David Rodeback's Blog

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009
The Mormons Baptized Whom?

Barack Obama's mother, that's whom. Posthumously. Here's an explanation of why we do that sort of thing generally (though it should not have been done in this specific case).

I generally manage to avoid discussions of Mormon (Latter-day Saint) doctrine here at the blog, despite the fact that I've studied, taught, and written about it for years elsewhere. But every so often one doctrine or another goes political, as we have seen lately with the breaking news that those dang Mormons went and baptized President Obama's mother -- and posthumously, at that! Actually, they did it during the campaign, so he wasn't president yet, but that's not the point.

It's still a relatively free country, so if what you really want is to leap unreflectively to being offended, scandalized, or disturbed by this, don't look for me to try to stop you. However, I've always thought that being informed beats being uninformed or misinformed. If you think likewise, and if you don't mind too much, I'll try to explain why there really isn't that much here to be offended about.

Please note that I am not an official spokeman for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That doesn't necessarily make me wrong, just unofficial.

One more thing before I get going. If you want to skip straight to laughing about this, the Salt Lake Tribune's Robert Kirby can help, as usual. This is one of those times when I think, I wish I'd written that. Contemporary Mormondom would be a grimmer place without Robert Kirby. (Here's a bonus: more of Kirby, on a slightly different subject.)

Now, where were we? Oh, yes.

Multiple Heavens

In Mormon doctrine nearly everyone goes to heaven -- to one heaven or another, that is. There are three basic levels of heaven, but we Mormons seem to have trouble calling things by the same names other folks use, so we usually say "degrees of glory" or "kingdoms." We're only too happy to point to Paul, who wrote to the Corinthians of three such realms, differing in relative glory as the sun, moon, and stars (in descending order) differ in apparent brilliance to the earthbound mortal eye. (See 1 Corinthians 15:40-42.) There's a fourth possible destination, but we can't bring ourselves to call it hell, so we call it "outer darkness." It's for those who finally choose complete evil, and . . . there ain't no glory there -- nor light, either, apparently. (Not one to be daunted by others' solemnity, I have my own equivalent of the expression, "When hell freezes over." I am wont to say, "When outer darkness lights up.")

Even the lowest of these three "kingdoms of glory," or heavens, if you please, is far superior to the world in which we live as mortals. If we could glimpse this so-called "telestial kingdom" now, according to Mormonism's founding prophet Joseph Smith, we'd much prefer it to the earth as we know it. And all you have to do to get there is be less than completely evil while you're here (and before you came here, too, but that's another, longer story). Note that we're talking about final destinations, as in eternal rewards, not whatever temporary adventures may be in store on our way from here to there, such as exquisite suffering for any sins of which we did not repent while we had the chance.

A Key to the Highest Heaven

One key to reaching the highest of these heavens (or kingdoms) is baptism. Mormon doctrine admits no exceptions to this requirement, and it doesn't accept other churches' baptisms, either. Given that most of those who have lived on the earth never even had a chance at receiving a "Mormon" baptism, this would be manifestly unjust, were it not for something else that Paul mentioned to the Corinthians: baptism for the dead. (See 1 Corinthians 15:29; I'm referring to the King James Version throughout.)

Before diving further into theology, we should note an essential distinction. The term is baptism for the dead, not baptism of the dead. Since many of the dead in question have been that way a long time, the latter would be, ahem, totally gross, not to mention quite impractical. Baptism for the dead requires no corpse and no shovel, just records.

Hold that thought, while we talk about the afterlife for a minute.

Body and Spirit, Postmortal Preaching, and a Little Problem

According to Mormon doctrine, at death the physical body and the spirit, which together make up a person (or soul), are separated. The spirit continues to live; it is the personality, the intellect, the character, and everything else that makes a person a person, except for a physical body. Later, the spirit will be reunited permanently with a perfect, immortal, physical body in the resurrection. Belief in a literal, universal physical resurrection differentiates Mormons from most of the rest of Christianity and from nearly all the non-Christian religious world, but our concern here is, rather, the intermediate state of the disembodied spirit between death and resurrection.

As Mormonism has it, the spirits of the dead live on in a society and condition we usually call "the spirit world." (We throw around other related words, such as "paradise" and "spirit prison.") One of the things that happen there is preaching. Those who already embraced Christianity (specifically, its Mormon variety) in mortality attempt to teach it to those who did not, who either rejected it or missed out altogether while on earth. In the spirit world the latter are perfectly free to accept or reject these teachings, this gospel, just as they were free as mortals on earth. If they accept it, they immediately have a problem: Baptism is required in order to get them where they ultimately want to go, but one needs a physical body in order to be baptized, and the perfect body finally to be received in the resurrection will come too late.

