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What Historical Support Does the Mormon Church Have to Justify Baptism for the Dead?

By Eric Johnson

A great majority of the work that is performed in LDS temples throughout the world by faithful Mormons is done on behalf of the dead. Besides endowments for the dead, baptisms for the dead are also performed. Ordinances on behalf of such notables as William Shakespeare, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Patrick Henry, Paul Revere, Leo Tolstoy, and Dwight Eisenhower, to name a few, have been pefromed. Why, even Adolph Hitler has had his work done for him, so apparently nobody is left behind! While hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on LDS temples, millions of hours have been spent on genealogical research as Mormons trace their family lines so baptisms for deceased relatives may be performed. According to a Salt Lake Tribune article,

Genealogical records are maintained in the LDS Church’s massive Family History Library, west of Salt Lake City’s Temple Square. It’s continually replenished with data from 150 countries, via birth, marriage, and death certificates; records from other countries such as christenings and baptisms; old train and ship passenger lists; census, military, immigration, and court records, including wills, probates and deeds; and Social Security death records … information comes from so many sources, and the computer system is so sophisticated, there is no way a person can be excluded by request (Salt Lake Tribune, “Baptism for Dead Adds Lincoln, Tolstoy to LDS Ranks,” August 17, 1992, A-6).

Can humans becomes saviors to those already dead?

Vicarious baptism is the key ordinance performed on behalf of the dead. Its importance to Mormonism was stressed by President Joseph Fielding Smith when he wrote:

If we wilfully (sic) neglect the salvation of our dead, then also we shall stand rejected of the Lord, because we have rejected our dead; and just so sure their blood will be required at our hands…. But the greatest and grandest duty of all is to labor for the dead … we cannot be saved without them (Doctrines of Salvation 2:145, 149).

Mormonism allows the faithful Mormon to be baptized by proxy on behalf of deceased relatives who did not embrace Mormon teaching during their lifetime. It is through this act, Mormons are told, that their ancestors will be given the opportunity to respond to the Mormon message in the spirit world. Consider the teaching manuals all Latter-day Saints are supposed to study called Teachings of Presidents of the Church. President Brigham Young taught,

Our fathers cannot be made perfect without us; we cannot be made perfect without them. They have done their work and now sleep. We are now called upon to do ours; which is to be the greatest work man ever performed on the earth. Millions of our fellow creatures who have lived upon the earth and died without a knowledge of the Gospel must be officiated for in order that they may inherit eternal life (that is, all that would have received the Gospel). And we are called upon to enter into this work” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young, p. 311).

While Mormonism teaches that Jesus’ death paved the way for salvation, it is taught that the person who is baptized by proxy for another is necessary for the salvation of that person. President Wilford Woodruff explained,

Our forefathers are looking to us to attend to this work. They are watching over us with great anxiety, and are desirous that we should finish these temples and attend to certain ordinances for them, so that in the morning of the resurrection they can come forth and enjoy the same blessings that we enjoy (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Wilford Woodruff, p. 190).

He also said,

If the dead have not heard the Gospel, the Lord is not going to send them to hell because they have not received it. The Lord is the Father of all. He is merciful to all. . . . Millions of people have been born in the flesh, have lived and have gone to the grave, who never saw the face of a prophet in their lives; never saw a man that was called of God and had power to administer in one of the ordinances of the House of God. Will God condemn them because they did not receive the Gospel? Not at all (Ibid., p. 186. Ellipses in original).

President Joseph F. Smith even called the living Mormons doing proxy work “saviors”:

We will not finish our work until we have saved ourselves, and then not until we shall have saved all depending upon us; for we are to become saviors upon Mount Zion, as well as Christ. We are called to this mission. The dead are not perfect without us, neither are we without them [see D&C 128:18]. We have a mission to perform for and in their behalf; we have a certain work to do in order to liberate those who, because of their ignorance and the unfavorable circumstances in which they were placed while here, are unprepared for eternal life; we have to open the door for them, by performing ordinances which they cannot perform for themselves, and which are essential to their release from the ‘prison-house,’ to come forth and live according to God in the spirit, and be judged according to men in the flesh [see D&C 138:33–34] (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith, p. 410).

President Harold B. Lee echoed this thought when he taught,

This work for the dead performed in holy temples by members of the Church does in reality make of them who do this work “saviors” to those who have died without a knowledge of the gospel, for thereby they may claim the complete gift of the Savior promised to all mankind through his atonement (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Harold B. Lee, p. 103).

A church manual explains that a person’s work “approaches” what Jesus did:

As you receive priesthood ordinances in behalf of those who have died, you become a savior on Mount Zion for them (see Obadiah 1:21). Your effort approaches the spirit of the Savior’s atoning sacrifice—you perform a saving work for others that they cannot do for themselves (True to the Faith, 2004, p. 63).

