Why do Mormons ‘Baptize the Dead?’
After the talk I gave in church last August, I wasn’t expecting to be asked to address the congregation any time soon. But, lo and behold, I was asked to give a talk this past Sunday, on the topic of Baptism on behalf of the Dead. This time I was given 15 minutes, so this talk is a bit longer than the other one. Enjoy!
Something That has to be Done First – Meg Stout
August 21, 2011, Annandale Ward Sacrament Meeting
[Talk was delivered following a performance of “Families Can Be Together Forever,” performed by the Primary children.]
While the children are settling down, I am reminded that Joseph Smith never preached in a Mormon chapel. Every doctrine he ever taught was either discussed in the intimacy of a small room, a temple of the Lord, or outside in a field or a grove. Often when I hear the little children during Sacrament Meeting, I like to think of the soft noises of nature I would be hearing if I were listening to Joseph preach. The warbling of a bird. The murmuring of a creek. The cawing of a crow. I enjoy hearing the sounds of the little ones. I think of the delight Jesus and Joseph took teaching little children the doctrines of salvation.
Eighteen years ago today, at this very hour, I stood in the Jordan River Temple waiting to be married to William Bryan Stout. Bryan Stout has blessed my life and the life of my daughter from my previous marriage. Bryan and I have had the privilege of bringing a son and two additional daughters into this life, under the New and Everlasting Covenant.
I testify that families can be together forever. Each of us who has ever lived on this earth, no matter the shape of our family, can return to Heaven with our loved ones if we repent of all our sins and accept the cleansing power of Christ’s sacrifice for us.
In John 3, the disciple who Jesus loved tells the story of Nicodemus, an important and rich Pharisee. Nicodemus was unwilling to come to Jesus openly. Instead he came to Jesus under cover of night.
I don’t know what Nicodemus intended to do that night. Perhaps he was trying to negotiate with Jesus, for Nicodemus opened his comments with faint praise, saying:
“Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him.”
But Jesus was not just a teacher who happened to have a knack for miracles. Jesus changed the subject abruptly, saying:
“Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” And again, “except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.”
Nicodemus didn’t understand so Jesus went on: “Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness.”
Nicodemus knew this story. In the days of Moses, the whole camp of Israel was deathly sick. God commanded Moses to lift up the image of a serpent. Those who believed Moses and looked to the serpent were healed. Those who didn’t believe Moses and His God didn’t bother looking at the serpent. They died of the illness.
Jesus explained, “The Son of man must be lifted up.
“For God so loves the world, that he gives his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him will not perish, but have everlasting life.”
We know Nicodemus believed. Nicodemus tried to protect Jesus against slander when the Sanhedrin condemned Him. When Jesus died on the cross, lifted up like Moses’ serpent so many centuries earlier, Nicodemus brought a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes to anoint the Savior’s remains.
In April 1840 at General Conference, Joseph Smith spoke to the Saints in a grove of trees in Nauvoo. His text for that sermon was this same story of Nicodemus. Those who documented what Joseph said just commented that Joseph’s observations were “very beautiful and striking… throwing a flood of light on the subjects which were brought up to review.”
But there was a widow there that day, Jane Neyman, whose son had died without accepting baptism. So she despaired when she heard the words, “except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.”
If Jane’s son had died as a child, she would have been comforted by Mormon’s letter to Moroni, where he wrote:
“How many little children have died without baptism! If little children could not be saved without baptism, these must have gone to an endless hell.”
But “little children need no repentance, neither baptism… Little children are alive in Christ, even from the foundation of the world.”
Unfortunately, Jane’s son, Cyrus Livingston Neyman, was at least fifteen when he died. Cyrus died a man in the eyes of God, and therefore could not enter the kingdom of God because Cyrus had never been baptized.
Jane’s sorrow weighed on Joseph.
Months passed and then another man died. Seymour Brunson was a devoted Saint who had lived his life for the Lord. The line of mourners at his funeral stretched for a mile. The mourners comforted Seymour’s family, honoring his life of sacrifice and reassuring them Seymour would certainly be saved.
Jane Neyman was there as well, and likely comforted those in need of comfort. But every word of honor and reassurance would have pierced her inner soul. Seymour would be saved in God’s Kingdom. Her son, Cyrus, she believed, would forever be barred.
Then Joseph began to speak. He talked of the resurrection, reading from the epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, where Paul wrote to convince the Corinthians of the resurrection:
19 If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.
20 But now is Christ risen from the dead
22 For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.
25 …[Christ] must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet.
26 The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.
Standard stuff for a Christian funeral. But Joseph saw Jane Neyman in the crowd and knew that he needed to comfort her as well. So he read 1 Corinthians 15:29:
29 Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?
Joseph said, “Paul was clearly talking to a people who understood baptism for the dead, for it was practiced among them.”
He spoke of Jane, “This widow [has read] the sayings of Jesus ‘except a man be born of water and of the spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.’ Not one jot nor tittle of the Savior’s words should pass away, but all shall be fulfilled.”
I don’t have the exact words Joseph spoke that day, but rather than tell you the summary that others captured in their journals, let me read words Joseph himself wrote after that day:
“If we can, by the authority of the Priesthood of the Son of God, baptize a man
in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, for the remission of sins, it is just as much our privilege to act as an agent, and be baptized for the remission of sins for and in behalf of our dead kindred, who have not heard the Gospel, or the fullness of it.”
“Shall we not go on in so great a cause? Go forward and not backward. Courage, brethren; and on, on to the victory! Let your hearts rejoice, and be exceedingly glad. Let the earth break forth into singing. Let the dead speak forth anthems of eternal praise to the King Immanuel, who hath ordained, before the world was, that which would enable us to redeem [the dead] out of their prison; for the prisoners shall go free.”
