Helen Radkey never had much interest in the ways of the LDS church; but she was drawn into it by default. Now, it's a part-time obsession.
Baptismal watchdog Helen Radkey: "I couldn't believe my eyes."
photo by Fred Hayes.
Actually, her interest in the Mormon practice of baptizing the dead arrived by way of Radkey's interest in Catholic saints and martyrs. Although a licensed minister in the non-denominational Universal Life Church, she helped her two sons through Gonzaga University, a Jesuit school in Washington.
Her devotion to Catholic figures runs deep. Several years ago she traveled to Ontario for a look at the shrine of Gabriel Lalemant, a French Jesuit missionary martyred by the Iroquois in 1649. "I actually stood at the spot where he'd been tortured to death," Radkey says.
She also used the LDS church's genealogical records to research the Catholic martyr. Returning home to Salt Lake City, she continued her research only to discover that Gabriel Lalemant had posthumously been baptized a Mormon.
To Radkey, it was a clear sign of disrespect for the legacy of a man who gave everything for his cause. "It made me feel as if [the Mormons] were cheating," she says. "Clearly, they had no sense of who this person was or what he stood for. They just went to the history books and baptized him."
Her bewilderment and outrage only grew as she continued to sift through the church's baptismal records. Her most vexing find: Adolf Hitler, the man behind millions of deaths, was baptized not too far behind the entire family of Anne Frank, most of whom perished in the Holocaust.
"I couldn't believe my eyes," Radkey remembers. "I think [Mormons'] intentions are good, but they're totally out of touch with reality. You don't have to know the mind and will of God to see that there's something out of balance in even offering Hitler the opportunity to share the same destiny as Anne Frank."
LDS baptismal records on the Franks may violate a 1995 agreement LDS church leaders signed with the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors. For many Jewish people, the word "baptize" recalls historical images of the Spanish Inquisition when Jews were forced to choose between converting to Christianity or death. For Jewish people with family members who died in the Holocaust, the fact that their relatives' names would be on an LDS church baptismal roll, even in death, is galling.
LDS leaders politely agreed to stop baptizing Holocaust victims, plus remove the names of those victims on the roll. LDS leaders even issued a statement to members telling them to cease baptizing the names of Jews who perished in concentration camps. Instead, the church stressed that members should concentrate solely on descendants of their own families. Holocaust victims could only be baptized if they were direct relatives of a church member, or if the immediate family of a victim gave a member written permission.
Among LDS faithful, baptisms for the dead in temples worldwide is a sacred rite and duty. As revealed to church founder Joseph Smith by God, the dead must be offered a chance in the afterlife to join the "true Church of Jesus Christ." The only way to do that is by baptizing living members of the LDS church by proxy for those who died without knowing Mormon doctrine. The dead, it's believed, may either accept or reject the baptism. Faithful members of the church try to baptize as many dead souls as they can. Doing so, they believe, gives dead souls the chance to move out of the lower realms of the afterlife and up into higher, more esteemed, heavenly kingdoms.
The LDS church points to an archaic verse by Paul in I Corinthians chapter 15, verses 29-30, to support the practice: "Else what shall they do who are baptized for the dead if the dead rise not at all? Why are they, then, baptized for the dead?" Most Christians read this as a call to be baptized into the ranks left vacant by the believing dead. For Mormons, who read the verse literally, it mandates a sacred call to baptize as many dead souls as possible.
But as Radkey found out, that sacred call results in a lot of duplicated work. Generally, members of the LDS church submit proxy baptisms to temples, or conduct the baptisms themselves, without knowing if those dead souls have already been spoken for. Thus Adolf Hitler, this century's best-known mass murderer, was baptized three separate times in 1993: once in the Los Angeles temple, again at Utah's Jordan River temple, and yet again at the church's London temple. Because Mormons believe that a temple marriage is also necessary for eternal salvation, Der Führer was also sealed to his Berlin bunker sweetheart, Eva Braun, at the Los Angeles temple.
Anne Frank, author of perhaps the century's most famous diary, has been a far more popular baptismal candidate. She's been baptized no less than eight times in LDS temples from Atlanta to Manila. Anne's sister, Margot, has been baptized six times in six different temples. The soul of Edith Hollander, mother of Anne and Margot, also got the posthumous baptism on six occasions. Meanwhile, the family's namesake, Otto Frank, was baptized five times in different temples. He was the only member of the family fortunate enough to escape death in Nazi concentration camps. His wife Edith died in Auschwitz. Shipped away from their parents to a different concentration camp in Bergen-Belsen, Anne and Margot both contracted typhus and died there in 1945.
Before its agreement with the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, the LDS church had some 380,000 concentration camp victims on baptismal records. All those were supposed to be removed after the 1995 agreement. Given that, the remaining presence of the Frank family could raise some eyebrows.
Dan Rascon, a spokesman for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said the church couldn't provide a response in time for publication, but that one would be forthcoming. Leaving New York City for a business trip, Ernest Michel, founding member of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors, said he didn't have time to assemble a formal response either. After City Weekly faxed the Frank family baptismal records to his office, however, a secretary said Michel found the documents "troubling" and that he planned on contacting the LDS church.
For non-Mormons, the notion that Hitler and Anne Frank could get an equal hearing before God seems laughable, even offensive. But then nothing in the realm of religious doctrine can be verified or falsified. The central question surrounding the issue is this: When does the freedom to practice your religion constitute a disrespect for other religions? Holocaust victims aside, church members have also baptized Protestant reformers such as Calvin and Luther. Buddha was baptized on three occasions. Most offensive to Radkey, however, was discovering that church members married off Catholic saints, priests and nuns—people for whom celibacy was a sacred vow.
"Whether a person agrees with celibacy or not, the memory of these people should be respected," Radkey says. "Then there's the question of who they marry. According to records I found they sealed Ivan the Terrible to 10 different women in the Provo temple. They've sealed polygamous marriages to terrible men like Henry VIII, a man who had his own wives killed. That's not very Christian."
Others approach the whole issue from a more suspended viewpoint. The Rev. Dr. Jeff Sells, a priest and communications officer for the Episcopal Diocese, believes that people's definitions of baptism stem directly from their definitions of God.
"We have an understanding of baptism that's not quite as mechanistic as the Mormon view," he explains. "We would say that God grants his love whenever that needs to be done. It's independent of human will. It seems to me, personally, that the Mormon community comes from the other way around—that it's necessary for humans to approach God."
Sells hesitates to spell out Hitler's fate. Instead, he treads a careful theological path to what seems like a logical conclusion. "It really comes down to a personal level of faith," he says. "People choose to reject or accept God on a daily basis. So, for me personally, it makes sense that a continual rejection of God certainly carries on after death. And when you're talking about very extreme cases like Hitler, I think the response to reject God could carry on after death. Does that mean Hitler is in hell? Metaphorically, I suppose that would mean yes."