Baptism for the Dead: Do They Have a Say in the Matter?
In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we believe that finding the names of our ancestors, providing proxy baptisms for them, and sealing families together in the temple is essential for God’s plan of happiness for his children. We love our ancestors and want to be connected to them in the afterlife. This doctrine motivates our genealogy research.
Some Questions and Answers
One of our readers has asked some wonderful questions on Facebook about this doctrine, and I thought it would be easier to respond in a blog post than by writing several comments on the Facebook thread. Here are the questions and some answers that I quickly wrote today. I’m happy about the opportunity to share my beliefs about family history and temple work for the dead.
Question: So, you are taking names of ancestors who were not LDS and “baptizing” them when they have no say in this action?
Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe family relationships are sacred and eternal, and that through the sealing power of the Lord, families can be together in post-mortal life. Identifying ancestors who did not receive baptism in this life, and then performing the ordinance by proxy in the temple, is an important doctrine in our church. The record of the proxy baptisms are kept on temple record books. If our ancestors accept the gospel of Jesus Christ in the spirit world, they will need the earthly ordinance of baptism to progress and receive the sealing ordinances that bind marriages and families. These ordinances cannot be performed without a mortal body. By providing these ordinances by proxy, we are not imposing our faith on them retroactively or listing them on our membership rolls, but giving them the opportunity to accept them if they ever want to. Elder D. Todd Christofferson explained:
Some have misunderstood and suppose that deceased souls “are being baptised into the Mormon faith without their knowledge” or that “people who once belonged to other faiths can have the Mormon faith retroactively imposed on them.” They assume that we somehow have power to force a soul in matters of faith. Of course, we do not. God gave man his agency from the beginning. “The dead who repent will be redeemed, through obedience to the ordinances of the house of God,” but only if they accept those ordinances. The Church does not list them on its rolls or count them in its membership. (Elder D. Todd Christofferson, The Redemption of the Dead and the Testimony of Jesus, General Conference October 2000)
Elder Christofferson went on to say:
The principle of vicarious service should not seem strange to any Christian. In the baptism of a living person, the officiator acts, by proxy, in place of the Savior. And is it not the central tenet of our faith that Christ’s sacrifice atones for our sins by vicariously satisfying the demands of justice for us? As President Gordon B. Hinckley has expressed: “I think that vicarious work for the dead more nearly approaches the vicarious sacrifice of the Savior Himself than any other work of which I know. It is given with love, without hope of compensation, or repayment or anything of the kind. What a glorious principle.”
Jesus taught that baptism is required to enter the kingdom of heaven. This has led to many religions teaching that infants who die before baptism are condemned. We believe that children under the age of accountability do not need to be baptized, only sealed to their families. Elder Shayne M. Bownen told of an experience that two LDS missionaries had when teaching a woman who started sobbing when she learned that those who die without ordinances can be redeemed and sealed to their families in the temple. When the missionary was afraid they had said something wrong, she said,
“Oh, no, Elder, you haven’t done anything wrong. Six years ago I had a baby boy. He died before we could have him baptized. Our priest told us that because he had not been baptized, he would be in limbo for all eternity. For six years I have carried that pain and guilt. After reading this scripture, I know by the power of the Holy Ghost that it is true. I have felt a great weight taken off of me, and these are tears of joy.” (Elder Shayne M. Bowen, “Because I Live, Ye Shall Live Also”, October 2012 General Conference)
The doctrine that we are required to be baptized while in mortality has seemed a difficult one for those who have lost family members who were not baptized. However in our church, we believe that families who have lost family members will be together again with them when they receive and accept proxy ordinances of baptism and sealing after death. It is a joyous doctrine! Jesus Christ’s love and atonement reach all who lived on earth, whether or not they were able to learn about him during their lives. And if they accept his teachings after death, they can accept the proxy baptism provided by one of their descendants on earth.
Question: How do you speak to the dead to give them that option?
We believe that our deceased relatives see us and know what we are doing. When temple ordinances are provided for the dead, their names are recorded in temple records. The dead are able to see these records, and they are sometimes even present in the temple during the ordinance. One such example was shared by a family in Central America, who were being sealed together as a family in the temple, and a deceased family member appeared. The story is described here:
Several years ago in a temple in Central America, the wife of one of our now-emeritus General Authorities assisted a father, a mother, and their children in receiving eternal covenants in the sealing room, where the temple mirrors are located. As they concluded and faced those mirrors, she noticed there was a face in the mirror that was not in the room. She inquired of the mother and learned that a daughter had passed away and accordingly was not physically present. The deceased daughter was then included by proxy in the sacred ordinance. Never underestimate the assistance provided in temples from the other side of the veil. (Elder Quentin L. Cook, See Yourself in the Temple, April 2016 General Conference)
The records of proxy ordinances performed by those with the proper authority and keys bestowed by Jesus Christ are kept in the temple. We believe that the records kept there are also recorded in heaven, just as Jesus declared in Matthew 16:19:
And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
John spoke about records about earthly life having significance for the dead in Revelation 20:12
And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.
