Toward the end of May, 1970, I stood waist high in water in a baptismal font of a temple in Hamilton, New Zealand, while the name of my deceased father was read aloud. Moments later, on his behalf, I was buried in the biblically mandated full-immersion baptism that is so powerfully symbolic of rebirth and entry into the kingdom of God.
That first visit to a temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints –and my first experience of what Mormons call “baptism for the dead”–was one of the most intensely significant religious experiences of my life.
I was 22 years old in 1970, but I had never personally known the father for whom I had just been baptized by proxy. During World War II he had served with the British Army. After action in France, he was captured by Rommel’s forces in North Africa and spent the next three years behind barbed wire as a prisoner of war in Libya, Italy and Germany.
Robert Otterson photo courtesy of Otterson family.
Four years after he returned from the deprivations and hardships of war, at 37 and with most of his life seemingly ahead of him, he was thrown from his motorbike on a Welsh country road and killed. I was just nine months old. Through my childhood, my mother would occasionally share stories of my father, but I grew up with no personal memory of him — only a vague sense of loose ends and unanswered questions.
The temple experience, however, changed all of that. Leaving the temple that day in 1970 started me on a quest to learn all I could about my father. I conducted interviews, discovered letters and journals and found memorabilia. I retraced his footsteps in Germany from the time his POW camp was liberated. I know the title of every one of the dozens of books he read during his captivity. No longer a cipher or question mark, he has become for me a real person, and my love for him has become every bit as real as for that of the mother with whom I grew up.
For me and Latter-day Saints like me, these deeply held feelings are not just the consequences of a highly developed hobby. They reflect a key practice in our faith and are rooted in biblical teachings. They are fulfillment of the prophetic writings found at the end of the Old Testament, in the very last verses of the Book of Malachi.
“And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers….”
Mormons attach great significance to this scriptural verse, as they do also to New Testament references to preaching among the dead. If Jesus Christ preached to the spirits of those who had left this life, it presupposes they had the moral agency to accept or reject what he was preaching. What extra things was he teaching them that they did not know already? Combined with other references and a specific mention of baptism for the dead in one of Paul’s letters, these scriptures form the theological underpinnings of Mormon temple work.
This entire labor of love, as Mormons view it, rests on the premise that those who have passed on have the choice to accept or reject the gesture. I knew when I performed the proxy baptism for my father that he was a devout Christian, christened as a baby in the rites of the established Church of England. My gesture in his behalf took nothing away from him, the life he lived and who he was at his core. If there is an afterlife – a belief clearly shared by both of us – then I added opportunity to the goodness of a short but purpose-filled and worthy life. In the doctrines embraced by my particular faith, my offering opened up eternal possibilities, including the eternal “sealing” of his marriage to my mother. Far from slighting my father’s religious persuasions, he retains every ounce of his own free will and moral agency to accept what I did on his behalf. In my own heart, I want to believe he accepted it, but I cannot know that now. What I am certain of, however, is that in whatever cognizance of this life that exists in heaven, that my father will not be offended for a gift generously intended and sincerely given by his son. The worst I can imagine is a “Thanks, but no thanks.”
Mormons all over the world cultivate a caring attitude for their departed families. Whenever and for whomever they are rendering temple service, Latter-day Saints ponder the time and place the person was born, and reflect on what their lives may have been like as the offering is made for them. It is because we value and respect every life and its eternal potential that we do what we do.
Last week, this same Mormon practice of baptism for the dead found its way into news reports because someone violated church policy and submitted for baptism the names of some Jewish Holocaust victims to whom they were not related. That improper action sparked a good deal of misunderstanding about this sacred belief.
First, no one can force acceptance of a religious rite on others after they have died – the very concept of abridging personal agency is anathema to Mormons. In other words, in no way does this practice forcibly “convert” a deceased person to Mormonism. Secondly, Jewish Holocaust victims have been specifically excluded by the church itself from temple baptisms unless there is a direct-line relationship between the Latter-day Saint submitter and the deceased person – a rare occurrence where the Holocaust is concerned. The policy itself is a highly significant and unprecedented gesture of respect to those who gave their lives in the Holocaust.
I am thankful for the Jewish rabbis who understand the situation well and spoke up promptly to help defuse a sensitive situation. With more than 14 million members around the globe, the Church is no more able to guarantee compliance of every member with its policies than other worldwide faiths are able to guarantee theirs.
Despite the church’s best efforts, there will continue to be individual violations of policy and we will continue to address them and minimize such instances. The church is looking at every way it can both to educate its members and address the deficiencies of technology. I am confident that it will continue to do all it can to resolve legitimate concerns while preserving the core doctrines of the faith.
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Michael Otterson is an On Faith panelist and heads the worldwide public affairs functions of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.