Woodruff explained that the onus rests on living Mormons’ backs to do the work as quickly as possible:

“How would I feel, after living as long as I have, with the privileges I have had of going into these temples, to go into the spirit world without having done this work? I meet my father’s house, I meet my mother’s house, I meet my progenitors, and they are shut up in prison; I held the keys of their salvation, and yet did nothing for them; what would be my feelings, or what would be their feelings toward me?” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Wilford Woodruff, p. 192).

To liken a ritual such as “baptism for the dead” to what Jesus did and saying humans “hold the keys” of other people’s salvation is nothing less than blasphemous. Yet according to the rules as set up by Mormon leaders, just being baptized for a dead person does not guarantee that he or she will accept the Mormon gospel in this state. Heber C. Kimball, a member of the First Presidency in Brigham Young’s day, said:

Perhaps my father may not receive the Gospel. If he don’t (sic), my baptism will not do him any good…. You might as well go and be baptized for a devil as for a man who will not receive the Gospel in the spirit world (Journal of Discourses 5:90).

This teaching allowed his followers to have a peace of mind about their ancestors who lived between the ages of the “Great Apostasy” (soon after Jesus’ apostles died) and the early nineteenth century when Mormonism was founded. However, it was never intended this to allow everyone after 1830 who had already heard the Mormon gospel to have a second chance at the celestial kingdom. Today, many Mormons are baptized for their recently deceased relatives who had every chance to accept the LDS gospel. Joseph Smith explained:

The Saints have the privilege of being baptized for those of their relatives who are dead, whom they believe would have embraced the Gospel, if they had been privileged with hearing it, and who have received the Gospel in the spirit, through the instrumentality of those who have been commissioned to preach to them while in prison (Scriptural Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 204. Also quoted in this church manual).

President Joseph Fielding Smith agreed, saying,

It is a damnation (stopping) and (denying) progress (toward) exaltation to all those who refuse to receive the light. We will never be baptized for all the dead. Baptism for the dead is for those who died without the knowledge or the privilege of having the knowledge of the gospel, and then it will apply only to those who are dead who are willing to accept the gospel in the spirit world (Selections from Answers to Gospel Questions: A Course of Study for the Melchizedek Priesthood Quorum 1972-73, p. 157).

As mentioned, many Mormons are baptized every day on behalf of their relatives who have lived during the past century in America and other lands where Mormonism is easily found. Even though their grandparents or other relatives rejected Mormonism, these Mormons apparently believe that these relatives could still have a second chance to attain the celestial kingdom through baptism for the dead. This is not a consistent view nor is it one that the LDS Church seems to support. According to Joseph Fielding Smith,

Salvation for the dead is grossly misunderstood by many of the Latter-day Saints … the Lord did not offer to those who had every opportunity while in this mortal existence the privilege of another chance in the world of spirits. (Doctrines of Salvation 2:184, emphasis his).

He also said,

If the person had every opportunity to receive these blessings in person and refused, or through procrastination and lack of faith did not receive them, then he is not entitled to them, and it is doubtful if the work for him will be valid if done within one week [after death] or 1,000 years. (Ibid., 2:179).

This is why Bruce McConkie denounced the idea that baptism for the dead was a second chance to gain salvation:

There is no such thing as a second chance to gain salvation by accepting the gospel in the spirit world after spurning, declining, or refusing to accept it in this life. It is true that there may be a second chance to hear and accept the gospel, but those who have thus procrastinated their acceptance of the saving truths will not gain salvation in the celestial kingdom of God (Mormon Doctrine, p. 685).

Spencer Kimball, the twelfth LDS president, said those who have heard the Mormon message have had their chance:

It must be remembered that vicarious work for the dead is for those who could not do the work for themselves. Men and women who live in mortality and who have heard the gospel here have had their day (The Miracle of Forgiveness, p. 314).

Many Mormons live with the misconception that they can perform proxy baptisms on behalf of their deceased relatives who rejected Mormonism in order to ensure being together as a family in eternity. This is not supported by LDS teaching. The family unit is preserved only in the top level of the celestial kingdom and only if every family member has kept all the commandments. McConkie stated that those who reject the Mormon gospel in this life and reverse their course and accept it in the spirit world will go no further than the second level of Mormon heaven known as the terrestrial kingdom (Mormon Doctrine, p. 784).

Are Mormon temples the same as the one described in the Bible?

Mormons are told that vicarious baptisms for the dead can only be performed in one of the many temples owned by the LDS Church.  Every temple owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints contains a baptismal font that resembles the brazen sea mentioned in 1 Kings 7:23. The brazen sea replaced the bronze laver of the tabernacle and consisted of a large font resting on the backs of twelve oxen. The diameter of the font measured over fourteen feet across, weighed approximately thirty tons and could hold around 12,000 gallons of water. Supporting the font were twelve figures resembling oxen. The number twelve represents the twelve tribes of Israel. The oxen were placed in four groups of three, each group facing a different point of the compass (three faced the north, three faced the south, etc.). However, Joseph Fielding Smith admitted that there was no historical precedence for this. He believed baptisms for the dead were never performed in the Jerusalem temple but were performed “elsewhere” (Doctrines of Salvation 2:169). He explained,

This font, or brazen sea, was not used for baptisms for the dead, for there were no baptisms for the dead until after the resurrection of the Lord. It is a logical venture to say that it was used for baptizing the living for the remission of their sins (Answers to Gospel Questions 5:13).

