Given the ongoing public discussion of the Mormon practice of baptism for the dead, and particularly how this ritual been conducted by Latter-day Saints in behalf of notable public, “celebrity” figures, it seemed appropriate to post a piece of my ongoing research into this singular religious concept. Specifically, here I note the emergence of the doctrine and practice of baptism for the dead and how it initially came to be performed on behalf of celebrity figures. Of course, the development of baptism for the dead fits into a number of larger contexts, including currents of developing Mormon theology in Nauvoo (as Sam Brown’s new book shows), and into a broader culture where Christian baptism was a common but diversely understood and valued practice. So this post doesn’t explain how baptism for the dead came into being, but it does describe how, once the practice was established, it first came to be a way for Mormons of claiming those whom they saw as the deserving dead beyond their family and personal friends.
Although there were hints of it earlier, the idea and practice of vicarious baptism for the dead were introduced publicly in a Joseph Smith discourse at the funeral service for Seymour Brunson, who had been a Revolutionary War veteran and a Mormon militia captain in Far West. In that discourse, given on August 10th, 1840, Smith used Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians to celebrate the transcendent power of the Resurrection, as well as a prooftext to reveal a new practice that he claimed Paul had known of. He taught that family members could “go forth” and act in the stead of their deceased loved ones to receive the essential ritual of baptism. Acting by proxy and under proper authority, this ritual act would be recognized by God as effective for those who had not received it in the flesh. This was a radically literal reading of the scripture and an innovative application of what was otherwise a routine religious ritual. Smith claimed that direct revelation, not merely a reading of scripture, was what grounded the practice.
Contemporary correspondence and life writing show that, as unexpected as it was, the idea was enthusiastically received by Latter-day Saints. Church members were eager to embrace a concept and an empowering physical ritual that enabled them to contribute something toward redeeming loved ones whose eternal fate was uncertain. Joseph Smith and other church leaders took an active role in baptizing Church members by proxy in the Mississippi River. Vilate Kimball, Wilford Woodruff, and other rank-and-file Mormons wrote about the excitement that surrounded the practice after its introduction in 1840.
In the years immediately following its introduction, and in the face of the chaos generated by the Saints’ enthusiasm, the ritual was regularized and regulated. A number of provisions were put in place to govern the way that the ritual was practiced. Baptisms in the river were discontinued in 1841; Joseph Smith taught that the ordinance of baptism for the dead inherently belonged in the precinct of the temple, and insisted that after a preliminary period, no (proxy) baptisms would be allowed elsewhere. A font was constructed in the basement of the Nauvoo Temple while it was barely underway, which allowed the Saints to honor the spirit of the revelation while they went ahead with the practice. Later in the Nauvoo period, certificates of worthiness were required for access to the temple font. Revelations also were received that stipulated a strict method of recording for all of the ordinances performed. After Joseph Smith was killed, Brigham Young gendered the practice by stipulating that men and women could only be baptized for their own respective sexes.
Even as the process was being codified, its reach was extending. Perhaps initially, and certainly by the October 1840 Church conference, Joseph Smith taught that the Saints could be baptized for “all their kinfolks…even back to their great grandfathers and mothers, if they have been personally acquainted with them.” But by 1842, Smith was teaching more expansively that “any man with a friend in eternity can save him.” The immediate concern for soothing bereavement, for helping deal with the rupture of close interpersonal relationships, gave way to a more extensive vision and ambitious approach as Mormons began to contemplate the full scope of what they were undertaking. Joseph Smith said he expected the process to take a thousand years.
In 1841, a media stir ensued when a Fourth of July celebration at Nauvoo included public proxy baptisms for deceased national heroes, including George Washington, the Frenchman Lafayette, and President William Henry Harrison, who had just died in April. The proxies that stood in for them were appropriately (like Brunson had been) aged Revolutionary War veterans. It was an instance of the ritual that demonstrated how religious and nationalistic sentiments were held together in complex tension throughout much of early Mormon history. Thomas Sharp’s Warsaw Signal gleefully skewered the event as an outlandishly bizarre and superstitious spectacle, and the story picked up traction in other papers around the country. For a time, the novelty of baptism for the dead was a media sensation; journalists and readers alike were amazed—and often amused—by the weirdness of the practice.
A better-known episode of posthumous proxy baptism came after the Saints had left Nauvoo and were firmly settled in Utah. In 1877, they completed the new temple in St. George, ending a multi-decade period when they were without one. (During this hiatus, they did perform vicarious ordinances in the Endowment house and infrequently in other locations, but on a limited scale.) Of all the early latter-day Saints, Wilford Woodruff had been probably the most invested in the doctrine from the day that it had been revealed by Joseph Smith. He had championed the principle and was passionate about his own genealogical research. It was fitting, then, that Brigham Young directed Woodruff to dedicate the baptistery of the new building when it was completed. Woodruff later presided over the temple and in the course of his lifetime completed vicarious work for more than four thousand of his deceased relatives.
The summer after the temple was dedicated, Woodruff recounted in his journal that he had several visions in which a host of eminent figures from American history visited him and pressed him to attend to their proxy rituals. Woodruff recorded that the thought of providing proxy rituals for historical notables “had never entered my heart…. Heretofore our minds were reaching after our more immediate friends and relatives.” He immediately performed proxy rituals for most of the deceased Presidents of the United States, all of the signers of the American Declaration of Independence, and others. Then, working from a reference book, Woodruff subsequently performed or arranged for temple rituals to be done for hundreds of famous men and women from the previous two centuries. Recent scholarship shows that it had occurred to others besides Woodruff to attend to the baptisms of celebrities; baptisms for many famous persons had been conducted previously under the initiative of other Mormons in Nauvoo or in the Endowment House in Salt Lake City. In St. George, however, they also received additional vicarious ordinances such as the temple endowment.
Though the practice has long been standardized, the range of baptism for the dead has continued to change over the years. In the contemporary Church, emphasis in the practice of proxy baptism has once again been placed on lineage and family. “Celebrity baptisms” are currently discouraged; the Church instructs members not to “submit the names of persons who are not related to you, including names of famous people.” Still, the Church has struggled to enforce this policy upon its members, a reflection of the fact that Mormons feel impelled to perform saving rites for those in need of them. This seems to remain true even for luminaries whom they honor as having lived worthy lives–those they perceive as kindred spirits who deserve every blessing that a Mormon can help bestow.
[Since this is research in progress, I have retained historical citations for the time being.]
Recent articles on Mormon proxy baptism:
CNN Belief Blog (Dan Gilgoff), After Anne Frank baptism, Mormons vow to discipline members (Feb 22)
Wall Street Journal (John Turner), Mormons and Baptism by Proxy (Feb 23)
Huffington Post Books (Sam Brown), Mormon Baptism For the Dead: History and Explanation of an Unusual Ritual (Feb 23)
Boston Globe (Jeff Jacoby), Mormon ritual is no threat to Jews (Feb 29)
Boston Globe (Michael Levinson), Mormons baptized slain reporter Daniel Pearl (Feb 29)