For nearly 180 years, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have performed baptisms in Church temples on behalf of deceased relatives. The practice is rooted in the belief that certain sacred sacraments, such as baptism, are required to enter the kingdom of heaven and that a just God will give everyone who ever lived a fair opportunity to receive them, whether in this life or the next. Church members who perform temple baptisms for their deceased relatives are motivated by love and sincere concern for the welfare of all of God’s children. According to Church doctrine, a departed soul in the afterlife is completely free to accept or reject such a baptism — the offering is freely given and must be freely received. The Church has never claimed the power to force deceased persons to become Church members or Mormons, and it does not list them as such on its records. The notion of coerced conversion is utterly contrary to Church doctrine.
Although the Church believes everyone must ultimately have the opportunity to receive the sacraments of salvation, Church members are encouraged to request temple baptism only on behalf of their relatives. However, well-meaning Church members sometimes bypass this instruction and submit the names of non-relatives for temple baptism. Others — perhaps pranksters or careless persons — have submitted the names of unrelated famous or infamous people, or even wholly fictitious names. These rare acts are contrary to Church policy and sometimes cause pain and embarrassment. They are also extremely difficult to prevent because the temple baptism process depends on voluntary compliance by millions of Church members around the world. The Church nearly always learns about problems after the fact.
Unfortunately, some of the names inappropriately submitted for temple baptism have been Jewish Holocaust victims who were not relatives of Church members. In the early 1990s, the leaders of a number of Jewish organizations approached the Church about the issue. The Church has always had the deepest respect for the Jewish people and close relations with many Jewish groups. In 1995, in a spirit of brotherhood and accommodation, the Church identified a number of measures to address the problem. Leadership of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors agreed these measures would be sufficient to satisfy their concerns and that they would use their best efforts to persuade other Jewish organizations as to their sufficiency. Many subsequent meetings and discussions have been held to clarify positions, explain the Church’s efforts, and address issues. The Church has worked diligently and at significant expense to do what it said it would do.
Despite the Church’s unprecedented accommodations, some Jewish advocates have tried to pressure the Church to repudiate its doctrines and alter its religious practices — doctrines and practices that are fundamental to our faith and among our most sacred sacraments. One prominent advocate recently wrote: “It is time for the Church of Jesus Christ to end its doctrine that their mission is the salvation of the entire human race both living and dead.” We don’t believe any reasonable person would expect a faith community to abandon the deepest aspects of its faith. America’s commitment to religious liberty and tolerance requires that people of goodwill be able to respectfully disagree about religion without demanding that others change their beliefs. We believe that most Jews, whose forebears have been subjected to inhuman and systematic attempts through history to eradicate them as a people and a faith, are especially sensitive to the dangers inherent in dictating what others should believe. The current media campaign against the Church is therefore deeply troubling.
The purpose of this document is to provide background information about the Jewish issue with temple baptism and to discuss various inaccuracies and misunderstandings. In summary, recent attacks (1) misrepresent Church doctrine and practices regarding temple baptisms, falsely giving them an ominous, coercive character; (2) mistakenly suggest the Church can easily prevent the submission of improper names for temple baptisms; and (3) inaccurately accuse the Church of not making a good-faith effort to live up to its word.
Church Doctrine and Religious Practice
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a Christian denomination with approximately 13 million members worldwide. A fundamental Church doctrine is that God grants to everyone the opportunity to receive His offer of salvation. God’s offer is universal, but each person must choose for himself or herself whether to accept it — God does not dictate the choice and no one else can impose it. Church doctrine states that to accept God’s offer one must, among other things, have faith, repent of sins, and be baptized by immersion.
It is fundamental to the Church’s concept of God as perfectly just and perfectly merciful that the baptismal invitation be extended to all. The Church’s extensive missionary program is an effort to extend that invitation to people throughout the world. However, millions have died without the opportunity to accept baptism. Church doctrine teaches that these persons continue to exist in the afterlife as conscious spirits with the capacity to learn, exercise faith, and make choices pertaining to their personal salvation. Consistent with practices dating back to New Testament times (see 1 Corinthians 15:29), Church members perform proxy or vicarious baptisms on behalf of those who have died without baptism. Proxy baptisms are considered so sacred they are performed only in Church temples.
The temple (proxy) baptism ceremony is simple and brief. Two people, dressed in white clothing, enter a temple baptismal font. One offers a short prayer in which the name of a deceased person is reverently spoken. He then briefly immerses the other person in the water.
