Baptism—by Immersion or Aspersion?
A little history sheds a lot of light on the origin and meaning of this important Christian ceremony.
THOUSANDS of tourists walk right on by without even giving it a second thought. They never wonder at the change, or if they do, they rarely find the answer to their question.
The scene could be at almost any really ancient church, but let’s take the one at Florence, Italy, for an example. Thousands of visitors mill through the Piazza del Duomo in the center of the city. They look at a magnificent green-and-white marble building there, 82 feet (25 meters) across. They know it is a baptistery, but rarely do they wonder why such a large building was needed.
They go on to Pisa, some fifty miles away. There, in the plaza in which they find both the cathedral and the famous leaning tower, is another baptistery, 115 feet (35 meters) in diameter. But the visitors walk right on by, rarely thinking of the change that must have occurred in baptisms since the design for these buildings was established.
It was on looking at a similar baptistery at Poitiers, some 200 miles southwest of Paris, that I really became curious about this difference. The baptismal basin there is almost six feet in diameter. Farther south, in Marseille, at the former Cathedral de la Major, the baptistery was more than eight feet across. Wherever you look, whether in the famous Lateran palace in Rome, in the ruins of Tipasa, seventy kilometers west of Algiers in North Africa, in small places in northern Italy like Albenga, Grado, Parma, Pistoia, Torcello or Volterra, or in other places where there are extremely ancient churches, you will find these special baptisteries. Some of them still have the large baptismal basins (that the French call piscines—the same word they use for fish ponds and swimming pools!) that are remnants of the time when baptisms were far different from what they are today.
If you are of an inquiring mind, you will wonder why the change was made.
THE ORIGIN OF BAPTISM
Although the Bible shows that people were baptized before Jesus Christ, the first Christian baptism obviously was the baptism of Christ. John the baptizer was baptizing people in the Jordan River in the year 29 of our era. He was baptizing, as the reliable historian puts it, “those repenting for forgiveness of sins.” He was preparing them for the Messiah, whose sacrifice really would bring about the forgiveness of those sins.—Mark 1:4; Heb. 9:22.
In each of these baptisms a lot of water was being used. Nobody was merely being sprinkled. Nor was Jesus baptized by either affusion (pouring on the head) or aspersion (sprinkling). Matthew says: “Jesus immediately came up from the water.” Mark also speaks of Jesus “coming up out of the water.” Jesus had been down in it, actually being immersed in the Jordan River.—Matt. 3:16; Mark 1:10.
A great deal of water was needed in order to immerse, or to dip under the water, those who were being baptized. Thus, you read in the Sacred Scriptures: “John also was baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was a great quantity of water there.” Also, the Ethiopian eunuch, upon converting, said: “Look! a body of water; what prevents me from getting baptized?” Not just a little basin, but a “body” of water was necessary, for these baptisms were all by immersion. (John 3:22, 23; Acts 8:36) This fact is borne out, not only by the Bible, but also by secular and religious historians—even by the historians of religions that no longer perform baptism by immersion!
WHAT THE HISTORIANS SAY
Larousse du XXe Siècle, the best-known encyclopedia in France, says: “The first Christians received baptism by immersion everywhere where water was found.”* The ancestor of the present Larousse, the larger Grand Dictionnaire Universel du XIXe Siècle, has, for almost a hundred years, said: “Baptism by immersion, Baptism conferred by plunging the catechist in the water. In the first centuries of the Church one gave BAPTISM BY IMMERSION.”* The Dictionnaire Encyclopédique Quillet adds: “The most ancient fonts consist of a basin sufficiently large that adults can be plunged into them; because, in the early days of the Church baptism was performed by immersion.”*
Le Baptême des Adultes, written with Church approval by Robert Lesage as a guide for new members, says on page 18: “It was in effect by immersion that baptism was administered during the first centuries of the church.”
The Catholic abbot Jules Corblet, honorary Canon of Amiens, officer of the Academy and director of the Revue de l’Art Chrétien, wrote two volumes on baptism entitled Histoire Dogmatique, Liturgique et Archéologique du Sacrement de Baptême. His second volume begins with this paragraph:
“The example of Our Lord baptized in the Jordan would naturally cause rivers to be chosen as the first places of baptism; nothing, elsewhere, could be more favorable than these large streams of water for the immersion of the crowds that converted to Christianity. But, as there were not rivers everywhere, the writers of the first centuries [Justin, Clement, Victor I, Tertullian, etc.] took care to remark that seas, lakes, ponds and springs are equally proper for baptismal immersions.”
