Once again, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is getting some negative press because, despite its earlier commitments, it continues to allow proxy ordinances for deceased Jewish victims of the Nazi Holocaust. This time, the names of famed Nazi-hunter Elie Wiesel’s parents were discovered in the database of Mormon proxy ordinances for the dead (called the International Genealogical Index, or IGI). In response, the church has issued an apology and announced that the person who had submitted the name has been indefinitely barred from participating in the name-submission process. But is this enough?
It may help first of all to understand this uniquely Mormon belief and practice. The idea of being baptized by proxy for dead individuals comes from a verse in the New Testament: “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?” (1 Corinthians 15:29). In 1841, Joseph Smith, the founder of the LDS church who Mormons believe was a prophet, claimed that God had instructed him to build a temple. Here Mormons would be able to perform sacred ordinances, including proxy baptisms for deceased ancestors: “For a baptismal font there is not upon the earth, that they, my saints, may be baptized for those who are dead— For this ordinance belongeth to my house, and cannot be acceptable to me, only in the days of your poverty, wherein ye are not able to build a house unto me” (Doctrine and Covenants 124:29-30).
Later revelations clarified that baptisms for the dead were intended to create a “welding link of some kind or other between the fathers and the children”; all the children of God from all generations would be bound together in righteousness:
For we without [our deceased ancestors] cannot be made perfect; neither can they without us be made perfect. Neither can they nor we be made perfect without those who have died in the gospel also; for it is necessary in the ushering in of the dispensation of the fulness of times, which dispensation is now beginning to usher in, that a whole and complete and perfect union, and welding together of dispensations, and keys, and powers, and glories should take place, and be revealed from the days of Adam even to the present time. (Doctrine and Covenants 128:8, 18.)
For Joseph Smith, this union of all generations required careful record-keeping:
Whatsoever you record on earth shall be recorded in heaven, and whatsoever you do not record on earth shall not be recorded in heaven; for out of the books shall your dead be judged, according to their own works, whether they themselves have attended to the cordinances in their own propria persona, or by the means of their own agents, according to the ordinance which God has prepared for their salvation from before the foundation of the world, according to the records which they have kept concerning their dead. (Doctrine and Covenants 128:8.)
Baptisms for the dead were performed in the Mississippi River near Nauvoo, Illinois. Since the Nauvoo Temple was constructed, baptisms have taken place only within dedicated temples. Only LDS church members who have passed a “temple recommend” interview may enter the temple; these interviews are meant to ascertain the faithfulness of church members in keeping the commandments. Temple baptismal fonts are always located below ground level and are usually supported by representations of twelve oxen, according to the description of the “sea” in the ancient temple (see 1 Kings 7). Below is the font from the Washington, DC, Temple:
The person serving as the proxy and a priesthood holder (male, of course) enter the font, and the person is baptized by complete immersion. If I were being baptized as a proxy for, say, Oliver Twist, the baptismal prayer would be given as follows:
“Brother Williams, having been commissioned of Jesus Christ, I baptize you for and in behalf of Oliver Twist, who is dead, in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.”
Then I would be immersed in the water (usually by bending my knees and having the priesthood holder lower my back into the water). Normally, Mormons do such baptisms for a number of people. A recorder seated near the font displays each name, and the person is baptized in fairly rapid succession for each deceased person.
Baptisms are not the only proxy ordinances performed in LDS temples. Mormons believe that only those who have received the ordinances of the Holy Priesthood will be admitted into the highest levels of heaven. Accordingly, after a person is baptized, they must also go through an ordinance called an “endowment,” which is essentially an adaptation of Masonic ritual combined with religious imagery and specific covenants of obedience (it is in the ordinance of the endowment that Mormons receive their temple garments, which are sacred undergarments with Masonic symbols sewn into them). Also, Mormonism teaches that only those who are married “for time and eternity” will be exalted as gods (see Doctrine and Covenants 132). Thus, Mormons must be “sealed,” or married by priesthood authority in the temple. Because these ordinances require priesthood authority, Mormon males must be ordained into the priesthood to receive these ordinances. All of these rituals are performed by proxy for deceased persons.
Early in Mormon history, proxy ordinances were restricted to one’s direct ancestors, the idea being to link all generations of one’s family into a single, sealed family unit. In 1877 church president Wilford Woodruff had a vision that extended the ordinances of the temple to others:
Every one of those men that signed the Declaration of Independence, with General Washington, called upon me, as an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ, in th e Temple at St. George, two consecutive nights, and demanded at my hands that I should go forth and attend to the ordinances of the House of God for them…. I told these brethren that it was their duty to go into the Temple and labor until they had got endowments for all of them. They did it. Would those spirits have called upon me, as an Elder in Israel to perform that work if they had not been noble spirits before God? They would not. (Wilford Woodruff, Conference Report, April 1898, p. 89-90.)
From that beginning, the church has over the years done extensive genealogical research all over the world so that members could perform proxy ordinances for every person on record. Individual members are encouraged to submit records for their ancestors using a computer program called TempleReady, which checks the submitted data against the information already in the church’s temple records (the IGI) to avoid duplication. These checks are done locally, such that if a name is successfully checked against TempleReady, the member can take the information on a disk or on paper directly to the temple.
TempleReady is limited in its ability to check information because only records that are identical in every way are considered duplicated; thus, if any information is missing or misspelled, the name is approved, which leads to a great deal of duplication. When one looks at the data in the IGI, it’s obvious how widespread the duplication is and how few real checks there are. For example, church founder Joseph Smith’s name appears in the IGI numerous times, with each record differing only in detail, such as his birthplace, his date of birth, his parents’ names, and the number of his wives. My Williams family genealogy is a hopeless mess in the IGI because my great-grandfather is listed as having no children.
Although church members are supposed to focus on deceased ancestors and are not supposed to submit names of those born within the last 95 years without a widow’s or child’s written permission, things often get out of hand. Zealous Mormons have done temple ordinances for deceased celebrities from Patsy Cline to Tupac Shakur; Karen Carpenter seems to have the celebrity record with 11 baptisms in such far-flung places as Salt Lake City, Washington, DC, and Mexico City. Clearly, there is little oversight of the process, as barely a year after his death, Johnny Cash was baptized in Atlanta and subsequently in São Paulo, Brazil; Boise, Idaho; Nauvoo, Illinois; Newport Beach, California; and Monticello, Utah.
This is the same process by which names of Jewish Holocaust victims were submitted for church ordinances without family permission. After a non-Mormon reported the practice, the church issued an apology and pledged to work with Jewish groups to ensure that it would not happen again.
Which brings us to this year, when the names of Elie Wiesel’s parents, both victims of the Nazis, were discovered in the IGI, meaning that Mormons had performed proxy ordinances for them. The church again apologized and restricted the responsible person’s access to TempleReady and the IGI. But it’s notable that, despite the church’s insistence that it has in place safeguards to avoid such embarrassing incidents, the names cleared TempleReady, the ordinances were performed, and only after the fact did a non-Mormon discover the problem.
Some people are calling on Mitt Romney to pressure the church into ceasing this practice, but to my mind, this just illustrates how little has been done to ensure the proper use of the IGI. It shouldn’t be that hard to prevent duplication of names and, more importantly, inappropriate and unauthorized submission of names to the temple.