BAPTISM . The word baptism comes from the Greek baptein, which means to plunge, to immerse, or to wash; it also signifies, from the Homeric period onward, any rite of immersion in water. The frequentative form, baptizein, appears much later (Plato, Euthydemus 227d; Symposium 176b). The baptismal rite is similar to many other ablution rituals found in a number of religions, but it is the symbolic value of baptism and the psychological intent underlying it that provide the true definition of the rite, a rite usually found associated with a religious initiation.
The purifying properties of water have been ritually attested to ever since the rise of civilization in the ancient Near East. In Babylonia, according to the Tablets of Maklu, water was important in the cult of Enki, lord of Eridu. In Egypt, the Book of Going Forth by Day (17) contains a treatise on the baptism of newborn children, which is performed to purify them of blemishes acquired in the womb. Water, especially the Nile's cold water, which is believed to have regenerative powers, is used to baptize the dead in a ritual based on the Osiris myth. This ritual both assures the dead of an afterlife and rids them of blemishes that may not be taken into the other world. Baptism of the dead is also found among the Mandaeans (cf., the Book of John ), and a similar rite is mentioned on Orphic tablets (Orphicorum fragmenta, 2d ed., Otto Kern, ed., Berlin, 1963, p. 232).
The property of immortality is also associated with baptism in the Greek world: according to Cretan funeral tablets, it was associated especially with the spring of Mnemosyne (memory). A bath in the sanctuary of Trophonios procured for the initiate a blessed immortality even while in this world (Pausanias, Description of Greece 9.39.5). Greek religious sanctions did impose a number of lustral ablution rites for the removal of sins, but these rites were only preliminary to the principal rites of the mysteries. Thus, the bath in the sea with which the initiation rites of the great Eleusinian mysteries began was simply a physical purification, accompanied by the sacrifice of a piglet. This was true as well of the immersion of the followers of the god Men Askaenos, near Antioch in Pisidia, and of the ablutions required of the Corybantes and of the followers of the Thracian goddess Cotyto, who were called baptai ("the baptized ones"). In all these cases, baptism was only a preamble, as the Magic Papyrus of Paris testifies (43): "Jump into the river with your clothes on. After you have immersed yourself, come out, change your clothes, and depart without looking back." Such a rite marked the beginning of an initiation; this practice was required to put the neophyte in the state of purity necessary for him to receive the god's oracle or an esoteric teaching.
In Hellenistic philosophy, as in Egyptian speculation, divine water possessed a real power of transformation. Hermetism offered to man the possibility of being transformed into a spiritual being after immersion in the baptismal crater of the nous ; this baptism conferred knowledge on man and permitted him to participate in the gnosis and, hence, to know the origins of the soul. Having received baptism, the gnostic "knows why he has come into existence, while others do not know why or whence they are born" (Corpus Hermeticum 1.4.4). Egyptian cults also developed the idea of regeneration through water. The bath preceding initiation into the cult of Isis seems to have been more than a simple ritual purification; it was probably intended to represent symbolically the initiate's death to the life of this world by recalling Osiris' drowning in the Nile (Apuleius, Metamorphoses 11.23.1).
In the cult of Cybele, a baptism of blood was practiced in the rite of the taurobolium : the initiate went down into a pit and was completely covered with the blood of a bull, whose throat was cut above him. At first, the goal of this rite seems to have been to provide the initiate with greater physical vitality, but later it acquired more of a spiritual importance. A well-known inscription attests that he who has received baptism of blood is renatus in aeternum, that he has received a new birth in eternity (Corpus inscriptionum Latinarum 6.510). In other inscriptions associated with the tauro-bolium, the word natalicium seems to be the exact equivalent of the Christians' natalis, suggesting that the day of the baptism of blood is also the day of a new and spiritual birth. However, the fact that this baptism was repeated periodically shows that the idea of complete spiritual regeneration was not originally associated with it. Only under the influences of Christianity and the Mithraic cult does the idea of an atonement for past sins through shed blood appear; henceforth, it was possible to believe that the taurobolium procured the hope of eternity, and that the Mithraic bull sacrifice was a redeeming act that gave the initiate a new life.
The liturgical use of water was common in the Jewish world. Mosaic law imposes the performance of ablutions before ritual entry into sacred areas; likewise, it describes the chief impurities that water can erase (Nm. 19:1–22; Lv. 14, 15, 16:24–28). Under Persian influence, rites of immersion multiplied after the exile. Some prophets saw in the requirement of physical purity a sign of the necessity of inner and spiritual purification (Ez. 36:25–28). The Essenes linked the pouring forth of the divine life in man to purification by baptism in flowing water. They practiced a baptism of initiation that brought the neophyte into the community at Qumran after a year's probation. However, the rite did not produce any magical effects, for, as the Manual of Discipline asserts, a pure heart was necessary for the bath to be effective, and an impure man who receives it merely soils the sanctified water (Manual of Discipline 6.16–17, 6.21).