All who heard these teachings were filled with joy, but none more so than Jane Neyman. Immediately she turned to a respected Elder in the church, Harvey Olmstead, and begged him to perform the ordinance of baptism on behalf of Cyrus, who was dead. Brother Olmstead did as the widow asked, performing the first latter-day baptism on behalf of a deceased person that very day in the Mississippi River.
[Today such baptisms are performed only in temples. But we know the Lord accepted this proxy baptism on behalf of Cyrus Livingston Neyman.]
There are those who say it is not possible to affect the fate of the dead after they depart this life. Martin Luther believed that prayers for the dead were of no use and held a famous debate in 1519 in Leipzig with a Dr. Eck about the fate of the dead. Dr. Eck cited a passage from Second Maccabbees describing atoning sacrifices offered on behalf of the dead, that they might be cleansed from sin at the resurrection. When Martin Luther decided what books to include in his translation of the bible, he removed the books of the Maccabees. Therefore the modern King James Bible does not contain the tale of Judas Maccabee offering atoning sacrifice for his dead comrades. But even those who read the Books of the Maccabees might argue with us. Within the past ten years the Catholic Bishop of San Diego gave his imprimatur to a statement that the fate of men is sealed at death, and Mormon baptisms on behalf of the dead are therefore futile.
But the Bible does tell us the gospel is preached to the dead, who can, in death, choose to hear the voice of God. In John 5 we read:
24 Verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life.
25 The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live.
28 …All that are in the graves shall hear his voice,
John 5 is the scripture Joseph was reading that opened up the vision of the Celestial, Terrestrial, and Telestial kingdoms, recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 76.
And again in the Bible we have the words Peter wrote to the Saints in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia:
“For this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.” (1 Peter 4:6.)
Joseph F. Smith pondered Peter’s words with wonder. [D&C 138]
29 As I wondered, my eyes were opened, and my understanding quickened, and I perceived that the Lord went not in person among the wicked and the disobedient who had rejected the truth, to teach them;
30 But behold, from among the righteous, he organized his forces and appointed messengers, clothed with power and authority, and commissioned them to go forth and carry the light of the gospel to them that were in darkness, even to all the spirits of men; and thus was the gospel preached to the dead.
31 And the chosen messengers went forth to declare the acceptable day of the Lord and proclaim liberty to the captives who were bound, even unto all who would repent of their sins and receive the gospel.
Who are the righteous who declare the truth to the spirits of the dead who cannot yet enter into the Kingdom of God? Many of those named in the revelation are those we know from scripture. But there are also the billions of innocents who accepted Christ before this life, but died still innocent, alive in Christ. My son, Arthur, is one of these. He died when only 8 days old. Though they lived among us as tiny children, they were and are mature spirits who chose to trust in Jesus and reject Lucifer. These innocents, historically almost half of all children ever born, are going to their mothers and fathers, their brothers and sisters, their grandmothers and their grandfathers, proclaiming the gospel and begging them to hear the words of Christ.
We need to turn our hearts to all mankind and fulfill the promises these innocents are making to their parents. As God has said in every book of scripture we study [wording as found in D&C 2]:
1 Behold, I will reveal unto you the Priesthood, by the hand of Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.
2 And he shall plant in the hearts of the children the promises made to the fathers, and the hearts of the children shall turn to their fathers.
3 If it were not so, the whole earth would be utterly wasted at his coming.
In closing I will tell you of Iemke Kooyman. Iemke was a devout Christian man who lived on the tiny Dutch island of Terschelling off the northern coast of the Netherlands. All his life he lived the word of God to the best of his ability.
One night Iemke had a dream that would haunt him until the day he died. In the dream Iemke found himself before the Gates of Heaven and saw many others entering. Filled with joy, Iemke moved towards Heaven. But in the dream an unknown hand held him by the shoulder, holding him back.
“No, Kooyman,” he heard a voice say. “You cannot go in yet; something has to be done first.”
Iemke woke. He told the dream to his wife. He told the dream to his children. He told the dream to his dominie or Pastor, Reverend Polman.
“Why, my good friend,” Reverend Polman said, “you are one of the best sheep of my flock. If you cannot go to the green pastures of Heaven, what will become of the rest of us!”
For the rest of his life, Iemke and his family wondered what it was, that “something that has to be done first.”
Ten years after Iemke died, a boy child was born on the island of Terschelling. This child was named Frank Iemke Kooyman, in honor of his grandfather. When Frank was a teenager, he learned of the Gospel while at school in Amsterdam. Frank accepted baptism and became a missionary.
It was then that Frank’s mother told him of Iemke’s dream. As a Mormon missionary, Frank knew the answer to the mystery that had haunted his Grandfather, that “something that has to be done first.” This was 1904, and there were no temples outside of Utah, much less in Europe. Though Frank was in the Netherlands, he arranged to have Iemke’s ordinances performed in the Salt Lake Temple, where they were completed on August 30, 1904.
The song the choir is about to sing [#288, How Beautiful Thy Temples, Lord] was written by Iemke’s grandson, Frank.
How beautiful Thy temples, Lord, where faithful Saints engage in work divine.
How beautiful Thy message Lord, of faith and hope. All mankind may be saved, including the souls beyond the grave.
How beautiful Thy promise, Lord, that we may live, exalted, sealed to our loved ones in holiness by sacred rites in the temples.
I add my testimony to the testimony of Christ and Peter, Joseph and Jane, Iemke and Frank. May we do all we can to make salvation possible for the living and the dead is my prayer in the Name of Jesus Christ, Amen.