Appreciating the Restoration of Ancient Christian Concepts: Baptism for the Dead and Related Doctrines

Sometimes we Latter-day Saints get too caught up with out day-to-day activities or with our own personal discontents and fail to appreciate just how marvelous the Restoration has been. Some aspects of the Restoration demand much more contemplation and study to realize how majestic and miraculous they are, but too often we take them for granted and see them as more human or random than they really are. Baptism for the dead is one of those unique fruits of the Restoration that really deserves a lot more respect, admiration, and contemplation. Toward that end, here are some great resources that can help us better appreciate the big picture and strengthen our appreciation of the marvels in our midst. Baptism for the dead is nothing to be embarrassed about (and nothing to fear, for those of you outside the Church), but is actually something to celebrate and marvel at.

Recommended readings:

Are there other resources you would recommend? Besides my LDSFAQ page on baptism for the dead, of course.

Author: Jeff Lindsay

137 thoughts on “Appreciating the Restoration of Ancient Christian Concepts: Baptism for the Dead and Related Doctrines

  1. An interesting non-LDS work is Michael Hull's "Baptism on Account of the Dead (1 Cor 15:29): An Act of Faith in the Resurrection." He endeavors to pin down vicarious baptism with the context of the early church. He of course mentions LDS beliefs about the rite and attempts to create a divide between the two practices. Still, an interesting work.

  2. This is not so much an ancient Christian concept as it is an ancient Corinthian Christian concept (and Marcionite, sure, but they cut out a lot of the NT and claimed the OT God isn't the same as the NT one).

    Putting it that way marginalizes the practice a bit, but it's not as misleading to people.

    Your call. It's not as much of an issue as is the random baptisms of Anne Frank, where the church crosses an ethical line

  3. Hi Openminded,

    I suspect that baptisms for the dead, while not entirely mainstream, would not fit into the category of "marginalized" since the epistle that Paul wrote was to the saints in Corinth, Greece. If Paul is writing to the Corinthians about this practice, then you could also assume that others knew about this practice as well. Also, Marcion came on the scene between 85 – 160 AD and was from Sinop, Turkey. While Sinop, Turkey was a Greek settlement, it is quite a distance away from Corinth. Furthermore, given the fact that the practice of baptisms for the dead had to be addressed at the Third Council of Carthage leads me to further believe that it was not necessarily marginal but a practice that had other early Christians wondering what this was all about.

    While Mormons also believe that the for the majority of the time, the God of the OT is not the God of the NT, our view is drastically different than that of the Marcionites.


  4. Steve,
    True. Not mainstream, but probably not fully marginalized.

    It's a moot point to make, I guess. With Christianity just being born, I'm sure there were all kinds of beliefs and practices out there.

    I didn't realize there was a Third Council of Carthage quote about baptism of the dead. Strangely, that same one was about ministering the Eucharist for the dead.

    There must have been a ton of variety until the creeds and the Catholic church took over.

  5. Closeminded:

    I don't care if he was only writing to the Corinthians.

    If Paul, a man literally visited and spoken to by the Resurrected Savior Jesus Christ, taught about baptism for the dead, that's as good as the 10 Commandments to me.

  6. haha, CF. Nice moniker. I probably come across as closeminded, but it only seems that way because I approach things by questioning them instead of blindly accepting whatever was written a couple thousand years ago in a way that's interpreted a couple thousand years later.

    So tell me, what exactly did Paul teach about it?

    "Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?"

    For such an important teaching, he doesn't tell any other church about it when referencing baptism. He mentions baptism plenty of other times, and whether explaining the theology behind it or praising a group of people for carrying it out, he never mentions why baptism for the dead is also worthy or why he's glad so many people are doing it.

    So while you accept it as a commandment–which, let's face it, is mostly because of Smith instead of Paul–there's plenty of reason to believe this practice was 1) not known by a majority of early Christian populations, 2) practiced by even less people, and 3) is likely only a "commandment" because you personally believe it to be so. Just like Evvies out there believe it to be otherwise.

    Your two groups share a lot more in common than you realize.

  7. Closeminded:

    So Paul alone, the man hand-picked by the Resurrected Jesus Christ, teaching about baptism for the dead, isn't enough for you to accept it.

    Got it.

