Holocaust Victims and Baptisms for the Dead

Timeline

August 15, 1840

Joseph Smith introduces the concept of vicarious baptisms for the dead.[1]

1990

Nine people submit approximately 380,000 names of Jewish Holocaust victims. They are posthumously baptized.[2]

1991

Ezra Taft Benson[BIO] orders all posthumous baptisms of Holocaust victims to cease.[3]

June 1992

Gary Mokotoff,[BIO] President of the Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies, discovers Jewish Holocaust victims in the IGI database.[4] Mokotoff expresses his concern to David Mayfield,[BIO] director of the Family History Library.[5]

1993

Gary Mokotoff sends a letter to Elder J. Richard Clarke,[BIO] protesting the inclusion of Jewish Holocaust victims in the IGI.[6] Elder Clarke responds that they have updated their policy to prevent this.[7]

Spring 1994

Gary Mokotoff's letter to Elder Clarke is published in the Spring 1994 issue of AVOTAYNU.[8]

July 1994

Gary Mokotoff meets with the Family History Department and is told that the Church will not remove the names of the Jewish Holocaust victims from the IGI database.[9]

November 21, 1994

Ernest W. Michel[BIO] of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors (AGJH)[BIO] petitions President Howard W. Hunter[BIO] for a meeting over Jewish Holocaust baptisms for the dead.[10]

January 6–May 3, 1995

AGJH and Church leaders meet[11] and the Church agrees to support measures to remove names, both existing and future, from Church databases.[12]

April 11, 2005

AGJH and Church leaders meet to reaffirm the 1995 agreement and to establish a joint oversight committee to ensure holocaust survivors do not accidentally appear in Church databases.[13]

February 9, 2008

Helen Radkey[BIO] releases a report accusing the Church of continuing to posthumously baptize Holocaust victims.[14]

November 10, 2008

D. Todd Christofferson[BIO] issues a statement reaffirming the 1995 accord between Church and the AGJH.[15]

September 2, 2010

The Church and the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants[BIO] signed a joint statement.[16]

February 14, 2012

Huffington Post publishes "Elie Wiesel: Mitt Romney Should Tell Mormon Church To Stop Performing Posthumous Proxy Baptisms On Jews"[17] which results in the Church issuing a statement that condemns submission of the Elie Wiesel[BIO] family into their database.[18]

March 2, 2012The First Presidency[BIO] reiterates the warning that those who submit names of Jewish Holocaust victims may have their FamilySearch privileges revoked and "other corrective actions may be taken."[19]

Does the Church posthumously baptize Holocaust victims?

No, at least, there are policies in place to try and avoid it.[20]

What's the current policy on this?

The First Presidency has directed members that “without exception, Church members must not submit for proxy temple ordinances any names from unauthorized groups, such as celebrities and Jewish Holocaust victims.”[21]

Baptisms of Holocaust victims done inadvertently, or purposely, by Latter-day Saints are done against Church policy[22] and may result in having their FamilySearch privileges revoked.[23]

Why did the Church make this policy?

It's unclear why President Benson initially restricted posthumous baptisms of Jewish Holocaust victims in 1991,[24] but the 1995 policy was made in direct response to a request from the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors.[25] The Church made this policy out of respect for the Holocaust survivors and their family members.[26]

The 1995 accord included removing an estimated 380,000 Jewish Holocaust victims from the International Genealogical Index.[27]

Did the Church issue an apology for baptizing Holocaust Victims?

Sort of. They issued a joint statement with the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants[BIO] which stated that the Church had "unintentionally caused pain"[28] and that through discussions and policy changes, the issues had been resolved.[29]

The Church also specifically issued a statement that they "sincerely regret" an accidental baptism of famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal.[30]

Is the current policy really enough though? 

Yes, probably. According to Rabbi David Sandmel, the Anti-Defamation League’s Director of Interfaith Affairs, the current (as of 2017) policy is reasonable.[31]

Can't the Church control who gets baptized in their temples?

Mostly. The Church is a complex, global infrastructure that millions of volunteers utilize.[32] There are policies in place to control temple baptisms, but the process isn't perfect.[33]

Is it true that Anne Frank has been posthumously baptized 9 times?

Probably. In 2012, the Deseret News reported that Anne Frank had been posthumously baptized "multiple times."[34]

Isn't it the person's choice to accept the posthumous baptism in the spirit world?