The Solution

So others -- mortals -- must be baptized for them, as proxies in their behalf, one by one, individually, by name. This is one of the major activities in the Mormon temples which now dot the earth. Supporting this effort is one of the primary motives behind the much-celebrated Mormon enthusiasm for genealogical research. The collective task is to be baptized for everyone who ever lived, who was not properly baptized in mortal life. Mormons accept this as a commandment from God, a solemn duty to those who have gone before, and a key to their own salvation.

The understanding is that each person who is taught and accepts the Christian gospel in the spirit world will have the opportunity to accept (or reject) the proxy baptism performed by mortals in her or her behalf. There is no sense of compulsion. There is not even an understanding that those for whom these proxy baptisms are performed all become, willingly or otherwise, members of the earthly Mormon Church.


Several years ago, someone I have known for many years -- a reader of this blog, in fact -- paid for an annual membership in my name in the National Rifle Association (NRA). With that, I was a member -- even before he told me, and without my consent. I'm a conservative, so I wasn't scandalized, though I probably would not have joined myself. (Witness the fact that I had not joined before and am not a member now.) It was a gift, a kindness, the generous act of a dear and well-meaning friend. If you have understood my explanation of Mormonism's doctrine and practice of baptism for the dead, you already see that this gift of an NRA membership is not a good analogy for it, because the NRA simply notified my of my membership, rather than inviting me to accept or reject it.

A few weeks ago a family member mentioned that she was leaving a couple of extra Utah Symphony tickets she couldn't use at the "will call" window for me, in case I would be able to attend that evening's concert. This is a better analogy. The tickets were there for me to accept and use, or not. Their being there did not force me to attend the concert -- which, if you must know, I was unable to do. They did not force me to enjoy the music of Charles Ives, John Adams, or Erich Wolfgang Korngold, which was played at the concert. The tickets simply were there in case I needed or wanted them. So it is with baptism for the dead: no compulsion, just possibility.

I view baptism for the dead as akin to the Catholic practice of praying for the souls of the dead. Mormons generally don't do it, but if a loved one of mine passed away, and my Catholic friends wanted to pray in their way for that loved one's soul, I would not be offended. I would be grateful. I would not view it as dishonoring the loved one's memory or as a posthumous, forced recruitment to Catholicism, or as a suggestion that the religion the loved one practiced in life was inadequate or inferior. Likewise, I would think that most non-Mormons who understand the Mormon belief and practice of baptism for the dead would be disinclined to take offense.

Church Policy

However, I understand that some are offended, scandalized, or disturbed, especially when the vicarious baptism is for a loved one. Whether this response is rooted in ignorance or something else is beside the point. It exists.

Acknowledging this, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has made it a policy that its members should perform these vicarious baptisms (and other vicarious sacraments, which Mormons prefer to call "ordinances") only for their ancestors. In this matter the Church relies heavily on voluntary compliance, which apparently is not complete.

Beyond policy, you can see that some people who believe that such a vicarious baptism is essential to another person's salvation might not be dissuaded from performing it by the prospect of offending someone else. I'm not defending the individual responsible in this case, who was acting contrary to a very sensible LDS Church policy. But, generally speaking, I am inclined to applaud, not deplore, those who demonstrate greater concern for what they understand to be God's will than for public opinion.

Final Thoughts

If you're interested in some discussion of the Mormon doctrine and practice from an official LDS Church source, here's the best modern sermon I know on the subject.

And just so you know, some non-Mormons out there are not offended by this sort of thing happening with their loved ones. I have known some who were grateful, not troubled, even if they did not even begin to believe that it would do any good for the deceased.

And there is a devout Jewish man with whom I have had some dealings over the years, who recently asked many of his associates to pray for his father, who was in dire straits. I did so, and I also told him I had taken the liberty of doing something else that Mormons sometimes do. I sent his father's name to one of our temples. There his father, among others, would be prayed for many times a day, as part of many worshippers' temple rites. This son was not offended, scandalized, or disturbed that his father had become, for a day or two, a part of another religion's rituals. He was gracious and grateful.

This situation and the baptism thing are not identical, but they're more alike than different. What does my unoffended Jewish acquaintance know that some others don't?

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