The Latter-day Saint practice of vicarious baptism on behalf of the dead is once again a focus of controversy. In the past few weeks, it's been portrayed in the news media and on the web as unbiblical, ghoulish, bizarre, shameful, vicious, anti-Semitic, immoral, hateful, an exercise in "black magic" and (by some extremists) possibly even illegal. A national television commentator recently named President Thomas S. Monson among "the worst people in the world" for presiding over the practice.
It's high time for the view of a very respected non-Mormon scholar to be heard above the noise.
Around 1990, on behalf of his fellow editors for the then-forthcoming "Encyclopedia of Mormonism," the late Truman Madsen contacted an eminent New Testament scholar named Krister Stendahl. Professor Stendahl had served, by this time, as chaplain and dean of Harvard Divinity School and as the Lutheran bishop of Stockholm (i.e., effectively, as the head of the state church of Sweden), and was also known for his contributions to Jewish/Christian dialogue. Professor Madsen invited Stendahl, a personal friend, to contribute a brief article on baptism for the dead in early Christianity.
Stendahl declined, pleading the demands of a heavy schedule. But Madsen persisted and, already knowing his friend's general position on the matter, offered to draft something himself and send it to Stendahl for revision; once the article was satisfactory, it could appear under Stendahl's own name. Eventually, Stendahl agreed to the proposal.
But when the draft arrived, Stendahl wasn't at all happy with it. Madsen's proposed article, he said, was too noncommittal; the Mormon position was stronger than the draft had suggested. So Stendahl wrote an entirely new article, after all.
This is the entry that now appears in the "Encyclopedia of Mormonism."
Referring to 1 Corinthians 15:29, Stendahl briefly alluded to a number of conflicting explanations of the passage. However, he wrote, "the text seems to speak plainly enough about a practice within the Church of vicarious baptism for the dead. This is the view of most contemporary critical exegetes." And, he concluded, such a position is "quite reasonable."
On at least two other occasions, though, Professor Stendahl (who died in 2008) spoke much more personally about the practice of vicarious baptism for the dead. There is, he once said, such a thing as "Christian envy." His own fellow Protestants, he lamented, typically give little thought to their forebears; they certainly don't seek them out in order to bring the blessings of Christ to the dead. Accordingly, he described himself as feeling "Christian envy" for the Mormon practice of performing ordinances in the temple on behalf of deceased ancestors.
On another occasion, captured on film and easily accessible online in the wonderful little "Mormon Messages" video titled "Why Mormons Build Temples," Stendahl spoke of the practice of baptism for the dead with extraordinary warmth and appreciation:
"It's a beautiful thing," he remarked. "I could think of myself as taking part in such an act, extending the blessings that have come to me in and through Jesus Christ. That's a beautiful way of letting the eternal mix into the temporal — which, in a way, is what Christianity is about."
As Latter-day Saints seek to make their own voices heard amidst the sensationalism, disinformation, hostility and clamor of this "Mormon Moment," believing members of the church and their friends would do well to give this little video, including Stendahl's strikingly affirmative remarks, even wider circulation than it's already had. This can be done on message boards and blogs, in online "comments" sections, via e-mail and in numerous other ways.
Another extremely useful resource is a series of articles that has recently appeared in volumes 19 and 20 of the Maxwell Institute's "Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture": 1) "Salvation for the Dead in Early Christianity," by Roger D. Cook, David L. Paulsen and Kendel J. Christensen; 2) "Baptism for the Dead in Early Christianity," by David L. Paulsen and Brock M. Mason; 3) "Redeeming the Dead: Tender Mercies, Turning of Hearts, and Restoration of Authority," by David L. Paulsen, Kendel J. Christensen and Martin Pulido; and 4) "Redemption of the Dead: Continuing Revelation after Joseph Smith," by David L. Paulsen, Judson Burton, Kendel J. Christensen and Martin Pulido. The first three are accessible online at maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/jbms/; the most recent article is available in print, but hasn't yet been put online.
Daniel C. Peterson is a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at BYU, where he also serves as editor in chief of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative and as director of advancement for the NealA. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. He is the founder of MormonScholarsTestify.org. He blogs daily at dcpsicetnon.blogspot.com.