Toward the beginning of the Christian era, the Jews adopted the custom of baptizing proselytes seven days after their circumcision, the rabbis having added the impurity of converted gentiles to the chief impurities enumerated in the Torah. After their baptism, new converts were allowed access to the sacrifices in the Temple. A series of specific interrogations made it possible to judge the real intentions of the candidate who wished to adopt the Jewish religion. After submitting to these interrogations, he was circumcised and later baptized before witnesses. In the baptism, he was immersed naked in a pool of flowing water; when he rose from the pool, he was a true son of Israel. Clearly a rite of unification with the community of believers, this baptism developed under the influence of the school of Hillel and emphasized the importance of a new birth. "Every proselyte," says the Babylonian Talmud, "is like a newborn child" (Yev. 22a, 48b, 62a, etc.).
The ministry of John the Baptist in the Jordanian desert was connected with this baptist movement, which symbolically linked immersion in a river of flowing water to the passage from death to a new and supernatural life. To achieve the erasing of sin that is closely tied to inner conversion, John administered a baptism of water, but by doing so in the water of the Jordan itself, not in the ritual water of purified pools, John made a clear departure from official practice. This departure was all the more striking because his baptism appears to be a substitute for the ḥaṭaʾt, the sacrifice for sin, and is not a rite of unification with the Israelite community but rather a sign of divine pardon and of the advent of the messianic era. Not surprisingly, John drew down upon himself the fierce hatred of the scribes and Jewish authorities (Josephus Flavius, Jewish Antiquities 18.116–119).
The Mandaeans take their baptismal practice directly from the example of John, whom they consider the perfect gnostic; they administer baptism in the flowing water of a symbolic Jordan. "Be baptized with the flowing water I have brought you from the world of light," says the Right Ginza (19.24). Mandaean baptism is followed by a sacred meal where a blessing is given to bread and water mixed with wine, considered the sustenance of divine beings; in addition, the Mandaeans practice baptism of the dead. Johannine and Christian rites of baptism do not, however, have their origin in these practices, as was thought at the beginning of the twentieth century. Rather, Jewish and Christian influences create the numerous ritual similarities found in Mandaean practice, including the white garments with which recipients of Mandaean baptism are clothed. "Clothe yourselves in white, to be like the mystery of this flowing water," says the Right Ginza.
The same influences were felt by the Elkesaites, who at the beginning of the second century abolished the fire of the patriarchal sacrifice and substituted for it a baptism by water that both remits sin and brings the neophytes into a new religion. Their baptismal ritual takes place in the flowing water of a brook or river after invocations are addressed to earth, air, oil, and salt. This sort of baptism also becomes a method of physical healing and appears again in numerous Baptist sects of the modern period.
John baptized Jesus, like others who came to him, in the waters of the Jordan, but the manifestations of the Father and the Holy Spirit during Jesus' baptism give it a completely new dimension (Mk. 1:9–11). Jesus' baptism also inaugurated his public ministry, and he later gave his disciples the mission of baptizing in the name of the trinitarian faith—a mission that they carried out even before their master's death (Mt. 28:19, Jn. 4:1–2). The apostles continued to practice the baptism of water of the type administered by John; but they emphasized the necessity of an inner conversion preceding the profession of the trinitarian faith, the focus of the new belief.
It was Paul who first defined the theological and symbolic significance of Christian baptism, joining the neophyte's ritual descent into water to Christ's death and rebirth to a new and spiritual life through his resurrection (Rom. 6:3–4). Sin is not carried away by the flowing water but by the Lord's death and resurrection; through baptismal immersion, the Christian is able to participate in this new existence (Col. 2:12). In Titus 3:5, Paul describes baptism as the gift of "a bath of regeneration and renewal"; the baptismal water is at once the water of death in which the old, sinful man is immersed and the water of life from which he emerges renewed. In fact, Paul rediscovers the meaning of a very ancient symbolism of death and resurrection found in archaic initiation rituals a symbolism that has been admirably analyzed by Mircea Eliade (Images et symbols: Essais sur le symbolisme magico-religieux, Paris, 1952, pp. 199–212; Traité d'histoire des religions, Paris, 1949, pp. 64–65).
