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Mormon proxy baptisms: What’s the harm?

There’s an amazingly clueless blog post on the Millennial Star about Mormon proxy baptism, in which author Geoff B. helpfully instructs people on

How to respond when a church says it is baptizing your dead

His response is: What’s the harm? If we think that it’s just a silly ceremony, then no harm done. Why, we should be glad that they took the time to do something nice for our ancestors. What a thoughtful gesture! We should send flowers and a nice note.

The whole post (and subsequent comments) show the signs of having been written by someone who thinks their church is wonderful, that eveything they do in the service of their church is an unalloyed good, and that they are therefore incapable of overreach.

Let’s back up a bit. What’s the deal with Mormon proxy ordinances? If you haven’t heard about it from Bill Maher or Stephen Colbert, read on.

There’s a tough problem in Christianity: Everybody who has ever lived needs to accept Jeebus through baptism, but what about people who lived before him? Do they go to hell? Does god give them a pass if they were nice? Or what? Mormons have resolved this problem in a very creative and time-consuming way: they collect names from genealogical records, dunk each other while thinking of a person’s name, and then pretend that the person gets to choose to accept the ordinance in the afterlife. I think this is a terribly creative solution to a knotty problem in Christianity, and the fact that it’s such an elaborate work-around to a problem that god should have really thought of before is a testament to
a) the theological difficulty of the problem
b) the creative genius of Joseph Smith, and
c) the lengths people will go to in the service of their silly religions.

Mormons think this work is incredibly important, even quoting Malachi:

Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD:
And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.

Ponder for a second. The earth has existed for 4.5 billion years, serving as the habitat for trillions of creatures who have lived and died on it. And Mormons think that if they don’t sit in the dark and extract names from squeaky microfilm readers and then necrodunk each other, it’s all for naught, and Jeebus will smite us all with a curse. What a horrible lack of perspective.

One nice effect of proxy work (from the point of view of head office in Salt Lake City) is that it keeps Mormons coming back to the temples (and paying tithing) as often as possible. Perhaps this is why there doesn’t seem to be much attention paid to dunking everyone only once. Anne Frank, for instance, has been baptised at least nine times.

One thing that hasn’t been mentioned enough in connection with all of this is that it isn’t just baptism. Mormons perform the full range of church ordinances on the deceased, including the ‘washing and anointing’, temple sealings, and something called the ‘endowment’, in which Mormons wear clothes that look like this:

All right, so what’s the harm in all this? As mundane as this sounds, I think it’s a boundary issue. Yes, Mormons make the audacious claim that everyone needs to be a Mormon, and yes, it’s annoying, but if people want to make the choice to be Mormons themselves, so be it. But to many people, monkeying around with someone else’s religious status post mortem seems just a mite invasive.

Some people like their faith tradition. They’ve had it for years. They might identify as X even though they never do anything X. These things seem to matter. So for a non-believer, the idea that unrelated peopole could hijack your ancestors, and aid them in becoming a part of some completely different faith tradition (and there’s not a thing you can do about it) is deeply unsettling. It rubs people the wrong way, and because it involves performing a symbolic act upon a deceased member of someone else’s family, it’s a particularly egregious way to rub someone the wrong way. That Mormons don’t seem to comprehend why anyone would object to this is indictive of their insularity and cluelessness, and perhaps they would benefit from pondering how they’d feel if someone tried to make their deceased relatives gay or something.

Back to Anne Frank. Mormons have copped flak for baptising Jews killed in the Holocaust. For Jews, there’s an extra layer of ouchiness. See, Mormons think that Israel is a chosen people, and by believing in Jesus (as they think the Jews should have done), they become a part of Israel — the Israel that god always intended. They take Paul at his word when he said that they would become “grafted in” to the olive tree. To show how seriously they take this, Mormons even assign themselves to one of the tribes of Israel. In a ritual called a “patriarchal blessing”, an older Mormon gentleman lays his hands on your head, does some free associating and cold reading, and makes predictions about the rest of your life. Mormons think it’s personal scripture, straight from god. And during the blessing, the partriarch names which specific tribe of Israel you’re from. I was from Ephraim, like every white guy, but I’ve known people allegedly from Dan, Manasseh, and even Levi. It’s all BS, but it shows just how much Mormons want to co-opt the whole Israelite thing, and claim it for their own. And therein lies the ouchiness. Mormons think they’re Israel in ways that Jews are not, not fully. And the only way Jews can be Israel-for-reals is to go through the Mormon Church. So converting Jews to make them Mormons — Israel in the latter days — seems like, if not ethnic cleansing, ethnic supplanting.

