Was Baptism for the Dead Practiced Deep Inside the Walls of St. Paul’s Basilica?

There is an email being forwarded around that claims that there is a baptismal font deep inside the Basilica of St. Paul that was used for the purposes of baptism for the dead. Here is the text of the original email:

Photos from the email

Photos from the forwarded email. (Click to enlarge)

This photo was taken by Kevin Barton, grandson of Keith Barton, a Stake Patriarch, when Kevin was on his mission to Italy in 2001.  These pictures were taken in Rome at St. Paul’s Cathedral which is centuries old.  Kevin found a chained off area of the Cathedral, which he shouldn’t have entered but did, and discovered this old unused, I’m sure for hundreds of years, baptismal font with a mosaic inscription above it indicating it was used for  baptisms for the dead..  There are probably more old Cathedrals in Italy (If they haven’t been remodeled) that still have these closed off fonts that were used centuries ago..  I wonder why they stopped ?  This is truly profound and  amazing..1

Included in the email are a couple very blurry/grainy photos showing the wall inscription and the nearby baptismal font, with labels overlaid showing the purported translation and correlation.  These photos are shown here on the right (click to enlarge).

On the surface this sounds really exciting for LDS temple studies! Here we might have ancient evidence for baptism for the dead, mysteriously hidden from public view. But not so fast. Let’s do the requisite research.

After a bit of Googling it is revealed that this is simply the baptistry found on the lower level of St. Paul Outside the Walls (Basilica of St. Paul), in Rome, Italy, which is relatively open to the public, since others have visited there and taken photos (see below). The inscription has nothing to do with baptism for the dead at all.

Here are some notes from a friend of some returned missionaries who also visited the baptismal font on their tour of the basilica (without the mystery of passing beyond chained off areas):

A couple who are friends of mine returned from their mission to Italy last year. They had occasion to visit the Cathedral of St. Paul in Rome. As they toured that beautiful edifice they noticed in the lower floor of the building there is a baptismal font. Above the font there is an inscription that reads: Latin: “CUM BAPTISM VM IN MORTEM”…..when interpreted it means, “Else why do we baptize for the dead?” This fount was used for many years…the water line is still visible on the walls.2

They too believed this baptismal font was used for baptism for the dead, because of the inscription on the wall above the font (incorrectly transcribed and incorrectly translated above).  But what does the inscription actually say?  Does it paraphrase 1 Corinthians 15:29 as they thought?

Photo showing more of the inscription.

Photo showing more of the inscription. Found at: http://www.mixbook.com/photo-books/interests/italy-2010-5320942

Another photo of this inscription at the Basilica of St. Paul can be found on page twenty-three of this traveler’s photobook, shown here on the right.3 This photo shows a bit more of the same inscription: “CVM ILLO PER BAPTISMVM IN MORTEM.”  This gives us a bit more to go on.

After few more searches and we might infer the rest of the inscription: “CONSEPVLTI ENIM SVMVS CVM ILLO PER BAPTISMVM IN MORTEM.4

It turns out that this is Latin from Romans 6:4: “Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death:” This verse, of course, is not talking about baptism for the dead, but baptism as symbolic of death, and the death of Christ. The rest of the scripture, which can be found on another wall of the baptistry, reads, “that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (see the second photo below). On another wall of the same baptistry the preceding verse 3 can also be found: “Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death?” (see the third photo below).  Paul in chapter six of his epistle to the Romans wrote of baptism as a similitude of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, a perfect scripture selection to adorn the walls of the baptistry at St. Paul.

Here are some much clearer photos of the same baptistry at St. Paul Outside the Walls:

An ancient baptistry in the Basilica of St. Paul's-Outside-the-Walls.

An ancient baptistry in the Basilica of St. Paul’s-Outside-the-Walls. The inscription seen here on the basin is from John 15:1, 5. (Click to enlarge). Found at: http://lukechandler.wordpress.com/2009/06/30/the-apostle-pauls-bones-identified/

Baptistery: The Papal Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls (Italian: Basilica Papale di San Paolo fuori le Mura), commonly known as St Paul's Outside the Walls.

