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What LDS baptism for the dead is and isn't

In my guilt files are several stories about the Mormon practice of baptism for the dead. Many stories have just done an inadequate job of explaining this doctrine and practice of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. There's this Huffington Post piece which said:

In 2002, the managing director of the Mormon's family and church history department told The New Yorker magazine that as many as 200 million dead people had been baptized as Mormons.

Well, no. As the reader who submitted it to us said, indicating skepticism that the managing director's actual views were being conveyed, "Proxy baptisms DON'T make dead people Mormons. It never has and it never will, other than maybe in the minds of non-Mormons who don't hold the same beliefs as Mormons. In a crude nutshell: It does the paperwork for the dead, but the dead still have to sign on the dotted line."

Or what about this Newsweek piece that said:

When asked by NEWSWEEK if he has done baptisms for the dead—in which Mormons find the names of dead people of all faiths and baptize them, as an LDS spokesperson says, to "open the door" to the highest heaven—he looked slightly startled and answered, "I have in my life, but I haven't recently." The awareness of how odd this will sound to many Americans is what makes Romney hesitant to elaborate on the Mormon question.

The reporter is someone named Jonathan Darman. And he must be quite the reporter to be able to report -- as fact -- that "the awareness of how odd this will sound ... makes Romney hesitant to elaborate."

The Mormon reader, after noting the reporter's amazing mind-reading abilities, says he has another guess as to why Romney thought the question odd: "My guess is that his reaction wasn't because he knew how strange it sounded, but because its something culturally teenagers do. Yes, its a bit of mind reading myself, but at least more likely out of my experience as a Mormon. I'd be a little taken aback myself if questioned by a non-Mormon and respond with the same answer. That isn't to say adults can't or don't, but for the most part there is OTHER proxy work that adults focus on in the Temple. The reason is, again, a complicated theology I don't have time to type about. Mostly it has to do with the the lower Aaronic Priesthood that teenagers are given and the higher Melchizedek Priesthood given to adults containing more responsibilities and tasks."

So you can see how the lack of knowledge about some Mormon practices can lead to some reporting missteps.

But I wanted to highlight a recent story that managed to be accurate about the practice while also being very brief. I'm self-conscious about how frequently we're suggesting the impossible -- an accurate explanation of a doctrinal practice in a news brief. But it is possible.

Religion News Service ran a brief about an update to the database that chronicles Mormon proxy baptisms for the dead:

A technological crackdown has effectively blocked a prominent whistle-blower from accessing the Mormons' database that chronicles so-called baptisms for the dead.

Church officials said the move helps prevent overzealous Mormons and mischief-makers from violating church policy by submitting the names of prominent Jewish figures.

The decision to suspend the New FamilySearch accounts of anyone searching for Jewish Holocaust victims or celebrities also freezes out Utah researcher Helen Radkey, whose baptism discoveries have embarrassed the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for decades.

The article reminds readers of some of the famous names she's uncovered, including Anne Frank, Gandhi, Daniel Pearl and the parents of Simon Weisenthal. So what is this baptism for the dead?

Mormons believe that living people can be baptized on behalf of dead relatives and others, who then can either accept or reject the ordinance.

Accurate and with an economy of words!

If you're curious about Helen Radkey, I highly recommend this profile of her from a couple of years ago by the Salt Lake Tribune's Peggy Fletcher Stack.

And this Washington Post profile of her is also good.

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