“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?” (1 Cor. 15:29.)
In his epistle to the Corinthians, Paul cited the early Christian practice of proxy baptism for the dead as evidence of a future resurrection and judgment. Most non-Latter-day Saint scholars have failed to note the importance of this passage. Some pass it off as an outmoded practice of the early church, while others believe it refers to an apostate or heretical doctrine.
But historical records are clear on the matter. Baptism for the dead was performed by the dominant church until forbidden by the sixth canon of the Council of Carthage in A.D. 397. Some of the smaller sects, however, continued the practice. Of the Marcionites of the fourth century, Epiphanius wrote:
“In this country—I mean Asia—and even in Galatia, their school flourished eminently and a traditional fact concerning them has reached us, that when any of them had died without baptism, they used to baptize others in their name, lest in the resurrection they should suffer punishment as unbaptized.” (Heresies, 8:7.)
In early Judaism, too, there is an example of ordinances being performed in behalf of the dead. Following the battle of Marisa in 163 B.C., it was discovered that each of the Jewish soldiers killed in the fight had been guilty of concealing pagan idols beneath his clothing. In order to atone for their wrong, Judas Maccabaeus, the Jewish high priest and commander, collected money from the survivors to purchase sacrificial animals for their dead comrades:
“And when he had made a gathering throughout the company to the sum of two thousand drachmas of silver, he sent it to Jerusalem to offer a sin offering, doing therein very well and honestly, in that he was mindful of the resurrection: for if he had not hoped that they that were slain should have risen again, it had been superfluous and vain to pray for the dead. And also in that he perceived that there was great favour laid up for those that died godly, it was an holy and good thought. Whereupon he made a reconciliation for the dead, that they might be delivered from sin.” (2 Maccabees 12:43–46.)
In our day, some Christian churches offer prayers and light candles on behalf of the dead, a Jewish custom also. The Coptic Church of Egypt continues to practice baptism by proxy for deceased members of Coptic families. The same is true of the Neo-Apostolic Church in Europe.
As would be expected of the Lord’s church and true doctrine, only The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints engages in genealogical work to provide proxy baptisms for all the kindred dead of its members, for those who accept the gospel in the spirit world must have this ordinance performed for them before they can progress eternally.
John A. Tvedtnes,
Jerusalem Branch, Switzerland-Zurich Mission