Every detail of the Christian ritual is intended to symbolize birth to a new life in Jesus Christ: nudity (at least for men) during immersion; conferral of new names on the neophytes, who are also given new, white garments; imposition of the sign of the cross, understood as the seal (sphragis ), mentioned in Revelation; and the dispensation of a drink of milk and honey to the newly baptized. Ever since the First Letter of Peter, new Christians have been compared to little children (1 Pt. 2:2), a comparison frequently represented in the early Christian art of the catacombs; in another early symbol, they are likened to "little fish, so named for our great Ichthus, Jesus Christ, who is born in water and remains alive by living there" (Tertullian, On Baptism 1.3). Old Testament prototypes of baptism—the Flood, the crossing of the Red Sea, the crossing of the Jordan, and entrance into the Promised Land—are evoked in catechesis even by the first generations of Christians, who recognized in them the passage through the water of life and death (cf. 1 Cor. 10:1–2). As Chrysostom explained in the fourth century, "Baptism represents death and the sepulcher but also resurrection and life. Just as the old man is buried in the sepulcher, so we immerse our heads in water. At the moment when we come out of the water, the new man appears" (Homilies 25.2). Christian representations of baptism were also enriched by other symbols drawn from the Old Testament, notably the deer drinking at the spring, from Psalm 42, and the Good Shepherd surrounded by his sheep, from Psalm 23 (Ps. 23, 42:25). Both these psalms were sung during the Easter Vigil by candidates for baptism.
Christian baptismal practice is founded on the commandment of Jesus himself to his disciples (Mt. 28:19). Its administration during the first centuries of the church took place at Easter night and Pentecost and was limited to bishops, the heads of the Christian communities. Reception of baptism seems often to have been put off until the moment of death by neophytes who were reluctant to accept the full consequences of inner conversion; and infant baptism, though possible, was probably not practiced in the early period of the church (cf. Mt. 19:14, Acts 16:33, 1 Tm. 2:4). As the gateway to the sacraments, baptism opened the way into the church community, and prayers and rites increasingly describe it as the entrance to a holy place, the opening of the different routes offered by the faith.
The church was especially concerned, however, to organize a period of probation during which the catechumens were prepared to receive the sacrament through prayer, fasting, and doctrinal instruction. The Didache, in chapter 7, clearly asserts the duty of candidates to live according to evangelical precepts and to renounce evil in all its forms. As a number of patristic texts attest, the baptismal ritual was quickly enriched through such additions as interrogations (like those preceding Jewish baptism), a triple renunciation of the devil (recalling Jesus' triple renunciation during his temptations), a triple immersion (representing the Trinity), the anointing of the neophyte with the holy chrism, and the laying on of hands by the bishop or priest (Tertullian, Against Praxeas 26; On Baptism; Hippolytus, Apostolic Tradition ).
Because it was the sacrament that indicated entrance into the life of faith and the community of the church, baptism was also considered a means to inner enlightenment. In the Eastern church, those who were initiated into the Christian mysteries by baptism were called the "enlightened," for, as Gregory of Nazianzus explains, the baptismal rite opens the catechumen's eyes to the light that indicates God's symbolic birth in man (Discourse 40: On Baptism ). In this view, the bishop theologian merely continues a long tradition begun by Paul. "Awake, sleeper," the apostle writes in Ephesians, "and Christ will shine upon you"—an admonition he repeats in the Letter to the Hebrews (Eph. 5:14, Heb. 6:4, 10:32). Writing of baptism in the second century, Justin Martyr speaks of the "bath that is called enlightenment" (First Apology 61); in the following century, Clement of Alexandria wrote: "Baptized, we are enlightened; enlightened, we are adopted; adopted, we are made perfect; perfect, we become immortal" (Pedagogue 1.6.26). Thus, in the early church, baptism was clearly understood as the initiation required for a man to recognize the divine light and to participate in eternal life while still in this world.
But because it was also the fundamental rite of entry into the church community, baptism was quickly claimed as a prerogative by several rival churches, each of which called itself orthodox and accused the others of heresy and schism. Modifications of baptismal rites by the various sects were inevitable. After the second half of the fourth century, the Anomoeans, exponents of a doctrine akin to Arianism, rejected triple immersion, the symbol of a Trinity equal in all its members, a doctrine they contested; for the same reason, they even modified the baptismal formula that had been fixed by scripture (Mt. 28:19). What is more important, from the third century on, the Arians insisted upon the invalidity of a rite of baptism conferred by a heretic or schismatic, a view given great importance by the Donatists. The Arians denied the validity of Catholic baptism, and in Italy (especially in Milan) and Vandal Africa they required rebaptism (cf. Michel Meslin, Les Ariens d'Occident, Paris, 1967, pp. 382–390). Arians and Donatists alike did not believe that a person could be brought within the church community by a minister who was personally alien to it and did not share its faith; they held that baptism was valid only if it was accompanied by a pure intention in the person who administered it, who had also to belong to the true church. They refused to accept the Catholic view that the rite of baptism is in itself the canal of an omnipotent divine grace that completely surpasses a channel for qualities of the individual who administers it.
