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Tertullian—Baptism of Children in Africa—Origen—First Appearance
of  Infant Baptism—The Clinics—Christianity in England.


We are now approaching the development of those corrupting influences which had been at work from the Apostolic age, silently sapping the foundations of personal piety. In adverting to the language employed by Justin Martyr and Iren?s, we endeavoured to clear those authors from the imputation of unevangelical sentiments, and to interpret their expressions in a sound and safe sense. But though it may be possible to hold them guiltless, it is feared that many of their cotemporaries were fairly open to the charge of holding unscriptural opinions. A notion had grown up, that baptism actually accomplished what was professed in it. As the miraculous gifts of the Spirit were often bestowed upon believers immediately after their baptism, men began to think that it was then first that the Spirit wrought on the soul. And as the act of obedience to the Saviour in the ordinance was commonly associated with spiritual enjoyments and manifestations, and happy converts, like the eunuch, “went on their way rejoicing,” there were some who came to the conclusion that what was connected with baptism was produced by it. If the convictions that led the candidate to the baptismal water, and impelled him to the act of dedication to the Savior’s service, were greatly strengthened at his baptism, so that he then experienced a more intensely satisfying consciousness of pardon and union with Christ, results were confounded with causes, and the new believer was taught to ascribe to baptism the blessings which he had in fact enjoyed before, but which he realized more vividly when he obeyed the Lord.

This step taken, the transition to yet more perilous errors and evils was easy. When baptism was thus invested with a kind of supernatural power, the outward act was soon substituted for the spiritual qualification. Instead of directing inquirers to the Atonement, and encouraging them to seek by prayer for the teaching and aid of the Holy Spirit, the religious instructions of that age expatiated on the vast powers of baptism. Tertullian, for example, a Christian writer who flourished at the close of the second and the commencement of the third century, “declares the following spiritual blessings to be consequent upon baptism:—remission from sins, deliverance from death, regeneration, and participation in the Holy Spirit. He calls it the ‘sacrament of washing,’ the ‘blessed sacrament of water,’ the ‘laver of regeneration.’”1 When such opinions as these were entertained, is it not evident that the door was open to manifold abuses, and that those who had so far departed from Christian truth, would be likely enough to interfere with Christian worship and obedience?

Tertullian was a native of Carthage in Africa, and spent most of his life in that city. It is supposed that he died about the year 220. His tract, “De Baptismo,” was probably written twenty years before his death. From that tract and from other writings of his, we learn that at the beginning of the third century, there were some strange additions to the ordinance of baptism. The new convert was placed among the catechumens, that he might be fully instructed in the faith. After a sufficient probation he was admitted to baptism. The following account of the manner in which it was administered is taken from the late Bishop of Bristol’s “Ecclesiastical History of the Second and Third Centuries, illustrated from the Writings of Tertullian”:—

“The candidate, having been prepared for its due reception by frequent prayers, fasts, and vigils, professed, in the presence of the congregation and under the hand of the president, that he renounced the devil, his pomp, and angels. He was then plunged into the water three times, in allusion to the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity, making certain responses which, like the other forms here mentioned, were not prescribed in Scripture, but rested on custom and tradition. He then tasted a mixture of milk and honey—was anointed with oil, in allusion to the practice under the Mosaic Dispensation of anointing those who were appointed to the priesthood, since all Christians are, in a certain sense, supposed to be priests—and was signed with the sign of the cross. Lastly followed the imposition of hands, the origin of which ceremony is referred by our author to the benediction pronounced by Jacob upon the sons of Joseph.”2

The administration of baptism was at that early period encumbered by ceremonies of merely human invention; in fact, Tertullian complains, in another work, that “various forms and observances had been introduced into the Christian worship, of which some bore too close a resemblance to the customs and practices of the Gentiles.” The signing with the sign of the cross was a superstition early practiced among the Christians. They crossed themselves perpetually. Whatever they undertook or engaged in—when they went out—when they returned home—when they dressed themselves, or put on their shoes, or sat down to a meal, or went to the bath or to bed—the sign of the cross was associated with everything. We need not wonder that the heathen suspected it to savour of magic.