Although we don’t communicate directly with our deceased relatives, we believe that Jesus Christ and his servants teach them and offer them the opportunity to accept proxy ordinances. The dead hear the gospel through the preaching of Jesus Christ and his servants in the spirit world, as he declared in John 5:25:
Verily, verily, I say unto you, The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live.
Peter also testified that Jesus would preach to the dead in spirit prison in 1 Peter 3:18-22:
For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit; By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water. The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ: Who is gone into heaven, and is on the right hand of God; angels and authorities and powers being made subject unto him.
President Joseph F. Smith received a revelation explaining more about the spirits being taught in spirit prison in Doctrine and Covenants 138. The timing of this revelation is interesting – it was 1918, after many had died in WWI and the flu epidemic. President Smith was pondering about the atonement of Jesus Christ when he felt impressed to study 1 Peter 3-4. He says,
11 As I pondered over these things which are written, the eyes of my understanding were opened, and the Spirit of the Lord rested upon me, and I saw the hosts of the dead, both small and great.
12 And there were gathered together in one place an innumerable company of the spirits of the just, who had been faithful in the testimony of Jesus while they lived in mortality;
13 And who had offered sacrifice in the similitude of the great sacrifice of the Son of God, and had suffered tribulation in their Redeemer’s name.
14 All these had departed the mortal life, firm in the hope of a glorious resurrection, through the grace of God the Father and his Only Begotten Son, Jesus Christ.
15 I beheld that they were filled with joy and gladness, and were rejoicing together because the day of their deliverance was at hand….
18 While this vast multitude waited and conversed, rejoicing in the hour of their deliverance from the chains of death, the Son of God appeared, declaring liberty to the captives who had been faithful;
19 And there he preached to them the everlasting gospel, the doctrine of the resurrection and the redemption of mankind from the fall, and from individual sins on conditions of repentance. …
30 But behold, from among the righteous, he organized his forces and appointed messengers, clothed with power and authority, and commissioned them to go forth and carry the light of the gospel to them that were in darkness, even to all the spirits of men; and thus was the gospel preached to the dead.
31 And the chosen messengers went forth to declare the acceptable day of the Lord and proclaim liberty to the captives who were bound, even unto all who would repent of their sins and receive the gospel. …
36 Thus was it made known that our Redeemer spent his time during his sojourn in the world of spirits, instructing and preparing the faithful spirits of the prophets who had testified of him in the flesh;
37 That they might carry the message of redemption unto all the dead, unto whom he could not go personally, because of their rebellion and transgression, that they through the ministration of his servants might also hear his words.
38 Among the great and mighty ones who were assembled in this vast congregation of the righteous were Father Adam, the Ancient of Days and father of all,
39 And our glorious Mother Eve, with many of her faithful daughters who had lived through the ages and worshiped the true and living God.
40 Abel, the first martyr, was there, and his brother Seth, one of the mighty ones, who was in the express image of his father, Adam.
41 Noah, who gave warning of the flood; Shem, the great high priest; Abraham, the father of the faithful; Isaac, Jacob, and Moses, the great law-giver of Israel;
42 And Isaiah, who declared by prophecy that the Redeemer was anointed to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that were bound, were also there.
43 Moreover, Ezekiel, who was shown in vision the great valley of dry bones, which were to be clothed upon with flesh, to come forth again in the resurrection of the dead, living souls;
44 Daniel, who foresaw and foretold the establishment of the kingdom of God in the latter days, never again to be destroyed nor given to other people;
45 Elias, who was with Moses on the Mount of Transfiguration;
46 And Malachi, the prophet who testified of the coming of Elijah—of whom also Moroni spake to the Prophet Joseph Smith, declaring that he should come before the ushering in of the great and dreadful day of the Lord—were also there.
47 The Prophet Elijah was to plant in the hearts of the children the promises made to their fathers,
48 Foreshadowing the great work to be done in the temples of the Lord in the dispensation of the fulness of times, for the redemption of the dead, and the sealing of the children to their parents, lest the whole earth be smitten with a curse and utterly wasted at his coming.
49 All these and many more, even the prophets who dwelt among the Nephites and testified of the coming of the Son of God, mingled in the vast assembly and waited for their deliverance,
50 For the dead had looked upon the long absence of their spirits from their bodies as a bondage.
Question: Can deceased ancestors speak to us?
Although we don’t speak to our deceased ancestors, I know of many accounts of ancestors speaking to their descendants in dreams asking them to provide proxy ordinances for them in the temple so they can progress in the gospel and be sealed to their family members. These accounts are typically personal and sacred and are not often published, but one that I did find comes from the LDS Church News in 1932:
A. J. Graham recorded the following account of a visit from his deceased parents that illustrates the faith exercised by those waiting for their work to be done:
“One night while in the hospital after an operation and in the act of praying I felt someone present in my room. I opened my eyes and the room was light, the door closed and near my bed stood my mother. She smiled and said:
“‘I am glad to see you are better.’ She held in her hand a book. I asked what it was. She replied that it was a book of genealogies. Father then appeared with three books in his hand, saying, ‘I am glad you are better.’