From the sixth century on at the latest, the Catholic church permitted the baptism of children, the engagement to follow the faith being taken in their name by adult Christians. The custom of baptizing infants soon after birth became popular in the tenth or eleventh century and was generally accepted by the thirteenth (Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae 3.68.3). In the fourteenth century, baptismal ritual was simplified, and a rite of spiritual infusion, in which water is poured on the head of a child held above the baptismal font, replaced baptism by immersion.
After 1517, the questions posed by the practice of the baptism of small children served as a major foundation for dissident Christian movements stemming from the Reformation. To adherents of these movements, an uncompromising interpretation of the doctrine of individual justification by faith alone implied that the rite of entry into the Christian community had to be restricted to adults who were conscious of their salvation through Christ and who asked to be baptized. The dissidents formally denied the validity of baptism given to nonresponsible children and required those who had received such baptism to be rebaptized as adults, thus earning the name Anabaptists (Wiedertäufer ). Going even further, Thomas Müntzer (1485–1525), one of the "prophets of Zwickau," affirmed that individual inspiration by the Holy Spirit determined a person's conduct and demonstrated the unique rule of faith. Along with this demand for religious discipline, the Anabaptist movement, especially in Germany, developed a revolutionary ideology, preached radical egalitarianism, community of property, and even polygamy, and actively supported the German Peasants' Revolt. Denounced and condemned by Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, Müntzer was executed at Mülhausen, and the Anabaptists were subjected to a pitiless repression. Nevertheless, their movement survived in northern Europe and expanded during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Holland, where the Mennonites still practice adult baptism by immersion and advocate a policy of nonviolence that denies them participation in public office or military service.
In 1633, a group of English Baptists immigrated to North America, beginning the development in the New World of a number of Baptist sects and churches, whose members founded their belief on the theological baptism of Paul (cf. Rom. 6:4, Col. 2:12) and insisted upon a return to strict apostolic practice. These sects and churches have in common the practice of baptism by immersion administered in the name of the Trinity only to adults who believe and confess their faith in Jesus Christ; in addition, from their distant Anabaptist origins, a majority retains the doctrine of the freedom of each confessional community to interpret the scriptures and the Christian faith.
Beirnaert, Louis. "La dimension mythique dans le sacramentalisme chrétien." Eranos-Jahrbuch (Zurich) 17 (1949): 255–286.
Drower, Ethel S., trans. The Canonical Prayerbook of the Mandaeans. Leiden, 1959.
Gilmore, Alec, ed. Christian Baptism. Chicago, 1959.
Lundberg, Per. La typologie baptismale dans l'ancienne église. Leipzig, 1942.
Malaise, Michel. Les conditions de pénétration et de diffusion des cultes égyptiens en Italie. Leiden, 1972.
Meslin, Michel. "Réalités psychiques et valeurs religieuses dans les cultes orientaux (premier-quatrième siècles)." Revue historique 512 (October–December 1974): 289–314.
Payne, Ernest A. The Fellowship of Believers: Baptist Thought and Practice Yesterday and Today. 2d ed., enl. London, 1952.
Reitzenstein, Richard. The Hellenistic Mystery Religions (1927). Translated by John E. Seeley. Pittsburgh, 1978.
Rudolph, Kurt. Die Mandäer. 2 vols. Göttingen, 1960–1961.
Thomas, Jean. Le mouvement baptiste en Palestine et en Syrie. Gembloux, 1935.
Michel Meslin (1987)
Translated from French by Jeffrey C. Haight and Annie S. Mahler
Baptism and the Lord's Supper are the two most enduring rituals of the Christian Church. While they are symbols of the church's unity, they have also produced some of its most significant divisions. Jesus himself received baptism at the hands of John the Baptizer in the Jordan River (Matthew 3:13–16). The earliest Christians followed Jesus' example, receiving baptism as an outward and visible sign of their faith in Christ and their union with his body, the church. Adult immersion was generally the norm until the fourth and fifth centuries, when Augustine and others developed a theology that required the baptism of infants to cleanse them of the curse of original sin. During the Middle Ages, the Christianization of Europe created a link between infant baptism and citizenship. To be born into a Catholic state was to be baptized into the Christian Church. The Protestant reformers challenged Roman Catholic theological and political hegemony but retained the union of citizenship and infant baptism. The Wiedertaufer or Anabaptists of the sixteenth century rejected infant baptism, rebaptizing adults after their profession of faith in Christ. Their refusal to baptize infants meant that Protestants and Catholics often persecuted Anabaptists (Mennonites and others) as both heretics to the church and traitors to the state. In England, Anglicans and Puritans practiced infant baptism, the latter insisting that it was a "sign of the covenant," the Christian equivalent of Jewish circumcision, given to the elect "and their seed." These ideas were repudiated by the Baptists, a seventeenth-century sect who, like the Anabaptists, insisted on the baptism of adult believers. Their earliest method was affusion, pouring water on the head three times in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. During the 1640s Baptists began to observe baptism by dipping, or immersion.
