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Scholars call for understanding on both sides of LDS proxy baptism debate

Published: Saturday, Feb. 25 2012 5:50 p.m. MST

At the end of a week of media coverage of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the church's doctrinal practice of proxy baptism for the dead, the Huffington Post's online blog site and the Wall Street Journal have published interesting and informative opinion pieces that objectively consider the practice and call for tolerance and understanding on both sides of the controversy.

Referring to recent news reports involving proxy baptism and Jewish Holocaust survivors Simon Wiesenthal and Elie Wiesel, Samuel Brown, author of "In Heaven as it is on Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death," acknowledges in his blog on the Huffington Post that "by and large outsiders have seen the practice as a strange and insensitive expression of Mormon exclusivism."

But Brown believes that view is short-sighted because it doesn't take into account two critical factors: First, he said, LDS proxy baptism "is a solution to what some scholars call Christianity's 'scandal of particularity'" – that if salvation comes only through Christ, what happens to those who lived and died without the opportunity to know of Christ, let alone confess him?

"The Mormon solution to the scandal of particularity was not that Christ is unnecessary, but that Christ can be brought to everyone in the afterlife," Brown writes. "While the notion offends many modern ears, the solution has a sort of ambitious coherence."

Second, Brown says, "baptism for the dead is a reflection of early Mormon ideas about the nature of family and human relationships."

"Baptism for the dead represents the hope that all of humanity will be united in the afterlife as one harmonious family," he writes. "Mormons, rather than looking down at the damned with pious glee, are exploring every possible avenue to get the supposedly damned into heaven. That they employ the very physical rite of baptism to unite the human family reflects more than anything the assiduously literal and physical bent of Mormon thought.

"With this context – baptism for the dead is fundamentally inclusive and universalizing in conception – it is little wonder that the Latter-day Saints would perform baptism for the dead for all the dead whose names they manage to uncover in the world's archives," Brown continued.

The context also explains the zeal Mormons have for genealogical work and why "a trickle of individual Mormons – with more enthusiasm for their own religion than empathy for a people for whom forced conversion is a bitter thread in a long history of brutal religious intolerance – have continued to perform intermittent baptisms on behalf of the Jewish dead."

For this reason, history professor John G. Turner argues in the Wall Street Journal that "the level of outrage simply does not match the purported offence."

"The Mormon desire to bring Jews, Protestants, Muslims, Catholics and others into their heaven is merely quirky and quixotic – not 'scandalous,' as Mr. Wiesel says," wrote Turner, author of the forthcoming "Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet." "When Mormons are immersed in water in an attempt to offer salvation to our deceased ancestors, they do no harm to the living or the dead."

The current debates over proxy baptism "demonstrate a lack of empathy – the capacity to imagine the world as the other group does – on both sides," Brown concluded. "Mormons have not always understood why their explanations do not satisfy critics. Latter-day Saints should strive harder to understand where and when their answers are not persuasive. They would do well to consider what forced conversion has meant for Jews over the centuries. On the other hand, outsiders would do well to try to imagine the universalist impulse underlying Mormon baptism for the dead."

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