"Without exception, church members must not submit for proxy temple ordinances any names from unauthorized groups, such as celebrities and Jewish Holocaust victims," LDS President Thomas S. Monson and his counselors wrote in a letter to all Mormon bishops, dated Feb. 29. "If members do so, they may forfeit their New FamilySearch privileges [access to the church's genealogical holdings]. Other corrective action may also be taken."
The letter, which is to be read over pulpits and posted on bulletin boards in every Mormon congregation Sunday, reminds members that their "preeminent obligation" is to their own ancestors and any name submitted for proxy rituals "should be related to the submitter."
This crackdown could help LDS officials put an end to overzealous Mormons sidestepping the rules or mischief-makers bent on embarrassing the faith.
The LDS practice known as "baptism for the dead" involves living people being baptized on behalf of their dead relatives. Mormons believe it is their moral obligation to do the temple rituals, while those in the hereafter can either accept or reject the ordinance.
In the early 1990s, Jewish representatives complained about the practice, arguing that it disrespected Jews who died in the Holocaust. Mormon leaders agreed to remove them from the list of candidates for baptism, unless they were related to living church members. But the task proved difficult, and many of the names continued to pop up in the database. In 2010, the Mormons assured Jews that a new computer system would help solve the problem.
But it exploded again in recent weeks as reporters published accounts of proxy baptisms for several well-known figures, including the deceased parents of famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal and slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.
LDS officials reacted swiftly and decisively to the news, issuing an apology and saying in several cases they had removed the submitters' access to their genealogical records.
"We consider this a serious breach of our protocol," spokesman Scott Trotter said in a statement, "and we have suspended indefinitely this person's ability to access our genealogy records."
Friday's First Presidency letter is an emphatic step, said Philip Barlow, head of Mormon History and Culture at Utah State University. "It says 'we really mean business' and the imprimatur will etch more deeply on [Mormon] minds."
When the First Presidency speaks, Barlow said, "LDS ears hear that with a louder microphone than a university president would have. It has the added resonance of prophetic authority."
And it also "signals a seriousness to outsiders," he said.
Two weeks ago, Gary Mokotoff, a Jewish genealogist in New Jersey who alerted the LDS Church about the offensiveness of baptizing Holocaust victims in 1992, said he was cautiously optimistic about the religion's response to the latest breaches.
"If the entire Mormon population finally understands that you will be reprimanded for violating church policies," Mokotoff said, "then it will be effective."
That's precisely what the First Presidency letter aims to do.
Q&A about proxy baptisms
Learn more about this uniquely Mormon doctrine in today's Faith section • C1.