Mormonism: Water Baptisms for the Dead

Mormon founder Joseph Smith initiated and strongly promoted water baptism for the dead among the Latter-day Saints: “If we can baptize a man in the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Ghost for the remission of sins it is just as much our privilege to act as an agent and be baptized for the remission of sins for and in behalf of our dead kindred who have not heard the gospel or fullness of it.”

Joseph Smith first taught the doctrine of the baptism for the dead at a Latter-day Saints funeral in the city of Nauvoo, Illinois, on August 10, 1840, approximately ten years after the LDS Church had been started in New York.

The LDS Doctrine and Covenants Student Manual reads: “As early as August 10, 1840, in a powerful address at the funeral of Seymour Brunson, the Prophet introduced the doctrine of baptism for the dead to a startled congregation of Saints.”

The first proxy water baptisms for the dead by Latter-day Saints were performed in the Mississippi River, and the first baptisms for the dead in the unfinished Nauvoo temple were initiated on November 21, 1841.

In the early years of the LDS Church, water baptisms were performed only for direct ancestors, usually going back approximately four generations or so. Today, however, Latter-day Saints perform water baptisms for the dead not only for their deceased family members but also for any other person who has been officially identified through the LDS name-­extraction program. Witnesses are required for baptisms of the dead, official records must be kept, and women are baptized for women and men are baptized for men.

The Latter-day Saints support their doctrine of proxy water baptism for the dead on the single obscure Bible verse of 1 Corinthians 15:29: What do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?” When something is mentioned only once in the Bible, misusing or misinterpreting it is very easy. One Bible verse should never be seen as carrying the same theological weight of the primary themes found throughout the Bible. Unfortunately, misinterpretation is exactly what Mormonism has done here.

In the overall context of 1 Corinthians 15, Paul is not supporting, and certainly not commanding, the practice of water baptism for the dead. He simply argues that since a few in the city of Corinth were practicing it, then they must believe in the resurrection of the dead, which some in Corinth were denying (see 1Corinthians 15:12).

One of the most convincing arguments against Mormonism’s practice of water baptism for the dead is that there is absolutely no biblical evidence that the apostle Paul or any other New Testament leader ever engaged in or encouraged the practice himself.

Early church fathers allude to such a practice among second-century “gnostic” groups, in which living believers were baptized on behalf of those in their sect who had died without being baptized. Given the Corinthians’ tendencies toward early gnostic belief and practice, it is not difficult to imagine something similar having begun among at least a few in Corinth.