Baptism for the dead in early Christian centuries

Baptism for the dead in early Christian centuries

Now, I would like to point to one of the most wonderful and exciting aspects of the restored gospel, and that is the great work for the dead that is so peculiar to the Church of Jesus Christ. I do not specify "of Latter-day Saints," for this work was done by the primitive Christians as well. The knowledge of that all-important work was taken away at an early time, for after the third century the fathers of the church are much perplexed whenever it is mentioned, though all admit that the earliest Christians actually did perform certain ordinances for the salvation of the dead. Furthermore, there is ample evidence that the Christians of apostolic times placed great emphasis on this work, for among the very early fragments of Christian literature that have been discovered in recent years, the subject is referred to as a very special knowledge imparted by the Lord to the Apostles in secret conferences after the resurrection. This is not surprising, in view of the evidence of the Clementine homilies that the earliest Christians baptized in secret places, and the constant charges of secrecy that were being brought against them—charges which they did not deny.

What was the nature of this work for the dead? The early Christians were convinced, as modern Christians are, that no man can get into heaven without baptism. Now most of those early Christians were converts to the church, and that meant that their parents in most cases and their grandparents in all cases had died without ever having heard of the baptism of salvation. Would these loved ones be forever damned? One of the first things Clement asks Peter upon being introduced to him, in the Clementine Recognitions, is, "Shall those be wholly deprived of the kingdom of heaven who died before Christ's coming?" for he was thinking probably of his own forebears. Peter's answer is very significant: "You force me, Clement, to make public things that are not to be discussed. But I see no objection to telling you as much as we are allowed to. Christ, who always was from the beginning, has visited the righteous of every generation (albeit secretly), and especially those who have looked forward to his coming, to whom he often appeared. Still it was not yet time for the resurrection of bodies that perished then, . . . but those who pleased him and did his will were translated to paradise, to be preserved there for the kingdom, while those who were not able to fulfill the complete law of justice, but had certain traces of carnal weakness in their nature, when their bodies died went in the spirit to be retained in good and happy places, that at the resurrection of the dead each might be empowered to receive an eternal heritage for the good he had done."9 This much Peter is willing to tell, but he will not divulge to the new investigator just how those who have never heard the gospel in life are to be saved.

Whatever one may think of this very old fragment, it certainly shows that there were some early Christians who knew about salvation for the dead as a doctrine not taught to the general public. Both the theory and practice were remembered in the traditions of the church, where they provided no end of puzzlement and speculation to the commentators. Typical is St. Bruno at the end of the twelfth century, who still recalls, with routine disapproval, of course, that certain of the early Christians in New Testament times "would baptize themselves in the place of a dead parent who had never heard the gospel, thereby securing the salvation of a father or a mother in the resurrection." 10 It might be argued that this work ceased in later times because after everybody had belonged to the church for generations there would be no unbaptized fathers and mothers. But one need only consider that in every age the church has been a missionary organization—a believing minority determined to carry forth the work of converting the heathen majority all of whose parents and grandparents are without baptism—to realize that work for the dead never should have ceased, since it is necessary as long as outsiders continue to join the church. When a Germanic king was converted to Christianity, for example, he refused to accept baptism since that meant basely leaving his noble ancestors to suffer in hell while he enjoyed himself in heaven—that, in all conscience, he could not do.

From the earliest fragments, a good deal of the theory and practice of baptism for the dead in the apostolic church can be reconstructed. There were two main steps necessary to achieving salvation for the dead—the kerygma and baptism. The kerygma is the preaching of the word to those who are dead. It takes place, of course, in the other world, in a place where the dead are retained, a place designated with calculated vagueness—scrupulous avoidance of any attempt to designate a particular locale. What is made perfectly clear is that the dead who have not accepted the gospel on earth for any reason are detained in a place which is by no means disagreeable but is not heaven. To these (the ancient saints taught) the Lord and, following his example, the Apostles and other holy men of old went down and preached the word.11 No spirit was forced to accept the kerygma, but such as did could leave their detention and advance in eternity just as soon as they had received the seal. The seal was what the early Christians called baptism in this connection. It was the seal of baptism that was put on the acceptance of the preaching on the other side. If it was accepted, the seal was effective, and what was sealed on earth was sealed in heaven. The seal was given by ministrants acting by proxy for the dead on this earth, for baptism could be given nowhere else, it was realized, and in no other way—"there is only one baptism," was the formula. In the Pastor of Hermas these earthly officiants are described as being the Apostles themselves, who while they were still alive baptized each other "for those who had fallen asleep before."[1]


  1. Hugh W. Nibley, The World and the Prophets, 3rd edition, (Vol. 3 of Collected Works of Hugh Nibley), edited by John W. Welch, Gary P. Gillum, and Don E. Norton (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company; Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1987), Chapter 19, references silently removed—consult original for citations.