Religion and Spirituality

The LDS temple in Salt Lake City

Furor Reignites Over Mormon Baptisms of Jews

November 11, 2008 03:58 PM
by Emily Coakley
Criticism over a Mormon practice of posthumously baptizing people of other faiths has resurfaced as a Jewish group ends negotiations with the church.

Jews Protested Posthumous Baptisms for Years

During the week that people are remembering Kristallnacht, the unofficial start of the Holocaust, a Jewish group has announced that it has ended negotiations with the Mormon church over posthumous baptisms.

Survivors are angry that, despite an agreement signed in 1995, Holocaust victims continue to show up in the Mormon church’s genealogical database as people who have been posthumously baptized.

“Posthumous baptism by proxy allows faithful Mormons to have their ancestors baptized into the 178-year-old church, which they believe reunites families in the afterlife,” reported the Associated Press, though members also baptize non-family members from other faiths.

“We ask you to respect us and our Judaism just as we respect your religion,” said Ernest Michel, honorary chairman of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors, the AP reported. “We ask you to leave our six million Jews, all victims of the Holocaust, alone, they suffered enough.”

“This has gone on year after year—names given, taken off the list, more names go in,” Helen Radkey, a researcher in Salt Lake City who monitors the database, told the Salt Lake Tribune. “I call it the 'unstoppable revolving door.' Purging the names isn't what the Jews want. They want the baptisms to stop.”

In the last few months, Radkey has found hundreds of Dutch Holocaust victims’ names in the database, according to the Tribune.

“Some recently discovered records used to do proxy baptisms even had the words ‘Auschwitz’ or ‘Polish death camp’ on them, she said,” the paper reported.

The 1995 agreement that the church signed said that Holocaust victims would not be posthumously baptized unless they had living descendants who are Mormon, the AP reported.

In 2006, this issue made headlines when it was discovered that Simon Wiesenthal, the famed Nazi hunter and namesake of a Los Angeles center devoted to peace, was baptized a year after his death.

According to the AP, church leaders say that this problem will be fixed when the New Family Search database comes online.

“In the works for six years, the new database will discourage the submission of large lists of unrelated individuals. It will also separate names intended for temple rites from those submitted purely for genealogical purposes,” reported the AP, citing a Nov. 6 letter from church officials to Michel.

Vatican Attempts to Block Posthumous Baptisms

Other religions have also taken issue with the posthumous baptisms. In April, the Vatican ordered dioceses throughout the world not to give any genealogical information to the Mormon church.

“Father James Massa, executive director of the U.S. bishops' Secretariat of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, said the step was taken to prevent the Latter-day Saints from using records—such as baptismal documentation—to posthumously baptize by proxy the ancestors of church members,” reported the Catholic News Service.

Opinion & Analysis: Church response ‘cold’

After the Wiesenthal baptism made news in 2006, Sharon Lindbloom, writing on the blog Mormon Coffee, commented on the church’s response to Michel’s and others’ objections.

“Mormon President Gordon B. Hinckley told the Associated Press that baptism for the dead is only an offer of LDS Church membership–which deceased individuals are free to reject,” Lindbloom wrote. “‘So there’s no injury done to anybody,’ President Hinckley said.”

Lindbloom continued: “But setting aside whether or not Mormons should continue to baptize Holocaust victims despite objections from the Jewish community, the statement that there is ‘no injury done to anybody’ seems a rather cold defense.”

Manya Brachear of the Chicago Tribune posted a September column about discovering that her late grandfather, who “had an iron fist when it came to being Jewish,” was posthumously baptized.

Part of her family was Christian, which caused a huge rift, she said.

“The ‘Mormon cousins,’ as they came to be known, were the descendants of my great-uncle Al, who for years supposedly did not speak to his family because of the Christian woman he chose to be his wife,” she wrote.

Brachear met that part of the family a few years ago, and discovered her grandfather had been baptized. Her cousins told her the baptism was a choice her grandfather, in the afterlife, could accept or reject, and that they did it out of love, “the epitome of not forgetting somebody,” she quoted her cousin as saying.

At first, she imagined her grandfather would be angry with the “arrogance of presuming he would abandon what he had devoted his life to preserving,” but after learning he spent his life trying to make up for the way her shunned uncle was treated, she saw the baptism in a different light.

“We have the freedom to choose whether religion will unite us or divide us,” Brachear wrote. “In the past, my family chose to let it divide. Faced with this revelation, I now realize how torn they must have been. Still, I choose to learn from that mistake and appreciate my cousins' gesture.”

Related Topic: The ‘Female Schindler’

In May, Irena Sendler, nicknamed the “Female Schindler,” died. A Catholic woman from Poland, she helped 2,500 Jewish children escape the Warsaw Ghetto and get to safety during World War II. The children were given forged documents that showed they were Christians, though Sendler kept records of their real names so they could later rediscover their families and religion.

Reference: Guides to Mormonism, Judaism


Most Recent Beyond The Headlines