After complaints from the Wiesenthal Center, the name of Simon Wiesenthal, the famous Nazi war crimes hunter, has been removed from the church’s “genealogical database.” Since the church agreed in 1995 not to posthumously baptise Holocaust victims, the issue of Jews in the database has been a sensitive subject. Church spokesman Bruce Olsen stated that Wiesenthal’s name was immediately removed from the genealogical index and that no proxy baptism had been performed for him.
Some thoughts on temple work.
When I was a missionary I had a dream (I’m not going to claim it was revelatory and I’m not going to relate its detail) about temple work that left me with a tremendous sense of the justice of God inherent in the church’s mission to “redeem the dead.” That God opens salvation to all his children is beautiful doctrine.
But I’ve come to see that there’s a complication, at least in the way we popularly conceptualise temple work. We’ve all heard stories about how people felt that their dead ancestors were aiding them in their genealogical research. We speak reverently of the time when the American Founding Fathers visited Wilford Woodruff and practically demanded that their temple work be done. The assumption in all of this seems to be that “spirit prison” is somewhere you’d want to leave if you could, but that it all depends on temple work being done for you by living Mormons. Motivation to do temple work often paints pictures of the dead anxiously waiting for their work to be done.
And yet…. Since homo sapien man first walked out of the African Rift Valley, billions upon billions of people have lived and died without receiving the “saving ordinances” claimed by Mormons to be their right to administer. In the popular rhetoric of the dead anxiously waiting their salvation from “spirit prison,” we are forced to admit that 99.9% of the human race twiddles their thumbs there whilst we figure out who they are. This is an impossible task. Meanwhile, George Washington rides gaily on his horse out of spirit prison because he is famous.
The problem is with time. By recalling Simon Wiesenthal’s name and agreeing not to baptise Holocaust victims, the church is not lessening the salvific power of the ordinances of the temple, but is suggesting that if needed, they can wait. In my view this contradicts the rhetoric that imagines a race against time to save the dead. And it is this rhetoric that causes people to over-zealously submit names like Simon Wiesenthal in the first place. Wisdom and order seems like the more reasonable course.
As for temple work in general, I find myself in agreement with Molly Bennion:
Since the Lord could just take care of identifying us in due time for temple work, I’ve always seen the greatest benefit of geneology that of personalizing history. Still in his teens, my Scottish great uncle died at Flanders. An American great uncle missed dying on the front lines in France by a fluke. Just before a battle that killed his entire unit, he was pulled out to the rear to care for horses, as he had cared for them on the farm. Family stories send us to the history books and to deeper thought about war.
Turning the hearts of the children to their fathers has deep and satisfying meaning to me. As a young man, I felt my dead grandfather’s presence in the temple in a way that remains vivid. Certainly an awareness of the dead, and of my place in the chain of being makes me feel wonderfully alive.
But the rest of temple work soteriology — the rush, rush desire to “save” all of God’s children ASAP — is not quite the legalistic exercise of crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s we are inclined to believe it is. If it is, then it’s unjust and doomed to failure.
I do not think we should be extracting names from parish rolls, baptising dead famous people, or “turning Jews into Mormons.” This is a memo that rank-and-file Mormons need to get or we’ll continue to be running into Simon Wiesenthal-type problems. The trouble is, by limiting the scope of the work to our own ancestors (and believe me, genealogy is fun), a theological adjustment would be necessary.
1. On September 6, 1877, Woodruff related the following dream:
The spirits of the dead gathered around me, wanting to know why we did not redeem them. Said they, ‘You have had the use of the Endowment House for a number of years, and yet nothing has ever been done for us. We laid the foundation of the government you now enjoy, and we . . . remained true to it and were faithful to God.’ These were the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and they waited on me for two days and two nights. I thought it very singular, that notwithstanding so much work had been done, and yet nothing had been done for them. The thought never entered my heart, from the fact, I suppose, that heretofore our minds were reaching after our more immediate friends and relatives. I straightway went into the baptismal font and called upon Brother McAllister to baptize me for the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and fifty other eminent men, making one hundred in all, including John Wesley, Columbus, and others. I then baptized him for every President of the United States, except three; and when their cause is just, somebody will do the work for them.
2. As part of my dissertation research I have the names and family history of a tonne of ancient Babylonian slaves. Theoretically, I could do their temple work, but for a reason that I have been trying to articulate here, it seems kind of ridiculous, even perverse. On the other hand, doing temple work for a deceased relative is often a sweet experience. A Babylonian slave and my relative are both God’s children, both deserving of release from “prison.” The fact that I feel inclined to “save” one and not the other, is instructive. That said, if you go to the temple and see the name Madanu-Bel-Utzur, born in Babylon, died in 512 BC, then you will know I have changed my mind. And if you see him there, I am dying to know what he looks like.