The LDS doctrine of Baptism for the Dead is unique within Christianity. The explanation for the doctrine and additional references on the LDS Church website can be found here. There is also a fairly lengthy explanation on Wikipedia here. It is a controversial doctrine and many groups have protested this vicarious work for the dead, including Jews, Catholics and others. I find a certain ironies in their protestations.
In 2008, The Vatican issued an order to Bishops not to release parish records to Mormons. A news article is here. Its intent is to prevent Mormons from performing Baptism for the Dead for their own ancestors who may have been Catholic, whether practicing or not.
There has also been an on-going dispute between the Church and Jewish groups about the specific posthumous baptism of victims of the Holocaust by Church members. In most cases, the names of these victims were extracted and submitted by non-relatives of these people. Church officials including General Authorities have met with representatives of the Jewish Groups in an attempt to resolve the issue as best they could. Here is the Jewish side of the story from the JewishGen Website. The actual agreement from 1995 is found here. The resolution involved removal of holocaust victim’s names from the International Genealogical Index (IGI), which lists the names of people cleared for Temple work and the ordinances which have already been performed on their behalf and the agreement to stop allowing members of the LDS Church to perform temple ordinances for Jewish people not their direct ancestors. Recently, the same Jewish Groups have accused the Church of not complying with the agreement and presented their lengthy evidence of that non-compliance here. They also mounted a huge publicity campaign as well.
Irony #1 – The progress of genealogical research has been lead by the LDS Church – Because of the Church’s doctrine of Baptism of the Dead, it has literally invested millions of dollars to further genealogical research. The Church dispatched an army of volunteers throughout the world to film as many vital records as possible. The Church built the Family History Library (FHL) in Salt Lake City to house these records and has satellite libraries across the world. The Church has employed state-of-the-art techniques to assist governments and religious groups to preserve their records. The church has also embarked on an effort to digitize and make available all the records it has acquired for access via the Internet. All this effort is for the purpose of assisting the members of the Church in identifying their ancestors to perform Temple Ordinances for them according to our beliefs. The ultimate goal is to perform earthly ordinances for all who have lived on the earth.
All of these resources have been made available to the general public, free of charge, without strings or expectations. The public has been asked to share the information that they uncover in an effort to further their own work as well as of that of the Church. Sharing is entirely voluntary and not a condition of using the resources of the Church.
The Church has even produced specific family history information to assist groups like the Jewish community and a CD-ROM which is sold through Jewish Genealogy Societies. The International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies (IAJGS) has held its annual convention in Salt Lake City a number of times to take at advantage of the so-called “candy store”(their term) of information at the FHL.
The worldwide hobby of genealogy would either not exist or not be as pervasive as it is without the work of the LDS Church and its doctrine of Eternal Families and Baptism for the Dead. Popular websites like Ancestry.com, Genealogy.com and others would probably not exist.
Irony #2 – Since Baptism for the Dead is false doctrine, why do you care? – The Catholic Church as well as other Christian Organizations has denounced the LDS practice of Baptism of the Dead as a false doctrine. You can find examples here, here, and here. The irony for Catholics is that they, as mentioned above, have taken an active role in preventing Baptisms for the Dead by not allowing Mormons access to their parish records, many of which have been preserved and filmed by LDS Church volunteers. Another irony for me is that while the Catholic Church dismisses Baptism for the Dead as unbiblical, I might remind folks that Infant Baptism, a practice of the Catholic Church is not in the Bible at all. At least Baptism for the Dead is mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15, verse 29.
Irony #3 – If Mormons baptize our people, they will forever be known as Mormons – This is a specific claim of the Jewish groups. I can, because of my background, understand this concern since, throughout history, various groups have tried to wipe the Jews out, either killing them or forcing them to convert to Christianity. Irony #3a, The LDS Church has been instrumental in helping the Jewish Genealogy groups in identifying Jewish records, preserving them and producing materials to help Jews identify their ancestors. Irony#3b, The Jews worry that by having their relatives baptized, they will forever be identified as Mormons. This is a misunderstanding of the doctrine of agency associated with the vicarious work for the dead. Performing the ordnance does not automatically make anyone a Mormon. According to our theology, the person has the choice to accept or reject the ordinances. The only designation on the earthly record is that the ordinances were performed. Just as in this life, having those ordinances does not automatically make someone a practicing member of the LDS Church. They have to want to belong and honor those ordinances. Side irony: Most Jews don’t even believe in a next life after we die.
Irony#3c, Jewish population growth is practically zero (source). This is true for two specific reasons: 1) Assimilation, intermarriage and non-observance. There is an alarming trend in Judaism to assimilate into the country population, intermarry with non-Jews (I did) and/or not practice their religion. The result is less Jews or those who identify themselves as Jews in the future. 2) Low birth rate. Population growth of Jews around the world dropped to -.5% while birth rate growth in Israel is 1.6%. This still puts Jews below the world birth rate growth of 1.4% since the greatest Jewish population is in the US. Obviously, the holocaust took a huge bite out of the Jewish Population. Some estimates are that there may have been 26 to 40 million Jews if not for the mass murder. So, if Jews are worried about disappearing from the face of the earth and being labeled as Mormons, they might consider having more babies.
1. Church Members should stick to doing Temple Work for their own family. I think we have seen an increase in this effort. If we all did that, no one could argue with us that we are baptizing their family that is not our family. But I wonder if the Temples of the world would be even less busy, if that was the only work performed?
2. People doing genealogy should recognize and thank the Church for the great service it provides to the genealogical world and should realize the intentions of the Church in making this effort. They should take the time to thoroughly understand the doctrine of Baptism for the Dead and vicarious work for the dead and how we believe it works in the hereafter. Recognize that, in spite of their beliefs, we are doing it in accordance to our beliefs and there is absolutely no malice intended but love for mankind being the driving factor.
3. The Church must do its best to live up to the agreements they have made with the Jewish Groups. I think that the new Family Search is an effort to prevent duplication of ordinances and prevent widespread ordnance work for those not of our own family. Names must be removed from the IGI and other databases when identified as Jewish names not part of LDS family temple work.
4. Stop the whining. Work with us to resolve the problem and not in the media. That does not help foster a good working relationship.