History challenges Smith’s assumption regarding this font being used for baptisms for the living. Second Chronicles 4:6 says that the sea was exclusively used for the priests’ ceremonial washings. Solomon’s brazen sea would only remain intact for about 250 years when it was altered by King Ahaz; according to 2 Kings 16:17, he removed the oxen and placed the sea on a “pavement of stones.” During the reign of King Zedekiah (circa 600 B.C.), the sea was broken into pieces and carried off to Babylon (2 Kings 25:13). While the Jews did continue the use of a laver, they never attempted to recreate one to resemble Solomon’s brazen sea. Therefore, there was no brazen sea during the time following Jesus’ resurrection. Indeed, there is no historical support for the idea that the brazen sea or the laver were ever used for baptisms of any sort.

The use of 1 Corinthians 15:29

As far as LDS scripture is concerned, there are few references to which a Mormon may turn in order to support this doctrine of vicarious baptism. The primary proof text is 1 Corinthians 15:29. This passage reads, “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.” Unlike the surrounding context, Paul uses the third person form here in order to exclude himself and true believers. Notice: “Else what shall they do….” It would seem reasonable that, if baptism for the dead is truly the most glorious subject pertaining to the everlasting gospel, and if Paul actually performed the ritual himself, he would not have purposely switched to the third person plural and used the word “they,” thereby excluding himself. While not mentioning baptism for the dead, another verse used by some Mormons is Hebrews 11:40. It reads, “God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect.” This text is explained in D&C 128:15, 18:

… these are principles in relation to the dead and the living … their salvation is necessary and essential to our salvation, as Paul says concerning the fathers–that they without us cannot be made perfect–neither can we without our dead be made perfect … what is that subject? It is the baptism for the dead. For we without them cannot be made perfect; neither can they without us be made perfect.

Despite this passage, which was written down on September 6, 1842, the 1833 re-translation of the Bible by Joseph Smith is completely ignored. Hebrews 11:40 in the Inspired Version reads, “God having provided some better things for them through their sufferings, for without sufferings they could not be made perfect.” According to Smith’s Inspired Version, it was an individual’s sufferings that brought about perfection, not a vicarious baptism.

Amazingly enough, not even the Book of Mormon–claimed by Joseph Smith to contain the “fulness of the everlasting Gospel”–gives historical evidence to this practice. While the words “baptism,” “baptize,” “baptized,” and “baptizing” appear numerous times, “baptism for the dead” or an equivalent is never mentioned. In fact, there are passages within the Book of Mormon that seem to contradict this concept. (For example, see 2 Nephi 9:38; Mosiah 3:25, 16:5,11; 26:25-27; and Alma 34:32-35). BYU professor Charles Harrell explains,

There is no indication in the Book of Mormon that Christ introduced the doctrine of salvation for the dead during his visit to the Nephites—even though, according to LDS doctrine, he had just visited the spirits in prison and opened the door for their salvation. On the contrary, the Book of Mormon people were taught not to worry about those who die without having heard the gospel in this life since they are redeemed automatically through the Atonement. The whole notion of vicarious work for the dead seems incongruous with Book of Mormon theology (‘This is my Doctrine’: The Development of Mormon Theology, p. 361).

With so much expense incurred and effort given to baptism for the dead by the LDS Church, it seems peculiar that there is a major lack of biblical backing to support this keystone Mormon doctrine (see 2 Corinthians 6:2; 1 Timothy 1:3-4; Titus 3:9; Hebrews 9:27).  Seventy Milton R. Hunter described one possible reason when he said:

This doctrine was so well known by Jesus’ apostles and the members of the Christian Church during the Apostolic Age that Paul need not explain the doctrine in detail when he wrote to the Saints (The Gospel Through the Ages, p. 224).

This is what is called an argument of silence. If Paul did not need to explain “well known” doctrines in detail, it is a wonder such crucial doctrines as faith, grace, and the atonement of Christ were ever mentioned at all. To the contrary, if baptism for the dead is such a vital teaching as the LDS Church would have its members believe, then one would expect to find many additional biblical references to support it. Regarding early church history, there is no outside proof to show that baptism for the dead was accepted by the early Christian Church. According to New Testament scholar G. W. Bromiley, apart from a possible yet obscure reference made by Tertullian, a second-century theologian, there is evidence of such a practice only among heretical groups like the Cerinthians and the Marcionites (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia 1:426).

It is unfortunate that the doctrine of baptism for the dead is accepted at face value by many Mormons who have not researched the roots of this essential LDS teaching.

Check out this 3-part Viewpoint on Mormonism series that aired May 29-31, 2019 Part 1  Part 2  Part 3  

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