By Mike Rabus
Review of “We Each Have a Story” by Apostle Gerrit W. Gong
In the Saturday afternoon session of the April 2022 general conference, Gerrit W. Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles gave a talk titled “We Each Have a Story” in which he encouraged his listeners to work on their family history. The talk is recorded in the May 2022 issue of the Liahona magazine on pages 43-46.
Baptism for the Dead
The pull quote on page 43 urges LDS members to “please come find your family, all your generations, and bring them home.” This might sound confusing to someone who doesn’t have a lot of exposure to Latter-day Saint doctrine. Here’s what Gong is really saying: “Please do your family history research as far back as you can. Find the names of all your family members so you can do a proxy baptism for them, which gives them the opportunity to live with you and Heavenly Father again in eternal families.”
LDS members spend a lot of time and energy researching their family histories in order to discover the names of those who may have never heard the message of the restored gospel. According to LDS teaching, there are certain ordinances that every individual will need to complete, one of which is physical baptism by water. Even if someone died hundreds or thousands of years before the LDS Church was founded, those individuals still need to get baptized to qualify for the celestial kingdom.
But how can they be physically baptized in water if they are already dead? That’s where the doctrine of baptism for the dead comes into play. Current temple-worthy LDS members bring the names of their ancestors to the temple and are baptized in their place by proxy. In a way, modern Mormons end up playing the part of savior for their ancestors. But do many Mormons think about how much work is actually required to do all these proxy baptisms? How many people are going to need it? And is there enough time left to get them all done?
Gong gives us a clue when he said, “Experts estimate some 70-110 billion people have lived on the earth. Perhaps only one has been named Gerrit Walter Gong”(43). Gong quickly throws out this number and continues with his talk, but the implications of this number need to be understood. Let’s just take the low end of his estimate (~70 billion people). If the current world population is about 7.9 billion (as of June 2022 according to worldometer.info), then approximately 90% of all humans who have ever existed are currently dead.
And if the current LDS population is 16.8 million (Liahona, May 2022, 128), with fewer than 50 percent of those being temple worthy, this means that approximately 0.1% of the current world population (8,400,000/7,900,000,000) is trying to complete enough baptisms to cover almost 70 billion people. What an enormous amount of work for so few workers!
LDS leaders in the past agree the amount of work is staggering. In the March 1997 issue of the Ensign magazine, Kahlile B. Mehr responded to the question “How much of the human family has had its temple work done?” in the “I Have A Question” column:
The number of completed proxy temple endowments is approaching an estimated 140 million, meaning that this work has been performed for about .13 percent (just over one-tenth of 1 percent) of the earth’s estimated historic population of 105 billion. Obviously, an enormous amount of work remains to be done.
Mehr goes on to quote what Elder Boyd K. Packer of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles had said in 1977:
When we contemplate how big it is, it is astonishing; it is past astonishing, it is overwhelming! But it is not discouraging. … If the numbers seem staggering, we will move ahead. If the process is tedious, we will move ahead anyway. If the records have been lost, if the obstacles and opposition are overwhelming, we will move ahead anyway (“That They May Be Redeemed” [address delivered at regional representatives’ seminar, 1 Apr. 1977], 1–2).
It doesn’t matter how impossible the task might seem, LDS leaders are going to keep moving ahead with this work and expect the members to follow without question. If I were a Mormon, I’d have a few questions:
- Is it even possible to complete the massive number of proxy baptisms that are required? And what if the current baptism rate doesn’t match the current death rate? Is it possible for the LDS Church to catch up?
- How many people have died without any record of their existence? How far back can we realistically have records?
A few paragraphs later, Gong provided an example of how far back his family history goes: “Born AD 837, my 30th great-grandfather, First Dragon Gong, started our family village in southern China” (44). I’d like to know how far back the average Mormon is able to map out their family history and how many proxy baptisms they complete in their lifetime. Gong has apparently researched his 30th great-grandfather, but I think it’s safe to assume most people don’t have family records that far back. What’s going to happen when the records run out and the LDS Church can’t find anybody else to baptize? There is a convenient answer to these questions, according to one church manual:
Many people have died without receiving these ordinances. People on the earth must perform these ordinances for them. This work is now being done in the temples of the Lord. There is too much work to finish before the Millennium begins, so it will be completed during that time. Resurrected beings will help us correct the mistakes we have made in doing research concerning our dead ancestors. They will also help us find the information we need to complete our records. (Gospel Principles, 2009, 265)
So there’s the official answer: the work will get finished during the millennium. They know there are too many deceased people requiring a proxy baptism, and they know official records don’t exist for billions of people, so this period of time is used. It’s just going to be 1,000 years of completing substitute baptisms . . . over and over and over.
If most of the work is going to be completed during the 1,000-year period of time, why should church members spend so much time and money on it now? Wouldn’t their time and money be most effective in other pursuits during their mortal probation? Wouldn’t it be wiser and more biblical to forget our dead and worry about the people who are currently living?
Do you know your story? What your name means? World population grew from 1.1 billion people in 1820 to nearly 7.8 billion in 2020. The year 1820 seems to be an inflection point in history. Many born after 1820 have living memory and records to identify several family generations. Can you think of a special, sweet memory with a grandparent or other family member? (43)
At first it seems Gong picked the years 1820 and 2020 arbitrarily when comparing world population data. But he claims that “the year 1820 seems to be an inflection point in history.” That’s a rather lofty claim. What exactly does he mean? Is he attributing the phrase to the population growth in his previous sentence? Or to the increase in memories and records in his following sentence? Or does Gong know that 1820 is a significant year in LDS history and is trying to artificially force its significance worldwide?