Baptistery: The Papal Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls (Italian: Basilica Papale di San Paolo fuori le Mura), commonly known as St Paul’s Outside the Walls. The inscription on the wall seen here is from the last portion of Romans 6:4. (Click to enlarge). Found at: http://www.fotopedia.com/items/flickr-344271350

St Paul - Outside the Walls - Baptistry.

St Paul – Outside the Walls – Baptistry. The inscription on the wall seen here is from Romans 6:3. (Click to enlarge). Found at: http://www.panoramio.com/photo/49303003

So, probably not as mysterious and closely tied to baptism for the dead as the email suggests. Now, if the inscription had quoted 1 Corinthians 15:29 in Latin, it would have been a bit more interesting. The Latin Vulgate of this scripture reads, “Alioquin quid facient qui baptizantur pro mortuis, si omnino mortui non resurgunt? ut quid et baptizantur pro illis?” Keep a lookout for this inscription!  Note that these inscriptions usually show U’s as V’s.

I am doubtful that this entire room was a font that was filled with water like a swimming pool, as suggested by the returned missionaries (with a “water line still visible on the walls”).  It seems to me that the area is simply a lowered region of the room, again, symbolic of burial, being low in the ground and located on the lower level of the basilica.  This is the same reason our baptismal fonts are located in the basement of our temples. In this baptistry at St. Paul, the photos clearly show a small covered baptismal basin, like a sink, in the center of the room.

Unfortunately, this baptistry is not as exciting a find as we might think, albeit beautifully designed and lined with marble, and the email that is circulating is a faith promoting rumor, an urban legend. There is evidence for the practice of baptism for the dead, but it won’t be found in this baptistry.

  1. Email in my possession. []
  2. http://templesquareworld.blogspot.com/2008/07/temples.html []
  3. This individual also thought the inscription mysteriously had something to do with baptism for the dead. []
  4. See here, and here. []


  1. Andrew Pullens
    Posted March 12, 2013 at 5:28 am | Permalink

    Thanks for clearing that up. I came across an interesting in building while serving my mission in Poitiers, France – Le baptistère Saint-Jean (Baptistery of St. John). Though not for baptisms for the dead, it does contain a baptismal font that was used by early Christians to perform baptisms by immersion, before the practice was abandoned.
    We used to leave copies of the LDS missionary pamphlet “Baptism: How and By Whom Administered?” on the information table whenever we were in the area.

  2. Posted March 12, 2013 at 7:33 am | Permalink

    Maybe we should focus more on whether this is evidence of baptism by immersion. Why is such a large needed? Is it large enough to immerse an adult or were they already baptising infants. Which came first infant baptism or sprinkling?

  3. Posted March 12, 2013 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    As I noted, I’m doubtful this whole room was a baptismal font. I could be wrong. From the photos, it appears there is a small baptismal basin in the center of the room.

  4. Leona Patteson
    Posted March 12, 2013 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    The statement our Temple baptismal fonts are located in the basement is not entirely accurate. The only requirement is the font be located on a floor lower than ones where the exalting ordinances of the Melchiezedek Priesthood are performed. While this was the placement in older Temples, there is no requirement they be in the basement.

  5. Posted March 12, 2013 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    You are probably correct. But I do believe all our temple baptismal fonts continue to be below ground level, regardless if the baptistry room itself is considered a “basement.” Are there any examples that are not below ground level?

  6. Dave
    Posted March 12, 2013 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    The Oakland Temple baptistery isn’t below ground level. To enter the baptistery we walk up steps & into the waiting room. When entering the font we again have to walk up several steps before descending into it. But I’ve been there many times, both as a youth & as officiator & my estimate places the bottom of the font at ground level. That’s not to say that the 12 oxen aren’t. They are quite a bit lower than the bottom of the font & are definitely below ground level.

  7. Jerry Zant
    Posted March 12, 2013 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    I believe the Laie Hawaii Temple font is above ground, both before and after the recent remodel.