“‘You must get well, for I have three volumes of names that are ready to have work done for in the Temple. We have connected up our family so you can do their work. Ways and means will open for you if you will.’
“I asked how I was to find these records. He said, ‘If you will work in the Temple, you shall know but it will take money.’ I said ‘Father, I haven’t any money and have been out of work since May 1.’
“He said, ‘never mind my boy, money will come to you if you are determined to work in the Temple for these poor people who are held back and can’t go on. They pray as earnestly for you, that you might have money and the necessities of life, and that your heart will be moved so that you will do this work for them, just as sincerely as you pray for things you need. Don’t forget, they can not go on until their work is done.’
“With a smile of confidence and content they both faded from my mortal vision” (“Bishop Graham Recounts Rare Genealogical Experience,” Church News, June 25, 1932, 2, quoted in Introduction to Family History Student Manual, Chapter 5, Seminaries and Institutes of Religion Curriculum, Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2012).
I believe my ancestors are very much involved in helping my family find their records and information to speed up the work of finding them. My great grandfather, Earl Hollingsworth, was preparing a list of his ancestors’ names for the temple late into the night. He went to bed, and was awoken to the sound of a whisper saying, “Don’t forget me. My name is Rosa, and I’m on page 3.” He went back to the records of his relatives that he was using, and found the name of relative who he hadn’t noticed before. Her information was written on the side of the page in the margin. He felt that she was waiting for him to find out about her so he could provide proxy temple ordinances for her and her family. He added her to his list and helped provide proxy ordinances for her in the temple.
Several other stories about deceased ancestors helping or speaking to their descendants during genealogical research are recorded in a series of books by genealogist Henry Z. Jones, called Psychic Roots. One of the accounts recorded there is about a genealogy researcher whose grandmother told her bedtime stories from their family history. Later in life, when the researcher was trying to solve a genealogy problem with a family on the 1860 census, she couldn’t figure out if they were related to her family. While in church on Sunday morning, she said, “something seemed to be coming into my mind – some unfinished business about that family.”
She put it in the back of her thoughts and began driving home. She said, “All of a sudden to my astonishment, there was my grandmother sitting beside me in the car, as real as in life (she’d been dead for almost 30 years. She appeared as solid as I did although I did not dare touch her. She said, “you should have remembered what I told you about that,” and it was her voice, as clear as when she used those same words to chide me when I was a child. Just as suddenly, she was gone. But the story she’d told and that I’d forgotten was in my mind, as clear as if she’d just told it to me.” It was about the battle of Gettysburg, these relatives heard horses hooves near their farmhouse in Chambersburg; saw confederate soldiers; wakened their 12 year old and sent him across the fields to warn the union soldiers.”
This is just one incident showing that the dead are aware of our genealogical research and are able to communicate with us about it.
Question: Are you taking 1 Corinthians 15:29 out of context?
1 Corinthians 15 is about the resurrection of the dead. Paul is convincing his audience that the resurrection is real by saying, “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?” His discussion of the practice of baptism for the dead is evidence that the practice existed in the primitive church of Jesus Christ and is a practice that we continue in the restored church of Jesus Christ.
Our church teaches the following about baptism for the dead:
Jesus Christ taught that “except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). For those who have passed on without the ordinance of baptism, proxy baptism for the deceased is a free will offering. According to Church doctrine, a departed soul in the afterlife is completely free to accept or reject such a baptism — the offering is freely given and must be freely received. The ordinance does not force deceased persons to become members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or “Mormons,” nor does the Church list deceased persons as members of the Church. In short, there is no change in the religion or heritage of the recipient or of the recipient’s descendants — the notion of coerced conversion is utterly contrary to Church doctrine.
Of course, proxy baptism for the deceased is nothing new. It was mentioned by Paul in the New Testament (see 1 Corinthians 15:29) and was practiced by groups of early Christians. As part of a restoration of New Testament Christianity, Latter-day Saints continue this practice. All Church members are instructed to submit names for proxy baptism only for their own deceased relatives as an offering of familial love.
Question: If spirits can make choices after death, why is there a need to make lists of ancestors as they would be fully aware of such “choices” without being put on a list?
Those who are in the spirit world are described as being in “spirit prison” because although they can make choices to accept teachings, they cannot be baptized. Baptism is an earthly ordinance. John 3:5 states that “except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” According to the Savior, saving ordinances must be performed during mortality or by proxy after one’s death. More about baptism.
Question: If I don’t believe in this practice, should I be hesitant to share my family history information with others or with companies who practice it?
It’s up to you. Church members only perform ordinances for their own relatives. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints cares very much about preserving genealogical information for the human family in order that we all might be linked to our families eternally. It is a beautiful doctrine that motivates the genealogical studies of members of the Church and the creation of the FamilySearch website, the volunteer efforts of thousands to preserve and index records from all over the world, and the building of hundreds of family history centers.
I’m thankful for the sealing power that allows me to be connected to my ancestors through temple ordinances. I look forward to meeting them someday and being reunited with everyone in my family tree. More about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and family history.