Proxy LDS baptisms: Founding Fathers, too

Church calls baptism of Obama's mother a 'serious matter'

The Salt Lake Tribune/May 7, 2009

George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, in fact all of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and even Christopher Columbus -- all have been baptized posthumously into the LDS Church.

With the revelation that Obama's late mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, was baptized by proxy last year in the faith's Provo temple, a spokesman for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said it is "counter to church policy for a church member to submit names for baptism for persons to whom they are not related."

But that wasn't always the case.

In the late 1800s, Wilford Woodruff, who later became church president, said he saw a vision of the nation's Founding Fathers who came to him and asked why they had not been included in the church ritual that believers say allows the departed to enter heaven.

Woodruff was baptized in proxy for all of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, "fifty other eminent men" -- including Columbus -- and for every U.S. president who had died by then, except three. Those unnamed three were later baptized as well, according to the teacher guidebooks available on the church's Web site.

Jan Shipps, a historian of Mormonism and professor emeritus of history and religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis, says it's widely understood that the Founding Fathers and others have been baptized by proxy.

Mormons see it as their duty to offer the opportunity to embrace their faith to everyone, especially those who await in a spirit world to be baptized, she adds.

She says the church asked that members restrict their proxy baptisms to their own relatives in the 1990s when the church faced backlash for having posthumously baptized Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Hundreds of thousands of names have since been removed from the LDS International Genealogical Index.

Church spokesman Scott Trotter said church guidelines now say that members should not submit the names of people with whom they are not related, "including names of famous people."

He said the policy "goes back many years and is articulated in various church materials and publications."

In confirming the Dunham proxy baptism Tuesday, Trotter called it "a serious matter" that was being looked into by church officials.

Another Mormon historian, Kathleen Flake, an associate professor of American religious history at Vanderbilt University, says there is no central clearinghouse where names are vetted and that back in the late 1800s, the church relied simply on names it knew, like the Founding Fathers.

"Most people assume the LDS Church officers are more in control of this program than they are," Flake says.

The modern church, she says, uses a massive program to research names to include in genealogy research. With that unavailable in the 1890s, the church made do with well-known names.

"That included people like the Founding Fathers, in no small part because they believed the Founding Fathers were agents of God in creating the American state," Flake says. "They wanted to extend what they believe were blessings of salvation to the Founding Fathers."

The White House has declined comment on Dunham's posthumous baptism. Dunham died in 1995 and did not claim a religion.

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