Baptism History


St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church

Origin of Baptism



When most of us think of the biblical origins of the sacrament of Baptism, we start with John the Baptist. In reality, we now know that a variety of ritual acts existed in the time of the Old Testament which provided a rich pool of symbols, rituals and practices from which the Christian community later drew. We might briefly touch on a few of the more significant ones.

We know that for the Hebrews, a people living in a parched land, water was a powerful symbol of life. Because it was basic to cleansing, it was often used in the early Hebrews' rites of purification. The Hebrews did not think in terms of a body/soul split; physical purification rites like the washing of hands or the cleansing of sacred utensils were also understood as accomplishing an interior purification.

In late Judaism (after about 100 B.C.), we can identify a "baptism" movement consisting of a variety of sects which employed frequent ritual baths as a means of preparing for the imminent Day of the Lord. Also at this time, there developed the practice of "proselyte baptism". Gentiles, as such, were considered impure and therefore needed to undergo a ritual purification (for males this was followed by circumcision) as part of their initiation. Immediately following the "baptism" the convert performed a ritual sacrifice, signifying his full participation in the liturgy and worship of the community. This may have influenced the later Christian practice of celebrating Eucharist as a part of Christian initiation.

John the Baptizer obviously drew from much of this tradition in his own ministry. John's basic message was one of repentance and conversion in preparation for the coming Messianic Kingdom. For those who heard John, his baptism provided a concrete sign of their acceptance of his preaching. It is a firm Gospel tradition that it was John's baptism of Jesus that initiated Jesus' public ministry. Most scholars see this key event as a proclamation that the Kingdom for which John was the herald had indeed arrived in the person of Jesus.

Interestingly, Baptism apparently played no part in Jesus' own earthly ministry. What is significant, however, is the biblical evidence that it quickly became a central ritual of the Christian community almost immediately following Jesus's death. In fact, the two key historical events which were to have been most formative in the Church's understanding of Christian initiation were: (1) Jesus' death and resurrection and (2) the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. The earliest rites of initiation, water baptism and the imposition of hands, together sacramentalized these two historical events in one act of initiation. The convert's public assent of faith marked his entrance into the Paschal Mystery and his experience of the coming of the Spirit. This dual action is what was celebrated by convert and community in the Sacrament of Baptism. Furthermore, there was no theological separation between the faith of the believer and the sacramental act. Meaningful faith could not be private, it was public and it was communal. Baptism celebrated this reality.

It is important that we are able to see this early development of Baptism in its proper context. It clearly was an expression of the missionary life of the Church. It was a sacrament of initiation. As the Church grew and developed in its first few centuries, the process of initiation also expanded into what we refer to now as the Catechumenate, a faith journey undertaken by both candidate (catechumen) and community. This journey, often spanning years, clearly demonstrated the process of initiation. Early in Church practice the Baptism of a convert (by this time a rich rite including the imposition of hands and an anointing) was immediately followed by the celebration of the Eucharist, the principal worship of the Church. Also, Baptism was obviously associated with conversion and therefore was confined primarily to adults for the first two or three centuries.

It was in the fourth and fifth centuries that Baptism underwent some of the most dramatic changes as a result of a curious blend of theological insight and historical circumstance. As was mentioned earlier, Baptism was understood as a sacrament of adult conversion. In this sense, the convert celebrated a powerful liberation from sin and reconciliation with God. It was St. Augustine, however, who adopted this notion of baptismal liberation from sin and took it in a new direction. He became an ardent foe of Pelagianism, a heresy which held that humanity could attain salvation unaided by grace. In response to Pelagius, Augustine emphasized the reality of original sin and the resulting necessity for the grace of baptismal cleansing. Prior to this, the people had little reason to fear for the salvation of their unbaptized children. Now, given the high rate of infant mortality, parents began to appeal to their Bishop for the immediate baptism of their children. By the fifth century, infant baptism had become the norm. It should also be remembered that by this time, the empire had already become predominantly Christian. Adult conversion and baptism was de-emphasized because there were few unbaptized adults left.

The role of the Bishop in initiation was of great importance. In the first few centuries of the Church, he was the primary minister of the Sacrament of Initiation. Yet by the fourth and fifth centuries the Church had grown to such an extent that he was unable to visit each community as frequently as in times past. This created an issue which was solved pastorally in different ways by the East and West. In the West, bishops began to delegate to the presbyters the power to baptize, while reserving to themselves the second element in the initiation process, the imposition of hands and anointing. In the East, the decision was made to maintain the unity of the initiation rites thus making the presbyter the primary minister. The practice of baptizing, imposing hands, anointing and administering Eucharist all together at infancy has continued from that time to the present in the Eastern Church.

In both East and West, infant baptism remained the most common practice. This is not without its wisdom. While the Church has distanced itself from the medieval preoccupation with original sin and the salvation of the unbaptized, infant baptism still provides a powerful reminder that the pilgrimage of faith is truly lifelong. Furthermore, we are reminded that it is God who takes the initiative in salvation. The community, for its part, wishes to begin its nurturing of faith as early in the child's life as possible.

While infant baptism is the most common practice in the Church today, the new Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, restored at the Second Vatican Council, proposes for us another more ancient vision. It reminds us of the biblical connection between personal conversion and communal initiation. It also restores the ancient unity of the three presently distinct Sacraments of Initiation: Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist.

By maintaining the validity of infant baptism, while at the same time pointing to the vision of the adult catechumenate, the Church powerfully communicates the degree to which initiation should be viewed as a lifelong process worthy of such diverse sacramental expression.