Advocates of this practice believe it is referred to in The New Testament (1 Cor. 15:29). The practice was forbidden by the Orthodox Church in the 4th century as an aberrant practice of heretical groups, and is not practiced in modern mainstream Christianity.
Other Latter Day Saint denominations that accept baptism for the dead include the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Strangite) and The Church of Jesus Christ (Cutlerite). The Strangite Church performed baptisms for the dead during the 1840s in Voree, Wisconsin and later during the 1850s on Beaver Island, Michigan. In each case, the practice was authorized by revelation given by James J. Strang. The question of whether the Strangite Church still practices proxy baptism is an open one, but belief in it is considered orthodox.
Cutlerite practice permits baptisms for the dead to be performed in baptismal fonts in Cutlerite meetinghouses (of which only two exist today, one in Clitherall, Minnesota and the other in Independence, Missouri). Though Cutlerites believe in the concept of temples, it is not required that baptisms for the dead be performed in one. The meetinghouse baptismal fonts are used for baptism of the living and for the dead. Cutlerites have practiced baptisms for the dead sporadically throughout their history (including during the early 1990s), but it is not known if they still do so. As with the LDS Church and the Strangite Church, belief in this doctrine is considered orthodox.
That baptism for the dead was indeed practiced in some orthodox Christian circles is indicated by the decisions of two late fourth century councils. The fourth canon of the Synod of Hippo, held in 393, declares, "The Eucharist shall not be given to dead bodies, nor baptism conferred upon them." The ruling was confirmed four years later in the sixth canon of the Third Council of Carthage.
Some argue that the fact that these two councils felt it necessary to explicitly forbid baptism for the dead shows that there must have been a significant group of people practicing some form of it, accompanied by opposition to it by the church's leadership. Others disagree with the classification of such groups as "orthodox", since the councils concluded that they were in fact unorthodox, at least with respect to that practice. John Chrysostom linked this practice with the Marcionites, who were considered unorthodox for this and other reasons.
According to the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, "Tertullian believed that Paul referred to a custom of vicarious baptism (Res., 48c; Adv. Marc., 5.10). There is evidence that the early church knew such a practice. Epiphanius mentions a tradition that the custom obtained among the Cerinthians (Haer., 28 6). And Chrysostom states that it prevailed among the Marcionites."
The "early church" refers to the church shortly after the time of the apostles. Paul taught, "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?" (). Latter-day Saints believe this to be one of Paul's arguments for the reality of Christ's resurrection made throughout 1 Corinthians 15, and as such, is Paul's acknowledgment that baptism for the dead was accepted Gospel doctrine and practice. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia says that "commentators have offered between thirty and forty other interpretations, more or less strained, of the passage." Most of these other interpretations center around the notion that either Paul was merely trying to point out contradiction within practices unique to the Corinthians or that the wording describes something other than actual physical baptism. John Chrysostom suggests (in his 40th homily on I Corinthians) that this verse refers to the new believer's professed faith in the resurrection of the dead.
The concept of baptism for the dead, according to Elaine Pagels, was easily explained by gnostics. Since the gnostics argued that the text was allegory, their stance was that baptism for the dead refers to pneumatics (i.e. gnostics) taking the place of psychics (i.e. literalists), who were dead to gnosis. (See: Gnosticism and the New Testament.) Irenaeus, a disciple of Polycarp, wrote about the gnostics as being heretical in his work On the Detection and Overthrow of the So-Called Gnosis. The doctrines of Marcion were so similar to the gnostics that the church father Irenaeus in the 180s regarded Marcion as one of them. Eventually Marcion was excommunicated for his views. Tertullian wrote about gnostics in his work Against Marcion indicating that there was another aberrant Christian sect who believed in baptism for the dead. Clement of Alexandria warned in his writings Excerpta ex Theodoto against paganism and deviations from Christianity, mentioning baptism for the dead as a doctrine particular to gnostics.
Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe that baptism is a prerequisite for entry into the kingdom of God as stated by Jesus in : "Except that a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God" (KJV).
