Mormon Ancestor Worship

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Do Mormons practice a form of ancestor worship?  What does it mean that we must be saved “with all our dead”?

I started to think about this concept when I was in Sicily last September, where I visited the Capuchin catacombs.  Under the streets of Palermo, there are 8,000 deceased Sicilians dating from 1599 to 1920, mummified and displayed.  The original intent was for families to be able to come visit their revered dead and to pay homage to them.  Many of the dead are posed in such a way to be “looking” at the visitors, and as our guide pointed out, this was to be a warning to their offspring that the pleasures of this life are fleeting.  Or as my Italian Catholic friend pointed out, only a Catholic mother could find a way to guilt her kids from the grave.

Ancestor worship is often misunderstood and may be more properly understood as “veneration” than worship.  In belief systems that include Ancestor Worship, ancestors are not viewed as diety, but practices center on becoming a better person through filial duty.  Here’s a quick run down of some cultures that openly practice some form of ancestor worship:

  • China.  Ancestral veneration stems from the teachings of Confucius and Laozi rather than from religion.  It is considered one’s duty to revere ancestors for their role in one’s physical existence, the creation of the body.  Visiting graves and leaving offerings of food or other practical items (such as toothbrushes) for the deceased as well as communicating with ancestors are part of the practices.  The living sometimes also regard ancestors as “guardian angels” protecting their living progeny.
  • Korea.  Similar to China, and includes annual veneration of the ancestor’s death.
  • Vietnam.  Practically all Vietnamese, regardless of religious affiliation (Buddhist and Christian alike) have an ancestor altar in the home or business.  Focus is on filial duty, and there are annual banquets to commemorate the ancestor’s death date, including offerings.
  • India.  Common in rural India.  Families remember deceased loved ones by offering them food first at meals during festivals and ceremonies, and floral tributes in the Ganges to those who have passed on.
  • Europe.  All Saints Day (November 1) dates to the days of the Roman empire and was adopted by Catholicism.  Families light candles for their deceased ancestors in the cemeteries.
  • Ireland.  During Samhain, food and light are left out for the deceased.
  • Latin America.  A combination of Mesoamerican and European traditions resulted in Dia de los Muertos.  Altars, sugar skulls, pictures of the deceased, and flowers and candles are set up to revere ancestors.
  • Africa.  Ancestor veneration is common, and ancestors are often believed to ascend to become minor deities, even among Christian and Islamic converts.

Compared to other Christian religions, Mormons certainly go further down the path of Ancestor Worship than some:

  • Redeeming the dead is one of the three missions of the church, including proxy work for deceased ancestors in the temples.
  • Family history and journal record keeping are expected to preserve a record for future generations.
  • The church is the foremost source for genealogical research.
  • An interpretation of D&C 132 could be that exaltation is a communal activity, only possible in families, not an individual salvation as in other Christian sects.

So, exactly what is the definition of ancestor worship and how do we stack up?  Ancestor worship includes the following beliefs about deceased family members:

  • they have a continued existence (check)
  • they take an interest in the affairs of the world (check)
  • they possess the ability to influence the fortune of the living (hmmm. . . )

And further, the goals of ancestor worship (a.k.a. ancestor veneration) are:

  • to ensure the ancestors’ continued well-being (indubitably)
  • to ensure the ancestors’ positive disposition towards the living (sounds a little quid-pro-quo so maybe not)
  • sometimes to ask for special favors or assistance (hmmmm . . .)

The social functions of ancestor worship are to promote:

  • filial piety (turn the hearts of the children to the fathers)
  • family loyalty (families can be together forever)
  • continuity of the family lineage (save ourselves with all our dead)

So, our form of ancestor veneration hits all 3 points on the social scale, with 2 of 3 on the beliefs scale, and at least 1 of 3 on the goals scale.  We seem to be engaging in some form of ancestor worship.

What do you think?  Are Mormons more focused on ancestral veneration than other Christian faiths?  Is this a restoration of something lost from early Christianity (a la baptisms by proxy for the deceased)?  Are Mormons merely “social” ancestor venerators, bent on encouraging filial duty and family ties?  Or are we full-fledged ancestor worshippers, expecting and requiring full ongoing ancestor relationships and communal salvation?  Or do our ancestral homages fall outside these definitions?  Is the church becoming more or less focused on ancestral veneration over time?