  8. Megan
    Posted March 12, 2013 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

    While our Las Vegas Temple has its baptistry below ground, I have been in the Palmyra Temple and if I remember correctly, the baptistry was on the main floor, just to the right of where we entered. I think the Kona Hawaii Temple also had its baptistry at ground level. So maybe some of the smaller temples don’t have a basement.

  9. Robert
    Posted March 12, 2013 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

    When I was on my mission to Italy from 81-82, the large cathedral in Milan had stone tiles arranged in a circle just inside the front entrance on the main floor to indicate the location a baptismal font in the lower level. We were pretty excited to see that at the time, because even a font “underneath where the living are wont to assemble” (D&C 128:13) is confirmation of a doctrine restored by the prophet Joseph Smith in the latter days.

  10. Nora Ray
    Posted March 13, 2013 at 4:58 am | Permalink

    We are in the Palmyra Temple District and have done many baptisms there. The font is below ground level. You go down several steps to enter the water. I would estimate the floor of the font is 5-6 feet below ground level. The room it is in is on the ground floor because it is a single story temple.

  11. Posted March 13, 2013 at 6:16 am | Permalink

    One of the very old churches in Aix en Provence, France (Southern France) has a baptismal font. Like others have mentioned, we saw it as evidence of baptism by immersion before the practice was stopped. The missionaries would usually go see it just after arriving at the mission home in Aix (former Marseille Mission).

  12. Elwin Robison
    Posted March 13, 2013 at 6:33 am | Permalink

    S. Pauls outside the walls (San Paolo fuori le mura) burned in 1823 and was rebuilt in 1824. While the masonry walls were reused, it is doubtful that marble revetment would have survived the fire (and engravings of the building following the fire suggest that little did). It is methodologically difficult to use a post-1824 inscription to tell us something about earlier practices.

    Fonts large enough for baptism by immersion are not rare in early Christian buildings. The orthodox baptistry of Bishop Neon in Ravenna, the foundations of the baptistry and font under the Cathedral of Milan (open to visitation by the public in the 70s), and the font at the site of the House of Mary above Ephesus are three examples that quickly come to mind. Larger fonts persisted in the medieval period as well, such as the baptistry of Pisa. The baptistry of S. Giovanni in laterano is generously sized for the current font, and may have had a larger font in the 4th century when it was built.

  13. Gale R. Jensen
    Posted March 13, 2013 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    I served my mission in Denmark from 1953 through 1956. During one of the Danish holidays my companion & I biked out into the country side & toured an old Lutheran Church. I noticed that the baptism font was made up of a very old & large stone font with a smaller silver tray on top. I asked the Lutheran priest about the two fonts. He told us that the very old stone font was originally used for immerging babies. But, because some babies were injured by breathing in water they turned to sprinkling. Was this true? I have no idea, so you may take it for what it is worth.

  14. Posted March 13, 2013 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    I suspect the change from adult baptism (or at least 8 years old baptism) to infant baptism was part of what necessitated the change from immersion to sprinkling. It’s difficult (if not cruel) to immerse an infant, since they cannot easily hold their breath.

  15. Richard
    Posted March 13, 2013 at 8:38 pm | Permalink

    As a Rome Italy Missionary in 1980, I saw many of these old basilicas. Not only do some contain large fonts, with descending steps, but the Basilica di San Giacomo, also in Rome, has broken pieces of frescoes and other artwork depicting Adam and Eve, with animals, and angelic visitors. There is also reference in Latin to “the law of the tithe”.

    The funner heresay in one of our branches was from a local Italian convert. He reported to us that he’d seen a large mosaic in Northern Italy, with Peter standing on a platform of some type, extending his hand to one in a throng. The caption, in Latin, “Peter acknowledges one of the flock”. The handshake between Peter and this other person is noteworthy.

    Interesting stuff, if nothing else.

  16. Posted March 13, 2013 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think so. The Didache (which scholars date to the 1st Century AD, with some saying around 60 AD) says that baptism by pouring could be done if there wasn’t enough water. Catholics (at least in the Roman sui iuris church) seem to have evolved in their understanding and allow for pouring to be done even if there is enough water for immersion (Catholics don’t do “sprinkling” for baptism. They only do immersion or pouring, with sprinkling being a separate purification rite, involving a renewal of baptismal promises, similar to when they bless themselves with holy water upon entering a church). In contrast, Eastern Catholics and Eastern Orthodox have always practiced baptism by immersion, and immerse infants as well (I’m sure there are videos of this online available), and pouring is the exception for them, seemingly following the Didache’s guidance.