Yes, Latter-day Saints believe that departed spirits can choose to accept or reject the baptism.[35] Because the baptism is not binding, the Church does not add the name to the membership records.[36]

What's the problem with posthumously baptizing Holocaust victims?

These posthumous baptisms could be interpreted as stripping the identity away from people who died for their identity[37] or implying that Jews need help from the Mormons to get to heaven.[38]

How would members of the Church feel if Catholics started to baptize their dead ancestors?

They probably wouldn't like it. It's understandable that some people are not happy with the Church trying to posthumously baptize others.[39]

On the other hand, some may see it as an act of love, even if they do not share the same beliefs.[40]

Some People Say . . .

"Everyone deserves the opportunity to be baptized, so of course baptisms for the dead would be done for Holocaust victims, and they get to choose whether to accept it or not."

— overheard in Sunday School

The Facts

  • In 1990, about 380,000 names of Holocaust victims were posthumously baptized.

  • In 1991, the Church enacted a new policy to disallow posthumous baptisms of Holocaust victims.

  • In 1992, the Jewish community and leaders expressed concerns about these baptisms.

  • In 1995, the Church and Jewish leaders agreed that the Church would remove the names of Holocaust victims from their system and put policies into place to prevent this.

  • The current Church policy is that people who submit Holocaust victims' names may be subject to revocation of privileges.

Our Take

Temple baptisms can be a complicated issue, especially as they intersect with other religious groups or even just those who are unaffiliated with the Church and its teachings. What's more, baptisms for the dead is mostly a unique doctrine, which defamiliarizes it to most people of other beliefs. Posthumous baptisms can raise questions about legacy, identity, and the nature of salvation.

Those kinds of questions are highlighted in a situation like this—one involving Holocaust victims. Does a baptism for a deceased person disrespect their memory or impose a religion on them? If Church doctrine states that the baptized still have agency to accept or reject the ordinance, does that change anything?

The Church recognized the need to respect religious beliefs and freedoms and responded to the concerns of the Jewish community. Out of this respect, the Church has enacted a strong policy to prevent work done for Holocaust survivors. Church members, while they exercise faith in universal saving ordinances, need to respect the identity, beliefs, and culture of others.

What's Your Take?

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These takes are curated for a general audience and may contain minor edits when posted.
  • Tim L
    This helps me understand the side of Jewish people who are opposed to baptisms for the dead. I thought it wouldn't matter because it doesn't baptize them, it just gives them the opportunity to accept baptism after death, but I can see why people would be bugged by it now.
  • Nolan F
    I wonder about consent. A big part of God's plan is respecting our free agency. This topic bothers people because the consent part happens where we don't see it, on the other side of the veil. So it looks like our ordinance is being forced on people, but it's a misunderstanding.
Footnotes
  • BIOEzra Taft Benson

    Ezra Taft Benson (1899–1994) was born in Whitney, Idaho. He served as the Secretary of Agriculture under President Dwight D. Eisenhower from 1953 to 1961. He was ordained an Apostle and member of the Quorum of the Twelve in 1943. Benson later served as President of the Quorum of the Twelve from 1973 to 1985, when he was called as President of the Church.

  • BIOGary Mokotoff

    Gary Mokotoff (1937–) is a Jewish author, lecturer, and Jewish genealogy researcher. He was the former President of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies.

  • BIODavid Mayfield

    David Mayfield previously served as the Director of the Family History Library.

  • BIOJ. Richard Clarke

    J. Richard Clarke (1927-) was born in Rexburg, Idaho, and is an emeritus member of the First Quorum of the Seventy. He served a mission in South Africa as a young man and later, as the South Africa Capetown Mission President.

  • BIOErnest W. Michel

    Ernest W. Michel (1923-2016) was the founder of the World Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors. He, along with Church leadership, negotiated the agreement ceasing the vicarious baptism of Holocaust victims.

  • BIOThe American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants

    The American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants, also known as the American Gathering, was founded in 1981. It is the largest organization of Holocaust survivors in North America and offers resources for survivors. It also has Holocaust remembrance, education, and commemoration programs. The American Gathering holds reunions regularly.