Infant baptism was the normative mode for those English settlers who came to America in the seventeenth century. Religious establishments in Puritan New England and Anglican Virginia fostered persecution against those groups such as Quakers, Mennonites, and Baptists that refused to baptize infants. With disestablishment and religious liberty, debates over baptism merely increased as new denominations competed with each other. During the nineteenth century, especially on the American frontier, baptism was a major topic of discussion and division. Presbyterians, Methodists, and other "pedobaptist" (infant baptism) traditions debated Baptists and Restorationists (the Stone-Campbell tradition) over the proper candidate and the proper mode of baptism. Questions concerned the marks of the true church, admission of the nonimmersed to communion and church membership, and the process of conversion requisite for a valid baptism. The relationship of faith and baptism was also an unending point of controversy. Was baptism necessary for salvation, or did it simply accompany it? Was it sacrament or symbol? Should persons who received baptism as infants be "rebaptized" in adulthood, particularly after joining an immersionist communion? Baptist Landmarkists, for example, believed that Baptist churches alone had maintained the true baptism since New Testament times. Restorationists suggested that they alone had reconstituted baptism after it had been lost to all other churchly groups. Pedobaptists maintained that their tradition of baptism and confirmation had been administered since the earliest Christian era.
These debates continued throughout the twentieth century, with varying theological emphases and assorted revisions. First, many Christian communions continue to baptize infants, welcoming them into the world with an outward sign of God's grace. Such a pledge of faith is then renewed at a time of confirmation, usually in late childhood or early adolescence. Confirmation is the time when baptized individuals make the faith their own, confirming for themselves the faith that was pledged for them in infancy. Some communions, such as Roman Catholics, have extended the confirmation age from early to later childhood, with the average age around ten to fifteen or so.
Second, those who practice immersion continued to revisit questions raised when persons baptized in infancy join their churches. Mobility, intermarriage, and changing religious preferences brought many persons with varying baptismal histories into immersionist churches. In such instances, some Baptist churches require all persons to receive Baptist immersion before they can be admitted to full church membership. Other congregations admit as members all who have received immersion in any Christian tradition. Still others accept all those who have received baptism, whatever the mode, with no rebaptism required. Baptist groups themselves divide over the practice of open or closed baptismal policies. Some immersionist congregations (especially among the Baptists) refuse the Lord's Supper to any who have not received Baptist immersion. Other traditions (e.g., the United Methodists) repudiate any efforts to perform "rebaptisms" of persons who have received the rite in infancy.
Third, the growth of nondenominational congregations, many of them large "megachurches," created a pluralism of baptismal practices in one church. Some of these congregations administer baptism in multiple forms, to infants, children, and adults, by sprinkling, pouring, or immersion. Many permit families or individuals to choose the particular method of baptism that best reflects their own needs and traditions. In some contexts, an emphasis on personal religious experience has led certain congregations to minimize the role of baptism for the church and the individual.
Fourth, the mode of baptism remains diverse among many churches and denominations. In most communions that practice infant baptism, the mode of baptism involves sprinkling water on the head of the child. Churches of the Eastern Orthodox tradition continue their centuries-old practice of immersing naked infants three times in the name of the Trinity. While Roman Catholic churches retain infant baptism as normative for entrance into the church, many have added baptismal pools for use in total immersion of adults. Most immersionist churches construct indoor, heated baptisteries in their houses of worship. Some rural churches continue to perform baptisms outdoors in rivers, lakes, or creeks.
During the 1980s, a document produced by the World Council of Churches titled Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry engaged many American churches in a discussion of the unifying elements of that most Christian rite. It facilitated ecumenical discussion regarding the classic biblical confession of "one Lord, one faith, one baptism" (Ephesians 4:5) for all the church.
Beasley-Murray, G. R. Baptism intheNew Testament. 1981.
Bridge, D., and D. Phypers. The WaterThat Divides. 1977.
Moody, Dale. Baptism:FoundationforChristian Unity. 1967.
World Council of Churches. Baptism,Eucharist, andMinistry. 1982.
Bill J. Leonard
For Christians, baptism is one of the three rites of initiation which incorporate an individual into the Body of Christ– that is, into membership in the Christian church (see 1 Cor.13). The others are confirmation and Eucharist. Baptism takes place when an individual is immersed or sprinkled with water while the baptizer recites this formula: "I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit" (Matt. 28:19). As a sacrament, baptism removes the sins of the newly initiated, which is in itself an unmerited gift from God. Christian baptism may be traced back to the baptism of Jesus Christ by John the Baptist in the river Jordan. Most Christian denominations require infant baptism because of Jesus' injunction, "Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit" (John 3:5), as well as the authority of St. Peter (Acts 2:38-39).
