What Is the History of Infant Sprinkling?
“Could you tell me when infant baptism first began and why it was started?”
In the first place, there is rarely any such practice as infant “baptism.” The Greek verb
baptizo means to immerse. Babies, whenever they are administered what is commonly called “infant baptism,” are almost never immersed. Whatever else one may wish to call the practice, it is not infant “baptism.”
Second, there is nothing in the New Testament remotely related to the custom of applying water to babies in an effort to secure their salvation, or to demonstrate salvation on behalf of such. There is no divine command, apostolic example, or inference (reasonable or necessary) that would sanction such a procedure. Rather, the practice had its genesis in the post-apostolic era when a divinely-foretold digression already was well underway (cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:1ff; 1 Timothy 4:1ff; 2 Timothy 4:1ff).
Note the following concession from celebrated cleric Albert Taylor Bledsoe (1809-1877), of the Methodist Episcopal Church, who himself engaged in the practice of “infant baptism.”
“It is an article of our faith, that ‘the baptism of young children (infants) is in any wise to be retained in the Church, as most agreeable to the institution of Christ.’ But yet, with all our searching, we have been unable to find, in the New Testament, a single express declaration, or word, in favor of Infant Baptism” (Southern Review, St. Louis, Vol. XIV, April, 1874, p. 334).
Bledsoe went on to attempt his justification solely by inference — a most futile endeavor indeed.
The first hint of an inclination in this direction came in the 2nd century A.D. when Irenaeus (cir. A.D. 130-200), a religious leader in southern Gaul, declared that: “He [Christ] came to save, through means of himself, all who through him are born again unto God — infants, children, and boys and youths, and old men” (Against Heresies 2.22.4). The quotation reveals that the idea that infants needed salvation was evolving already.
On the other hand, Tertullian in Africa (A.D. 160-220) opposed this inclination. He argued:
“Let them come while they are growing up; let them come while they are learning, while they are being taught to what it is they are coming; let them become Christians when they are susceptible of the knowledge of Christ. What haste to procure the forgiveness of sins for the age of innocence. . . Let them first learn to feel their need of salvation; so it may appear that we have given to those that wanted” (On Baptism, 18).
By the time of Cyprian (A.D. 200-258), a theologian in Carthage, the error of “infant sin” had taken a full grip on some who professed Christianity. Cyprian argued:
“But if even the chief of sinners, who have been exceedingly guilty before God, receive the forgiveness of sins on coming to the faith, and no one is precluded from baptism and from grace, how less should the child be kept back, which, as it is but just born, cannot have sinned, but has only brought with it, by its descent from Adam, the infection of the old death; and which may the more easily obtain the remission of sins, because the sins which are forgiven it are not its own, but those of another” (Epistle, 58).
In the same general timeframe, Origen (A.D. 185-254), a teacher in both Alexandria and Caesarea, contended:
“Infants are baptized for the forgiveness of sins. Of what sins? Or when have they sinned? Or how can any reason of the laver in their case hold good, but according to that sense we mentioned even now — none is free from pollution, though the life be the length of one day upon the earth. And it is for that reason, because by the sacrament of baptism the pollution of our birth is taken away, that infants are baptized” (Homily on Luke, 14:5).
The historical evidence has been succinctly summarized by the Lutheran scholar H.A.W. Meyer:
“The baptism of the children of Christians, of which no trace is found in the N.T., is not to be held as an apostolic ordinance, as, indeed, it encountered early and long resistance; but it is an institution of the church, which gradually arose in post-apostolic times in connection with the development of ecclesiastical life and of doctrinal teaching, not certainly attended before Tertullian, and by him still decidedly opposed, and, although defended by Cyprian, only becoming general after the time of Augustine in virtue of that connection” (Commentary on Acts [16:15], New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1883, p. 312).
The practice of “infant baptism” is not authorized by the New Testament. It is a most dangerous custom for it raises a sense of false security in those whose parents impose it upon them. Salvation is a matter of personal obedience (Hebrews 5:9); it is not a blessing that can be accessed by one person on behalf of another.
About the Author
Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.