This article was published in Meridian Magazine in February 2008, and can beseen on their website at this link.
The author of this article, Marvin R. VanDam and his wife resided until recently in Moscow, Russia, where he was the director for temporal affairs of the Eastern European and Central Asian Area of the Church. He has served as president of the Netherlands-Belgium Mission, as ward bishop, as stake presidency counselor, and in other stake and ward callings. He has previously served as the director for temporal affairs for the Church in Europe and the southwestern United States, as Church controller under the direction of the Presiding Bishopric, and as Church budget officer under the direction of the First Presidency. Prior to those assignments, he held corporate positions in Philadelphia, Paris, and London. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Utah and a master’s degree in business administration from Harvard Business School in Boston. He and his wife, Sandra Rabiger VanDam, have seven children and twenty-one grandchildren.
Baptism for the Dead in Ancient Ukraine
A prominent contemporary Russian religious scholar, Sergey Antonenko, has studied and written about Latter-day Saint theology and ordinances in an admirably objective way. His writings about LDS work for the dead and the ancient Christian origins of such work are of particular interest.
In an article entitled Research and Analytical Material, he seeks to explain the prevailing bias in Russia and other eastern European countries against The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He sees this bias as being the result of an “objective lack of information or maliciously distributed myths.”
He explains this adverse characterization of the Latter-day Saints as follows:
Extremely negative influence is caused by the absence of perspective vision, lack of the efforts to include “exotic” (but more often just unusual) phenomena in a wide screen of mankind’s spiritual history. That last factor explains, in our opinion, the certain vigilance [wariness, apprehension] towards some religious practices of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (such as vicarious baptism, sealing of marriage for eternity with the deceased spouse). These religious rites are traditional for for their faith, but analogues [similarities] could be seen also in general Christian heritage [history].
Antonenko delves beyond the common bias, however, and analyzes a remarkable commonality between the Eastern Orthodox Christian churches (as opposed to the western Roman Catholic Church) and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — the fact that ancient mankind believed innately that there is a connection between the worlds of the living and the dead, and that “they were taking care [concerned] about the deceased, instead of forsaking [them] … We are talking in particular about belief in resurrection and in preservation of certain opportunities for the dead in the next world.”
From Antonenko’s perspective as a religious historian, and being deeply grounded in the ancient and modern Eastern Orthodox Christian faiths (that is, the “family” of Orthodox Christian
churches in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Bulgaria, Armenia, etc.), he states:
For centuries, the central question of the religious consciousness pertaining to the problem of immortality was whether or not a free agency will be preserved behind the grave.
In the ancient Church there was a belief that, from the moment when Christ released from the hell spirits of those who had been waiting for him with faith (we read about that in the messages of Apostles Peter and Paul: 1 Peter 3:18-20; 4:6; Ephesians 4:8-10), that relief [salvation] of the deceased is possible.
Let the grace be given to every living, but those who died shall not be robbed of the grace also.
Antonenko then relates his understanding of ancient Eastern Orthodox theology to that of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:
Historically, the sense of spiritual unity of the living and the dead as an integral part of living’s [life’s] spiritual experience was kept in a very few directions [churches] of Christianity. For example, for Protestantism, typical is denying of effective connection between [those] living on the Earth and [those who have] departed to God.
The Orthodoxy teaches to look at the body of the deceased brother “as on a grain” [something that can have renewed life and grow], which should be clothed in incorruption and immortality. Orthodox believers do not stop [discontinue] the attitudes of love to the dead after the burial. Following an ancient custom, Orthodox Christians fervently pray for them [their recently deceased loved-ones] and bring bloodless sacrifices during the first 40 days.
Today in the Orthodox churches, one purchases and lights candles for the dead as
well as for oneself and others who are still alive.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints goes in this matter even further. It does not practice special after-burial prayers for the dead, but Church members are given unique hope to receive special Divine blessing for their relative and ancestors. Each member of the Church can open for his or her deceased relatives an opportunity of a choice in eternity, having performed for them the vicarious baptism.
Ancient Baptism for the Dead
Antonenko declares that vicarious baptism of the dead had its roots in ancient Christianity,
Those who are advanced in the religious studies may conclude that vicarious baptism existed in the history of the Christian Church.” Citing as an example the Apostle Paul’s explicit statement on the subject (see 1 Corinthians 15:29), he continued, “Direct [literal] meaning of the verse implies that ‘baptism for the dead’ for the ancient Christians was confirmation of their confession [faith] — of their belief in resurrection.
It is obvious that baptism for the dead was practiced in some of early-Christian communities until it was forbidden by the rules of the Carthaginian Council.
However, the tradition of posthumous baptisms continued to exist in the later periods. It was known also in the ancient Russia. In 1044, pious grand duke of Kiev [the capitol city of today’s Republic of Ukraine], Yaroslav, nicknamed Wise, has brought [physically] into the church two of his uncles, Oleg and Jaropolk, which have died long before that and formally were pagans [unbaptized at the time of their deaths].
To tell the truth, in this case one can hardly speak about vicarious baptism. The chronicles tell that the bones of the dukes were dug out from the tombs, baptized and then buried in the Saint Virgin of Tithes cathedral. About Oleg and Jaropolk, it is known that they have been reared and educated by their grandmother, grand duchess Olga, and that they believed in Christ and were not baptized only for “narrowness of circumstances” … killed in internecine strife.
Yaroslav the Wise was convinced that it was his duty to help his untimely gone uncles to complete their Christian choice … The given example is very significant — baptism of the dead was performed officially in the court church built by the Saint Vladimir.
In doing so, might Grand Duke Yaroslav have been following an example set several decades previously by Grand Duke Vladimir, who is also reported to have baptized the dead?
Grand Duke Vladimir, in return for his assistance in putting down uprisings in Bulgaria and Natolia against Byzantine emperor Basil II, was given the emperor’s sister, Anna, to be his bride — but on the condition that he become a Christian. He was duly baptized in 988, and he received his Byzantine bride. He then proceeded to make Christianity the state religion — and ordered, and in time forced, his subjects to be baptized, and he built Christian churches, schools, and libraries.
It is reported that, “Vladimir was so impressed with the importance of baptism, and its requirement for exaltation, that he had his brothers’ bones exhumed and baptized with a Christian baptism — literally baptism for the dead.” (This comes from a 2007 letter from one Irvin Moritzky, an American of Ukrainian descent, who refers to Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.)
Given the remarkable parallels between Jaroslav’s and Vladimir’s “baptism of dead bones” accounts, one has to wonder whether they might be one and the same story, the one or the other story having been misattributed as to grand duke and year. The important point, though, is the declaration by Orthodox scholars that baptisms for the dead were performed in the ancient Christian church, and that there was at least one recorded instance of such baptisms in the ancient Russian church.
True Temple Ordinances in Ukraine
It was a thousand years ago that Christian baptisms for the dead were performed in Kiev, Ukraine. On the 23rd of June, 2007, ground was broken for a temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Kiev. After nearly a decade of challenges since the temple’s announcement in 1998, the temple is now under construction. True baptism for the dead will soon be performed in Ukraine by Latter-day Saints who hold the divinely restored priesthood authority to do so.