Chasing the dead: genealogy and the art of recruitment

Ask most lay people what they know about the Mormon Church, or the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints to give them their official title, and the chances are the first subject they will mention is polygamy, despite the practice of taking more than one wife being officially renounced around 120 years ago.

They might also mention the odd famous Mormon, like The Osmond family, or The Killers, whose image seems to belie a religion that forbids alcohol and caffeine. Then there’s Mitt Romney, failed challenger to Senator John McCain for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, and whose Mormon faith was believed to have hampered his cause.

The occasional celebrity aside, it’s staggering to think how little we know about what is the fastest growing church on the planet, with a global membership of more than ten million followers. The church itself does little to dispel the air of secrecy that surrounds it, quietly going about its professed business of saving souls.

What few people know is that the Latter-Day Saints aren’t only interested in the living - they also seek to recruit the dead. Even fewer know that this belief, a church doctrine no less, has fuelled the present genealogical boom, which has seen unprecedented numbers of us casting back through time in search of our family roots.

The Mormons are morally obligated to track down as many of their ancestors as possible and convert them to their faith vicariously in a temple ceremony, a ritual they know as proxy baptism but is also known as Baptising the Dead.

To help their members in their ancestral quests, the church has spent millions of dollars sending teams of men and women across the world to access as many records as possible, from behind the veil of communist China to the remote islands of the Pacific, as well as being granted access to the archives of other churches and faiths. Never in the history of organized religion has a doctrinal belief produced such an ambitious, elaborate and expensive undertaking

The result of this mass pursuit is the closest we will get to a catalogue of the dead; billions of birth, death, marriage, baptism and burial records, stretching back hundreds of years, making it the most exhaustive and complete archive extant. Its official name is the International Genealogical Index and the good news for genealogists is that it’s all available online, regardless of one’s faith, and it’s all free. Millions of us are able to go to www.familysearch.org, type in a name and kickstart our search, or help locate that elusive missing ancestor.

Seeing the success of the IGI, rival websites have sprung up, seeking to challenge its superiority, but few of them are free at the point of use, and few of them have the same worldwide reach. However, their presence means that an unprecedented amount of records and indexes are available at the click of a button. Never has it been so easy to find out so much about our ancestry from the comfort of our home, and for that we have to thank the Mormons and their belief in claiming the dead.

The practice is not without controversy. Most of us are happy to make use of the genealogical resources provided by the LDS church while being unaware about their real purpose. Yet when people of other faiths are made aware that these records may be used to convert their ancestors to Mormonism by proxy baptism, the response is different. The religious right in the US are hardly President Obama’s natural supporters, but when it was revealed last year that his deceased mother had been converted by proxy baptism, they rose in anger, seizing the chance to denounce an organization they see as no better than a cult.

Closer to home, two Irish Catholic bishops wrote to the national library in Dublin recently registering their disquiet that official records were being handed to Mormon researchers and subsequently "misused", meaning that dead Catholics were being converted to Mormonism.

Jewish groups have been even more vociferous in their condemnation. Controversy first reared when it was discovered that many Holocaust victims had received proxy baptisms. As a consequence, the LDS church, somewhat chastened by the row, agreed to remove the name of the baptized victims from their records and agreed to refrain from baptizing deceased Jews unless they were direct ancestors of LDS members.

The public response from the LDS to most criticism of is one of quiet bewilderment. They quote bible scripture to justify proxy baptism, and point out they believe that in the afterlife people have the free will to accept or reject the church’s approach.

"We believe that baptism by immersion is an earthly ordinance that can’t be performed after this life so it is necessary to accomplish this ordinance for those who never had the opportunity while in mortality," a spokesman for the LDS church said. "If one of my posterity desired to baptise me a Catholic or Baptist after my death, I would view their action as a true act of love and devotion. Why would I take any offense?"

Dan Waddell is the author of Blood Atonement, a gripping thriller in which a husband and wife's grisly secret comes back to haunt them. Buy a copy here and you can read and extract here.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama

TV

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before