By the third century, the early church began to administer baptism, confirmation, and the Eucharist to infants immediately after birth. The church recognized the spiritual equality of all of its members, whether children or adults. Writing about 80 c.e., Irenaeus of Lyons underscored this point: "For he [the Lord] came to save all of them through himself; all of them, I say, who through him are born again in God, the infants, and the small children, and the boys, and the mature, and the older people" (Adversus Omnes Haereses, Book 5).
The Traditio Apostolica (c. 217), which is attributed to Hippolytus of Rome, provides a third-century description of the rite of baptism and implications for children. The document notes that children are to be baptized before adults and that parents or relatives are to answer the prescribed questions if the children are unable to do so. Origen, a third-century theologian in the East, mandated infant baptism in his Commentarii in Romanos. Moreover, the Nicene Creed, which was drafted in the fourth century, acknowledged "one baptism for the remission of sins" and continued to associate confirmation and the Eucharist with baptism. By the time of Augustine of Hippo in the fifth century, the baptism of infants was widespread in the West. He recommended that children were to be baptized as soon as possible because of the high rate of infant mortality. According to St. Augustine, baptism removed both the original sin of Adam and Eve as well as any other sins. But the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) rejected both the early tradition of administering Eucharist to infants after baptism and the fifth-century custom of delaying confirmation and Eucharist for several years after baptism, and forbade infants from receiving the Eucharist until they had reached the age of discretion (i.e., seven). They equated spiritual readiness with reason.
After 1525, Anabaptists shared the view that physically immature children were also spiritually innocent, but they became the only Christian sect to deny the efficacy of infant baptism. Anabaptists insisted that preadolescent children could not be admitted into the church because they lacked faith. At the same time the Anabaptists comforted distraught parents by maintaining the belief that unbaptized children who died before adolescence were assured salvation because they were incapable of deliberate sin.
In the 1960s, the second Vatican Council authorized a ritual for the baptism of children (Ordo Baptismi Parvulorum, 1969) that discourages private baptisms. It prescribes that baptism is to take place in the parish church either within the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist or at least preceded by the Liturgy of the Word. The members of the parish are enjoined to assist the parents and the godparents in the education of children in the truths of the faith. Finally, the new rite stresses the inherent link between the three sacraments of initiation, even though in practice they are administered over an extended period of time (age eight for Eucharist and sixteen for confirmation).
See also: Catholicism; Christian Thought, Early; Communion, First; Protestant Reformation.
Cullmann, Oscar. 1978. Baptism in the New Testament. Trans. J. K. S. Reid. Philadelphia: Westminster Press.
DeMolen, Richard L. 1975. "Childhood and the Sacraments in the Sixteenth Century." Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte 66: 49-71.
Nocent, Adrian. 1997. "Christian Initiation." In Sacraments and Sacramentals, ed. Anscar J. Chupungco. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press.
Osborne, Kenan B. 1987. The Christian Sacraments of Initiation: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist. New York: Paulist Press.
Searle, Mark. 1980. Christening: The Making of Christians. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press.
Richard L. DeMolen
The origins of Christian baptism are probably found in the initiation rites of Jewish proselytes and, possibly, those of the mystery religions. Various baptismal rites were developed in the early Church, all designed to bring some or all of the body into contact with the baptismal waters. They generally involved immersion. This usually meant standing in water and having water poured on one's head and upper body. Such rites might involve triple immersion (in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) as outlined in the late-first-century practical teaching document, The Didache, in which Christians were instructed to baptize the candidate three times in running water or by pouring water over the head three times. The Apostolic Tradition, describing rites and practices in third-century Rome, stated that the baptismal candidates should remove their clothes and enter the waters of the baptistry, where they would be baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Having been anointed with chrism (see below), they would put their clothes back on and enter the church to participate in the Eucharist for the first time.
Baptism was quickly seen as necessary for salvation and as the initial moment of redemption; many passages in Acts teach that baptism must be preceded by faith and the confession and renunciation of sins. Paul developed a theology of baptism in which believers, being baptized, come to union with Christ, share in His death and resurrection, are cleansed of their sins, and incorporated into the body of Christ. The believer's sins are metaphorically washed away in the rite. The water is the visible sign of God's grace.
Preparation for baptism in the early Church was serious and lengthy — it could take up to three years. Many public officials in the early Church, and in early Christendom especially, postponed baptism until the end of their lives, knowing that they would be ‘sullied’ by the activities of their public life. Early creeds developed as simple formulae of Christian belief to be used in the baptismal rite. In the first two centuries, bishops, priests, and deacons (all of whom could be women or men) conferred baptism, but gradually, as the bishop's role was expanded, and women were squeezed out of all of these ministerial positions, it came to be the bishop who baptized. In cases of necessity, baptism could be conferred by anyone — and thus, right through the Middle Ages and into the modern period, it was often the midwife who performed the baptismal rite when a newly-born baby's life was in danger. Easter and Pentecost were the traditional times for baptism, though some churches began to hold baptisms on other feasts, such as Epiphany or Christmas. Baptismal candidates have traditionally had sponsors or godparents to support them in the faith (who, in the case of infants, would accept Christ as the infant's saviour on his or her behalf).
