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    Baptism for the Dead
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    “Baptism for the Dead,” Church History Topics

    “Baptism for the Dead”

    Baptism for the Dead

    Revelations to Joseph Smith reaffirmed the necessity of baptism for salvation and taught that this ordinance needed to be performed with restored priesthood authority. Church members, including Joseph and his family, were anxious to know the status of their family members who had died without baptism.1 They pondered New Testament passages about Jesus Christ preaching to spirits in prison, and some Saints speculated that Latter-day Saint elders would baptize those who “died under the broken covenant” at the time of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.2

    On August 15, 1840, shortly after the Saints moved to the future site of Nauvoo, Illinois, Joseph Smith preached a sermon at the funeral of Church member Seymour Brunson. Noticing a woman in attendance who had lost her son before he could be baptized, Joseph revealed that the Saints “could now act for their friends who had departed this life” by being baptized in their behalf. He cited the ancient Apostle Paul’s teachings regarding baptism for the dead and encouraged the Saints to rejoice “that the plan of salvation was calculated to save all who were willing to obey the requirements of the law of God.”3

    The Saints received word of this practice with enthusiasm and began to perform baptisms in nearby rivers and streams in behalf of relatives, friends, and prominent people.4 The baptisms were performed by men holding the Melchizedek Priesthood in the presence of witnesses.5 The first recorded baptism was performed by Harvey Olmstead, who baptized Jane Neyman in behalf of her recently departed son, Cyrus. The baptism took place in the Mississippi River and was witnessed by Vienna Jacques, who had waded on horseback into the river to hear the prayer.6

    In January 1841, Joseph Smith received a revelation that baptisms for the dead were intended to be performed in temples. The Lord explained that “this ordinance belongeth to my house” and commanded the Saints to complete a temple in Nauvoo.7 At the ensuing October conference, Joseph Smith announced that no further baptisms for the dead would be authorized until the font in the Nauvoo Temple was complete.8 By that November, the Saints had installed a hand-carved wooden font in the temple basement, covered it with a temporary roof, and dedicated it so that baptisms could continue.

    Reflecting revelation he had received, Joseph Smith taught in a letter to the Church in 1842 that baptisms for the dead should be carefully documented, promising that what the Saints “record on earth shall be recorded in Heaven.”9 Accordingly, clerks were called to ensure that all baptisms for the dead were recorded. Between 1840 and 1845, in the absence of more specific direction, men sometimes acted as proxies for women, and women for men. In 1845, after Joseph Smith’s death, Brigham Young announced that from that time forward the Saints “never will see a man go forth to be baptized for a woman, nor a woman for a man.” He explained that “Joseph in his lifetime did not receive everything connected with the doctrine of redemption” but that the Lord continued to lead the Church by revelation, “giving them here a little and there a little.”10 This change was made at a time when Saints began to perform other ordinances in behalf of the dead, including priesthood ordinations and marriage sealings.11

    New technologies, greater organization, and an increasing emphasis on regular temple attendance led to greater participation in baptisms for the dead in the 20th century. In addition to performing baptisms for deceased relatives, Latter-day Saints began to perform this ordinance for others whose genealogical information they had extracted from available records. In some instances, these included celebrities and individuals involved in historical events such as the Holocaust. Latter-day Saints believe that baptisms for the dead do not make deceased persons members of the Church. They simply make the ordinance available to the spirits of those who have passed away and who choose to accept it. Nevertheless, in the 1990s, some outside observers expressed concern about the practice. As a gesture of respect and goodwill, Church leaders removed the names of these individuals from Church databases, issued guidelines intended to prevent the ongoing submission of their names for baptism, and encouraged Church members to focus on performing temple ordinances on behalf of their own ancestors.12

    Baptisms for the dead have long been the most widely available and participated-in aspect of Latter-day Saint temple worship. In Nauvoo, at a time when the temple endowment had been introduced to only a small group, Latter-day Saint men and women performed tens of thousands of baptisms for the dead. During the latter part of the 19th century, black Church members of African descent performed baptisms on behalf of their relatives in the Endowment House and the Salt Lake and Logan Utah Temples, though they could not receive other temple ordinances until 1978.13 Beginning in the 1920s, ward youth groups made regular excursions to temples to be baptized for the dead, giving young Church members an opportunity to attend the temple years before they were endowed.14 Youth in the Church today are encouraged to research their ancestors and attend the temple regularly to act as proxies for baptism. In 2017, Church leaders announced that young men holding the Aaronic Priesthood office of priest could perform baptisms for the dead.15

    Related Topics: Nauvoo Temple

    Notes

    1. The Smith family was concerned for Joseph’s older brother Alvin, who died several years before the Church was organized. See Larry C. Porter, “Alvin Smith: Reminder of the Fairness of God,” Ensign, Sept. 1978, 65–67.

    2. Joseph Fielding letter, Dec. 28, 1841, in “Communications,” Times and Seasons, vol. 3, no. 5 (Jan. 1, 1842), 649; see also Warren Cowdery, “Love to God,” Messenger and Advocate, vol. 3 (Mar. 1837), 471; Untitled article, Elders’ Journal of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, vol. 1 (July 1838), 43.

    3. Simon Baker statement, in Journal History, Aug. 15, 1840.

    4. Alexander L. Baugh, “‘For This Ordinance Belongeth to My House’: The Practice of Baptism for the Dead Outside the Nauvoo Temple,” Mormon Historical Studies, vol. 3, no. 1 (Spring 2002), 47–58.

    5. Matthew McBride, A House for the Most High: The Story of the Original Nauvoo Temple (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2007), 34.

    6. Jane Neyman statement, given Nov. 29, 1854, in Journal History, Aug. 15, 1840.

    7. Revelation, 19 January 1841 [D&C 124],” in Book of the Law of the Lord, 5, josephsmithpapers.org; Doctrine and Covenants 124:30.

    8. “Minutes of a Conference,” Times and Seasons, vol. 2, no. 24 (Oct. 1841), 578.

    9. Letter to ‘The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints,’ 6 September 1842 [D&C 128],” 3, josephsmithpapers.org; see also Doctrine and Covenants 128:7–8.

    10. Brigham Young, “Speech,” Times and Seasons, vol. 6, no. 12 (July 1, 1845), 954–55, spelling standardized.

    11. Eventually all saving ordinances, including confirmations, were performed for the dead in temples. Endowments for the dead were first performed in 1877 in the St. George Utah Temple.

    12. Background Explanation of Temple Baptism,” mormonnewsroom.org; “Church and Jewish Leaders Resolve Concerns over Baptisms,” Sept. 1, 2010, mormonnewsroom.org.

    13. Tonya Reiter, “Black Saviors on Mount Zion: Proxy Baptisms and Latter-day Saints of African Descent,” Journal of Mormon History, vol. 43, no. 4 (Oct. 2017), 100–123. The Endowment House was a structure in Salt Lake City dedicated to performing some temple ordinances (including baptisms and endowments for the living) before the Salt Lake Temple was completed. See also Topic: Race and the Priesthood.

    14. See Ogden Stake Historical Record, 1912–1921, Mar. 21, 1921, Aug. 22, 1921, June 12, 1922, Church History Library, Salt Lake City; “M.I.A. Notes: Junior Girls,” Young Woman’s Journal, vol. 34, no. 1 (Jan. 1923), 39.

    15. Camille West, “Church Adds New Opportunities for Youth and Children to Prepare for and Participate in Temples,” Dec. 17, 2017, news.lds.org.