Comments 28

  1. Well, your point that “they possess the ability to influence the fortune of the living” certainly ties in with anecdotes told by older prophets such as Wilford Woodruff and Heber J. Grant. And in spirit, at least, I don’t know that “sometimes to ask for special favors or assistance” is that far out there; we certainly ask for favorable circumstances for them often enough, and I’ve sometimes felt as if I could use their help in some way (so this is a little tangential, I suppose).

    I’d say that we are more focused on it in principle, but I would change your suggestion of “communal salvation” to “communal exaltation”, which makes it fit the Mormon bill nicely.

  2. Hawkgrrrl, what is the source for your definition of ancestor worship? I don’t disagree with you; I just wonder if you came up with that on your own, or took it from a scholarly source.

    I think “ancestor worship” (I would say “veneration,” as you did) among the LDS is a bit of a two edged sword. On the one hand, I think the LDS attention to genealogy is one of its great strengths. It causes individuals to see themselves as part of the “big picture.” Unlike some faiths, which seem to focus only on the future, the LDS faith places an individual squarely at the center of a great continuum of human endeavor. I think it’s a very valuable perspective, particularly in this day and age, where so much is narrowly focused on the immediate present.

    On the other hand, there is an aspect of LDS ancestor veneration which can wound. The LDS church has a relatively short history, and originated with a comparative handful of individuals, many of whom happened to be related. The great mythic story of the LDS church–the exodus to the west–involved a select few families, in comparison with the widespread membership of today. No honest person can deny that there is a certain element of “special” family bloodlines in the LDS church, based primarily on ancestral participation in the westward trek. Some descendants of those “blessed, honored pi-o-neers” frankly behave (and are sometimes even treated) as a sort of aristocracy, at least in areas of heavy LDS population. When I lived in Nauvoo, where between 300 and 500 senior missionaries were serving at any given time, this tended to be very visible.

  3. So to answer your question, “are Mormons more focused on Ancestor Worship than other Christian faiths?” I’d say the answer is a big YES. Because we have a much better understanding of the “connnectedness” of the family and our obligations to “save our dead.” More so than other cultures? Probably not. Most of us don’t have shrines to our dead ancestors in our homes unless you consider some of the Church historical sites as shrines. 🙂

    I don’t quite subscribe to Nick’s semi-sarcastic response in his last paragraph above. While I was as sick as anyone of the 1997 “Year of the Mormon Pioneer,” I look at the bigger picture that many of us are pioneers in our own right to have joined the Church from very different backgrounds and circumstances.

    Now, I do agree with Nick that some in the Church have a “superiority complex” because their last name might be Smith, Woodruff, Call or Kimble. But i like the high regard for Ancestors and work we do on their behalf.

  4. Yes – and you missed Japan. I know Bishops and others leaders who have ancestral shrines – and I have no problem with that whatsoever.

  5. Fwiw, Nick, I view the “raise up righteous seed” phrase from Jacob as qualitative, rather than quantitative. I don’t mean at all that descendants of polygamists are “better” than those of non-polygamists – not at all. However, those who were persecuted heavily for their belief AND practice tended to understand and be committed to the communal, familial aspect of Joseph’s teachings at a level that those who were not persecuted to that degree simply couldn’t. I don’t think it’s a coincidence (and I know you agree) OR a mistake that the second 80 years of the Church’s leadership was dominated by the descendants of the people who paid the most dearly for the first 70 years.

    We are starting to come out of that, and I think that also is as it should be. I disagree STRONGLY that “believing blood” is an automatic differentiator of righteousness (“We have Abraham as our father” didn’t work then, and “We have Smith/Kimble/etc. as our father” doesn’t work now.), but I also understand clearly that there is a strong degree of legitimacy to the idea that dedicated parents are more likely to raise dedicated children. That’s a generalization, but it also is what it is.

  6. Nick #3 – “scholarly” might be a stretch. Wikipedia. But I thought it was a pretty good list. I was surprised that most “worship” was really just focus on family ties beyond death, which is very familiar.

    I have often wondered if JS’s polygamous marriages were really just a form of this “group exaltation” more than a marriage as we think of it (or as the FLDS or BY did either)–he didn’t say much on the subject, but what he did say doesn’t contradict that idea (or clarify it much either).

