversion is not a conversion.
What this ordinance does, then, is to protect the agency of those who died. If we do not perform the baptism, they do not have the ability to be converted if they choose to do so. Baptism for the dead is a gift Mormons give to their ancestors in order to make sure they have the ability to choose for themselves when the time comes. They are instructed to do this work only for their own ancestors, not for celebrities or others whose names are blocked. Of course, there are some who disobey the rule and those people lose the right to submit names.
One additional benefit to this ordinance is the emotional attachment we build to our extended family. Mormons believe that family life is meant to be eternal and that when we live with God, we will also continue to be part of the family He gave us, extending back through time. As Mormons work on their family history, they learn more about this family, coming to understand how they came to be who and where they are. They learn how their ancestors influenced them and the role their family played in the history of the world. Many have spoken of coming to feel they know these ancestors. When they die and are reunited, they will be part of a family they know and love, not generations of strangers. It is, perhaps, why God instructs us to submit only the names of our ancestors.
There is no fee connected to this ordinance. Mormons do not pay to have the work done for their ancestors. In fact, Mormons never charge fees for sacred ordinances. The work is done by volunteers when the family is unavailable to do it themselves and it is performed in Mormon temples, which are staffed by volunteers.
LDS News: Church Policy on Baptisms for the Dead