Many have all wondered about it in Washington, D.C., at one time or another while driving around the Beltway and see the Mormon Temple rising before us like the Emerald City out of Oz. What do the Mormons do in there? They are willing to talk publicly, although they give few details, about only two rituals (although there are other rituals also performed there) that they practice there. The first is eternal marriage, not just “till death do you part” but for “time and all eternity.” I’m not sure what you think of that idea, but based on my past experience remaining with a wife for eternity sounds more like hell than almost anything else I can think of. The second temple ritual they talk about is baptism for the dead. That is what I want to discuss here.
This is an esoteric idea, to say the least. The concept of baptism for the dead arose during the Nauvoo period of the early Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the 1840s in response to several developments in the life of Joseph Smith Jr. and the movement he founded. Predicated on the double assumption that God loves all people and grants each an opportunity for salvation, and that salvation cannot be granted 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.
Baptism for the dead 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 into any Christian denomination.
The years of controversy and turmoil that had roiled the Mormon church from its origins in 1830, as well as the concomitant psychological problems that had arisen by the time of the church’s settlement in Nauvoo in 1839, also served to make the issue 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 has observed:
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 full-fledged development of the idea.
He made the first public disclosure of the doctrine of baptism for the dead on August 15, 1840, in Nauvoo at the funeral sermon for Seymour Brunson. An eyewitness, 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.” At the October 1840 conference Smith instructed his followers in Nauvoo to practice baptism for the dead, for a time in the nearby Mississippi River but more appropriately in a temple projected for the city.
After these actions the Nauvoo Mormons 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 edict, written by Smith as a statement of God’s will, 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 in Nauvoo. There can be no doubt about the important place Smith and the early church members assigned it in church theology.
After the death of Joseph Smith in 1844 the Mormon church fragmented and the group under the leadership of Brigham Young embraced the practice and ensconced it into its temple ceremonies to the present. Hence the temple on the Washington, D.C., beltway and at other places around the world. Other groups practiced versions of it as well, and one, the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints under the leadership of Smith’s son, Joseph Smith III, never adopted it as a formal ritual but also never rejected it.
This position has not been officially changed to the present. But the institution’s official position tells less than half the story, for there was a torturous path woven by the movement during the past one-hundred+ years as it sought to deal with the legacy of baptism for the dead. Moving from a general acceptance of baptism for the dead‑a position which recognized it as a permissive rite, but a legitimate one, to be executed at the specific redirection of God‑the Reorganization (renamed the Community of Christ in 2000) began to move further away from the doctrine as time progressed.
This was a gradual and subtle drift that was not apparent to those in the midst of it. The shift has continued to the present, and now I suspect that while there is still some modest support for the doctrine, the overwhelming majority of the membership of the Community of Christ no longer accepts, even theoretically, baptism for the dead. The evolutionary process toward rejection of baptism for the dead has now been pretty much completed. The church’s leadership has continually suggested that baptisms for the dead could be carried out only by divine direction in a temple built explicitly for the purpose, the doctrine was shunted into a nether land between belief and practice. To ignore, as historian Alma R. Blair one appropriately remarked, was ultimately to reject.