  7. In parts of India there is an ancestral worship practice of digging up their graves with your bare hands and eating your kindred dead’s remains.

    In China, ancestral worship is largely a part of Feng Shui. Feng Shui is more like ritual witchcraft than it is like “decorative design” or Confucianism (the West does not know what Feng Shui is, for the most part).

    Last month’s National Geographic had an interesting write-up about the Chinese folk religious practices of Feng Shui. They profiled a ritual where a shaman took several villagers through a series of ritualistic “levels” so they could mount “ghost horses” and ride to the depths of the underworld to commune with the spirits of their ancestors in order to discover why their village was “cursed” with a fire that destroyed many buildings and homes.

  8. Hawkgrrrl,

    I like this post a lot. It gets at an aspect of our faith which we tend to regard as unique, yet which we actually share with most of the world’s population.

    I actually am a heretic in the sense that I find no evidence (other than the latter-day kind) for the belief that work for the dead was a widespread practice in the early Church, and thus a necessary part of the restoration. It also makes no sense with the coming of Elijah to turn keys in the 1830s to enable work for the dead if it was already going on in the early Church with Peter, Paul, James, and the rest. It seems more like work for the dead is an integral part of the Last Dispensation, where God sets in motion processes necessary for Christ’s coming, where we can have the perspective of the ages to look back and begin to comprehend the totality of the human family.

    Most Mormons are social venerators of their departed loved ones, reading a journal page or two now and then in remembrance. There are some who cross the line into attempting direct contact with the departed kin, and this is where I see no difference between religion and superstition. There are some in my extended family who have used psychics for this purpose and see no conflict with their Mormonism, to say nothing of common sense.

    I see the members of the Church in the U.S. becoming less ancestor-focused over time, as the influence of the original group of pioneers passes from all living memory, as the Church internationalizes its culture and as our historical world-views become more and more mutually incomprehensible. The Church internationally may become more focused on their ancestors on the other hand, as indigenous cultures are respected for their own strengths.

  9. I believe it was the Synod of Hippo (A.D. 393) that denied Eucharist and baptism for the dead. It was a practice of the Galatian (Scythian/Gaelic/Keltic) church to baptize their dead:

    In this country–I mean Asia–and even in Galatia, their school flourished eminently and a traditional fact concerning them has reached us, that when any of them had died without baptism, they used to baptize others in their name, lest in the resurrection they should suffer punishment as unbaptized. (Heresies 8:7)

  10. #4:
    I don’t quite subscribe to Nick’s semi-sarcastic response in his last paragraph above.

    Jeff, I did not, in any way, intend to come across as sarcastic in my #3. I was describing what I felt was a legitimate aspect of one aspect of LDS culture, that sadly twists a good concept into an excuse for class distinctions. I apologize if that was not clear.

    …but I also understand clearly that there is a strong degree of legitimacy to the idea that dedicated parents are more likely to raise dedicated children. That’s a generalization, but it also is what it is.

    I completely agree with you on that, Ray. My comment wasn’t about who is called as general authorities. In my personal interactions with LDS general authorities, I have found them to be almost universally humble, gracious individuals. The self-perceived “royalty” I speak of is quite different. In fact, I have my own suspicions that the arrogance of the individuals I speak of has something to do with their own sense of entitlement to be treated, even if not chosen, as leaders.

  11. Nick,

    I think I know the type you are talking about. When I was on my mission there was a family that had been on of the first to join the Church in that country (I’ve posted where that was before…).

    They had a great deal of pride about having been members for that length of time (which was a laughably short period of time, but all in all, we didn’t say much). Rarely, however, a certain sister who lived two or three towns away (and thus didn’t have reliable transport) would make it to church. She had been in the church MUCH longer and was MUCH more humble about it. They never said anything when she was around, but we could always tell that they were a bit miffed that she didn’t feel pride about it (and thereby justify their pride).

    People always find stupid reasons to be prideful, and there is never a good reason for it.

  12. Very interesting post. I’ve been struck by how much we LDS seem to be interested in our ancestors more than other groups. I can think of several “family folklore” stories about dead ancestors coming back to comfort, and in one case, to tell his living family members to perform his sealing. I never thought of it as being similar to ancestor worship in other cultures–that is a very interesting idea.

