Baptism for the Dead

See this page in the original 1992 publication.

This entry consists of two articles:

Baptism for the Dead: LDS Practice

Baptism for the Dead: Ancient Sources

The first article traces the development of the LDS doctrine of baptizing for the dead. In the second article, the dean of the Harvard School of Theology discusses the practice in ancient times.


Baptism for the Dead: LDS Practice

Author: BURTON, H. DAVID

Baptism for the dead is the proxy performance of the ordinance of baptism for one deceased. Joseph Smith taught, "If we can baptize a man in the name of the Father [and] of the Son and of the Holy Ghost for the remission of sins it is just as much our privilege to act as an agent and be baptized for the remission of sins for and in behalf of our dead kindred who have not heard the gospel or fulness of it" (Kenney, p. 165).

The first public affirmation of the ordinance of baptism for the dead in the Church was Joseph Smith's funeral sermon for Seymour Brunson in Nauvoo in August 1840. Addressing a widow who had lost a son who had not been baptized, he called the principle "glad tidings of great joy," in contrast to the prevailing tradition that all unbaptized are damned. The first baptisms for the dead in modern times were done in the Mississippi River near Nauvoo.

Revelations clarifying the doctrine and practice have been given from time to time: 1. This was a New Testament practice (1 Cor. 15:29; cf. D&C 128; see Baptism for the Dead: Ancient Sources).

2. The ministry of Christ in the spirit world was for the benefit of those who had died without hearing the gospel or the fulness of it (1 Pet. 4:6; see Salvation of the Dead).

3. Such baptisms are to be performed in temple fonts dedicated to the purpose (TPJS, p. 308; cf. D&C 124:29-35). In November 1841 the font in the unfinished Nauvoo Temple was so dedicated.

4. The language of the baptismal prayer is the same as for the living, with the addition of "for and in behalf of" the deceased.

5. Witnesses are to be present for proxy baptisms and a record is to be kept in Church archives (D&C 128:3, 8).

6. Women are to be baptized for women and men for men.

7. Not only baptism but confirmation and the higher temple ordinances may also be performed by proxy (TPJS, pp. 362-63).

8. The law of agency is inviolate in this world and the world to come. Thus, those served by proxy have the right to accept or reject the ordinances.

In the early years of the Church, proxy baptisms were performed only for direct blood ancestors, usually no more than four generations back. Today, Latter-day Saints are baptized not only for their own forebears but also for other persons, unrelated to them, identified through the name extraction program. The practice reflects the yearning of children for their parents and of parents for their children, and charitable feelings for others as well, that they receive the fulness of the blessings of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In LDS perspective, whatever else one may do to mourn, give honorable burial to, cherish, or memorialize the dead, this divinely authorized ordinance of baptism is a demonstration of love and has eternal implications.


Baptism for the Dead: Ancient Sources

Author: STENDAHL, KRISTER

In his first epistle to the Corinthians Paul wrote: "Otherwise, what shall they do who are being baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are they being baptized for them" (Conzelmann, 1 Corinthians 15:29).

This verse is part of Paul's argumentation against those who denied a future resurrection (cf. 2 Tim. 2:18,Justin, Dial. 80). He refers to a practice of vicarious baptism, a practice for which we have no other evidence in the Pauline or other New Testament or early Christian writings. Interpreters have puzzled over the fact that Paul seems to accept this practice. At least he does not see fit to condemn it as heretical, but Paul clearly refers to a distinct group within the Church, a group that he accuses of inconsistency between ritual and doctrine.

A practice of vicarious baptism for the dead (for example among the Marcionites, A.D. 150) was known and seen as heretical by the ancient commentators. Thus they interpreted Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 15:29so as not to lend support to such practices or to any theology implicit in it. Through the ages their interpretations have persisted and multiplied (B. M. Foschini reports and evaluates forty distinct explanations of this verse). Most of the Greek fathers understood "the dead" to refer to one's own body; others have interpreted the verse as referring to pagans seeking baptism "for the sake of joining" lost Christian relatives. Still others have suggested different sentence structures: "Otherwise what will they achieve who are being baptized? Something merely for their dead bodies?"

Once the theological pressures from later possible developments of practice and doctrine are felt less constricting, the text seems to speak plainly enough about a practice within the Church of vicarious baptism for the dead. This is the view of most contemporary critical exegetes. Such a practice can be understood in partial analogy with Paul's reference to how the pagan spouses and joint children in mixed marriages are sanctified and cleansed by the Christian partners (1 Cor. 7:14). Reference has often been made to 2 Maccabees 12:39-46, where Judas Maccabeaus, "taking account of the resurrection," makes Atonement for his dead comrades. (This was the very passage which Dr. Eck used in favor of purgatory in his 1519 Leipzig debate with Martin Luther. So it became part of the reason why Protestant Bibles excluded the Apocrypha or relegated them to an Appendix.)

To this could be added that the next link in Paul's argument for a future resurrection is his own exposure to martyrdom (1 Cor. 15:30-32), a martyrdom that Paul certainly thinks of as having a vicarious effect (Phil. 2:17, Rom. 15:16,cf. Col. 1:24).

Such a connection may be conscious or unconscious. In either case it makes it quite reasonable that Paul's remark refers to a practice of a vicarious baptism for the dead.


Bibliography

Conzelmann, H. 1 Corinthians. Hermeneia Series. Philadelphia, 1975.

Foschini, B. "Those Who Are Baptized for the Dead; 1 Cor. 15:29." Catholic Biblical Quarterly 12 (1950):260-76, 378-88; 13 (1951):46-78, 172-98, 276-85.

KRISTER STENDAHL


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