As required by Church doctrine, a temple baptism is noted on Church records. However, the Church does not list persons as members of the Church or “Mormons” merely because proxy baptisms have been performed. Church doctrine teaches that at some point the spirit of the deceased person will be informed that a baptism has been performed on his or her behalf and will be given the opportunity to accept or reject it. The Church has no way of knowing whether a person has accepted the baptism and thus does not consider such persons Church members. In this way, Church members extend the opportunity to accept the Church’s message and faith to all people.
Although the Church teaches that temple baptisms must eventually be performed for everyone who did not receive them in this life, from the beginning Church members have been taught to focus their efforts on their own relatives. Hundreds of thousands of members throughout the world conduct private genealogical research to determine the names of their departed relatives and then submit those names to temples for the performance of proxy baptisms. The process for submitting names is relatively open and depends on the accuracy and good-faith of Church members around the world. Because any Church member can research and submit names for temple baptisms, errors and duplications sometimes occur.
Church members are specifically instructed not to submit the names of persons not related to them. Before performing temple baptisms for a deceased family member born within the last 95 years, members are instructed to get permission from the person's closest living relative. Out of deference to the unique place Holocaust victims hold in world history, the Church also has a policy that temple baptisms for Jewish Holocaust victims cannot be performed unless the Church member is an immediate family member or has the permission of all living immediate family members or the closest living relative if no immediate family members are living. The Church removes from its “International Genealogical Index” (IGI) names identified as submitted against Church policy.
In approximately 1994, it was discovered that nine well-meaning Church members had violated Church policy and submitted the names of thousands of Jewish Holocaust victims for temple baptisms. The names had been obtained from publicly available lists. This caused pain and anxiety among certain Jewish groups, especially those dedicated to preserving the memory of Holocaust victims. Not understanding Church beliefs and record-keeping practices, some feared that temple baptisms would be used to alter the Jewish identities of Holocaust victims.
Concerned about the deep feelings of its friends in the Jewish community, the Church sought to be as accommodating as it could consistent with its fundamental religious beliefs and sacred practices. In a meeting of Church representatives and Jewish organizations, Church representatives agreed to recommend to the Church’s senior leadership several measures that the Jewish organizations agreed would address their concerns. These were memorialized in a memorandum dated April 24, 1995. The measures included removal from the IGI of the names of four major groups of Jewish Holocaust victims, reaffirmation of Church policy regarding performance of temple baptisms for Holocaust victims, and future removal from the IGI of the names of deceased Jews found to have been improperly submitted. This latter measure presumed that names would continue to be improperly submitted and that, once mistakes were identified, the Church would take corrective action.
The Church has diligently sought to achieve the goals of the 1995 memorandum. In addition to other resources, it has spent half a million dollars removing Jewish names from its database. Church representatives and representatives from various Jewish groups have had an ongoing dialogue since 1995 about these issues and differing interpretations of the memorandum. Recent communications have clarified the Church’s position and focused the discussion on efforts to prevent improper submission of Jewish Holocaust victims. Regrettably, the Church’s good-faith efforts have not entirely stopped the submission of such names, although they are relatively rare. As a result, some Jews have become frustrated with the Church. However, given the openness of the system, the rise of personal computer technology and the Internet, and hundreds of thousands of Church members who can now quickly submit large numbers of names, mistakes simply cannot be eliminated. Nevertheless, the number of improper submissions has been significantly reduced, and mechanisms are in place to address problems as they arise. Future improvements in computer technology will improve this ongoing effort.
Finally, it cannot be forgotten that the Church is limited in the accommodations and changes it can make. This entire issue touches on some of the most sacred and sensitive aspects of the Church’s religion. With deepest respect to our Jewish friends, the Church cannot abandon fundamental aspects of its religious doctrine and practice, and it should not be asked to do so. We do not presume to dictate to Jews or other Christians the content of their beliefs or the nature of their religious ceremonies and likewise cannot have our beliefs and practices dictated to us. The right of a faith community to define its own religion free from external coercion is directly at stake.
Reponse to Key Accusations
1. Misrepresentation of Church Doctrine.
The Church is accused of “subjecting” Holocaust victims to posthumous baptisms. Given the deplorable instances of actual, coerced baptisms of Jews throughout history, this charge is particularly inflammatory. And it is false in every respect. The accusation is literally false for obvious reasons — deceased persons do not participate in temple baptisms. There is no such thing as “posthumous” baptism. Rather, Church members participate in vicarious baptisms — in other words, they stand in for people who are now deceased. Under Church doctrine, no one is — or ever can be — “subjected” to baptism or forced to be part of the Church. The very notion contradicts the Church’s most fundamental doctrines. The free will of the person — in this life and after — is guaranteed by God. Church members perform temple baptisms in the hope that they will be received, but knowing full well their offering might be rejected or ignored by those in the afterlife.