  • BIOHoward W. Hunter

    Howard W. Hunter (1907–1995) was the 14th president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, serving from 1994 to 1995. He served as an apostle from 1959 to 1994, during which he negotiated the establishment of the Jerusalem Center. As President, he oversaw the drafting of the Proclamation on the Family and promoted temple worthiness and access.

  • BIOHelen Radkey

    Helen Radkey is an independent researcher, a minister of the Universal Life Church, a tarot card reader, a former Catholic, and a former member of the Church, as well as a past-life therapist. She is known for her genealogical work related to Jewish Holocaust victims.

  • BIOD. Todd Christofferson

    D. Todd Christofferson (1945-) was born in American Fork and is a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. He practiced law until the start of his apostleship in 2008.

  • BIOElie Wiesel

    Elie Wiesel (1928–2016) was a Holocaust survivor and prominent author of 57 books. His book, Night, encouraged widespread discussion about the Holocaust in the United States. Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986.

  • BIOFirst Presidency

    The First Presidency is the highest governing body of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It consists of the president of the Church, who is the most senior apostle, and of his first and second counselors. There have been other configurations during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Some decisions and policies of the Church can only be made at that level. Russell M. Nelson is the current president, and his counselors are Dallin H. Oaks and Henry B. Eyring.

  • At Elder Seymour Brunson's funeral, Simon Baker reported, "I was present at a discourse that the prophet Joseph delivered on baptism for the dead August 15, 1840."

    This is the earliest record of a public teaching on baptisms for the dead.

  • Elder Monte Brough later investigated the baptisms. As recorded in the 1995 agreement, Brough stated:

    In 1990 the Church's Family History department had discovered that nine people had made four major submissions of lists on computer disks, namely, from the German Gedenkbuch, the Dutch Book, the French Book, and from lists at the Holocaust museum in Israel, aggregating approximately 380,000 names of Jewish names who were baptized.
  • Elder Monte J. Brough stated that Benson's order was to "cease the baptism of known Jewish Holocaust victims, except for those who were direct ancestors of living members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."

  • Gary Mokotoff discovered these names in the IGI (International Genealogical Index) while searching for names in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City.

  • Mokotoff said:

    I discussed the matter with David Mayfield, then director of the library, and protested the extraction. Mayfield explained various aspects of the Mormon religion involving posthumous baptism.
  • Mokotoff decided to reach out to somebody in authority over David Mayfield and found Elder J. Richard Clarke. He said:

    Dear Elder Clarke: It has come to my attention that well-intentioned LDS members are baptizing Jewish victims of the Holocaust into the Mormon faith. It shows incredible insensitivity to the anguish of the living relatives of these martyrs, some of whom saw their loved ones murdered, to perform a Christian ritual on people who were killed for only one reason; they were Jews. Baptism is a Christian ceremony that is particularly repugnant to Jews. It reminds us of the centuries of persecution against Jews where our ancestors were given a choice; be baptized or suffer death. There are many Christians living today who can trace their family history back to people who chose option one. Our Jewish history books are filled with martyrs who chose option two. I have been told that the LDS church does not support this policy; that it is the act of individuals. But the fact that the ritual is performed in a Mormon Temple is tantamount to condoning this practice. At present, this practice is known to only a few Jewish-American genealogists who noticed the entries in the International Genealogical Index. Once the Jewish world community is aware of the practice, it will seriously strain relations between Mormons and Jews.
  • Elder Clarke's letter detailed "refinements" to procedures to help solve the problem:

    In light of the concerns raised in your letter, we have reviewed our procedures regarding temple ordinances for the dead and have adopted the following refinements: first, that temple ordinances be performed only at the request of family members; and second, that family members wishing to perform such ordinances also have permission from the nearest living relative before proceeding.
  • Both Gary Mokotoff's letter and Elder Clarke's letter were published in AVOTAYNU, the International Review of Jewish Genealogy.

    Mokotoff noted that the history of Christians forcing Jews to be baptized or be killed was making relations between Latter-day Saints and Jews tenser because of baptisms for the dead.

  • Thomas Daniels, public relations staff of the Family History Department, met with Gary Mokotoff about the decision.

    Mokotoff said Jewish genealogists would need to inform the general Jewish community.

  • Ernest W. Michel wrote President Howard W. Hunter about the Holocaust baptisms for the dead on November 21, 1994. In response, Elder Monte J. Brough, then director of the Family History Department, set up a meeting with the AGJH for January 6, to be held in Utah Senator Orrin Hatch's office.

