I know this is old news but a friend whose mother is Jewish asked me about it so I thought I would formalize my response. This is an ongoing problem and both sides have had legitimate difficulties in understanding each other’s position as well as keeping their part of the agreement.
A little background may be helpful. I’m sure you are aware of the LDS Church position on performing ordinances like baptism for those who have died. If not, perhaps a quick review of this doctrine on the Mormon Wiki page from the More Good foundation would be helpful.
In a nutshell, we believe that all people must receive certain ordinances in this life in order to comply with God’s commandments through his prophets. We also believe that these ordinances are only valid when performed by one who is authorized by God using priesthood from Christ.
Proxy ordinances in the temple
A unique doctrine and practice of the LDS Church is performing these ordinances by proxy in the Mormon temples for those who are now living in the spirit world. You’ll note that I do not say that they are dead because I want to emphasize our belief that life goes on after mortality.
As members of the LDS Church, we are encouraged by our leaders to search out and find the records of our ancestors. It is more than genealogy. We call it family history research. It is obviously big in our church and one of the things for which we are well known and respected.
Well, we are respected by most people for this work that we do, but apparently not all as you will find out as you read on. The rule is that we are only supposed to do the research on our own immediate ancestors and their descendants. That’s enough to keep most of us busy for a lifetime.
Records extraction program
We also do what is called records extraction or name extraction. For many years, the LDS Church has been microfilming court records and parish records around the world. In exchange for the permission to film them, we provide copies to the courts and churches free of charge.
This is all supported by our tithing donations, along with the building of all the temples and meetinghouses throughout the world where we offer free family history research library facilities to anyone. In fact, our libraries are used by the public more than they are by the LDS members.
Let’s get back to the records extraction program. As part of this program, the church has microfilmed thousands and thousands of the records of people in Germany, Poland and other European nations. Of course many of them are Jewish and many are holocaust victims.
Direct ancestors only
As a matter of practice, if an LDS member does not bring the names of his own ancestors to the temple to perform the proxy ordinances for them, they are supplied names from the records extraction program. As you can imagine, millions of individuals have been baptized this way.
And therein lies the problem. When descendants of Holocaust victims found out about this they were incensed, and demanded that their names be removed from the records of our church. They felt that it dishonored their ancestors and gave legitimacy to those who deny the Holocaust.
We agreed, and in 1995 a formal agreement was put into place that removed the names of these individuals and mandated a policy that no new ones are to be performed. The policy states that only those who are direct descendants of holocaust victims can submit them for the ordinances.
Agreement with American Gathering
As you can imagine with millions of people contributing to the temple files, this is very hard to enforce. In fact, it has proven to be nearly impossible. Thousands of new names keep popping up every year. There are also some who are doing this on purpose to embarrass the church.
Last November, Mr. Ernest Michel, honorary chairman of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants decided that the LDS Church was not keeping up with their part of the agreement and went public with a press conference to voice his discontent.
The story was picked up by several national outlets, including CNN, which caused it to be distributed to over a hundred local news organizations. As you can imagine, it caused a big stink, especially among those who were already criticizing us for our stance on Proposition 8.
Family history research
The LDS Church responded immediately with a press release and background material to explain both the doctrine and the practice and our agreement with American Gathering. However, it was too late. Mr. Michel had decided that he would no longer work with the church on this issue.
So there you have it. The church feels that we have been attempting to enforce the agreement in good faith and Mr. Michel has decided that we haven’t. It is a big mess and makes us look bad because we are unable to guarantee that this won’t happen again. The systems just aren’t there.
Interest in family history continues to grow throughout the world. It is an extremely popular pastime or hobby, especially among older people. As a church, we are dedicating enormous resources to sharing the information we have compiled, free of charge, and available online.
LDS church in the spotlight
As always, I stand by the theory that any publicity is good publicity. The LDS Church has been in the spotlight a lot over the past year with Mitt Romney running for President, the polygamist raid in Texas, the Proposition 8 uproar and this blowup over the names of the Holocaust victims.
If you dig into the story even a little bit, you will also discover that someone keeps submitting the names over and over again of those who committed the atrocities. Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun have had their temple work done many times as have Eichmann, Himmler and Goebbels.
I don’t know if this keeps happening because someone wants to embarrass us or if someone who is a legitimate descendant of these individuals has submitted their names. It doesn’t matter. But it does expose an issue that is not well understood even among many members of the church.
Summary and conclusion
Mormons believe that all individuals must receive the ordinances of salvation in order to obey God’s commandments. We believe we are fulfilling promises we made in the life before this to our ancestors when we seek out their information and submit their names for temple ordinances.
It seems that whenever there is a question of having the proxy ordinances performed or not, we will go ahead and perform them with the idea that it will all get sorted out in the spirit world. I can see why this is objectionable to those not of our faith but I will conclude with this thought:
If the Mormons are right and these ordinances are needed for salvation, then why not just go ahead and let them do them? Baptizing them by proxy in the temple doesn’t make them Mormon. They can accept or reject the work done. If we are wrong, then what does it matter?
For additional information:
1. Official LDS church response via Newsroom
2. Background explanation of Temple Baptism
3. Letter from the church to Ernest W. Michel
4. On honoring ancestors by an LDS Apostle
5. Voice of Deseret – includes numerous links
6. Official website of American Gathering
7. Wikipedia article on Baptism for the Dead
8. Deseret News – Mormon Times article
9. FAIR – Temple work for Holocaust victims
10. Official LDS.org – Baptism for the dead