For this reason the Church has never listed Jews (or anyone) for whom temple baptisms have been performed as Church members or Mormons. The Church cannot know the choices people freely make in the afterlife. Nor does it have any interest in distorting records showing the religious affiliation of Jews, and any effort to do so would be immediately exposed as fraudulent. Perhaps no organizations has done more to provide Jews with accurate genealogical information than the Church. For many years the Church has gone out of its way to assist Jewish genealogists in tracing their ancestors. Any suggestion that the Church might alter its genealogical records to show that deceased Jews were in fact Mormons in this life, or that they converted to the Church in the afterlife, is baseless and false.
2. False Assumptions About the Church’s Ability to Stop Improper Name Submissions.
Another false accusation is that the Church has the ability to just stop the submission of Holocaust victim names for temple baptisms before they occur. This portrays the process as tightly controlled by Church headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah. In reality, hundreds of thousands of private Church members around the world largely drive the process. It is their individual efforts and religious offerings that result in the vast majority of temple baptisms. They have the ability to submit names for temple baptisms based on their own research and their own understanding of Church doctrine and policy. Many submitters are elderly. Sometimes they make mistakes, such as misspelling names or submitting duplicate names. Sometimes they misunderstand, forget or disregard Church policy directing members to focus on their own relatives. Although the vast majority of members comply with Church policy, even one or two people can submit large numbers of unauthorized names. For example, at one point the majority of unauthorized Holocaust names on the IGI were submitted by just one person. The entire process is open so that Church members can engage in a religious practice that is considered both sacred and fundamental to God’s work of saving souls. But this openness sometimes results in violations of Church policy.
If the Church could effectively prevent improper submissions, it surely would. Many erroneous submissions result in temple baptisms being needlessly repeated for the same person. Other submissions — such as of famous or infamous people — merely provide fodder for antagonists. The Church has no interest in having its policies violated, especially in ways that result in public confusion and criticism. But the simple truth is that the open system and state of the Church’s technology, together with the very nature of the religious practice itself, make a failsafe process impossible.
3. False Accusations of Not Keeping Our Word.
The Church has worked very hard to do what it said it would do in 1995 and in subsequent discussions with Jewish groups. Among other efforts, it removed from the IGI the names of 260,000 Holocaust victims and improperly submitted Jews. Its policies on temple baptisms have been repeatedly reaffirmed by Church leaders and restated in Church publications. And the Church continues to remove from the IGI the names of Holocaust victims submitted contrary to Church policy. If a person has a complaint about a Jewish name in the IGI, the Church researches the name and determines whether it was properly submitted. If the name was improperly submitted, the submitter is contacted and reminded of the policy and the record is removed.
It is critical to understand that even the 1995 memorandum assumed that unauthorized submissions and temple baptisms would continue despite all the Church could do. The Church cannot rigidly control over 13 million members worldwide any more than a single group has control over a similar number of Jews across the world. That is why it put in place a mechanism for removing unauthorized names. The Church continues to respond to Jewish organizations and individuals who bring to its attention that a Holocaust victim may be in the IGI improperly. Even so, most of the names removed from the IGI have been removed at the Church’s own initiative, not at the request of Jewish groups. Only 4% of names removed since the 1995 memorandum have come from outside requests. The Church has taken many other steps toward achieving the goals of the 1995 memorandum.
Lastly, the accusations ignore the numerous meetings and discussions between Church and Jewish representatives that have occurred since 1995 to address differing interpretations of the memorandum and other issues. Those discussions have clarified the areas where the Church can make reasonable accommodations consistent with its religious beliefs and have focused efforts on the primary issue of Jewish Holocaust victims. As explained, the Church has already made enormous progress on this front and will continue its diligent efforts. Accusations that the Church has not made a good-faith effort to keep its word are misinformed and inaccurate.
The Church stands ready, as it always has, to clarify and explain its procedures and what it has done as a matter of goodwill. Because of the enormity of the Holocaust in human memory, the Church will continue to address the issue of improper submission of Holocaust names when it arises. However, the Church cannot accept restrictions on its doctrines or freedoms imposed by another group. We do not ask other faiths to circumscribe their beliefs and practices to our demands, and we do not expect others to ask that of us.