    Also, the baptistry in the Manhattan New York Temple is on the main floor, just off the recommend desk (though the building is obviously unique since part of it is the temple, and the rest includes a meetinghouse, public affairs office, distribution center, etc, with no basement.

  17. Rose Olson
    Posted March 13, 2013 at 10:41 pm | Permalink

    Not so fast! About five years ago we went to Italy with a group of LDS friends. Finding ourselves with a little extra time, we hired a local tour guide, hopped on a bus and drove by this area. Our guide was not LDS nor did she know we were. We didn’t stop but she did relate to us as we drove by that in ancient times baptisms were performed by “dunking the person fully under water” and the buildings we were passing by had “pools” in which this was carried out. We asked her why this practice was stopped and she answered that she wasn’t sure but most likely for ease and time. I remember at the time, we were all quite astonished!

  18. JR
    Posted March 14, 2013 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

    The Gila Valley Temple in (outside of) Safford, Arizona is a small Temple, and the Baptismal Font is at ground level. I was disappointed it was not below ground level (or basement). I guess the only thing that is important is that Temple work gets done.
    My daughter’s Seminary Instructor served his mission in Italy. He told me that when looking at very old paintings/frescos depicting Baptisms through different time periods, over hundreds of years, the very early paintings show immersion Baptisms, then they show pouring water over the head, then they show sprinkling.
    Also the Catholic Encyclopedia mentions that Baptisms for the dead was a legitimate ordinance that was practiced as mentioned in the New Testament and it was approved of.

  19. Posted March 14, 2013 at 11:12 pm | Permalink


    I don’t see where the Catholic Encyclopedia “mentions that Baptisms for the dead was a legitimate ordinance that was practiced as mentioned in the New Testament and it was approved of.” I looked at the entry on “Baptism”, and this is what I found in the sub-section “Baptism of the dead”:

    “There seems to be no question here of any such absurd custom as conferring baptism on corpses, as was practiced later by some heretical sects. It has been conjectured that this otherwise unknown usage of the Corinthians consisted in some living person receiving a symbolic baptism as representing another who had died with the desire of becoming a Christian, but had been prevented from realizing his wish for baptism by an unforeseen death. Those who give this explanation say that St. Paul merely refers to this custom of the Corinthians as an argumentum ad hominem, when discussing the resurrection of the dead, without approving the usage mentioned. ”

    It then goes on to give an alternate view by Archbishop MacEvilly, who believed it was talking about the baptismal profession of faith on the resurrection of the dead, or that “baptism” and “dead” are metaphors for other concepts. So, I really don’t see where the Encyclopedia mentions that it was a legitimate ordinance and that it was approved of.

  20. JR
    Posted March 14, 2013 at 11:33 pm | Permalink

    Regarding the Gila Valley Temple: I forgot to say: The Baptismal Font is on the first floor because the Temple is only one story and no basement, but the font sits about six feet (?) lower than the floor It sits on six oxen; mirrors are used to give the illusion of twelve oxen. It is also in the front of the Temple.

  21. JR
    Posted March 15, 2013 at 10:55 pm | Permalink

    @ Jason Johnson: I apologize for not giving a source. I have read many articles written by LDS scholars concerning Baptisms for the dead who mention the Catholic Encyclopedia. I did not bookmark those articles and can not remember where I found them. I also do not know if the Catholic Encyclopedia has many or different editions.

    There is a web site called Eternal Musings and the url/address is cath2lds.wordpress.com. The person who has the site is a former Catholic who converted to the LDs church. There is an article dated March 8, 2010 titled “Proxy Baptism, Prayer for the Dead, and 1 Cor. 15:29″. A paragraph from “Prayers for the Dead” from the Catholic Encyclopedia is quoted. Talking about baptism for the dead – Quote “….But it is probable that the practice in question was something in itself legitimate, and to which the Apostle gives his tactit approbation.” What I quoted was the last line. In the article that I mentioned the quotes he uses are in bold letters and the baptism for the dead quote is towards the end of his article. It is worth the time to read the entire article.

