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“In One Heavenly Family”: Scholar Terryl Givens on Proxy Baptism

Religion presents complex questions but also provides profound answers. The Mormon practice of proxy baptism solves a scriptural puzzle over which Christian theologians have wrestled for centuries. What happens to those who died without ever knowing Jesus Christ? What can be said of their salvation? Christ said that “except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). Does this shut the heavens to millions upon millions of the unbaptized?

In an article at First Things magazine entitled “The Heavenly Logic of Proxy Baptism,” religion scholar Terryl Givens explains this practice in terms of the unity of the human family. He traces the context of this question through a dialogue between Evangelical George Whitefield and Methodist John Wesley: “By mid-eighteenth century, two religious titans of the Anglo-Saxon world, erstwhile allies, were at loggerheads over the question of just how many people were destined for an eternity in hell.”

Joseph Smith, founding prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, pondered over these same questions and more. Givens explains how Joseph Smith longed for a way to allow all mankind, though separated by time and death, to share in the unity and fellowship of Christ’s baptism. In 1840, he continues, Latter-day Saints began to be baptized on behalf of their ancestors.

As Givens points out, the question of ancestral reconciliation was not exclusive to the Christian tradition. He provides context from a Jewish perspective:

Jewish tradition, full of anticipation and yearning, weaves this interpretation: At the coming of the great judgment day, “the children . . . who had to die in infancy will be found among the just, while their fathers will be ranged on the other side. The babes will implore their fathers to come to them, but God will not permit it. Then Elijah will go to the little ones, and teach them how to plead in behalf of their fathers. They will stand before God and say, ‘Is not the measure of good, the mercy of God, larger than the measure of chastisements? . . . [May they] be permitted to join us in Paradise?’ God will give assent to their pleadings, and Elijah will have fulfilled the word of the prophet Malachi; he will have brought back the fathers to the children.”

According to Givens, the substance behind proxy baptism is the interconnectedness between human generations and the hope of uniting the human family. He called it “a promise of bridging the gulf that separates the dead from the living, in order to unify and bind together in one heavenly family the numberless generations that have peopled the earth.”

He goes on to say:

The beauty of this story is in its intimation that any conception of heaven worth pursuing is inseparable from reconciliation — not just to God, but also to our loved ones, those of our household and those of generations past. A year before his own death Smith wrote, “There is a thought more dreadful than that of total annihilation. That is the thought that we shall never again meet with those we loved here on earth. . . . If I had no expectation of seeing my mother Brother & Sisters & friends again my heart would burst in a moment.”

[Joseph] Smith believed the same ordinance that connects the deceased to the Lord by baptismal adoption is itself integrally related to the welding together of “children” to “fathers.”

The effect of posthumous baptisms is not conversion; only a personal, conscious decision to accept the baptismal covenant, in this life or the next, constitutes conversion. The intention is to provide an opportunity for participation in that “whole and complete and perfect union” of the human family. … Krister Stendahl, the Lutheran Bishop of Stockholm and dean of Harvard Divinity School, expressed “holy envy” for a practice so conspicuously rooted in love for one’s ancestors. He recognized in this practice, with its hints of ancient origins, acts of devotion performed across a veil of silence, a reaching after our dead in the hope of uniting them to us. And it is these personal ancestors, not celebrities, holocaust survivors, or anybody else, who are the appropriate objects of proxy baptism, as the LDS Church has repeatedly affirmed.

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