    I know I’m being nitpicky, but I take issue with your description of el de los muertos as being a “Latin American” tradition. I am of Latin American ancestry, and the country where my family is from does not celebrate that holiday–what they do is almost identical to your description of Europeans’ celebration of all saints day. The Day of the Dead is primarily a Mexican holiday. Please don’t commit that common American habit of equating Mexico with all of Latin America. The vast majority of Latin Americans are not Mexicans!

  13. MoJim – thanks for the clarification on Dia de los Muertos. My source was Wikipedia (I know, I know). I too was surprised that they attributed Dia de los Muertos so liberally as I had also thought it was just a Mexican holiday. The source was not specific on which “Latin American” countries practiced it. Believe me, I agree with you that too many attribute all Mexican practices broadly.

  14. Another Japan comment here. I was on a split with a Japanese Elder/Zone Leader who was visiting the home of a part member family where a family member had passed. The deceased member was placed for viewing in the main room of the home in a special opaque plastic bag. Neighbors came and swept the sidewalk of the home in preparation for the viewing. I did not study much of the details of the Buddhist tradition, but it was apparently common for a prayer to be said to the ancestor/loved one during the viewing. The elder that was with me was apparently under some social pressure to follow the custom. He offered a prayer that I was very interested to hear. In his prayer, he prayed to H.F. in the customary way, giving thanks for the life of the member and various things. Then, he asked H.F. very politely to express words directly to the deceased member as part of the prayer. I don’t remember all that he said, but it was kindly and comforting. After this was completed, he concluded the prayer in the usual manner. I found the experience most interesting, and it seemed to be accepted by everyone present without any sense of discomfort. I have not ever experienced anyone giving that type of prayer any time since.

  15. Ray said, “Yes – and you missed Japan. I know Bishops and others leaders who have ancestral shrines – and I have no problem with that whatsoever.”

    This is an interesting change. When I was in Japan in the 80s the butsudan (home shrine to the buddha and one’s dead ancestors) was a major no-no for LDS members to possess. Since they are a multi-generational heirloom it didn’t make sense to me why a Japanese member couldn’t keep them in memory and honor of tradition, and for its cultural, decorative and artistic merit, even if one didn’t make offerings and prayers to them. ‘Course, many Japanese members being good univeralist-leaning shintoists by tradition would still tend to do both. I would think Japanese LDS members today would largely abandon them, especially in the metro areas, if not for the religious reasons, but for the fact that many modern Japanese are not keeping up this buddhist tradition any longer.

  16. Rigel, that sounds like a very beautiful practice. I think it is possible that we LDS could eventually have a more developed theology in this area, and more closely examine the role of our dearly departed in our own salvation. However, I think that this is unlikely: we have for the past half century been going more and more mainstream and conservative, so I think it likely that our focus on ancestors will be acceptable only in those areas (temple worship, etc) that they are today. Perhaps our approach will be even further narrowed.

  17. Derek said, “I believe it was the Synod of Hippo (A.D. 393) that denied Eucharist and baptism for the dead. It was a practice of the Galatian (Scythian/Gaelic/Keltic) church to baptize their dead:”

    The syncretistic gaelic/celtic practice of baptism for the dead in asia minor, particular the Galatian region, didn’t emerge, if I remember right, until their immigration to the region in the third century AD. Therefore Paul’s oblique reference in 1 Corinthians can’t really be substantiated and illuminated by way of the little we know about the Galatian practice — and certainly his letter to the Galatians represents a bit different cultural audience than the post-Hittite celts. Even in the 3rd century the asian minor celts appear to have practiced an enrobing baptism rite limited only for those dearly departed considered saints and sanctified but slighted the formality of the baptism ritual during life, not extended for dead and unconverted “heathen.” Perhaps one may argue in spirit the third century Galatian baptism may have some spiritual similarity to LDS vicarious baptism, but certainly nothing remotely in scope and detail enough to substantiate any claim that the LDS practice is a “restored” practice. As John (10) fairly argues, the LDS practice rests entirely on modern revelation and a new practice inaugurated by Joseph Smith.