    Sorry to take so long in getting back as our internet provider was down, working on cables. Thank you.

  22. Posted March 16, 2013 at 8:49 am | Permalink

    You may not have noticed, but Jason Johnson is from cath2lds.wordpress.com, and is probably the person you’re referring to, and who wrote the article you reference.

  23. Posted March 16, 2013 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    Thank you Bryce. And thanks JR for bringing up the article. Yes, Eternal Musings is my blog, and I wrote that article. It isn’t saying what you think it is saying unfortunately. My quoting the Catholic Encyclopedia (you will note that the quote comes from the section on “Prayers for the Dead”) was to show that non-LDS can certainly interpret 1 Cor 15:29 positively (as many Evangelicals, for example, believe that it is referencing an apostate practice). However, Catholics, such as those that wrote that excerpt from the Encyclopedia, generally do not believe that it is referencing a proxy baptism rite (note that it doesn’t talk about water baptism, merely referring to it with the vague “the practice”, “the belief in the efficacy of works for the dead”, etc), but instead it is a reference to some sort of prayerful activity to benefit the deceased (as Catholics still do to this day), as we see from the other Catholic quotes I provided in the article. So I don’t see this as supporting an ancient practice of proxy baptisms a la LDS style.

    Hope that helps.

  24. Miranda Giles
    Posted March 17, 2013 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    I visited the ancient baptistry under the Milan Cathedral/Duomo May 2012 and my mind immediately flew to our temple baptistries.
    As it says on Wikipedia “The old baptistery (Battistero Paleocristiano, constructed in 335) still can be visited under the Milan Cathedral, it is one of the oldest Christian buildings in Europe.” A Google image search will show you what it looks like now, since being built 300 years after Christ.
    The font there is certainly large enough to have been used for immersion baptisms. The artistic renderings in the space of what the baptistry would have looked like show adults standing in thigh-high water and then having a priest pour water over their head. Seems kinda silly to get your pants wet…
    Pretty cool, though we can’t know yet if there were performing proxy baptisms.

  25. Ian
    Posted March 25, 2013 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    My understanding of the baptism water line can be at ground level. So when you are dunk under you are below ground level. I had special tour of the Palmyra Temple night before it was dedicated by the architect and his wife. It was more his wife than him because he was still running around. My father did the security so I spent a lot of time there. That was one question I asked. The Toronto temple feels above aground but it is not. It is at or below ground level.

  26. Jim Kinsey
    Posted March 29, 2013 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    When I was in Pisa several years back to visit the leaning tower I discovered the cathedral there which was much more exciting. I entered about four in the afternoon and was all by my self in a rather dim room. The sun suddenly burst through a long, narrow window illuminating an onyx fount large enough for adults to be immersed in. One had to enter the fount using stairs going up. It was absolutely beautiful and surprising to find in a Catholic church. I think this ediface was constructed in the 1400′s.

    As for baptism for the dead or any other baptism, when St Peter’s was built the Catholic church was feeling the full effects of the apostasy and had no authority to baptise for living or dead. Constantine was the first to be sprinkled around 340 A D just because he was too sick to get immersed. The official history of the Catholic church names predidents of the church from Peter on down, but it wasn’t until the council of Nicea in 327 that the Catholic church was actually organized. It was then decided to have Popes, Cardinals etc and do away with the original organization of the true church. There after there were many sprinklings and infant baptisms but the official dogma was not changed until the mid 1800′s. That holds for the law of celibacy also. There are many catholics who believe something that may correspond to the truth, but is is the individual not the collective, authorized version. We even have some priests down here who promise a marriage for time and all eternity, but without the authority to do so it has no effect.

    Truth is truth, no matter where you find it and I presume that most all of the Catholic and Protestant churches have a little bit of it. Even a dead clock is correct twice a day. I see so many people being fooled by the false doctrines of the world. So many people searching for the truth and they just don’t know where to find it. I am living in Mexico, in Queretaro and it is a very Catholic city, but we have baptisms practically every week. We have just been made a mission separate from Mexico City North and are looking forward to even more in the near future.

