Below is a paper that I wrote in March of 2016 for my Theology of Worship class taught by Dr Betty Weatherby. The purpose of this paper was to explore the history of baptism in a general Christian sense but also to touch on a little of denominational history within the Wesleyan Church.
Joining any club or social order requires a rite of initiation. Whether it is a citizenship oath when one moves to a new country or getting a birth certificate for a new born child, a process of initiation takes place. In Christianity, this rite of initiation is called baptism, and its history goes back thousands of years to Christianity’s Jewish roots. Baptism is one of two sacraments in the protestant church, the other being communion, and it is a means of grace in which God alters us (Drury 2007, 13). Jesus himself was baptized and he commanded his followers to follow in his way and be baptized as well. The Great Commission commands us to baptize, and all who hear the message are invited into the water (Acts 2:38). In the two thousand years following, Christians have practiced this ritual of initiation which symbolizes Christ’s death, burial and resurrection (Drury 2007, 18).
Christ ordained the rite of baptism and it is the time when Christians profess faith in the presence of the body that they are about the join (Drury 2006, 113). The two predecessors of Christian baptism can be found in the rituals of Jewish purification in which Old Testament priests would wash themselves with water before entering the temple. These rituals were very common and well known to the Jewish people. There are also references in rabbinic literature which talk of a proselyte, or convert, baptism in which females went through a ritual immersion and males were circumcised and immersed, but relating these actions to a Christian baptism have some scholars questioning its parallels. Similar rituals were also popular in the Greco-Roman world before and during the time of Jesus. One major difference between these ritual purification actions were that they were performed to yourself, whereas baptism is administered to you by another person (Harrington 1994, 333-334). These Old Testament rituals included infants (Mick 1994, 108), which will be a reoccurring theme.
The word baptism in the Early Church not only referred to the physical act of being baptized, but also to the entire process of preparation that marked the entrance of a new believer into the church. (Mick 1994, 108) Little is known about baptism rituals in the New Testament period, but some knowledge can be gleamed from the scriptures. The first Christians were all Jewish and were baptized immediately following their conversion (Drury 2007, 17). Baptism was performed in the name of the Trinity, as seen in Matthew 28:19, and was often done by immersion in a pool, as described in Romans 6. The baptism of John the Baptist is very similar to the modern Christian baptism as it demanded that a person turn their life around in reality of the coming Kingdom of God. This baptism was a water ritual, once and for all time, done by another person, and required a conversion experience and a change in your life (Harrington 1994, 334).
As stated above, Christian baptism formed in a culture that had many examples of baptismal rituals, but it is unclear if Jesus himself baptized anyone, and there are no explicit descriptions of baptism found within the New Testament. There are some clues to how it may have been carried out. Before people were baptized they had to receive some form of instruction, and most scholars agree that the main mode was immersion, although if there wasn’t enough water available that pouring water on the head three times would be appropriate. Questions would be asked to the congregation about the candidate’s worthiness (Harrington 1994, 336). This early form of inspection would later form into a multi-year process.
Baptism in the early days of the church was primarily done to adults as they were the people who were being preached to and brought to faith, although there is evidence that the church also baptized children. By the fifth century, infant baptism was an accepted practice, and by the sixth century, it had become the dominant pattern. Early Church Fathers refer to many types of preparation which eventually formed into the “catechumenate” (Mick 1994, 108). Some scholars believe that the book of 1 Peter was used as a baptismal catechesis or used for instruction due to its blatant baptismal motifs (Harrington 1994, 336).
The process started by examining a person’s intentions and if they were in-line with the Gospel; if they were, they were admitted into the community. Over two or three years the person was continued to be discipled and slowly became integrated with the community in a deeper way. Once they had been thoroughly examined, their name would be given as a candidate for baptism. After they became a candidate, a period of 40 days of reflection took place leading up to Easter, which is where the season of Lent originated. This period culminated with a public baptism at Easter and they were welcomed into the fellowship fully (Mick 1994, 109).
Baptism in the Western Church during the Middle Ages was marked by a separation of the baptism process into three distinct actions called water baptism, confirmation, and the first communion. There were many reasons for this change. The first of these were mass conversions of mainly nomadic people, which made partaking in a three year long process difficult due to the fact that they moved around a lot. Secondly, there was a shift towards infant baptism since most adults were already baptized. Babies were to be baptized as soon as possible after birth due to Augustine’s doctrine of original sin. This placed the catechism after the baptism so that the children would grow up in the ways of the Lord (Mick 1994, 109).
In the thirteenth century, Aquinas stated that baptism and confirmation had become separate acts and that priests baptized and bishops confirmed. Aquinas also thought that baptism created a relationship between the believer, Christ, and the worshipping community, and because this relationship is permanent, baptism cannot be repeated. This is the case even if the baptism is done poorly or the minister is unworthy, because the grace of God is still administered (Mick 1994, 110). As time progressed, the baptismal spaces got smaller and less functional, ending up as little more than a birdbath in which water would be poured over the head. These would often need to be locked up because the water would be stolen for witchcraft (Stauffer 1994, 611).
Baptism was a hotly debated topic between the reformers, including Calvin and Zwingli (Mick 1994, 112). From the period of the reformation until the twentieth century, baptismal practices remained virtually unchanged. Baptism had moved from infanthood to adolescence or early adulthood. This was due to the secularization of society and the church’s inability to instruct the children as they once had in a Christian culture. The age of baptism continued to lower to early adolescence with a larger focus being placed on the dedication of infants instead of baptism. Baptism is the moment when we are adopted into the family of God (Drury 2007, 25). This time also renewed old symbols and rites of baptism that have been limited during the Reformation (Mick 1994, 115).
