Joseph Smith Jr., Mormonism, and Baptism for the Dead


Historic rendering of Nauvoo Temple from the 1840s.

With all of the discussion of late of Mitt Romney’s Mormonism and the revelation that his church had performed for Anne Frank and others postuous baptisms in Mormonism, I thought it appropriate to comment on its origins. This rite is practiced by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in its temples, and is commonly referred to as Baptism for the Dead. The concept of baptism for the dead arose during the Nauvoo period of the early church in the 1840s in response to several developments in the life of Mormon founder Joseph Smith Jr. and the movement over which he claimed prophetic leadership.

Predicated on the double assumption that (1) God loves all people and grants each an opportunity for salvation, and (2) that salvation cannot be attained without baptism, the doctrine provided for the baptism of dead people by proxy. Those who had died without accepting the gospel would be taught after death, and others could be baptized on Earth in their stead. It was an extremely attractive concept for many Latter-day Saints, because it allowed for the salvation of all and signified the justice and mercy of God.

It answered the fundamental question of what would happen to those who did not embrace the gospel as the early Mormons understood it, particularly ancestors who were already dead. This concern was registered by members of the Smith family for the soul of Alvin Smith, the oldest son who had died suddenly in 1823 without baptism.

The early years of the church, essentially between 1830 and 1840, with various crises that proliferated wherever the Mormons developed strong communities, the violence that followed, and the concomitant psychological problems that had arisen by the time of the church’s settlement in Nauvoo, Illinois, it is small wonder that baptism for the dead was attractive to the church membership. The concern of the Saints for understanding the nature of the hereafter, particularly as revealed in obscure passages of scripture, also prompted its ready acceptance. As Historian Richard P. Howard observed in a classic essay (“The Changing RLDS Response to Mormon Polygamy: A Preliminary Analysis,” John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 3 (1983): 14-29):

All these developments, the Smith family’s grief over Alvin, the intense persecution of the Saints, the speculative theological propensities of church leadership produced a milieu in which baptism for the dead came into focus as a means of sealing the deceased ancestors and relatives of the living Saints into the promises of the Mormon kingdom (celestial glory).

Joseph Smith Jr. apparently first considered the propriety of baptism for the dead after reading the only biblical reference to it: “Else what shall they do, which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? Why are they then baptized for the dead?” (I Corinthians 15:29). His consideration led to the fullfledged development of the concept.

Smith then made the first public disclosure of the doctrine of baptism for the dead on August 15, 1840, in Nauvoo at the funeral sermon of Seymour Brunson. Simon Baker reminisced about the occasion, commenting that Joseph Smith Jr. told the congregation that although baptism was necessary for salvation “that people could now act for their friends who had departed this life, and that the plan of salvation was calculated to save all who were willing to obey the requirements of the law of God” (Quoted in Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, eds., The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contempoary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph [Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1980], p. 49). At the October 1840 conference Smith publicly instructed the Mormons of Nauvoo to practice baptism for the dead and called for the construction of a temple, in part to accommodate the ritual, rather then conduct it in the Mississippi River.

A map of Nauvoo, Illinois, at the time of the Latter-day Saints in the early 1840s.

After these actions the Mormons in Nauvoo began enthusiastically to incorporate the doctrine into their belief system. The practice, thereafter, was formalized in the church by means of a revelation dated January 19, 1841. This document was included in the 1844 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, along with two 1842 letters on the same subject. The practice, with this undisputed revelatory instruction, was codified as a temple ritual within the Mormon religion and recognized as such by those living in Nauvoo. There can be no doubt about the important place Smith and the early church membership assigned it in church theology.

My own religious tradition, the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS), which changed its name to the Community of Christ (CofC) in 2000, never practiced this particular ritual, but I remember hearing elderly members speculate during my childhood that some day the church would adopt it as well. It hasn’t, and it won’t, but it was firmly a part of the early church’s doctrinal system. The RLDS/CofC could never claim, as it did with some other religious conceptions of the period, particularly plural marriage, that Joseph Smith Jr. was not the originator of baptism for the dead.

So what does this mean for Mitt Romney’s quest for the White House? While the practice is hard to explain, esoteric, and a bit weird, and therefore a bit of an embarrassment for Romney’s candidacy, it probably represents little more than a nuisance for him on the campaign trail.

Two final points are important to consider. First, the practice of baptism for the dead is what drives the Mormons to emphasize that every member in good standing should undertake preparation of their geneologies. A positive aspect of that, speaking as an historian, is that the Mormons have preserved the most exhaustive collection of historical records anywhere. I have used these materials on many occasions and I thank them for that effort. Of course, those geneologies are necessary so that Mormons may be baptised in proxy for their ancestors in the belief that only through that baptism may those individuals achieve celestial glory in the afterlife. Second, and this is a bit more problematic for Romney, the Mormon practice of baptising famous people from the past may be used, as was the instance of Anne Frank’s proxy baptism, to churn up disdain toward Romney for adhering to a religion that does this kind of thing. Political opponents will use it as they will, but the more serious concern is that such practices represent an affront to those who share the religious beliefs and/or the blood of those individuals. It is appropriate that such individuals as Anne Frank, especially those who were martyrs to their religion, should be left alone by the Mormons. But the same is also true for U.S. Presidents baptized by proxy in Mormon temples, or the famous of the past regardless of their beliefs or the times in which they lived.

I have long been uncomfortable with the theological innovations Joseph Smith introduced into Mormonism during the Nauvoo sojourn of the 1840s. Baptism for the dead is one of them, but there are several others. I will discuss others in future blog posts.

This entry was posted in Community of Christ, History, Mormonism, Politics, Religion, Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Joseph Smith Jr., Mormonism, and Baptism for the Dead

  1. Jeff says:

    Regarding posthumous baptism, when Wilford Woodruff had his dream vision of the Founding Fathers desiring baptism, hadn’t Joseph Smith, Woodruff and others already baptized them about a half century earlier, thus making the vision redundant?

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