Mar 12, 2017

Mormon church baptising thousands of dead Victorians - atheist or not

Mormon volunteers at the Victorian Archives Centre in North Melbourne.
Mormon volunteers at the Victorian Archives Centre
 in North Melbourne.
Liam Mannix
The Age
March 10, 2017

In a windowless underground room, six Mormons are cheerfully working day in, day out to digitise the records of dead Victorians. So they can be baptised.

One by one, many of the dead – Mormon or not – are being offered salvation by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' controversial Baptisms for the Dead process.
The work in the basement of the Victorian Archives Centre is painstaking, menially mind-numbing. The Mormons love it.

They recently finished digitising court records; "those were just fun to read – even though we're not supposed to take time to read them", Nanette Justus​ beams.

Victoria's historic records are housed at an underground storage facility in North Melbourne, managed by the Public Record Office.

The records – 100 kilometres of paper, plus countless photographs and reels of film – are behind an airlock in cold storage. The records include birth and death registers, court decisions, criminal records, wills, and even historic photographs on glass-plate negatives and reel-on-reel of film.

The records office and technology contractor Gruden are slowly trying to get those records online and searchable for the public. The contractor is moving the digitised archive into the cloud and making them more easily accessible.

But with little funding, and a collection of records that would stretch from Melbourne to Torquay to be scanned, the process is very slow.

The records office has been working at it for 10 years. So far 1.34 per cent of the collection has been digitised, with a large part of that done by Mormon labour.

In the basement the Mormons have formed a production line.

Kathleen Bingham unwraps a record, pulling out any staples or pins, and flattens it. Bill Justus and Roger Bingham scan it using machinery the church has sent over from America. And then Nanette wraps it back up the same way it came.

The six are on an 18-month mission from America as part of the church's global FamilySearch program, which sends volunteer archivists all about the world.

The scanned records go back to Salt Lake City and are inserted into a global database, allowing Mormons worldwide to piece together their family trees. The data is also shared with several private ancestry sites, including The Public Record Office also gets a copy – for it, the Mormons are essentially free labour.

The church sends teams of missionaries all around the world to work on similar digitisation programs. Why? To swell the ranks of the Mormon faith, and to offer salvation to the dead.

When a Mormon finds an ancestor in the records, they can baptise them into the Mormon faith through a Baptism for the Dead. That allows the dead relative's soul to be saved, even if they did not die a Mormon. And it swells the ranks of the church.

However, it's not just ancestors getting baptised. The practice hit the spotlight in 2012 when it emerged Mormons were enthusiastically baptising many non-relatives. Holocaust victims, Gandhi, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis and reportedly even Hitler have all been baptised.

The church has promised to crack down on such instances. A local spokesman could not supply numbers on how many dead Victorians have been baptised, nor if any notable Victorians have been baptised – although he conceded it was highly likely some had.

To baptise a dead ancestor, a living relative must stand in their place, submerging themselves in water to allow the dead to be born again as Mormons. "One of my sons was baptised for my grandfather. It's quite powerful to be involved," says Chris Stuart, the church's public affairs director.

While those baptised may not have been Mormons in life, the church does not believe they are being baptised against their will.

"We believe that life goes beyond this one, and that people still have their agency. They have the choice to either accept or reject that," says Mr Stuart.

The Public Records Office tweeted on Saturday to say it did not run any religious activities or baptisms.

"We have more than 180 volunteers from all walks of life ... we are grateful to all the volunteers, as well as the Mormons, for their hard work in bringing Victoria's historic documents to light."

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