  8. CF,
    So why "teach"–which according to your glaring lack of answer should be exchanged for "acknowledged"–to only one church that had already been practicing it?

    I don't accept that this was any more than a minority practice because there is nothing that points towards a different conclusion.

    Jesus himself forgot entirely about baptizing the dead–great example for him to set–so it's safe to assume you only accept it as commandment because of the Mormon culture you grew up in.

    There's not enough biblical or historical information otherwise to constitute an early-Christian, widespread tradition.

    But feel free to pretend Paul commanded everyone to baptize the dead in a letter he sent to the church in Corinth that made an off-hand acknowledgement of a practice he never talks about or successfully spread, as an apostle chosen by Christ himself, to other churches.

  9. Wow- Openminded- you nailed it. If baptism for the dead was so important, why wouldn't Jesus encourage such a practice? It's great that Jesus taught the importance of eternal marriage too…wait, he didn't.

  10. Hi everyone! I just read D&C 127-128 and have a few questions that maybe someone here can answer.

    First, I noticed that in the relevant D&C passages, Joseph Smith generally (but not always)refers to "our dead" rather than "the dead." To me this implies the need for Mormons to vicariously baptize their own ancestors, but not all of the dead. This is consonant with current Church policy, yet the previous policy was to baptize all. (And the current policy seems to be driven by the controversy over baptizing Holocaust victims, not by the language of D&C.)

    So, what does D&C actually call for — the baptism of all the dead who had no chance in life to receive the gospel, or the baptism only of Mormons' own ancestors?

    My second question has to do with the consequences of vicarious baptism. As I understand it, if my dead Jewish mother were to be vicariously baptized, it would not mean she has become a Mormon; it would mean only that she has been gifted with the option of becoming one should she choose to do so.

    This of course is a crucial point, for (at least to my mind) it adequately answers one of the key objections of vicarious baptism's critics. It would be quite objectionable for the Church to claim that Anne Frank has posthumously been made a Mormon, but I see nothing at all wrong with claiming she has been given the option of becoming one.

    This distinction between–

    a.) posthumous baptism as actual joining the Church, and

    b.) posthumous baptism as merely creating an opportunity for joining the Church–

    is crucial. But the distinction seems to be lost on much of the non-LDS public. This is understandable, I think, partly because in this world "baptism" always means a.) and not b.) It is only when baptism becomes posthumous that sense b.) arises.

    Anyway, in D&C 128 Smith says of the dead that "their salvation is necessary and essential to our salvation, as Paul says concerning the fathers—that they without us cannot be made perfect—neither can we without our dead be made perfect."

    Is Smith speaking here of all the dead, or only of "our dead," by which I take it he means the dead ancestors od Mormons?

    If the former, the implication would seem to be that, in order for anyone to be saved, everyone must be saved, which entails that all those Holocaust victims who have been vicariously baptized must make the choice to join the Church, at least if anyone is to achieve salvation.

    That seems a stretch. So maybe it's the latter. Maybe Smith meant only that salvation by vicarious baptism of one's own ancestors is necessary for one's own salvation. That makes sense, except that, if this is the case, why is the Church's genealogical archiving so eager to include everyone?

    — Eveningsun

  11. No joke.

    It would be the best doctrine in Christianity for saving the people who never had a chance in the real world. Back when I was a Christian, it was like hearing about the Holocaust numbers when I thought of all the people who were going to Hell. We were completely helpless to do anything about it.

    And here's Paul, with arguably the most soul-saving doctrine in Christianity, and Jesus, and all the other Apostles, and none of them spread this beyond a passing, non-descriptive acknowledgement of the practice by one Apostle in one of his letters.

  12. Closeminded:

    Listen to what you're saying. You're argument essentially is, "if we don't have a record of Jesus teaching it himself, we don't follow it". There goes half the New Testament; the need for calling of new Apostles, the doctrine of "laying on of hands" to receive the Holy Ghost, Sunday becoming the new meeting day, the church hierarchy's foundation on Apostles and Prophets and the importance on the body of the Church.

    You throw out a lot of doctrine by your claim that Jesus need to have said it himself for it to be necessary. Furthermore, you literally break off the importance of a Prophet's voice, "Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets." (Amos 3:7).

