On Saturday, I made my first visit to Tucson’s Family History Center to take advantage of a slate of free genealogy courses. I learned more in three hours about my research options — including, at the center, free access to Ancestry.com — than I had in the last six months.
Anyone who has spent more than 10 minutes studying genealogy knows that most of these centers offer top notch research facilities — and that they are run by the Mormon Church (also called the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or LDS). This knowledge led a Jewish friend to ask me how, for this project in particular, I could work with a group that baptizes Holocaust victims posthumously.
Say What? Posthumous Baptism?
According to Wikipedia’s entry on Baptisim for the Dead:
In the practice of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a living person, acting as proxy, is baptized by immersion on behalf of a deceased person…. Baptism for the dead is a distinctive ordinance of the church and is based on the belief that baptism is a required ordinance for entry into the Kingdom of God.
This is why genealogy has become so crucial a part of LDS life. According to Mormon.org, the official church site:
Those of us who have been bitten by the family history bug know how fun it can be. But this isn’t why we have the largest genealogical library in the world and why 13 million Mormons are encouraged to research their family roots. Rather, we are driven by our doctrine that teaches that marriage and families can continue beyond this life… When Christ organized His Church anciently, it included vicarious work for the dead and the practice of performing ordinances for deceased relatives “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).
The emphasis on “relatives” is mine. Church doctrine requires that proxy baptisms can only be performed by kin. Genealogy isn’t just a fun hobby for Mormons; it’s the key to finding souls to save.
The souls aren’t required to go along with the program, however. According to Wikipedia:
The LDS Church teaches that those in the afterlife who have been baptized by proxy are free to accept or reject the ordinance done on their behalf. Baptism on behalf of a deceased individual is not binding if that individual chooses to reject it in the afterlife.
Overzealousness within the Church
Unfortunately, not all church members have been vigilant about observing the only-baptize-your-relatives rule. According to a March 2012 story in the New York Times:
Although the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints promised in 1995 to stop including Holocaust victims in its ritual, the church admitted last week that Anne Frank had been “baptized” in a Mormon church in the Dominican Republic. On Wednesday, The Boston Globe reported that Daniel Pearl, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal who was kidnapped and killed by terrorists in Pakistan in early 2002, was baptized last June in Twin Falls, Idaho; Mr. Pearl was Jewish.
Non-Jewish celebrities had been posthumously baptized too.
The church’s reaction to these disclosures was swift and definitive. According to a USAToday.com article, also published in March 2012:
On Friday, the LDS church’s governing First Presidency issued an unequivocal mandate to its members: Do not submit names of Jewish Holocaust victims or celebrities for proxy baptism. Doing so could cost Mormons access to their church’s genealogical data or even their good standing in the faith.
“I don’t think it’s nice”
Some Jews were seriously offended, including Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who was quoted in another USAToday.com story on the controversy:
I am a Holocaust survivor. It is so offensive in the sense that Holocaust victims were killed solely because they were Jews. And here comes the Mormon church taking away their Jewishness…. It’s like killing them twice.
Others were more philosophical about it. Laura Baum, an Ohio rabbi, is quoted in the New York Times article. “I don’t want to give any credence to anyone who thinks baptizing us matters,” she said. “On the other hand, I don’t think it’s nice.”
I agree with Rabbi Baum. It’s not nice. I find all proselytizing, before or after death, disrespectful. But I disagree with Abraham Foxman. There’s a vast difference between something done in good faith — literally — to the dead than something done to make them dead in the first place.
The Jews were not killed for their religion — after all, many had converted, or were not practicing — but for an insane, entirely false cultural construction of what a Jew is. The Nazis believed Jews were not human, akin to animals. In order to try to save someone’s soul, you have to believe she has one, which the Mormons do.
So I am happy to use the vast resources of the Family History Center to rescue my relatives from the hell to which they were consigned by the Nazis, in my fashion. And if the people at the center are a little nicer to me because they feel bad that a church member may have posthumously proselytized a great aunt or uncle, what could it hurt?