We have mentioned these particulars for the purpose of showing that, at the beginning of the third century, religious declension had considerably advanced. No one will now be surprised at hearing that an attempt was made to extend the administration of baptism in an unwarrantable manner. It is referred to by Tertullian in his tract, “De Baptismo,” in terms of strong disapproval. Some persons had introduced children (not infants) to baptism,  or advocated the administration of the ordinance to them. Tertullian indignantly reproves the practice. “Let them  come,” he says, “when they are taught to whom they may come; let them become Christians when they are able to know Christ. Why should this innocent age hasten to the remission of sins?”3 Now, is it not obvious that Ter?tullian was entirely unacquainted with infant baptism, and that this children’s baptism, which then first began to be talked of, was regarded by him as an unauthorized innovation? The sign of the cross, the giving of milk and honey, and similar ceremonies, were comparatively, small matters, trifling circumstances; they were uncalled-for additions to the ordinance, and were so far mischievous but they did not change it. It was still connected with knowledge, and repentance, and faith. But the admission of children, if they were not old enough to repent and believe, would change the ordinance. It would dissever it from those religious prerequisites with which it had been hitherto uniformly associated. The Gentile or Jewish rites which had been added to it tended to make it more imposing, and so attracted the notice of the weak-minded; but to allow children to be baptized, who were not subjects of repentance and faith, would be, in Tertullian’s opinion, to revolutionize the institute altogether. We act more wisely, he remarked, in temporal matters; surely we ought not to admit to baptism those whom we consider unfit to manage temporal affairs. So he argued.

The case is quite clear. Children (not infants, but probably children from six to ten years old) are first mentioned in connection with the ordinance at the beginning of the third century, and then with disapproval. “Tertullian’s opposition,” the learned Baron Bunsen remarks, “is to the baptism of young, growing children; he does not say a word about new-born infants.”4

Some writers have laboured hard to prove that Origen referred in his writings to infant-baptism as a then existing fact, and that he assigned to it an Apostolic origin. Origen was the most learned Christian of that age. He flourished from A.D. 203 to A.D. 254, and attained high repute, both as a teacher in the catechetical school of Alexandria and as an author. But his references are to child-baptism, not to infant-baptism; and the difference between him and Tertullian is, that the latter decidedly objected to the practice, while Origen spoke of it with approbation. How far, however, did that approbation extend? Only to the baptism of such children as were capable of instruction, and gave indications of piety; for he uniformly taught that “the benefit of baptism depended on the deliberate purpose of the baptized.” His reply to an objection of Celsus expresses his views. That heathen writer, having stated that “intelligent and respectable persons” were invited to initiation in the heathen mysteries, proceeds thus:—“And now let us hear what persons the Christians invite. Whoever, they say, is a sinner, whoever is unintelligent, whoever is a mere child, and, in short, whoever is a miserable and contemptible creature, the kingdom of God shall receive him.” Origen answers him in the following manner:—“In reply to these accusations we say, it is one thing to invite those who are diseased in the soul to a healing, and it is another to invite the healthy to a knowledge and discernment of things more divine. And we, knowing the difference, first call men to be healed. We exhort sinners to come to the instruction that teaches them not to sin, and the unintelligent to come to that which produces in them understanding, and the little children to rise in elevation of thought to the man, and the miserable to come to a more fortunate state, or (what is more proper to say) a state of happiness. But when those of the exhorted that make progress show that they have been cleansed by the Word, and, as much as possible, have lived a better life, THEN we invite them to be initiated among us.”5

Such children as Origen here describes would be “initiated,” that is, baptized by any Baptist in these days. If they have been “cleansed by the Word,” what more can we require? Tertullian’s objection seems to have arisen from the undue eagerness of some persons to hurry children to the baptismal water before they could fully understand and receive the truth. But neither of these fathers refers to infants. They ascribed influences to baptism which are nowhere mentioned in the New Testament. They used language implying that an outward ceremony produced an inward, spiritual effect. They taught the necessity of baptism in order to pardon and salvation. And yet they also maintained the necessity of repentance and faith; and therefore they demanded, that, if young children were baptized, they should not be admitted to the ordinance till they were “able to know Christ,” and were “cleansed by the Word.”

