Did the Early Church Practice Infant Baptism or Full Immersion?
It’s not hard to determine how the early church celebrated baptism.
You can find several accounts in writings from the early church, including Tertullian’s On Baptism and Hippolytus’ Apostolic Tradition. The Didache also helps us understand how baptism functioned in the life of the church.
Let’s take a look.
How baptisms were performed
Here’s how the process worked:
If someone wanted to be baptized, they first underwent a period of instruction and moral examination. Because baptisms usually took place on Easter Sunday, this period of instruction happened during Lent.
On the Thursday before Easter, the person being baptized began a period of fasting, praying, confessing sin, and attending Scripture readings and instructions. Exorcisms were also performed, in order to banish demons from the person.
Then, early on Sunday morning—the day of baptism—the person prayed for the Holy Spirit to “come upon the water.”
When the time for baptism came, the candidates for baptism removed their clothing. (Children, men, and women were baptized separately.)
Next, they renounced the devil—a form of repentance. They were anointed with oil. This anointing functioned as a form of exorcism.
The person then stood in the water. They made a triple confession of faith in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They were asked, “Do you believe in God the Father almighty?” “Do you believe in Christ Jesus the Son of God . . . ?” and “Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy church, and the resurrection of the flesh?”
They answered each question with “I believe.”
After each confession, they were fully immersed—three times total.
Then, the person was anointed with oil a second time—this time, as an act of gratitude and thanksgiving.
After the anointing, the person dried off, put on clothes, and entered the congregation to pray and take the Eucharist. For the newly baptized, the Eucharist included a cup of water, symbolizing the washing that had occurred, and a cup of milk and honey, symbolizing the food of infants and entrance into the Promised Land.
But was immersion the only way?
If you look at the accounts of baptism in the early church, two things are clear:
First, in the early church, baptism was an extended event. The climax happened at the moment of immersion, but it took on greater meaning in the context of a more elaborate, multi-step process of initiation into the church.
Second, the early church, at least in the second and third centuries, seems to have preferred full immersion—not the sprinkling of water, or the baptism of infants.
There were, however, two important exceptions to full immersion.
First, the Didache allows for the pouring of water three times instead of full immersion. This was allowed for in the absence of sufficient water for immersion.
Second, in the third century, Cyprian defended both sprinkling and pouring instead of full immersion in cases where a person was expected to die soon.
What about infant baptism?
Tertullian is the earliest to reference to the practice of infant baptism. He advised against it.
The Apostolic Tradition’s description of the ceremony of baptism shows that it was designed for those who were old enough to take an active part.
In fact, the confession of faith was so integral to baptism that, if a person could not confess the faith themselves, parents or someone else in the family would speak on their behalf.
A century after Tertullian, Cyprian advocated for infant baptism, although for many years this remained the exception to the rule of full immersion. Infant baptism did not become routine until the fifth and sixth centuries.
The practices of baptism in the early church are covered in much greater detail in unit 5 of the Church History online course, taught by Everett Ferguson.
You will also learn about:
- How the early church celebrated the Sabbath
- The role of women in the early church
- The church’s understanding of moral issues, including sexuality
- How the church withstood both sporadic and systematic persecution
- And much more
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