    What you are saying is that Paul's voice is -less- than Christ's even though he acted as His Post Resurrection spokesman.

    You argue that for a doctrine to be followed, it must be followed by some sort of majority or widespread tradition. Do you think that the early Saints felt like their doctrines were "widespread" compared to the overwhelming number of pagan religions permeating all around them? If you believe in the divinity which brought for the Bible in its form today, if you believe that Paul was a true disciple of Jesus Christ, then no matter HOW small it's doctrine, it should be regarded as important.

    You speak blasphemy of God's Holy Scripture. You are in danger of allowing the Devil to lead you. Repent and listen to God's Prophets, no matter how small and unpopular their voice may be or have ever been.

  13. I am reminded of Joseph of Egypt, surrounded by criminals in prison and others tempting him to do evil. Daniel, who spent his time as a slave to the wickedness of the Babylonians, where he was commanded not to pray or to follow God. Even Paul and many apostles were completely alone in their travels among the gentiles.

    When was the Gospel of the Lord ever popular or widespread? When was it "normal" to practice it? A Church with widespread support for anything has always been rare until the Restoration. That's part of the reason why the early Church fell into apostasy, too many disregarded the words of the Lord's disciples and fell away into Apostasy.

    I happen to believe that what Paul spoke and what he wrote was inspired by God. Even without all the details, we know he spoke in the name of the Lord until he died. Even if he was the only one teaching a particular doctrine, it makes it no less important. If the the Prophet speaks today and nobody listens, does that make it any less crucial to our Eternal salvation? NO!

    Humble yourself, seek out and put behind your weaknesses and those things that lead you away from the Lord. God seeks and cares for those who will submit themselves to his will and not the will of the world. He has blessed my life, even in the face of hardship, and I have felt His Spirit show me that it is His work.

  14. No, my argument is: this highly important doctrine is highly suspect because it was acknowledged one single time in all of Paul's Epistles alone, and he didn't even spread it to other churches.

    Nobody spread it to other churches.

    The main issue being that somehow, while the Apostles were spreading Christianity–and particularly, baptizing people in the name of Christ, none of them mentioned baptism for the dead.

    How could they hide it from the population?

    You cite apostasy from the teachings of the Apostles. But every time Paul sent a letter to the churches to admonish them for straying from a certain path, he never reminds them to baptize the dead.

    Take Thessalonians. The background of the first letter is a concern for the church's infancy, with their visit being mentioned during ch1-2. It was decided that Timothy would be sent to do a report on the church (3:2). Paul had given them commandments (4:2), and even references one which he says they have no need of being reminded about (4:9-10).

    Even better, he starts talking about the dead (4:13). But only the ones who died in Christ–just forget those who don't, I guess (4:16). He goes on about the 2nd coming in the start of chapter 5, and up to this point, has still not mentioned how they should baptize for the dead–even though the Lord will come like "a thief in the night". We know what he means.

    I don't even need to go into 2nd Thess, where he talks about the apostasy itself. Paul is either deliberately hiding the baptism of the dead from members (and not out of security, because the whole visit from Timothy was also about reassuring the church during times of persecution), or what?

    Why is Paul hiding this doctrine from the church in Thessalonians when he was on the exact same subject that baptism for the dead is a part of?

  15. Openminded is right- Jesus or his apostles (apart from the fleeting reference by Paul) didn't mention baptism for the dead because it's not important. Sorry, but there is no defense for the Mormon practice. None whatsoever.

    Once you are dead, there is no second chance. Even the "most correct book on earth" says so in Alma 34:35 "For behold, if ye have procrastinated the day of your repentance even until death, behold, ye have become subjected to the spirit of the devil, and he doth seal you his; …and this is the final state of the wicked."

  16. Anonymous, that is a strawman. You waive your hand and dismiss Paul's statement. Yet you fail to see a couple things: first Jesus taught through the Mosaic Law in his lifetime. He was only beginning the work, which the apostles were to continue.
    Second, we have very little from the other apostles, and most of those books probably were not written by them, but by others later on.
    It also seems that baptism for the dead was a Gentile church event mostly, as the Jewish Christians tended to continue focusing on the Mosaic Law.
    That there are evidences of baptism for the dead suggest it may have been important for some, but not all the Christians.