Baptism for the Dead: An Insider’s Perspective

Michael Nielsen had an excellent op-ed piece in the sltrib (26 Feb 2012) discussing the LDS Church’s obsession with doing ordinances for the dead.  The subject has been in the news alot lately because of Jewish objections to proxy baptisms for Holocaust victims.  According to Nielsen:

But what if things were different?  What if our church devoted more of its resources toward helping the living, rather than fretting over the fate of the deceased?  If eternity includes the active existence of the dead, there wouldn’t seem to be any great hurry needed to baptize them.  Even in Mormon thought, as I understand it, baptisms and other rites can be conducted after the millennial return of Jesus.  Why the rush? . . .

Were it up to me, the time, money, and other resources devoted to baptisms [for the dead] would be focused more on the problems of the living.  Too often we drive by the destitute on our way to do temple work.  We search geneology records for the names of someone not yet baptized, while a neighbor is going hungry.  We worry ourselves about other people’s eternity, when it is their present that really needs our help.

I live part time in Uganda, in east-central Africa.  Uganda is a small, landlocked country with a troubled past.  It has a population of 30 million, which is almost 5 times the number of active Mormons in the world.  Uganda has a long list of woes, including:

  • its economy, infrastructure, and social structure were partially destroyed by a corrupt and evil Idi Amin;
  • it was ground zero for the AIDS/HIV epidemic; and
  • its northern region was recently decimated by a terrible civil war involving a despicable rebel group.

The vast majority of Ugandans live in dire poverty.  I would love to see a greater effort go toward assisting our neighbors around the world who are alive today.  The LDS Church has a very educated membership which could do wonders in helping to alleviate poverty.

Jacob in Times and Seasons defending baptisms for the dead writes:

. . . there are also seemingly well-meaning assessments of the practice of baptizing for the dead that are short-sighted and small-minded.  To cite an example, Michael Nielsen’s recent op-ed in the Salt Lake Tribune notes the significant emphasis and considerable resources the Church utilizes in doing vicarious work for the dead–an emphasis and resources that might be better employed, he thinks, serving the present needs of living members and their communities.  Vicarious ordinance work “keeps people involved, lends a sense of purpose and reinforces the beliefs promoted by the church [ . . . ] all of [which] helps to maintain the believers’ faith and their institutional commitment,” but ultimately it seems to distract from the more important work of attending to the concerns of the living.  The institution, it seems, cannot adequately do both. . . .

For me the question is not whether the Church can do both.  It is how money is allocated.  The needs in the world are so great, that considerably more attention needs to be made to improving the human condition.  And this is an important role for “Christ’s” Church.

To call Nielsen “short-sighted and small-minded” is an insult to members (and their neighbors) living in developing countries.

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4 Responses to Baptism for the Dead: An Insider’s Perspective

  1. I’m crazy enough to believe that our genealogical work will prove to be essential to resurrection, and our rituals promote that work.

  2. roger hansen says:

    I don’t think Nielsen is arguing that genealogical work and the associated rituals are not essential. His argument is there is plenty of time to get this work done for our ancestors. He is also suggesting that other needs are more immediate. I would personally like to see the LDS Church put more money into LDS Humanitarian Services and less money into constructing new temples. But I’m not in a very good position to be making this suggestion.

  3. rogerdhansen says:

    According to Chris commenting in (Nov 2012):

    One person says,
    “the time, money, and other resources devoted to baptism [for the dead] would be focused more on the problems of the living”

    To which a prophet has already said,
    “Why are so many willing to give so much in order to receive the blessings of the temple? Those who understand the eternal blessings which come from the temple know that no sacrifice is too great, no price too heavy, no struggle too difficult in order to receive those blessings. There are never too many miles to travel, too many obstacles to overcome, or too much discomfort to endure. They understand that the saving ordinances received in the temple that permit us to someday return to our Heavenly Father in an eternal family relationship and to be endowed with blessings and power from on high are worth every sacrifice and every effort.”

    I think it would be pretty easy to construct several uncharitable arguments that sanctimoniously drip with charity and try to demonstrate some costs -are- too great to go to the temple.

    But those arguments ultimately lack faith, and in the end we always come back to faith, and the testimony which rests upon it.

    If the church is what it says it is, temples are necessary for eternal salvation. Eternal salvation is apparently worth so much that we come into this world filled with every terrible thing imaginable for the hope of obtaining that salvation. Our church probably gives us the easiest out, because we could waive our hands around and say “it will all be made right in the millennium”. Except for the fact relying *solely* on that literal bit of deus ex machina obliterates the need for the gospel to begin with and we might as well resort to eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die and God will save us all in the resurrection. And not ironically, it is that final point, which the opponents of religion would be all to happy to confine religion to.

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