Why Do Mormons Baptize Holocaust Victims?

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Daniel Mallia is an HNN intern and an undergraduate at Fordham University.

GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has already been the subject of intense media scrutiny over his Mormon faith (HNN has been no exception). Recently, another point of tension has surfaced: the Mormon church’s habit of posthumously baptizing victims of the Holocaust, including famous victims such as Anne Frank. (It should be noted that the body is not actually baptized: rather another Mormon stands in for the deceased.) The controversy arose following the discovery that the parents of the late Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal (whose mother died in the Holocaust) had been posthumously baptized Mormon without the consent of the family. Writer and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel then called upon Mitt Romney, himself a former member of the Mormon clergy, to insist on the end of the posthumous baptisms of such victims, which violates previous understandings between the Jewish community and the Mormon Church. This effort has thrown the entire Mormon practice of posthumous baptisms, and not just of Holocaust victims—Barack Obama’s mother Ann Dunham was posthumously baptized the day after the then senator secured the Democratic presidential nomination. Though the tradition of posthumous baptism (also known as proxy baptism) has raised the ire of many (one rabbi, reached for comment by the New York Times, called the practice “religiously arrogant … doing their rituals could be insulting to the families of people whose relatives are being baptized), the tradition was not born of malice; rather, it is drawn from the Mormon spirit of universalism and dates back to the beginning of the Mormon faith.

In the early nineteenth century, when Joseph Smith founded the Mormon faith, Calvinist notions of only the pure few being saved were on the decline, and universalist ideas of everyone having an equal chance at redemption were on the rise. In this context, Smith's introduction of the practice of baptizing the dead in the 1840s was part of a popular revival. The practice was not invented by Smith. In fact, it is vaguely referenced in the Bible (1 Corinthians 15:29), but there is no consensus on the passage's meaning and no other Christian sect has taken the practice as far as the Mormons. Smith emphasized that the high afterlife should be open to all of those who did not have the benefit of being born into the Mormon Church (in a sense, Smith struck on another solution to the problem that plagued Dante—where do pre-Christian or pre-Mormon noble pagans like Virgil go after death?), especially the relatives and ancestors of church members. However, while today official Mormon doctrine suggests that members of the Church should not seek posthumous baptism for people not related to them, many members take this tradition much further out of a desire to offer all deceased the same opportunity of access to the high afterlife. (This practice has led to the Mormons being world renowned for keeping massive and thorough genealogical records and databases).

This seemingly benign effort, though, often offends non-Mormons. The practice of baptizing Holocaust victims first made headlines in the early 1990s. Prominent Holocaust victims and other famous Jews had been baptized—Anne Frank and Albert Einstein. Elie Wiesel has said that 650,000 Holocaust victims have already been posthumously baptized. While Jews are far from the only religious group who oppose this Mormon practice, the fact that Jews were specifically targeted for extermination because of their religious and ethnic identity as Jews makes it a particularly sensitive issue. The Jewish community has made strong efforts to stop the practice, and has in the past come to agreements with the Mormon Church to halt further baptisms, but of course recent revelations have shown that the practice continues.

In response to the recent charges, the Mormon Church has apologized for baptizing Simon Wiesenthal's parents, as well as the discovery that Wiesel's name had actually been entered into a genealogical database as deceased. (The 83-year-old Wiesel is still very much alive!). The Mormon Church explained the problems by citing misconduct of Church members—the Church has trouble policing their open databases as well as ensuring that all names of Holocaust victims are kept out of the records.

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