    I am sure that the traditions that Christ initiated in His church have held on, but the members and leaders just have no idea why they do them. Just like in Ethiopia, they practice a form of Judaism because tradition has it that that is where the Queen of Sheba came from. Haile Selasse said he was her direct decendant, but the reason for the Jewish practices have been lost. Nephi described the church of Rome very accurately and predicted her fall. The temple in Rome is the begining of that. What an exciting time to be on the earth and be a member of the true church of Jesus Christ.

  27. Posted March 29, 2013 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

    Hey Jim,

    While I do agree with you that the restored Church has the fulness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and it is indeed an exciting time to be a member of the Lord’s Church, the rest of your post isn’t based in actual history. While it is certainly fine to disagree with Catholic teachings and practices, it is based to disagree with their actual practices, and their actual history, and not a straw man, as seems to be the case in your comment.

    It need not be surprising to find a baptismal font for immersion in a Catholic church, let alone an older one. Catholics have always allowed for immersion as a valid form of baptism.

    Constantine most definitely was not the first one to be “sprinkled” in the Catholic Church. Indeed, the Catholic Church has allowed for baptism by both immersion and pouring (pouring is how most of them are done in the Latin rite Catholic Church, while immersion is how most baptisms are done in the Eastern Catholic churches, along with the Eastern Orthodox). An ancient Christian document, the Didache (dating to 80-110 AD), allows for immersion AND pouring baptism, so it certainly did not originate with Constantine.

    The Council of Nicaea was in 325 AD, not 327. Why would you claim that the Catholic Church was organized at that Council? That certainly isn’t historical, since that Council had nothing to do with organizing a Church, nor did it have anything to do with having Popes and Cardinals. Indeed, “Pope” is merely a title or honorific given to the Bishop of Rome, as Catholics only recognize three priesthood offices: deacon, priest, bishop. There are also others referred to as “Pope” (which is from Latin and Greek meaning “father”), such as the Patriarch of Alexandria (the first to be called “Pope”, before the Bishop of Rome, in the 200s AD). And of course let us not forget that the restored Church is not an exact copy of the primitive Church, as we have a “First Presidency” outside of the Twelve Apostles (not found anciently), stake presidents (not found anciently), high councillors (not found anciently), temple presidents (not found anciently), etc.

    And most Latter-day Saints today would disagree that the Church of Rome is what is described in the Book of Mormon.

  28. Julianne Blickfeldt
    Posted April 24, 2013 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    This is all very interesting and helpful to me since someone just today handed me a copy of the grainy pictures taken of the supposed baptismal font that was used for baptisms for the dead in St. Paul’s Cathedral in Rome. It is helpful to have the information posted here about these grainy pictures so that I don’t pass along bogus information.

    What is very interesting to me, however, is the wonderful article published in the LDS church’s April 2013 Ensign magazine on page 60 which is entitled, “The Restoration and Early Christian Teachings”. In a nutshell, this article discusses a few doctrinal teachings of the early Christians from the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. Baptisms for the dead is one of the doctrines which was taught in these centuries and is discussed in this article. Additionally, the doctrines of man becoming as God is and becoming joint-heirs with Christ along with the doctrine of the degrees of glory are also discussed. As far as I know, all of these doctrines are unique to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and were also taught by the early Christians. I highly recommend this article. It is fascinating.

  29. Kevin Barney
    Posted April 29, 2013 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    You need to fix the inscription. The first two words should be CONSEPVLTI ENIM. You have the right letters, but the words are divided in the wrong places.

  30. Posted April 29, 2013 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    Thanks Kevin. I’ve corrected it.

  31. Rob Fretz
    Posted November 15, 2013 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

    Ian, you made the comment and asked; “The Toronto temple feels above aground but it is not. It is at or below ground level.” The font, and all parts thereof are well below ground level. In fact I believe only a portion of the room itself is above ground, while the font and oxen are indeed well below ground level.

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