Periodically, I browse Catholic Answers Forum, though I do not post there anymore (and stopped even while I was still a Catholic critic of Mormonism, since the conversations many times became quite heated and weren’t conducive to having an actual civilized discussion). Recently, there has been a discussion about the Latter-day Saint practice of baptism for the dead. I would like to briefly cover some issues brought up in the discussion, issues that I have seen many times.
Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are unique among Christian churches in that we practice something called “baptism for the dead”. In accordance with the Bible, Mormons believe that baptism is required for salvation and has been commanded of us (Mark 16:16, John 3:5, Acts 2:38, Acts 22:16, 1 Peter 3:21, etc). This belief is held in common with other churches, such as the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. Latter-day Saints also believe that baptism is a priesthood ordinance, and therefore must be performed by those ordained to the priesthood of God. We see this in the Bible, when Jesus goes specifically to John the Baptist, because John had the priesthood power to baptize. Baptism is a sacred, saving ordinance of the Lord’s Church, and those outside of the Church cannot administer it. Catholics differ in this practice, and instead believe that while the “ordinary ministers” of baptism are bishops and priests, in emergency cases (i.e. if someone is about to die), anyone, even an atheist, can validly baptize. The Catholic Church also accepts as valid Trinitarian baptisms performed by Trinitarian churches that are in schism (i.e. churches such as the various Lutheran, Anglican, Presbyterian, etc. denominations that are outside of communion with Rome). Having a “valid” priesthood is therefore not required for a valid baptism for the Catholic Church.
However, the question then becomes, what happens to the billions of people throughout history that have never had the opportunity to be baptized, let alone hear about the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Various churches have varying opinions on that subject. The restored Church of Jesus Christ believes that God has provided a means by which the living faithful can provide the blessings of baptism to our deceased ancestors. These “proxy baptisms” are performed in sacred buildings called “temples“. In the baptism for the dead ordinance, a living person is immersed in water, just like they were baptized, and they are baptized “for and in behalf of” a deceased person. Latter-day Saints find Biblical support for this practice in the oft-quoted 1 Corinthians 15:29-“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?”
Question: Will baptism for the dead make my grandmother a Mormon?
Answer: No it won’t. Mormons believe in something called “agency”, which essentially means “free will”. We cannot make anyone do something that they do not want to do. Mormons believe that performing baptisms for the dead only offers them the opportunity to accept or reject that baptism. It does not automatically make them a Latter-day Saint.
Question: Will my descendants look back at history and think that I became a Mormon?
Answer: No. The records kept of proxy ordinances such as baptism for the dead make it clear that the baptism occurred after you passed on.
Question: Will baptism for the dead add people to the Mormon Church rolls?
Answer: No. Since we don’t believe that baptism for the dead makes a person automatically Mormon, it wouldn’t make sense to “add them to the rolls”.
Question: Then why do you perform confirmations for the dead and other ordinances after the baptism?
Answer: Latter-day Saints do perform other sacred ordinances for our ancestors after the baptism, such as confirmation, priesthood ordination, and eternal marriage. We do this out of hope that the person accepted the baptism. We also believe that each ordinance still comes with the free will aspect, and the deceased person has the opportunity to accept or reject it. We hope that they do accept the Gospel, and therefore perform other ordinances for them.
Question: Why would you baptize someone like Pope John Paul II or someone that obviously wouldn’t want to be baptized into Mormonism? Why can’t you just let them rest in peace?
Answer: Latter-day Saints believe that the Mormon Church is the restored Church of Jesus Christ, the only Church with the priesthood of God. We believe that we are only offering them an opportunity to accept or reject, and that we are not making them do something that they would not want to do. While we do accept the great faith of people like Pope John Paul II and people of other faiths, we also believe that, in the ordered house of God, baptism must be performed by those with the authority to do so, as we see in the Bible. Since we believe that only the Church of Jesus Christ has that authority, and that God has further provided the means by which we can offer baptism to the deceased, then we should offer this gift to those that did not have the fullness of the Truth in this life.