Mormons defend baptizing the dead

Controversial practice not 'stealing'

Nova Scotia News/May 24, 2008

Peter Day is a detective of the dead. For the past 15 years, the genealogist has scoured the archives of Eastern Canada, tracking down ancestors for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to baptize.

As he heads out west to continue his work for the Mormons, he sat down at the Cole Harbour temple to discuss his work - done for the controversial practice of "vicarious baptism."

The chase starts with archives - school records and probate records providing the most fertile ground - and generally works no closer than 70 years in the past.

The records are often controlled by government and churches - and Day's offer is simple: "We say if you will allow us to image these records, we will do it free of cost, and provide you with a record."

Government usually takes him up on his offer, as the records are generally public anyway, but churches can be more reluctant - the United Church and the Anglican Church almost always say no and earlier this month the Vatican ordered dioceses worldwide to withhold registries.

"The majority of the ones that are reluctant would be saying we don't believe in your practices in what you do with the records. And that is baptisms for the dead," explains Day, who moved out west this month after living in Halifax for the last 15 years.

Vicarious baptism is evangelism beyond the grave. Day and Lynn Blake, the local church president, explain Mormons believe the dead should get the same opportunity to hear the teachings of Jesus - as understood by Mormons - as the living, and so they are baptized posthumously. On a recent Saturday, the Cole Harbour temple saw 37 youths baptized on behalf of 500 people.

"Some people feel we're stealing them," says Blake. "We're not. We're just providing them an opportunity to have a baptism."

"I say it all goes back to free agency," Day adds. "Bear in mind that free agency is not only this side of the veil, but the other side as well," and so the dead can accept or reject the baptism.

Day points to the church's central headquarters for records at Granite Mountain Record Vault as a clue to the total number of vicarious baptisms. This Bondian facility is carved into a mountain in Utah, and the records are stored deep inside its tunnels.

In "the Vault," there are three billion pages of records - the largest such collection in the world. As some pages have multiple names and many pages may relate to only one person, a total number of vicariously baptized people is hard to come by.

Day is motivated by spiritual reasons - and the thrill of the hunt. One of his prize finds is a black sheep from his own family - deported from England to Tasmania in the 1700s. Day tracked down the boat he was shipped out on, his prison "dossier," which revealed he had been whipped, and how he was pardoned and eventually cobbled together enough money to get back to England seven years later.

The reason for his banishment? He was a Luddite - a doomed warrior against modernity.

"It was the Industrial Revolution in England and they went around smashing threshing machines because it was doing the farm labourers out of work.

"No one wants to know about the good people," Day laughs. "They always want to know about what happened to the horse thief."

Joyce Wylie volunteers at the Mormon genealogy centre in Cole Harbour. Though not a Mormon herself, she helps the public use the records, many of which can be accessed at

One of her favourite finds was for a man who came in search of his father. His mother had died when he was young, and his father left him and his two sisters with maternal grandparents while he went job hunting.

"He omitted the fact that he was going back to England to look for a job," Wylie deadpans. The absent father remarried and had a second family in England. With her help, the man found not only his father, but previously unknown half-siblings.

Jon Tattrie is a freelance writer living in Halifax.

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