We have at length arrived at the origin of Infant Baptism. Its birth-place was a district of Northern Africa, one of the least enlightened portions of the earth in that age; the time, the middle of the third century; the occasion, certain unscriptural notions which had gradually gained prevalence respecting the design and efficacy of the baptismal rite. Having adverted to those extravagances in a former section, it is unnecessary to adduce further proof. But the reader can easily trace the pro?gress of error. When believers, newly baptized, rejoiced in the forgiveness of sin, and exhibited satisfactory evidence of a regenerated state, men soon began to regard pardon and regeneration as the effects of baptism. Hence sprang the opinion of its necessity to salvation. That being admitted, the question of time came next under consideration. Was it not desirable to obtain pardon and regeneration at the earliest period possible? And besides, were not infants circumcised under the Jewish law? These questions were in the mind of Fidus, a bishop of some place in Northern Africa. We can have no doubt as to his duty under such circumstances. He ought to have searched the New Testament, if he had one (we cannot be sure of it, for books were scarce and dear in those days), and inquired into the differences between the Old and the New Dispensations, the carnal and the spiritual Israel. If he had carried on the inquiry fairly, his difficulties would have been removed without further reference. But he either could not or would not conduct the requisite investigation. Cyprian was at that time Bishop of Carthage, and was reverenced as a great authority in all Church affairs. Fidus wrote to Cyprian. Certain persons, he said, had advised the baptism of infants immediately after birth; but he could not agree with them, and particularly for this reason, that whereas it was customary to receive the baptized with a brotherly kiss, a newly-born infant could not be so received, being treated as unclean for several days after its coming into the world. He thought it best, therefore, to wait till the eighth day, and to baptize the infant at the same time at which, under the law, it would have been circumcised. But he asked advice of Cyprian, who laid the case before a council which had assembled at Carthage, in the year 252, for the settlement of various ecclesiastical matters. Sixty-six bishops met on that occasion. The answer is given in a letter written by Cyprian, from which the following extract is taken:—

“None of us could agree to your opinion. On the contrary, it is the opinion of us all, that the mercy and grace of God must be refused to no human being, so soon as he is born; for since our Lord says in His Gospel, ‘The Son of Man is not come to destroy men’s souls, but to save them,’ so everything that lies in our power must be done that no soul may be lost. As God has no respect of persons, so too He has no respect of age, offering Himself as a Father with equal freeness to all, that they may be enabled to obtain the heavenly grace. As to what you say, that the child in its first days of its birth is not clean to the touch, and that each of us would shrink from kissing such an object, even this, in our opinion, ought to present no obstacles to the bestowment of heavenly grace; for it is written, ‘To the pure all things are pure;’ and none of us ought to revolt at that which God has condescended to create. Although the child be but just born, yet it is no such object anyone ought to demur at kissing it to impart the divine grace and the salutation of peace, since each of us must be led, by his own religious sensibility, to think upon the creative hands of God, fresh from the completion of their work, which we kiss in the newly formed man when we take in our arms what God has made. As to the rest, if anything could prove a hindrance to men in the attainment of grace, much rather might those be hindered whose maturer years have involved them in heavy sins. But if even the chief of sinners, who have been exceedingly guilty before God, receive the forgiveness of sin on coming to the faith, and no one is precluded from baptism and from grace, how much 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?”6

This is very misty theology. In fact, the religion of great numbers, in the third century, was a compound of Judaism and Paganism, with a slight seasoning of Christianity. Gaudy ceremonials were delighted in, and the strange power which had been ascribed to magical influences was transferred to the ordinances of the Gospel. The immersion in water, the eating of the bread, and the drinking of the wine, were associated in their minds, as producing causes, with spiritual transformations and blessings. The bodily act was substituted for the mental, and “faith was made void.” We do not affirm that every professing Christian was enveloped in this darkness; but it is too evident that the views of the majority were confused, and that, under the leadership of such men as Cyprian, the churches were fast drifting into dangerous notions.