  • The meeting was held on January 6, 1995, in Senator Orrin Hatch's office and lasted for approximately two hours. Elder Monte J. Brough (Family History Department director), Ernest W. Michel, Herbert Kronish (both leaders in AGJH), and Lamar Sleight (a local Church representative acting as observer) attended the meeting.

  • The agreement reached in the January meeting is ultimately signed on May 3, 1995. Any Holocaust victims who were baptized were removed and the Church agreed to remove future requests.

  • The meetings were held in Salt Lake City with D. Todd Christofferson, Boyd K. Packer, Ernest W. Michel, Herbert Kronish and David Elcott.

  • Helen Radkey characterized the 1995 agreement as "inherently flawed" and the Jewish victims of misplacing their trust:

    The 1995 agreement between Mormons and Jews was inherently flawed at the outset. It had more holes than Swiss cheese. As it turned out, Jews placed their trust in the wrong people.
  • Elder Christofferson detailed the steps that the Church had taken to correct the issue, and concluded with this statement:

    Whether a religion has existed for more than 5,000 years or less than 200 years, its survival and identity are built around sacred beliefs. It is critical that we respect one another’s religious beliefs and freedoms, and the Church believes that our 1995 accord with the Jewish group respects the rights of Holocaust victims while preserving the rights of Mormons today to honor their ancestors in one of their most sacred expressions of faith.
  • The joint statement released by the Church and the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants said:

    It is gratifying that the good faith efforts undertaken over the years to deal with an important issue of sensitivity to the Jewish Holocaust survivor community have eliminated a source of tension between our two groups, enhancing our ability to cooperate, including important programs of humanitarian aid across the world.
  • Helen Radkey notified the Huffington Post that she had discovered that the family of Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winner, had been found in the IGI database.

    The Huffington Post directed the news to Mitt Romney who was running for President of the United States at the time:

    "I wonder if as a candidate for the presidency Mitt Romney is aware of what his church is doing. I hope that if he hears about this that he will speak up," Wiesel said, noting that a presidential candidate "should comment on everything."
  • The statement made by Church concludes:

    It is distressing when an individual willfully violates the Church’s policy and something that should be understood to be an offering based on love and respect becomes a source of contention. The Church will continue to do all it can to prevent such instances, including denying access to these genealogical records or other privileges to those who abuse them in this way.
  • In 2012, the Church developed a "New FamilySearch" platform which allowed for stronger regulation of name submissions and published this statement:

    Without exception, Church members must not submit for proxy temple ordinances any names from unauthorized groups, such as celebrities and Jewish Holocaust victims. If members do so, they may forfeit their New FamilySearch privileges. Other corrective action may also be taken.
  • Any member who baptizes a Holocaust victim does so against Church policy and may be subject to loss of FamilySearch privileges and "other corrective actions."

  • The 2012 statement reiterated the 1995 policy:

    Our preeminent obligation is to seek out and identify our own ancestors. Those whose names are submitted for proxy temple ordinances should be related to the submitter. Without exception, Church members must not submit for proxy temple ordinances any names from unauthorized groups, such as celebrities and Jewish Holocaust victims. If members do so, they may forfeit their New FamilySearch privileges. Other corrective action may also be taken. Members are encouraged to participate in FamilySearch indexing which is vital to family history and temple work.
  • The Church's statement noted, "The policy of the Church is that members can request these baptisms only for their own ancestors. Proxy baptisms of Holocaust victims are strictly prohibited."

  • The First Presidency's 2012 statement gave instructions to members of the Church to not submit names of unauthorized groups, such as celebrities and Jewish Holocaust victims explaining, "If members do so, they may forfeit their New FamilySearch privileges."

  • The internal memo from President Benson is not available, but Elder Monte J. Brough, executive director of the Family History Department, referenced it in 1995.

  • In January 1995, the Church reiterated its policy that members should only submit names of their ancestors, but American Holocaust victim groups challenged the Church's commitment to their policies.

    In spring 1995, the American Gathering of Holocaust Victims met with Elder Monte J. Brough, a general authority and executive director over the Family History Department. Once the American Gathering had provided written confirmation that the Church's actions in removing names would be satisfactory, he recommended that the Church either "remove from the next issue of the IGI the names of all posthumously baptized Jewish Holocaust victims" or "leave all the names, eradicate any indication of baptism, and include a code next to each name that would signal 'not to be used for Christian ordinances.'"

