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Proxy baptisms: a gesture of respect
Recently, a Mormon family’s decision to perform baptismal rites for a deceased family member generated outrage that someone who was atheist in life would be “made a Mormon.” This misunderstands the nature of the rite and the family’s intention. Journalists and commentators are invited to consider the following:
One of the deepest beliefs of Mormon faith is that family is eternal and paramount, and that sacred rites can ensure that family members retain their relationships throughout eternity. Rites are performed via proxy for deceased individuals who were not Mormon in life. The rites are a gesture of remembrance, love, and respect. They don’t “force” anyone to be Mormon; rather the rites extend a crucial opportunity that the deceased may accept or reject.
Mormons believe Jesus’ teaching that “unless one be born of water and of the spirit,” he or she “cannot enter heaven” (John 3:5). This means that literal water baptism is necessary for each individual’s eternal welfare. Baptism can be provided via proxy in LDS temples, and the individual may or may not accept it.
From the Mormon point of view, withholding baptism would be debilitating to the deceased person. Providing baptism is an act of kindness and affection. It echoes the quintessential act of proxy salvation–the atonement of Jesus Christ.
Some groups have requested that their co-religionists not be baptized, and their concerns are accommodated. In response to some who have been offended by this well-meaning act, the Mormon church agreed to implement and enforce rules against proxy baptizing non-relatives. While it is impossible to prevent all such proxy baptisms, practices and policies are in place to help ensure that it does not occur.
News coverage expressing outrage or ridicule over this practice is unfair to Mormons who are acting out of respect and selflessness rather than the religious triumphalism assumed by critics. Mormons seeking to honor their heritage and family should not be condemned for it; the baptism rite harms no one. Moreover, Mormon efforts in genealogy have made resources available to anyone who wishes to learn more about his or her heritage.