Some of these symbols can be found in the baptistery itself. Early baptisms used any body of water that was available to a believer including rivers, lakes and the sea. These locations were used for the first two or three centuries of the church. Sometimes baptisms might have even taken place in public bath houses that were scattered across the Roman Empire. Once persecution had ended under Constantine in 313, special buildings were created to hold baptisms. These baptisms were to be public, a part of corporate worship, and celebrated in the congregation’s presence (Stauffer 1994, 609). The two modes of baptism, affusion, in which water is poured over your head, and immersion, where you are fully submerged in water, both symbolized a burial. The water was poured on the candidate just like dirt being thrown on top of a corpse. Full submersion was rare due to the shallow nature of the baptismal fonts. These fonts were shaped in specific ways, each with their own significance. These shapes included octagons, which represented the resurrection, hexagons, which represented death with Christ, rectangular fonts like a tomb, round fonts, which symbolized birth (Stauffer 1994, 310-611). These symbols do much to enhance the deep theological traditions of baptism.
Evangelicals hold that baptism is related to the beginning of a Christian’s life and an invitation into the fellowship of both the local and universal church. It is generally perceived as an act of obedience and must be accompanied by faith and repentance. Evangelicals hold that salvation is possible without baptism and that baptism is not regenerative because if it was, then salvation would not come through grace alone. Baptism marks the new identity of the believer in Christ (Okholm 1994, 143-144).
The Wesleyan church also affirms these points in their articles of faith. Water baptism is a sacrament that was commanded by Christ and “ordained as a means of grace when received through faith” and “acts as a token of our profession of Christian faith” (The Wesleyan Church 2012, 21). All people should be baptized who call Christ their saviour and baptism acts as a New Covenant of grace (The Wesleyan Church 2012, 21). People choosing to be baptized have the choice of which mode they can use, whether they chose immersion, pouring, or sprinkling. Baptism for children is not forbidden, but there is a choice available between dedication or baptism (The Wesleyan Church 2012, 28), but his was a hotly contested issue early on in Wesleyan history.
In the mid-1840s, infant baptism was a major point of contention at the Utica convention. John Wesley’s Methodism was based on Anglican roots and therefore baptized infants, but some of the non-Methodist attendees of the convention did not believe in the baptism of infants. Although the resolution to continue to allow the practice was narrowly passed, it was decided that the decision of allowing infant baptism was to be left up to the individual pastor. They would not be forced to practice in this rite of baptizing infants (Black and Drury 2012, 40). This would not be the last time that this issue came up within the denomination. The Atlantic Canadian denomination called the Reformed Baptists were in talks with merging with the Wesleyan Methodists in 1966. The more traditional Reformed Baptists held that immersion was the only valid way to baptize someone. They were allowed to join the denomination although they held more conservative views and they rejected the The Discipline’s acknowledgement of other modes (Black and Drury 2012, 201).
Everyone who is converted must be baptized, and baptisms must be public. When we submit to God he is able to do a work of Grace in us and teaches us our identity in Christ. It is the rite of initiation into the church and has been for over two millennia. Baptism is a visual symbol of the Gospel (Drury 2006, 121).
Baptism also unifies the church and reminds us of our own Gospel story. When the baptism is front and centre, Christ’s death and resurrection is also. Baptism has a long and important history, but this sacrament has not always been so easily understood. As the church continues through time, evolving to be current culture, baptism has remained a cornerstone of the Christian faith. Although the methods have changed throughout the years, the meaning and symbolism behind it has remained firm. Baptism is something that God has called all believers to partake in, billions of Christians have taken up this call to boldly declare their faith through this sometimes illegal action. Baptism isn’t just about the act of entering into the waters but rather, a lifetime of discipleship and growing in our faith of Christ. Baptism demands that we turn from our old selves and rise in the resurrected Christ. Baptism is once and for all time, just like Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. This is why baptism is such a powerful witness. This is why baptism is so important.
Black, Robert and Keith Drury. 2012. “The Story of the Wesleyan Church”. Indianapolis, Indiana: Wesleyan Publishing House.
Drury, Keith. 2007. “Experiencing Baptism & Communion”. Indianapolis, Indiana: Wesleyan Publishing House.
Drury, Keith. 2006. “There is no I in Church”. Indianapolis, Indiana: Wesleyan Publishing House.
Harrington, Daniel J. 1994. Baptism in Scripture. The Complete Library of Christian Worship. Edited by Robert E. Webber. Nashville, Tennessee: Star Song Publishing Group.
Mick, Lawrence E. 1994. Baptism in the Early Church. The Complete Library of Christian Worship. Edited by Robert E. Webber. Nashville, Tennessee: Star Song Publishing Group.
Mick, Lawrence E. 1994. Baptism in the Medieval West. The Complete Library of Christian Worship. Edited by Robert E. Webber. Nashville, Tennessee: Star Song Publishing Group.
Okholm, Dennis. 1994. An Evangelical Theology of Baptism. The Complete Library of Christian Worship. Edited by Robert E. Webber. Nashville, Tennessee: Star Song Publishing Group.
Stauffer, Anita S. 1994. The Font as a Place for Burial, Birth, and Bath. The Complete Library of Christian Worship. Edited by Robert E. Webber. Nashville, Tennessee: Star Song Publishing Group.
Stookey, Lawrence Hull. 1994. Baptism Among the Protestant Reformers. The Complete Library of Christian Worship. Edited by Robert E. Webber. Nashville, Tennessee: Star Song Publishing Group.
The Wesleyan Church. 2012. “The Discipline”. Indianapolis, Indiana: Wesleyan Publishing House.