    Brough suggested that the latter solution be implemented in order to protect the names from duplicate submissions and offered to continue meeting with Jewish representatives regarding the next steps. Lester Pollack, the Chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and Malcolm Hoenlein, the Executive Vice-Chairman, agreed to support the proposed actions on May 3, 1995.

  • D. Todd Christofferson explained:

    It is critical that we respect one another’s religious beliefs and freedoms, and the Church believes that our 1995 accord with the Jewish group respects the rights of Holocaust victims while preserving the rights of Mormons today to honor their ancestors in one of their most sacred expressions of faith.
  • According to the New York Times:

    The church agreed to seek out and remove the names of an estimated 380,000 Jewish Holocaust victims for whom such ceremonies have been performed from its International Genealogical Index, which lists 147 million names.
  • The Deseret News reported on the joint statement and noted it was "issued to news media simultaneously in New York and Salt Lake City."

  • The joint statement released by the Church and the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants said:

    It is gratifying that the good faith efforts undertaken over the years to deal with an important issue of sensitivity to the Jewish Holocaust survivor community have eliminated a source of tension between our two groups, enhancing our ability to cooperate, including important programs of humanitarian aid across the world.
  • The statement was made by Church spokesman Michael Purdy and emailed to Reuters.

  • In a 2017 statement, Rabbi David Sandmel said:

    My sense is that they are making every good faith effort to first of all block these before they happen, [and] if in the case that something slips through and they become aware of it, they then remove it and reverse it.” He continued, “I’m satisfied that they take this seriously and that they are doing the best they can to fulfill the commitment they made on this.
  • D. Todd Christofferson highlighted how Latter-day Saints take millions of names to the temple in his 2008 statement about baptisms for Holocaust victims. He said:

    As a worldwide Church with members in over 160 countries, we emphatically attest that Mormons do not practice temple baptisms to separate people from their heritage. Instead, we seek to unite generations of a shared heritage in eternal family units.
  • This includes a team that reviews for any instance of violation in the policy. Hawkins describes the process in place as including, "Four full-time employees at FamilySearch monitor the site for names of Holocaust victims and others that should not be added."

    In a different statement, D. Todd Christofferson also mentioned that the Church removed names of Holocaust victims and would continue to remove names should they violate the policies that the Church outlined.

  • The Deseret News observed that Anne Frank had been "baptized by proxy, in some cases multiple times."

    The Church responded to the report by reiterating its "absolutely firm" in its "commitment to not accept the names of Holocaust victims for proxy baptism."

    The Church noted they believed it to be "distressing when an individual willfully violates the church's policy and something that should be understood to be an offering based on love and respect becomes a source of contention."

  • The Church website clarifies this point:

    Some people have misunderstood that when baptisms for the dead are performed, deceased persons are baptized into the Church against their will. This is not the case. Each individual has agency, or the right to choose. The validity of a baptism for the dead depends on the deceased person accepting it and choosing to accept and follow the Savior while residing in the spirit world. The names of deceased persons are not added to the membership records of the Church.
  • D. Todd Christofferson explained:

    Because the result of a proxy baptism is not binding on the recipient, no name is added to the membership rolls of the Church.
  • The primary concern is that people who were killed for being Jewish are seen as having a different religion forced on them.

    Gary Mokotoff, a Jewish genealogist, said, "These people died because they were Jews, and here you are bringing them into a second religion even though these people are not related to you."

  • Rabbi Marvin Hier, the founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, noted:

    We reiterated yet again the reasons we protested that it's insulting that the People of the Book whom G-d made a Covenant would need the assistance of a group of Mormons to gain entrance to Heaven.
  • Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor, said about baptisms for the dead, "I object fervently. It's an outrage."

    Rabbi Abraham Cooper said "people who lost everyone and everything and were murdered for being Jewish during the Holocaust should not have their souls hijacked by another religion."

  • For example, the late Krister Stendahl, a professor at Harvard Divinity School and the Bishop of Stockholm, said:

    I could think of myself as taking part in such an act: extending the blessings that have come to me in and through Jesus Christ. That's generous. That's beautiful.