Chrism — holy oil which is a mixture of olive oil and balsam, and consecrated by a bishop — is used in baptismal rites in Eastern Orthodox. Roman Catholic, and Anglican churches. It was used in early baptismal rites. Tradition has it that it is placed on the baptismal candidate's forehead, hands, and feet, to seal the points at which the devil might enter, but there are also understandings of chrism representing — by the richness of the oil and the sweetness of the balsam — the fullness of sacramental grace and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, as well as the sweetness of Christian virtue. John Chrysostom, in the fourth century, wrote of baptismal candidates being anointed with oil from the top of the hairs of the head down to the feet and thereby becoming sharers in the true olive tree, Jesus Christ, and being healed of every trace of sin. An old Roman Catholic baptismal rite involved the offering of blessed salt to the baptismal candidate; this was probably based on the pagan Roman custom of placing a few grains of salt on the lips of an infant, eight days after its birth, to chase away the demons. Salt, because of its preservative quality, represented purity and incorruptibility.
The early Church seems to have baptized both infants and adults (though there is debate amongst historians about this). Gradually, infant baptism came to be the norm in Christendom, especially as a doctrine of original sin developed. Thus baptism became one of the seven sacraments in the Roman Catholic church. At the Reformation, Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin all retained infant baptism, though they interpreted the theology of it differently from the Roman Catholic Church. The Anabaptists rejected infant baptism, advocating believers' baptism, a response of faith by the individual to the gospel.
Today, some Christians — notably Baptists and many Eastern Orthodox — practise full immersion, that is the dipping of the whole body, including the face, into the water. In most Western churches, water is poured or splashed onto the head three times.
Before slavery became a fixture on the North American mainland, Europeans, both Catholics and Protestants, debated the relationship between African slaves and Christianity. Baptism, particularly its liberating connotations, became a significant element in this debate during the era of American slavery and was an issue of growing importance for slaves themselves.
During the early development of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Catholic nations insisted their traders baptize the newly enslaved. This perfunctory act certainly meant little to captured Africans; and as David Brion Davis observes in his 1966 study of slavery, neither baptism nor the Spanish legal template providing some protection for slaves, las Siete Partidas, prevented Spanish or Portuguese traders from treating Africans in a harsher manner than they did livestock.
Early North American colonial baptisms were only marginally more significant. Not until the population of African American slaves became relatively large did baptism grow in its meaning to slaves. The catalyst for this development was the popularity of evangelical Protestant denominations in the early-nineteenth-century South. Among Southern Presbyterians, Methodists, and especially Baptists, baptism was the transition between spiritual death and rebirth. It marked initiation into the fellowship of all believers and cleansed one of one's sins through the application of water and prayer. Slaves experienced baptism as the unmistakable understanding that freedom was theirs to possess, even if one was forced to wait until death. Evidence from slave narratives of the 1930s shows that baptisms were centrally important to slaves in the final years of the institution. Large crowds of slaves turned out for baptisms, often becoming frenzied and boisterous during the ceremony.
In 1958 Melville J. Herskovits suggested that slaves were attracted to baptism because they recognized it as similar to the water cults in some African countries. However, subsequent historians and anthropologists have criticized this interpretation, emphasizing instead the slaves' attraction to the evangelical aspects of baptism rather than a harkening back to a practice from the past.
The dramatic full-immersion baptism practiced by Baptists perhaps held particular meaning for slaves. Often dressed in white gowns, initiates felt a heavenly presence underwater and reported feeling fundamentally changed in their spiritual understanding once they emerged. Methodists, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians dabbed or sprinkled baptismal water on initiates in a less dramatic fashion though also imparting a sense of transformation. Slaves found this newly autonomous self deeply satisfying.
Efforts to convert slaves, culminating in baptism, were ever-present in the colonies, although eighteenth-century slave owners often resisted the Christianizing of bondpeople. According to Jon Butler (1990), complaints about slave baptism persisted throughout the era of slavery. Working for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, Dr. Francis Le Jau (1665–1717) claimed to have baptized many slaves around Charleston, South Carolina, despite slave owners' religious ignorance and reluctance. To counteract such resistance Le Jau, who kept a journal of his activities, was forced to make slaves profess that their understanding of baptism would not free them or even partially relieve them of their obedience to their owners.