The LDS Church teaches that performing baptisms for the dead allows this saving ordinance to be offered to those who have died without accepting or knowing Jesus Christ or his teachings during their mortal lives. It is taught that this is the method by which all who have lived upon the earth will have the opportunity to receive baptism and to thereby enter the Kingdom of God.
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.
Any member of the LDS church, male or female, who is at least 12 years old and holds a current temple recommend may act as a proxy in this ordinance. Men must also hold the Aaronic Priesthood prior to entering the temple. A man must act as proxy for a deceased man, and a woman must act as proxy for a deceased woman. The concept of a spiritual proxy is compared by some in the LDS Church to the belief that Jesus acted as proxy for every human when he atoned for the sins of the world.
I presume the doctrine of "baptism for the dead" has ere this reached your ears, and may have raised some inquiries in your minds respecting the same. I cannot in this letter give you all the information you may desire on the subject; but aside from knowledge independent of the Bible, I would say that it was certainly practiced by the ancient churches; and Saint Paul endeavors to prove the doctrine of the resurrection from the same, and says, "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?
LDS Church scripture expands further upon this doctrine and states that such baptisms are to be performed in temples. Vicarious baptism is performed in connection with other vicarious ordinances in temples of the LDS Church, such as the Endowment and celestial marriage.
Initially, women could be baptized for dead men, and vice versa; this, however, was changed in order to ensure that the person being baptized for a dead man could also be ordained on their behalf to the priesthood.
Vicarious baptism does not mean that the decedent is forced to accept the ordinance performed for him or her or that the deceased becomes a member of the LDS Church; it merely means that the decedent has the option to accept the ordinance and the benefits which the Latter-day Saints claim baptism provides. (See Exaltation (Mormonism).)
While members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints consider it a great service to perform vicarious ordinances for the deceased, some non-members have taken offense. To be sensitive to the issue of proxy baptizing for non-Mormons that are not related to Church members, the Church in recent years has published a general policy of only performing temple ordinances for direct ancestors of Church members. For example, the Church is in the process of removing sensitive names (such as Jewish Holocaust victims) from its International Genealogical Index. D. Todd Christofferson of the Church's Presidency of the Seventy stated that removing the names is an "ongoing, labor intensive process requiring name-by-name research ... When the Church is made aware of documented concerns, action is taken ... Plans are underway to refine this process."
In 2008, a directive from the Vatican Congregation for Clergy directed Catholic dioceses to prevent The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from "microfilming and digitizing information" contained in Catholic sacramental registers so that the people whose names were contained therein would not be subjected to vicarious Mormon baptism. The Vatican had already declared in 2001 that Mormon baptism was invalid.
Other Christian denominations generally do not accept the Latter-day Saint interpretation of baptism for the dead contemplated in , and no other contemporary Christian church practices such an ordinance. These Christians interpret that in this chapter Paul is arguing, to Christians in Corinth, against those who do not believe in the bodily resurrection (). While there are different approaches taken to interpreting the meaning of this scripture, some mainstream Christians believe Paul was merely demonstrating the logical contradiction between the practices of these local Christians and their lack of belief in the resurrection without giving any approval of the action. Others believe that "the dead," though plural in the original Greek, refers to Christ (rendering the interpretation of the verse as "why are you baptized for [one of] the dead, [Jesus], if the dead rise not at all?"), or to the symbol of Baptism - the death, burial and resurrection of the individual as they begin their new life as a disciple of Jesus Christ. Other scholars are not exactly sure about what Paul meant by the comments (see links below).
Another counter-argument to baptism for the dead is that there is little or no record (or incomplete, or disputed) of any mainstream Christian denomination historically practicing it, and therefore it fails the test set forth by Saint Vincent of Lerins, that Christians should believe that which "has been believed by all Christians in all places at all times."
Some Christians dismiss this practice because they believe salvation is not dependent on baptism at all and that Christ's example of being baptized by John the Baptist is irrelevant to one's own personal salvation. If baptism is not important, then baptism on behalf of the dead is irrelevant and unneeded. The practice of baptism for the dead also appears to some Christians to abrogate the individual's personal responsibility.
