Infant baptism was not practiced at the time that Jesus was around and instead arose a few centuries later. There is no mention in the New Testament of an infant being sprinkled with water it was only really in later life that this was done, nor was there any suggestion that it would be a good idea. However, there is no explicit instruction that only adults should be baptised, either. This is one of many instances where the bible is open to interpretation.
That said, few would dispute that infant baptism (or christenings) was not practiced at the time of Jesus. And yet in the modern world, Christians routinely baptise children. Which poses the question: where did this new trend originate from and why?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, these questions are contentious and much debated among historians – and among wider Christian circles. There are many competing theories as to the origins of infant baptism.
One of the earlier mentions of the practice is by Carthaginian thinker Tertullian, who also puts forward the idea of a godparent who might aid in overseeing the child’s spiritual development.
Christianity spreads across the Empire
One school of thought views the prevalence of infant baptism as a by-product of a broader change in Christianity. The religion became more and more closely wedded to the state, as it spread across the Roman Empire under Constantine. Eventually, Theodosius I would make Christianity the empire’s official religion– but the religion would take root among the roman population long before that.
The focus of baptism thereby shifted. Whereas before, individuals would come willingly to Christianity, it was now possible to be born into it. Baptism was no longer a matter of personal choice; if you were a child of Christian parents, it followed that you were a Christian and would be baptised as such. This could be for many different reasons such as to remove ‘original sin’ or in the unfortunate case of infant death the belief that it will help send them on to heaven rather than being stuck in purgatory.
One consequence of Christianity becoming so wedded with the Roman Empire is that the emperor became endowed with authority in religious matters. This meant that the emperor was able to pass ordinances which fundamentally altered the way in which the religion was practiced. Some of these ordinances endorsed infant baptism and so the practice became more widespread and common.
Many of these practices concerned original sin.
The washing away of original sin
One factor that cannot be underestimated is that of ‘original sin’ – that which was committed by the first woman, Eve, in the book of Genesis, when she tasted the forbidden fruit. The bible holds that that all human beings bear responsibility for this infraction. The power of sanctified water to ‘wash away’ this sin is one of the purposes of a baptism.
While many modern Christians view both the account put forward in Genesis in more metaphorical terms, there was a time in which sin was taken very literally indeed. It was a matter of grave concern to Christian parents, for whom the prospect of hell was very real and persuasive.
One popular idea was that baptism washed away all sins committed beforehand – but not those committed afterward. People would therefore elect to wait until they were literally on their deathbed before being baptised. Constantine himself was one famous adherent of this practice.
Of course, this tactic was dangerous, in that it posed the not inconsiderable risk that sudden death might rob you of the chance to be baptised. This risk made infant baptism all the more appealing.
During the first millennium, child mortality rates were far higher than they are today. For every child born, there was a likelihood that some would die – mostly through causes completely unknown to the parents – infections, viruses and genetic disorders would take lives seemingly at random.
During this time, child death was a fact of life. That said, it was undoubtedly a cause of great stress to the parents of such children. In the face of conflicting views surrounding the efficacy of infant baptism, it seems likely that parents would elect to baptise their child, in order that they be sent to heaven – however remote the contrary possibility might be. After all, faith can be a powerful comfort and healer.
The differences between adult and child baptism
It is tempting to think of adult baptism as having transformed into child baptism, since the two ceremonies both involve immersion in water and the pledging of vows. But the two are, in actuality, wholly distinct acts. When an adult is baptised, he (or she) is expected to verbally renounce Satan and to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and saviour. A child, by contrast, can make no such renunciations and declarations. These pledges are instead made by the parents and godparents. Child baptism is therefore a conditional act, contingent on the child receiving religious instruction as it grows older. Later in life, a baptised child may wish the make the same pledges spoken in an adult baptism. The ceremony of confirmation was therefore introduced in order to afford such children the chance to do so and carry on their faith of their own volition.