Again, Jews Fault Mormons Over Posthumous Baptisms

New York Times/December 21, 2003
By Ian Urbina

Jewish group says it is considering legal action in an effort to stop the Mormon Church from posthumously baptizing many Jews, especially Holocaust victims.

Under the practice, known by Mormons as vicarious baptism - a significant rite of the church - the dead are baptized by living church members who stand in as proxies.

But in 1995, after evidence emerged that at least 380,000 names of Jewish Holocaust victims were on baptismal lists in the church's extensive archives in Salt Lake City, the church agreed to end vicarious baptism without consent from the descendants of the dead. Church officials also said the church would remove the names of Holocaust victims placed on the lists before 1995.

"For the last seven years, we've had entirely cordial relations with the Mormons," said Ernest Michel, who negotiated the agreement on behalf of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, which is based in New York and claims 180,000 members. "But the agreement is clear and they have not held up their end."

Last year, Helen Radkey, an independent researcher in Salt Lake City, gave Mr. Michel evidence that the Mormon lists still included the names of at least 20,000 Jews, many of them Holocaust victims and prominent figures like the philosopher Theodor Herzl and David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel. Ms. Radkey also provided Mr. Michel with evidence that many of these Jews had been baptized after the 1995 agreement.

But Mormon officials say they remain in full compliance with the 1995 agreement.

"We have actually gone above and beyond," said D. Todd Christofferson, a church official involved with the negotiations. The church removed the names of Holocaust victims listed before 1995 and continues to instruct its members to avoid baptizing Jews who are not directly related to living Mormons or whose immediate family has not given written consent, Mr. Christofferson said.

But he said it was not the church's responsibility to monitor the archives to ensure that no new Jewish names appear. "We never had in mind that we would, on a continual basis, go in and ferret out the Jewish names," Mr. Christofferson said, adding that the labor involved in constantly sifting through an ever-expanding archive, which contains more than 400 million names, would represent an "intolerable burden."

"When the church is made aware of documented concerns, action is taken in compliance with the agreement," he said.

Some Jewish genealogists agree with the Mormon interpretation of the agreement. "I have a copy of the agreement," said Gary Mokotoff, the publisher of Avotaynu, the International Review of Jewish Genealogy. "The wording is vague in some places, but it definitely does not obligate the Mormons to scour their own archives on an ongoing basis."

But Mr. Michel, who said he became involved in the issue after reading about posthumous baptisms in the Jewish newspaper The Forward, contends that the agreement obliges the Mormon Church to monitor the post-1995 lists and remove the names of Jews that appear.

"They put the names in there, they should have to take them out, and the agreement says as much," he said. "Why should we have to do their job for them?" He said the group was considering legal action but would not provide details.

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, whom Mr. Michel contacted, said she planned to take up the matter with Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, a Republican and a Mormon. "Senator Hatch was immensely helpful in brokering the 1995 agreement, so we're hoping he can get involved again now," she said in a telephone interview.

With approximately 11 million members worldwide, the Mormon Church, known formally as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is one of the fastest-growing in the world, partly because of a strong missionary effort. The importance of the family structure is central to church doctrine and is a reason for the extensive archives kept by the International Genealogical Index in Salt Lake City. The archives include detailed biographical information of 400 million people going back centuries. The names of those to be posthumously baptized are drawn from the archives.

According to Mormon theology, all people, living or dead, possess "free agency," and posthumous baptisms provide only an option, not an obligation, to join the religion in the afterlife. Church membership numbers do not include those baptized after death, Mr. Christofferson said.

Originally, the practice was reserved for ancestors of church members, but over the years many other people have been baptized posthumously. "There is no way to prevent overzealous members doing mission work from submitting names that don't belong," Mr. Christofferson said.

Ms. Radkey, an Australian-born Christian, said she began researching the Mormon practice in 1999 after discovering that the teenage diarist Anne Frank had been posthumously baptized.

Note: The New York Times later published corrections to this article.

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