Nevertheless, they were consistent in some things. They did not separate baptism from the Lord’s Supper, as is done by all P?obaptist in these times. They held that those who were entitled to the one had an equal right to the other. When the infant had been plunged into the baptismal water, it was considered a member of the Church, and received the Lord’s Supper. If it was too young to eat the bread, they poured the wine down its throat. This, too, originated in Northern Africa, and there only we find it, in the period now under notice.7

Another innovation is traced to the third century. We allude to clinic baptism, that is, the baptism of sick persons, confined to their beds. It was not baptism, properly so called, as they were only sprinkled with water, or had water poured on them. The reason alleged for this departure from Apostolic practice, was the necessity of baptism to the salvation of the soul, and the consequent danger of deferring it, lest the sickness should terminate in death. Thus one error led to another. If those clinics recovered, they were not baptized afterwards; but they were not admitted to the ministry. Novatian, however, was an exception to this rule. He had been sprinkled or received a pouring on his bed, when his dissolution was hourly expected. After his recovery, his eminent qualifica?tions for the ministry induced the churches to deviate from the established custom, and he was ordained. Subsequently he took a high stand as a reformer.

We are now brought down to the year 254, the date of Origen’s death. The downward tendency is before us. Baptism, at first the voluntary act of a believer in Christ, has become, in numerous instances, the performance of a ceremony upon an unconscious infant. In all these cases the design of the Christian profession is subverted. Members are introduced into the churches who are necessarily destitute of the spiritual qualifications enumerated in the New Testament. It does not require the gift of prophecy to foretell the disastrous consequences. Religious declension was both the cause and the effect of the introduction of infant-baptism. The cause, inasmuch as so great a change could not have taken place if the Christian mind had not previously lost a due sense of the spiritual nature of religion: the effect, since the unholy mixture arising from the new arrangement could not but prove injurious to the interests of piety. “What communion hath light with darkness?”

It may be expected that some account of the introduction of Christianity into England should be given. It is highly probable that the Gospel reached this country at an early period, by means of merchants of Gaul in the first instance, and of missionaries afterwards. But dates and details are wanting. The statements of Tertullian and others are rather rhetorical flourishes than truthful records. That Joseph of Arimathea went to England, with several companions, and built a church “made of rods, wattled or interwoven,” in which they “watched, prayed, fasted, preached, having high meditations under a low roof, and large hearts betwixt narrow walls,”8 is now generally acknowledged to be a fable. That the Apostle Paul visited Britain when he traveled “to the extreme bounds of the West,” as Clemens Romanus expressed it, is more easily said than proved. That Claudia, mentioned by Paul in 2 Timothy 4:21, was of British origin, is a conjecture, and nothing more. The story of King Lucius, as Dean Milman observes, “is a legend.”9 We must be content to remain in ignorance of the special instrument employed for the enlightenment of England, and can only remark that the Christian Church, when planted there, harmonized, in its doctrines and services, with the churches of Gaul, from which country missionary expeditions naturally took their westward course.


1  Bishop Kaye’s Tertullian, p. 432.

2  P. 434.

3  De Baptismo, chap. 18.

4  Christianity and Mankind, ii. p. 115.

5  See Christian Review, April, 1854, containing an article by Dr. Ira Chase on the “Opinions of Origen especting Baptism.”

6  Labbe and Kossart, Concil. i. pp. 742-744.

7  Bingham’s Christian Antiquities, book xii. chap. i. sect. 3, and book xv. chap. iv. sect. 7.

8  Fuller’s Church History, cent. i. sect. 13.

9  History of Latin Christianity, book iv. chap. iii.

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