Baptism For The Dead

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Baptism for the Dead

Parent page: Early Church

Baptism of the Dead in the Early Church

Baptism of the Dead in Early Christianity

Did Joseph Smith invent "baptism for the dead", or was it a doctrine of Early Christianity?

Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?1 Corinthians 15:29

To Latter-day Saints, this scripture is obvious evidence the Early Church practiced this.

We see the baptism for the dead practiced in Early Church break-off groups

"St. Chrysostom (A.D. 347-407) tells of hows, when one of their catechumens died without baptism, the Marcionites would place a living person under the dead man’s bed and ask whether he desired to be baptized. The living person would respond in the affirmative and was then baptized as a proxy for the deceased (Homily XL on 1 Corinthians 15)".[1] (St. Chrysostom did not believe in baptism for the dead, but was referring to its practice.)

Historical records are clear on the matter. Baptism for the dead was performed by the dominant church until forbidden by the sixth canon of the Council of Carthage in A.D. 397. Some of the smaller sects, however, continued the practice. Of the [Cerinthus][2] of the fourth century, Epiphanius wrote: "In this country—I mean Asia—and even in Galatia, their school flourished eminently and a traditional fact concerning them has reached us, that when any of them had died without baptism, they used to baptize others in their name, lest in the resurrection they should suffer punishment as unbaptized.” (Heresies, 8:7.) [3]

About 400 A.D., church Councils saw baptism for the dead being practiced, and outlawed it

"That baptism for the dead was indeed practiced in some orthodox Christian circles is indicated by the decisions of two late fourth-century councils. The fourth canon (fifth in some lists) of the Synod of Hippo, held in 393, declares 'the Eucharist shall not be given to dead bodies...nor baptism conferred upon them.' The ruling was confirmed four years later in the sixth canon of the Third Council of Carthage."[4]

"It also seemed good that the Eucharist should not be given to the bodies of the dead. For it is written: 'Take, Eat', but the bodies of the dead can neither 'take' nor 'eat'. Nor let the ignorance of the presbyters baptize those who are dead."[5]

Early Judaism performed ordinances on behalf of the dead

In early Judaism, too, there is an example of ordinances being performed in behalf of the dead. Following the battle of Marisa in 163 B.C., it was discovered that each of the Jewish soldiers killed in the fight had been guilty of concealing pagan idols beneath his clothing. In order to atone for their wrong, Judas Maccabaeus, the Jewish high priest and commander, collected money from the survivors to purchase sacrificial animals for their dead comrades... "And when he had made a gathering throughout the company to the sum of two thousand drachmas of silver, he sent it to Jerusalem to offer a sin offering, doing therein very well and honestly, in that he was mindful of the resurrection: for if he had not hoped that they that were slain should have risen again, it had been superfluous and vain to pray for the dead. And also in that he perceived that there was great favour laid up for those that died godly, it was an holy and good thought. Whereupon he made a reconciliation for the dead, that they might be delivered from sin.” (2 Maccabees 12:43–46.) [6]


Today, some Christian churches and Jewish customs offer prayers and light candles on behalf of the dead. The Coptic Church of Egypt continues to practice baptism by proxy for deceased members of Coptic families. Also the Neo-Apostolic Church in Europe.[7]

Joseph Smith

No major religions in Joseph Smith's day believed in this doctrine. It is highly unlikely that Joseph Smith would have known that the Early Church practiced this. Even if he did read Corinthians and invented this belief from scratch, how did he come up with such a logical reason for its use?


  1. "Baptism for the Dead in Early Christianity" by John A. Tvedtnes
  2. Author incorrectly used "Marcionites". Also see 'A cyclopædia of biblical literature', ed. by J. Kitto, Volume 1
  3. John A. Tvedtnes, "Proxy Baptism," Ensign (February 1977), 86. off-site
  4. "Baptism for the Dead in Early Christianity" by John A. Tvedtnes
  5. Council of Carthage (A.D.419), Commonly Called The Code of Canons of the African Church", canon 18
  6. John A. Tvedtnes, "Proxy Baptism," Ensign (February 1977), 86. off-site