The practice is a bit of a nuisance if you don’t happen to want it to happen to you.
Until 1995 it was a secret to all but the cognoscenti. The practice referred to is the practice engaged in by the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints of engaging in what can euphemistically be described as posthumous baptism.
The Mormons believe, as most religions do, that their beliefs are the only ones worth having and the only ones that guarantee the true believer a decent seat in heaven. Eager to share the good fortune that they are confident accompanies the devout Mormon, they decided to share their beliefs with lots of people, many of whom had in all likelihood never even heard of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints and all of whom were no longer living.
In 1995 it was disclosed that the church had been posthumously baptizing all sorts of people. In addition to Adolph Hitler, who, it is almost certain, hadn’t the faintest idea of what Mormonism was all about, the church posthumously baptized more than 380,000 holocaust victims, many of whom in fact had died at the hands of the man in whose company they were being given the opportunity to spend eternity.
For good reason, there has been no report of any of Hitler’s family being upset at his treatment. Given the life Hitler led, both he and members of his family probably welcomed any steps by any religion to do anything to give him a better place to spend eternity than his life’s work wouldotherwise have entitled him to. Less sanguine, however, were the Jews. According to Aaron Breitbart, senior researcher at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, ‘these people were born Jews, they lived as Jews and many of them died because they were Jews. They would not have chosen to be baptized Mormons in life, and there is no reason they would want to be baptized by proxy in death.” Among other prominent posthumous converts are Anne Frank, David Ben-Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel and the Jewish philosopher, Theodor Herzl, founder of Zionism. One of the people who would probably be most surprised to learn he had become a Mormon would be Sigmund Freud. He would almost certainly want to analyze his proxy to see what kind of a man had assumed, even temporarily, his identity.
Following the 1995 disclosure, Mormons and the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors based in New York, arrived at an agreement whereby the Mormons agreed to unbaptize, as it were, those it had involuntarily baptized. It said it would end the practice it calls “vicarious baptism” and, in addition, would remove the names of those it had already baptized. baptized.
Although there might be some question about the effect of unbaptizing people already in the hereafter, it turns out that is not much of a problem. According to Mormon theology, former humans have “free agency” and the baptisms provide only an option and not an obligation on them to join the church in the afterlife. That is fairly reassuring since it seems to assume that there is an afterlife irrespective of what religion you may have died with. Once in heaven and baptized in Salt Lake, you can look over the digsin which the Mormons live and compare it, for example, with where the Baptists (if that was your religion at death) are hanging out and decide if you want to exercise the option and join the Mormons or, whether you prefer to simply stay put.
The 1995 accords notwithstanding, there is a bit of bad news and it now turns out to affect not only Jews. In addition to continuing to give Jews the opportunity for post mortem celestial site selection in contravention of the 1995 agreement, the Mormons have been extending the same opportunity to Russian Orthodox Christians as well.
On December 13, 2003, the Associated Press reported that the Mormons have been paying 10 cents a page to the Russian Society of Historians and Archivists in Moscow to microfilm church membership lists from the 18th century and posthumously baptizing the members. Although the church claims that the enrollment of these dead souls is only for genealogical research, it clearly is intended to bestow benefits on its subjects as well. Commenting on the practice, Dale Bills, a spokesman for the church said: “Proxy baptism is a caring expression of faith that provides deceased persons the opportunity to accept or reject what we believe to be a blessing offered in their behalf.”
Ernest Michel who negotiated the 1995 agreement said that for the seven years since its execution, relations between Jews and Mormons have been cordial. However he observed that the cordiality was because Jews thought the Mormons had been upholding their half of the bargain. They have not because, as Todd Christofferson, a Mormon involved in the negotiations, explained: “We never had in mind that we would on a continual basis, go in and ferret out the Jewish names. That would represent anintolerable burden.”
The issue will presumably not be resolved until the church believes the benefit it is bestowing on the dead is outweighed by the the burden it is imposing on the dead and their descendants. Perhaps a divine intervention of some sort will eventually give it the guidance it seems to sorely need.
CHRISTOPHER BRAUCHLI is a Boulder, Colorado lawyer. His column appears weekly in the Daily Camera. He can be reached at: email@example.com