An anonymous Latter-day Saint in Arizona has reignited the debate surrounding baptism for the dead and victims of the Holocaust. This unfortunate incident raises, once again, questions around whether and how Mormons should practice these ordinances and I think it is time for a change, but perhaps not the one Rabbi Cooper was calling for.
This type of offense has happened too often to ignore the evident implications. As long as the LDS Church continues to pursue a wholesale approach to processing and performing baptisms for the dead lay members of the Church, intentionally or not, will continue to cause hurt to members of other faiths. Is there scope for change without altering what is at the heart of these ordinances. I believe there is.
As JNS articulately examined a few years ago, there are a wide range of ambiguities in the practice of posthumous baptism. I would suggest that these ambiguities open up the possibility for some change in how we practice these rites. We do not really understand why these ordinances are necessary: for example, is there some ontological change in the recipient as result of their performance or why cannot God forgive without these ordinances received by proxy? Because we lack answers to these and other questions perhaps there is space to rethink our approach.
In my mind, it is time that we turn to a more humble, but potentially more meaningful, project. Joseph Smith taught that ‘every man that has been baptized and belongs to the Kingdom, has a right to be baptized for those who are gone before, and, as soon as the Law of the Gospel is obeyed here by their friends, who act as proxy for them, the Lord has administrators there to set them free—a man may act as proxy for his own relatives—the ordinances of the Gospel which was laid out before the foundation of the world has been thus fulfilled, by them, and we may be baptized for those who we have much friendship for, but it must be first revealed to the man of God, lest we should run too far’.
According to Joseph Smith, we can be baptised for two groups: relatives and those with whom ‘we have much friendship’. Certainly there is some opaqueness here, and some challenges with interpretation, but this focus might radically shift our approach to these ordinances. Rather than a Fordist approach to batch baptisms where, at least to outsiders, members of the Church are seeking to mass-produce Mormons, we could focus on the individual ordinance. In my opinion, there is very little that is spiritually meaningful about baptising someone on behalf, or being baptised for, 20 anonymous strangers. In contrast, I am sure many of us have been privileged to witness someone being baptised once for a close relative or friend. That experience captures what Joseph Smith taught in D&C 128; that this ordinance binds the dead to the living, that it becomes a welding link between them. In adopting this emphasis, will we baptise the whole world anytime soon, No? But does that really matter, I think not? As I said earlier, there is too much ambiguity here to fret about who has the ordinances. If we are honest, we all know that we must leave this to God at some point. We simply do not have the records.
To be clear I am not recommending any new policies per se but I do think that returning to this text, and others, invites reflection around whether the industrialisation of Baptism for the Dead is a necessary part of what Joseph envisioned. My own sense is that we do not need to pursue this particular mechanism of salvation.
What is at stake in these ordinances, I believe, is our relationship to those who have passed on. A shift in emphasis might enable all parties involved to feel that connection a little more deeply while, at the same time, we save some of the hurt caused to groups outside our faith. Thus, I believe this shift will also increase the degree to which young people (the group who primarily are responsible for this work) attend the temple as families and the extent to which they are involved in family history. It may provide for them more of those meaningful experiences that can happen in the temple as we focus on the individual relative or friend rather than a series of anonymous strangers.
Now, there are problems with my suggestion: I acknowledge that this might seem like I am excluding some or that I am slowing the work. But, we are a resourceful people and I am sure we will find appropriate ways around those challenges.
I believe it is fair to say that we have ‘run too far’. We have not heeded the Prophet’s warning and we have caused offense. It is time to return to an approach to these ordinances that focuses less on Fordism and more on drawing out the emotional ties between the baptized and the one who has passed on. It is time that baptism for the dead helped us all feel that welding link.
1. Words of Joseph Smith, 12th May 1844.