Mormons are posthumously baptising Holocaust victims as well as grandparents of public figures like Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Steven Spielberg, despite church rules intended to restrict the ceremonies to a member’s ancestors, according to a researcher who has spent two decades monitoring the church’s massive genealogical database.
The discoveries made by former Mormon Helen Radkey likely will bring new scrutiny to a deeply misunderstood practice that has become a sensitive issue for the church. The church, in a statement, acknowledged the ceremonies violated its policy and said they would be invalidated, while also noting its created safeguards in recent years to improve compliance.
Proxy baptisms are tied to a core church teaching that families spend eternity together, but the baptisms do not automatically convert dead people to Mormonism. Under church teachings, the rituals provide the deceased a choice in the afterlife to accept or reject the offer of baptism.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the only major religion that baptises the dead, and the ritual has contributed to struggles by the faith to combat the mischaracterisation of its beliefs.
The church’s stance on family and the afterlife is behind a massive collection of genealogical records the Utah-based church compiles from around the world and makes available to the public through its website www.familysearch.org . Proxy baptisms are recorded in a password-protected part of the database accessible only to church members.
The ceremonies first drew public attention in the 1990s when it was discovered they were performed on a few hundred thousand Holocaust victims, which Jewish leaders condemned as grossly insensitive.
The posthumous baptising of Holocaust victims reopens Jewish wounds from being forced in the past to convert to Christianity or face death or deportation, Jewish genealogist Gary Mokotoff said.
After discussions with Mokotoff and other Jewish leaders, the LDS church in 1995 established a rule barring baptisms of Holocaust victims except in rare cases where they are direct ancestors. It also bars proxy baptisms on celebrities. “The church cares deeply about ensuring these standards are maintained,” spokesman Eric Hawkins said in the latest statement.
In recent years, it has implemented additional safeguards, including adding four full-time staffers who watch the database and block baptisms on restricted names, he said. That includes a list of Holocaust victims sent each month by a Jewish human rights organisation in Los Angeles.
Radkey, who left the LDS church in the mid-1970s and was later excommunicated after publicly criticising it, was blocked from the part of the database that shows the baptisms until recently getting a login from a Mormon friend. The suburban Salt Lake City woman has dedicated countless hours to researching proxy baptisms because she believes people’s religious preferences should be respected even after they’re dead.
Printouts and screenshots of Radkey’s latest research show that in the past five years, proxy baptisms were performed on at least 20 Holocaust victims.
They also were performed on Humphrey Bogart and Marilyn Monroe; the mother of Queen Elizabeth II; and grandparents of Kim Kardashian and Carrie Fisher and US politicians Joe Biden, John McCain and Mike Pence.
Posthumous baptisms are performed at the church’s 159 temples around the globe, mostly by young people. Members are escorted to a decorative baptismal font resting on statutes of 12 oxen. An adult or older teen male reads a short prayer, and the member—representing the dead relative—is immersed in water. Each baptism is recorded in the database.
At a conference this year, top LDS leaders stressed the importance of proxy baptisms—saying God wants all his children “home again, in families and in glory”—and encouraged young members to get involved. The church has nearly 16 million members worldwide.
“Temple work is an act of love,” said Hawkins, adding, “It is a selfless work that builds deep connections to our forebears and a love for God and his children.”