Every Mormon immediately knows the significance of the year 1820. That’s the year attributed to Joseph Smith, Jr. allegedly having his First Vision. Nothing else happened in 1820 with the same significance. So is Gong saying that the First Vision was the cause of this “inflection point”?
An inflection point in mathematics is when the slope of a curve changes sign. In history, an inflection point is when something significant occurs. Footnote 4 cites The World at Six Billion, which was written in 1999 by the United Nations Secretariat, Population Division, available here. Although the document doesn’t say anything about Mormonism or other world religions, it provides interesting statistics concerning world population.
If Gong is trying to say that some kind of rapid population growth occurred in 1820, the data in The World at Six Billion certainly doesn’t agree. For example, Box 1 on Page 3 presents a few highlights:
- The highest rate of world population growth (2.04 percent) occurred in the late 1960s.
- The largest annual increase to world population (86 million) took place in the late 1980s; the current annual increase is 78 million.
So the largest population growth rate and largest annual population increase occurred over a hundred years after 1820! In fact, the entire 70-page document does not provide any specific reference to the year 1820 or any chart or graph proving 1820 was an inflection point. So why did Gong reference this document?
Looking at Table 1 on page 5, it looks like Gong only used this document to find the world population in 1820, which had to be calculated using interpolation because the specific data wasn’t even provided. The population in 1800 was 0.98 billion and in 1850 was 1.26 billion. We can interpolate to find the approximate population in the year 1820 at 1.092 billion, or 1.1 billion. That was where Gong got his 1820 population number. Nothing in this document supports any claims that 1820 was an inflection point based on anything related to population growth.
If not population growth, maybe Gong thought 1820 was significant because of the subsequent growth of living memories and records? But he doesn’t provide any data to support that claim. Plus, people had family memories before 1820, and recording LDS family history certainly didn’t start in 1820. Joseph Smith was 14 years old at the time. He didn’t reveal the doctrine of baptism for the dead until August 15, 1840, so the importance of keeping family records/memories wasn’t emphasized within the LDS Church before that. Within an LDS context, 1820 doesn’t seem to be an inflection point in regards to living memories and records.
Gong needs to clarify his statement because it’s misleading as stated. What exactly happened in 1820 and what massive effect did it have in history? I imagine there will be conversations in the near future where LDS members will use this talk as proof that Mormonism is true. “Look,” they’ll say, “Elder Gong said that 1820 was an inflection point of history! That can only happen if Mormonism is true!”
Gong could have used any year as an inflection point and it would be just as accurate. He didn’t use those dates, though, because they have nothing to do with Mormonism. Gong only used 1820 because of its significance in Mormon history.
If Gong references The World at Six Billion let’s see if it contains anything else that might be interesting from an LDS context. Another specific teaching known as the age of accountability teaches that children under the age of 8 are not capable of sin; thus, any child who dies before reaching this age is automatically bequeathed celestial glory. Table 28 on page 51 provides the highest and lowest infant mortality rates for countries with populations over 150,000 people.
The table shows that 8 of the top 10 countries with the highest infant mortality rate in 1995 are located in Africa. Do you think that our pre-mortal siblings, the ones who haven’t been born into bodies yet, would rather be born into countries in Africa? Or would they rather be born into countries with low infant mortality rates, like Japan, Singapore, or Norway?
I ask this question because I believe the gospel of Mormonism is impossible since nobody can actually do everything that is required to achieve celestial glory, namely the part about truly repenting or abandoning all sin (D&C 58:43). Several talks from the April 2022 general conference discuss the importance of keeping covenants with Heavenly Father. The problem with Mormonism is that it requires everybody to keep all the covenants and commandments, all the time. But nobody can do it, and I believe every honest Mormon knows this to be true. Every week when taking the sacrament, Latter-day Saints repent and promise to keep their covenants, and yet every week they break them so that they must repeat the process (repenting) the following week.
Since the LDS Church is full of covenant breakers who fall short of the celestial standard, I think Mormons have a better chance of reaching the celestial kingdom as an individual who perished before reaching the age of accountability. And the best chance of that happening would be in countries with high infant mortality rates. Maybe our pre-mortal siblings really are crossing their fingers in hopes of getting placed into those African countries, since a lot of souls are getting into the celestial kingdom in this manner.
Now that would go against every historical teaching on the LDS doctrine of the preexistence, which teaches that our bodily placement was based on our performance before birth. Valiant souls were born into Latter-day Saint families in the United States while others were born in Africa or India.
As Apostle Mark E. Petersen once wrote in a famous paper,
With all this in mind, can we account in any other way for the birth of some of the children of God in darkest Africa, or in flood-ridden China, or among the starving hordes of India, while some of the rest of us are born here in the United States? We cannot escape the conclusion that because of performance in our preexistence some of us are born as Chinese, some as Japanese, some as Indians, some as Negroes, some as Americans, some as Latter-day Saints. These are rewards and punishments, fully in harmony with His established policy in dealing with sinners and saints, rewarding all according to their deeds (“Race Problems as they Affect the Church,” August 27, 1954, 11).
If you were a soul waiting for your mortal probation, wouldn’t you be tempted to get the fast-track to celestial glory by being born into an infant that would soon perish? It seems to only make sense.