The discovery this week of a proposed posthumous baptism for Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel — who is alive — has revived a longstanding controversy surrounding the Mormon Church's practice of performing "saving ordinances" on behalf of its members' non-Mormons ancestors.
After The Huffington Post broke the story, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints moved quickly to assure Wiesel that it wouldn't allow a baptism—before or after his death. But the incident had already dragged Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney into an escalating, semi-informed debate that's bobbed in and out of public consciousness for nearly two decades.
In the latest episode, an outraged Wiesel used the spotlight to call on Romney to lobby his church for reform. "[He is] the most famous and important Mormon in the country," said Wiesel. "I'm not saying it's his fault, but once he knows, morally he must respond... he should come out and say, 'Stop it.'"
In fact, Romney holds little authority in the strictly hierarchal LDS church, and any advice he gave to the church's leaders would likely be politely received, but not acted on.
The practice of posthumous baptism has been part of the church's theology almost since its founding. But since Jewish leaders first expressed concern in 1995 that the ordinances were being performed for Holocaust victims—a perceived affront to Jewish pride and heritage—the Mormon Church has made efforts to keep those names out of their temples.
Still, the broader questions about the Mormon practice of "baptisms for the dead" remain prevalent, especially as Romney's candidacy has placed his faith under the microscope. Romney himself told Newsweek in 2007 that he has taken part in the ordinances before. And Gawker reported last month that the candidate's family had "converted" Ann Romney's deceased father, who was an avid atheist.
(The truth is that Mormons don't believe posthumous baptism "converts" anyone—one of many misunderstandings that has plagued public discussion of the practice. More on that below.)
In BuzzFeed's continuing effort to explain Romney's complicated and little-understood religion, this reporter—a Mormon who has taken part in this ordinance before—has assembled a guide to the LDS belief in "baptisms for the dead":
How are baptisms for the dead performed?
The ordinances take place in small, ornately decorated pools called “baptismal fonts,” located in Mormon temples. The person acting as the proxy—an observant Mormon as young as 12—enters the font, where a man in the priesthood raises his right hand and utters a short prayer including the name of the dead ancestor, which appears on a screen the baptizer reads from. Then, the proxy is briefly submerged in water, and the ordinance is repeated, this time using a new ancestor's name.
Despite claims by the morbid and uninformed, there are no corpses involved in the practice, and the whole thing closely resembles convert baptisms performed every week in LDS chapels.
Do Mormons think they're converting these people's souls when they perform posthumous baptisms?
No. Mormons believe that by performing posthumous baptisms, they are giving their ancestors the option of embracing the full truth of Mormonism—but they don't think everyone will do so. According to Mormon doctrine, un-converted souls spend time after death in a spiritual waiting room of sorts, where they’re taught the gospel before the final judgment. Some will convert and accept the blessings of the baptism, and others will reject it. The Church doesn't consider anyone a Mormon just because they've been posthumously baptized. That's a decision for the individual spirit to decide.
Most Mormons cringe at the misperception that they’re converting their dead ancestors contrary to the family members' wishes while they were alive. Indeed, for a church whose early members faced intense persecution for their beliefs—and which holds personal freedom as a bedrock principle in its theology—the notion of forced conversion is repugnant.
As the Church explained in a statement on the issue, "church members who perform temple baptisms for their deceased relatives are motivated by love and sincere concern for the welfare of all of God's children...[but] the offering is freely given and must be freely received."
Where do the names for the ancestors come from?
The Mormon Church is a famous advocate of genealogy research, and boasts one of the largest databases of ancestor records in the world. Latter-Day Saints (and more than a few non-Mormons) comb through this database, searching for people to whom they’re related. When Mormons find one, they can choose to hand over the individual’s name and biographical information to the church for their “temple work” to be done. In some cases, the relatives performs the ordinances themselves; other times, they simply submit the names for other temple-going Mormons to take care of.
Latter-Day Saints are instructed only to submit names of people related to them, and are explicitly told not to search out names of random dead celebrities or holocaust victims.
Why do these controversies keep popping up? How does the church handle rule-breaking?
When one of these rules is broken, it's usually the result of either a technical glitch, or an overzealous Mormon purposefully violating the rules for what he or she considers the "greater good."
When the church discovers someone submitting names of Holocaust victims or celebrities, it revokes the person's access to the database. Furthermore, the church has set up the system to automatically prevent names of Holocaust victims from making it into the temple. In the case of Wiesel, his name had only been entered into the database, not approved for baptism. An LDS spokesman has told reporters that even if the mistake hadn't made headlines, the church's own system would have prevented Weisel's name from ever being uttered in a Mormon temple ceremony.
Do all Mormons submit ancestors’ names for baptism? Is it required?
No. For the most part, the Mormon community is divided into two groups: those who are deeply fascinated by genealogy—submitting hundreds or even thousands of names for baptism—and those who are entirely unengaged in it. No one is required to submit names for baptism, and some choose to forego the practice.
Why do Mormons do this? What's the doctrinal significance?
Like most Christian faiths, the LDS Church believes that baptism is required for one to enter God’s presence after death. And since Mormons believe they're the only ones with divine authority to perform binding baptisms, they have built an elaborate missionary program to offer the ordinance to people throughout the world.
But what about the millions of people who lived before founding Mormon prophet Joseph Smith restored God's church to the earth? Enter posthumous baptisms. This is a way for Mormons to offer the "ordinances of salvation" to those on their family tree who never received them while they were alive.
It may be a quirky belief, but some theologians see logic—and even Biblical roots—in the practice. For example, Krister Stendahl, former Dean of Harvard Divinity School, has pointed to a verse in 1 Corinthians that apparently makes reference to baptisms for the dead. “Now, with the Mormons we have it again as a practice,” said Stendahl, a former Bishop in the Church of Sweden, in a quote that has been widely circulated among Mormons. “It’s a beautiful thing. I could think of myself as taking part in such an act.”
McKay Coppins is a senior writer for the BuzzFeed News politics team, and the author of The Wilderness, about the battle over the future of the Republican Party.
Contact McKay Coppins at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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