So if Mormons reading this could get one thing out of it, it would be that symbolism matters, and the posthumous Mormonising could be seen not as a nice gesture, but as a gesture of hostility and of religious and cultural imperialism. Does it do anything metaphysical? No. Is it an antagonising gesture? Yes.

UPDATE: Seriously, check out the unapologetic comments on the post. The commenters are unapologetic about carrying out what is, after all, one of the main aims of the church. To do otherwise would be disobedient to their god. It shows how people under the influence of religion don’t play well with others. And it explains why the Mormon Church can’t be honest when it gets caught at this kind of thing, and “promises” to knock it off.


  1. And the award for Best Use of a Movie Clip goes to…


  2. Great post, I'm in agreement. A family member of mine sees it as acceptable simply because they are dead and "well if you don't believe it does anything why do you care" and also "if we know they are ambiguous about God, better safe than sorry". The principle is that they feel it is acceptable to push their religious views on others, it most definitely is a boundary issue.

  3. I'm afriad this comment is almost completely irrelevant to your post, but I thought I'd share anyway. When I was in Colombia over the summer, there was this bus that always parked near where we were staying. The bus had a huge picture of Jesus on the door so we nick-named the bus "Jeebus". This post reminded me of that fond memory :3

  4. I am reading Bushman's "Rough Stone Rolling" and coincidentally came across this quotation from JS last night:

    The Saints have the privelege of being baptized, for those of their relatives who are dead, who they believe would have embraced the gospel if they had been priveleged with hearing it, and who have received the gospel in the spirit, through the instrumentality of those who have been commissioned to preach to them while in prison. (original spelling and punctuation)

    Anne Frank must therefore have at least 9 living mormon rellies who knew her well enough to be fairly certain that she would have embraced the gospel if she had been privileged with hearing it.

    I'm kind of in the camp of who cares what they do, but I agree it's ridiculous. My grandfather died recently. He was married twice to mormon women, had mormon children and grandchildren, sang in mormon choirs, even attended mormon church from time to time. NEVER WANTED TO BE BAPTISED. But the instant we are done with his funeral, mum asks me to go do "his work" in the temple (I guess mum hadn't quite cottoned on to my feelings about the church at that stage). I spent a bit of time with grandad in his last few weeks. I know he wasn't interested in being a mormon. I don't really care if mum gets my brother to "do the work", but, seriously, find something better to do with a Saturday morning. If god is so particular about the performance of strange little rituals so you can hang out with him for eternity, then do it in the "millenium" when you can actually ascertain the individual's feelings on it.

    And leave other peoples' dead rellies alone.

  5. Thanks for that experience.

    I actually wonder if Anne Frank even has any Mormon relatives. There has been an unfortunate tendency in the church toward celebrity-seeking.

    I used to have a job at the Genealogical Library in my BYU days. One day, a guy walked in with his young son — both were wearing matching "Operation Desert Storm" t-shirts — and he announced that he wanted to "do the work" for Karen Carpenter.

    So I get the whole Anne Frank x 9 thing.

    • There must have been some birds that suddenly appeared, every time he was near. You can't argue with a revelation like that.

      What's more, how much of a "house of order" is god's house if they are dong the same person's "work" nine times over?

    • Sorry I just had a strange vision of an angel knocking on the bars of Anne Frank's cell in spirit prison and saying, "Hey Anne, they've baptised you again down there. Changed your mind about accepting it yet?"

      Bloody nonsense.

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