The LDS church urges members to submit only the names of their own ancestors for these type of ordinances, and not celebrities or Holocaust victims. If the names are not submitted by a direct descendant then a surviving family member's permission should be obtained for baptisms performed for people who died recently (usually within 50-75 years). These guidelines are not always followed, as in the case of Catholic popes, saints, and various historical figures with no existing family members. Efforts by the church to respect the wishes of living descendants have included asking them for the deceased person's details and explaining why they are requested. Latter-day Saint apostle Boyd K. Packer, describes an example:
For a number of years the Church had negotiated with the government of Israel for permission to microfilm the archives of that nation. These records, including many carefully kept genealogies, are priceless records of the human family and have a tie to great events in the history of the world. The officials had learned all they wanted to know about the Church storage procedures and were impressed. They insisted however that someone be sent to talk to them about the doctrine relating to our desire for their records. They wanted to know why we wanted their records. In 1977 I received the assignment to go to Israel and meet with their official archivists and scholars on the matter ... I explained to them our great interest in the Old Testament and our kinship with Israel. We talked of family, of patriarchal lineage and blessings. We talked of the doctrine of agency. But all of these things were not central to the point. It might seem that in order to obtain a favorable decision we would have to be "diplomatic" and not mention ordinances--especially baptism. But we were on the Lord's errand, and so I told them—plainly, bluntly—that we desired their records in order to provide baptism, Christian baptism, for their forebears and for ours. The reaction was immediate and intense. The meeting thereafter was most interesting! We came away uncertain as to the outcome. But we were on the Lord's errand. We were serving the work of redemption for the dead. We had told the truth without any shade of misrepresentation. In due time the answer came. We received approval to microfilm and preserve those records which were sanctified by the suffering of our brethren of the house of Israel.
Despite these rules, some members of the church have submitted the names of Catholic popes and saints, Holocaust victims, Adolf Hitler and other prominent Nazis for vicarious baptism without adequate permission. In December 2002, independent researcher Helen Radkey published a report showing that, following a 1995 promise from the church to remove Jewish Nazi victims from its International Genealogical Index, the church's database included the names of about 19,000 who had a 40 to 50 percent chance of having "the potential to be Holocaust victims ... in Russia, Poland, France, and Austria." Genealogist Bernard Kouchel conducted a search of the International Genealogical Index, and discovered that many well known Jews had been vicariously baptized, including Maimonides, Albert Einstein, and Irving Berlin, without a system in place to ensure permissions were obtained.
Church official D. Todd Christofferson told the New York Times that it was not feasible for the church to continuously monitor the archives to ensure that no new Jewish names appear. And that the agreement in 1995 did not place this type of responsibility on the centralized church leadership.
Jewish groups such as the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which operates the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, spoke out against the vicarious baptism of Holocaust perpetrators and victims in the mid 1990s and again in the 2000s when they discovered the practice was continuing. (Vicarious baptism had even been performed for Simon Wiesenthal himself after his death.) They found the practice insulting and an affront to Jews who died because of their religion. Rabbi Marvin Hier of the center said: "If these people did not contact the Mormons themselves, the adage should be: Don't call me, I'll call you. With the greatest of respect to them, we do not think they are the exclusive arbitrators of who is saved. Aaron Breitbart, a researcher with the Center believes the church was showing insensitivity to the living and their dead ancestors. "They did not get baptized when they were alive and they had a choice, and doing so after they are dead is beyond the ethical bounds. Associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Abraham Cooper, complained that infamous figures such as Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun appeared on LDS genealogical records at all: "Whether official or not, the fact remains that this is exactly the kind of activity that enraged and hurt, really, so many victims of the Holocaust and caused alarm in the Jewish community. Whatever framework in which it is presented, the notion of performing these sort of rites for Hitler, Himmler and other Nazis . . . is beyond [understanding].
In a 2005 statement responding to such concerns, Marlin K. Jensen, executive director of the LDS Church Family and Church History Department said: "It is important to stress that the freedom of choice remains a prevailing concept behind baptism for the dead. No ordinance is administered by compulsion. The freedom of the recipient to accept or reject the ordinance is an overarching principle ... The result of a proxy baptism is not binding on the recipient, and no name is added to the membership rolls of the Church. There is no change in ethnic identity or heritage of the recipient or of the recipient's descendants."