Why Do Mormons Baptize the Dead?

A painting of John the Baptist baptizing Jesus at the LDS visitor center in Salt Lake. Photo by Jason Andrew/Getty Images.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has apologized for a Mormon who baptized the late parents of famed Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal. But despite calls this week from Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel (and others) to rethink the controversial rite, the church is unlikely to drop it entirely.

Latter-day Saints trace posthumous baptism to the Apostle Paul, who wrote in 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?" Mormons believe that Joseph Smith, their faith's founding prophet, restored the apostolic practice after centuries of neglect by mainstream Christians. 

Proxy baptism was also Smith's answer to a classic Christian conundrum: What happens to people who, through no fault of their own, did not join the church during their earthly lifetime? Should they be barred from heaven?

Mormons believe that vicarious baptisms give the deceased, who exist in the afterlife as conscious spirits, a final chance to join the Mormon fold, and thus gain access to the Celestial Kingdom. To Mormons, only members of the LDS priesthood possess the power to baptize.


Last month, at the height of the media coverage of the most recent sex abuse crisis, Father Francis Clooney, a professor at Harvard Divinity School and Director of the Center for the Study of Wor