On a Mormon mission

Portland Maine Press Herald, ME
June 29 2004

On a mission

Staff Writer

FARMINGTON — Mormon missionaries Donald and Jeanette Christensen
have left their home in Preston, Idaho, to spend the next two years
in Maine putting fragile, aging probate documents onto microfilm.

Since April, the retired couple has been spending about eight hours a
day in an upper room of the Franklin County Courthouse with the
shades drawn, microfilming more than 6,400 documents listing the
estates and assets of people who died here between 1838 and 1915.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, through its
Genealogical Society of Utah, has long collected names from
government and church documents worldwide to preserve genealogical
records and also add them into its enormous database of names.

In return, hosts are given a copy of the film. Mormons place great
emphasis on genealogical research so that living members may undergo
baptismal rites on behalf of deceased ancestors, a practice known as
posthumous or “vicarious” baptism.

But the practice has come under fire. In the process of amassing
names from town halls, parish churches and government files, millions
of other names not connected to church members have been harvested —
from Jewish Holocaust victims to Catholic popes to 18th-century
Russian Orthodox and Armenian Christians. Millions of those have been
baptized as Mormon.

“For them to come in and baptize deceased relatives without the
family’s permission is very unbecoming, is un-American, is illegal
and could lead to a court case. I think it is invading territory that
is private, and unless they get permission from the family, it is
none of their business,” said Rabbi Harry Sky of Temple Beth-El in

“If my family had wanted to be baptized, they would have done it
centuries ago. They decided to remain Jewish, so don’t do it to us
now,” Sky said.

The genealogical society’s 6 million names on digitized and
microfilmed copies of records from more than 100 countries are stored
in a climate-controlled vault beneath 700 feet of solid granite
outside the church’s Salt Lake City, Utah, headquarters. It is
available on certain Web sites — for a fee — or can be seen at
computer banks at Family History Centers in Mormon churches.

“The primary purpose is to preserve vital records worldwide and make
it available to everyone,” said church spokesman Paul Nauta.

He said published reports about the extent of the baptism-by-proxy
practice are over-blown.

“Members of the church are encouraged to identify their ancestors as
part of our doctrine because we believe families are eternal and ties
and bonds exist beyond death,” he said.

He said that if deceased who are not related to living Mormons have
been baptized, it was done unintentionally by a small number of
overzealous church members out of a caring expression of faith. He
said it was very difficult to police all proxy baptisms, but
regardless, a change of religion is not forced on anyone.

In 1995, the Mormon church came to an agreement with Jewish leaders
that it would stop posthumous baptisms of anyone known to be Jewish.
It also agreed to remove about 6 million names from the International
Genealogical Index if they are presented to church officials.

In Maine, many small county probate offices still have paper files of
the assets and estates of the deceased.

The church just completed Oxford County’s documents and did Kennebec
County’s years ago.

The Christensens have temporarily moved into an apartment in Wilton
while they work at the Franklin County courthouse. They pay all their
own living expenses.

“We are going to every state and every place where there are people,”
Donald Christensen said.

Jeanette Christensen said she has been told not to discuss the
church’s religious use of the names.

Franklin County’s register of probate, Joyce Morton, said the
microfilm offer means she can finally preserve her records, some so
brittle they are turning to dust. “This is being done at no cost to
the taxpayer,” she said.

Betty Jespersen