A fundamental problem for colonial planters was their understanding of Protestant Christianity as a religion built on freedom. In particular baptism freed the individual to become self-directed, with responsibility to others and, most important, to God. Slaves could not attain this faith-derived autonomy. Moreover, as Albert J. Raboteau explains in his 1978 study of slaves and religion, many owners believed British law required planters to free baptized slaves. This provision of the law so threatened the continuation of slave owners' practices that six colonial legislatures, including Maryland and Virginia, passed laws rejecting the claim.
During the nineteenth century evangelical denominations compromised on their early opposition to slavery and at least as a partial consequence were fairly widespread by the 1830s. Among these denominations the mission to lead the uninitiated to conversion was a passionate focus, with baptism, as Frederick A. Bode (1994) notes, the bellwether of a church's progress toward building a godly community. As more slaves became Christian, baptism became an important spiritual element of their lives.
Bode, Frederick A. "The Formation of Evangelical Communities in Middle Georgia: Twiggs County, 1820–1861." Journal of Southern History 60, no. 4 (November 1994): 711-748.
Butler, John. Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990.
Davis, David Brion. The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1966.
Herskovits, Melville J. The Myth of the Negro Past. Boston: Beacon Press, 1958; repr., 1990.
Le Jau, Francis. The Carolina Chronicle, 1706–1717, ed. Frank J. Klingberg. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1956.
Rawick, George P. ed. The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography. 19 vols. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1972–1979.
Sernett, Milton C. Black Religion and American Evangelicalism: White Protestants, Plantation Missions, and the Flowering of Negro Christianity, 1787–1865. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1975.
David F. Herr
The doctrine which attended baptism in the early church was variable. Baptism might be, for example, the washing away of sins (Acts 2. 38), a dying with Christ (Romans, 6. 4), a rebirth (John 3. 5), or the occasion of the gift of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12. 13).
The theology of baptism gained precision in the 3rd and 4th cents., notably in the West in the writings of Augustine. The Catholic view which emerged was of a rite which works ex opere operato, which confers a ‘character’ on the recipient (who thus can never be rebaptized, even after apostasy).
The 16th-cent. Reformers modified that theology: Luther, reconciling the necessity of baptism with his doctrine of justification by faith alone, regarded baptism as a promise of divine grace after which a person's sins are no longer imputed to him or her. Zwingli, on the other hand, saw baptism only as a sign of admission to the Christian community. Calvin taught that baptism can only be of effect for the elect, who have faith (without which the rite is vacuous). The radical Anabaptists understood baptism exclusively as a response of faith on the part of the individual to the gospel, and thus rejected infant baptism.
In the most usual form of early Christian baptism, the candidate stood in water, and water was poured over the upper part of the body. This is technically called ‘immersion’, but the word is now more often used to refer to the method (used e.g. by Baptists and Orthodox) of dipping the whole body under water.
See also 80. CHRISTIANITY ; 349. RELIGION .
- a member of a 16th-century Anabaptist sect who refused to learn to read, arguing that the guidance of the Holy Spirit was sufficient for the understanding of the Bible.
- 1. a belief in adult, as opposed to infant baptism.
- 2. membership in various Protestant sects advocating adult baptism. —Anabaptist, n., adj.
- antipedobaptism, antipaedobaptism
- the denial, on scriptural grounds, of the validity of infant baptism. —antipedobaptist, antipaedobaptist, n.
- an interest in collecting Christian baptismal names.
- an opponent of baptism.
- conditional baptism
- Christian baptism administered when there is doubt whether a person has already been baptized or whether a former baptism is valid.
- the practice of ancient Jewish and early Christian sects involving daily ceremonial baptisms or ablutions. —hemerobaptist, n.
- a belief in baptism by immersion. Also called immersionism . —holobaptist, n.
- a belief that baptism effects a new birth or regeneration. Also palingenesy . —palingenesist, n. —palingenesian, adj.
- a baptism that is in some way irregular or unauthorized. —parabaptist, n.
- pedobaptism, paedobaptism
- the historic Christian practice of infant baptism. —pedobaptist, paedobaptist, n.
- a member of a sect of Anabaptists founded in Germany in 1534 by Ubbe Phillips.
bap·tism / ˈbapˌtizəm/ • n. (in the Christian Church) the religious rite of sprinkling water onto a person's forehead or of immersion in water, symbolizing purification or regeneration and admission to the Christian Church. In many denominations, baptism is performed on young children and is accompanied by name-giving. ∎ a ceremony or occasion at which this takes place. ∎ a religious experience likened to this: baptism in the Holy Spirit. ∎ fig. a person's initiation into a particular activity or role, typically one perceived as difficult: this event constituted his baptism as a politician. PHRASES: baptism of fire a difficult or painful new undertaking or experience. DERIVATIVES: bap·tis·mal / bapˈtizməl/ adj.
baptism of blood the death by violence of unbaptized martyrs, regarded as a form of baptism.
baptism of fire a difficult or painful new undertaking or experience, from the original sense of ‘a soldier's first battle’.