  18. Anser to basic question: yes, we do some type of ancestor veneration, and probably not “worship.”

    Term conflation alert, though:

    An interpretation of D&C 132 could be that exaltation is a communal activity, only possible in families, not an individual salvation as in other Christian sects.


    Or are we full-fledged ancestor worshippers, expecting and requiring full ongoing ancestor relationships and communal salvation?

    In LDS belief, I think salvation = individual *and* universal; exaltation = communal.

  19. You have a point that we certainly have a type of veneration or showing of respect and a conscious effort to make ourselves united with our ancestors. We also have the belief that our ancestors watch over us as angels, but whether you want to take that to an extreme of the guardian angel doctrine is up to you. I don’t believe in guardian angels on special assignment in the sense that they watch over you your whole life or something. I believe angels are sent in times of need. But to get special favors from ancestors isn’t a good doctrine. Angels are ministers representing the Lord, and undoubtedly they are usually ancestors. I know in my family when angelic type life changing appearances happened, they were always family members sent to be the agent to minister.

    So I would say that these other religions have vestiges of correct ancestor veneration, and I think ours is good and healthy veneration without going to the extremes of “worship.” I don’t think that we worship our ancestors just as we don’t worship Joseph Smith. We constantly talk about Joseph Smith and hold him in high regard and recognize that the keys came through him. We venerate our prophets. Look at all the attention Gordon B. Hinckley had after his death and continues to have. That is prophet veneration showing respect and holding in high esteem, but it certainly isn’t worship, thinking that these prophets or messengers would give us a special deal or special favor by our giving them veneration. So certainly I think these other forms of ancestor worship in other cultures are apostate vestiges of appropriate ancestor veneration.

  20. Just for Quix :–

    I suppose it’s a matter of difference in opinion. Critics of the Mormon perspective on 1 Corinthians 15:29 have just as tenuous a position as they suppose the Mormon apologists do. If people wanted to be honest, they would answer “I don’t know”, but most people are either liars or too prideful to say “I don’t know”, so instead they insist upon their own correctness in the face of universal ignorance.

    Corinth was populated by the same peoplegroup as was ancient Sparta circa the destruction of Troy, Scythia, and the British Isles — a Kelt/Gael (Phoenician) people.

    We will discover our mistakes in the resurrection.

    Personally, I follow Ockham’s Razor on this one, and I prefer the simplest explanation (which happens to take only one sentence to explain, while the opposing position takes paragraphs and pages to explain away the simple logic of the Mormon/Coptic perspective).

  21. “Worship” is a synonym for “venerate” and “revere”. It is the ignorance of modern popular definitions that is confusing people when they want to reject the phrase “ancestor worship” in favor of a different synonym. (This ignorance flows into other words, like “agnostic” which means, according to Thomas Huxley its coiner, “one who applies the scientific method”; or “craft” which means “the employment of artistic technique” whereas most people today see craft as in opposition to art.)

    Any time you appear in court, you engage in “judge worship”! (Take that, LDS lawyers!)

    Personally, I am more interested in the differences between the words “worship” and “warship” (I don’t think there are any).

  22. I was raised in the Unification Church and technically am still a member (working on that…) and we would pray to our ancestors (as well as God and the Messiah) to guide us and help us make the right decisions and keep us away from the Devil and his spirits. We also would have altars for members who had died or well-known members (such as the the son of the ‘True Parents’ who we believed to be the Messiah). We would sometimes put food on the altar and say little prayers for them and their growth in Spirit World, as well as ask for help.

  23. It is quite apparent that Joseph Smith taught his followers to seek after their dead (this was a result of Alvin’s untimely death), however this was never part of the original Gospel. In fact, Jesus said he would cause division in families, not “sealings.” The practice of baptizing dead has nothing to do with what Mormon do – it was a non-orthodox practice,not condoned by Paul or the other Apostles, where when a proselyte died, someone else was baptized for him or her. That’s why Paul called them “they” and not “we.”

    This Scripture, particularly, refutes the ancestor worship of Mormonism:

    Matthew 10:34. “Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword.

    35 “For I have come to ‘set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law’;

    36 “and ‘a man’s enemies will be those of his own household.’

  24. Uh, Scripture, that passage has NOTHING to do with this topic – and the interpretation of I Corinthians 15:29 is incredibly strained. It doesn’t fit the context of the first 28 verses at all.

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