THE “CHURCH FATHERS” COMMENT
Corblet cites ancient fathers of the Church as proof that in early times real immersion was performed. Gregory of Nyssa (about 331-396) said of the water: “We hide ourselves in it, like the Savior was hidden in the earth.” Cyril of Jerusalem (315-386) said that one is completely surrounded by the water. Epiphany remarked that the waters bathed, not just one member, but that they surrounded and purified the entire body. John Chrysostom (345-407) said: “The immersion of the head in the baptismal water is a representation of the tomb of the old man, who is plunged into it as into a tomb, to come out of it with a new life to which he is resurrected.” Jerome (about 340-420) spoke of a triple immersion of the head, and Augustine (354-430), Corblet reports, spoke of the complete cleansing of the body.
The English-language Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 3, page 83, cites Cyril of Jerusalem’s description of a baptism performed about the year 340 of our epoch. The person to be baptized enters an inner room, prepares himself, is lead to the baptismal tank, and “he is submerged at each question, three times therefore.”
Even though Christian baptism, according to the Bible, is neither for the cleansing of the body nor for the remission of sins, and though it need be done only once, these statements show clearly that the practice of immersion that Jesus had established was still in effect hundreds of years after his death, and that it is only since that time that it has been changed.
The abbey Corblet said in Des Lieux Consacrés à l’ Administration du Baptême, page 13: “The baptistery had especially been constructed in view of the baptism of adults. When, in the eighth century, that of young infants became generalized, one would have to abandon little by little these isolated monuments to replace them by baptismal tanks placed in the churches. Where one continued to use the baptisteries, one replaced the large basin by an immersion tank for infants.”
This change, and the religious building programs of the ninth to the thirteenth centuries, brought about the destruction of many of the immersion basins formerly used for adults. However, a few of them still remain, as silent, though eloquent, testimonials to this change.
WHEN THE CHANGE OCCURRED
Corblet says: “The majority of theologians and liturgists admit in a general manner: 1st, that there was total immersion from evangelical times until about the fourteenth century; 2nd, that from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century, partial immersion of the body was used with affusion [pouring] on the head; 3rd, that from the fifteenth century affusion alone replaced affusion accompanied by immersion.”* This church historian points out that a church council held in Liege, Belgium, in 1287 indicated that immersion was still the sole form of baptism being employed there. “Saint Thomas [1225-1274] spoke of [aspersion] as an out of the ordinary practice and said that a minister would sin gravely in baptizing other than by immersion, because he would not be conforming to the ceremonial of the Latin Church.”*
In 1526 a church assembly at Chartres, France, left the priests at liberty to employ either method. But more than a hundred years later, in 1655, the Ritual of Poitiers still recommended that the priests “skillfully plunge the child three times, being careful not to injure it.”
However, the tide of change had long been definitely against the principle of immersion that Jesus had established. Already it had washed away the idea that baptism, as it had been in Jesus’ day, was for people who were old enough to have knowledge and faith and who were publicly announcing the dedication of their lives to God. In place of that original meaning, baptism had been watered down to little more than a ceremonial act following childbirth.
Louis Réau, member of the French Institute and historian of church art, thinks it was this change from baptizing only adults that gradually led to the change from immersion to sprinkling. The change was necessary, he says, because it was dangerous to plunge infants completely under the water. He points out, however, that this change did not take place all at once, but that “a long period of transition must be allowed during which the ceremony of baptism was at the same time partial immersion and pouring.”* The evidence for this is that certain ancient baptisteries are too shallow for immersion to be possible, and that works of art of the epoch show a person standing in the water, which comes perhaps up to his knees, while more water is being poured over his head.
CHANGING THE CEREMONY CHANGES THE MEANING
Changing the ceremony has watered down both its importance and its meaning. The idea of personal dedication has been drowned completely. The change has reached the point spoken of by Témoignage Chrétien, a Catholic weekly, published in Paris. It said that most people now come to Church “as their fathers and grandfathers did,” only for baptism, communion, marriage and burial. To these people, it said, baptism merely sanctifies the event of birth. “Other religions, other civilizations would translate that by other actions, but the significance would not at all be different.”
As Réau says, the Church has changed the meaning of baptism. No longer is it for adults, “prepared over a long period of time and fully conscious of their engagement.” Instead, it has become something for infants who have neither the knowledge nor the ability to make a personal commitment.
The Church, in baptizing infants instead of adults, and in sprinkling instead of immersing, “has blotted out the symbolic meaning of primitive baptism,” when, among other things, “immersion signified death of the ‘old man’ buried under the water and coming out of the baptismal bath [signified] birth to a new life.”*
THE RESULTS OF TAKING IT SERIOUSLY
However, there are people today who really hold to that primitive baptism established by Jesus. They do not consider immediate baptism necessary for the remission of children’s inherited sin; they accept Christ’s ransom as being sufficient for that. They do not look at baptism as marking one’s membership in a church, but, instead, they know that it publicly symbolizes their dedication to God.
They know that baptism is a Christian requirement, but they baptize only people who are old enough to make their own decisions, who understand God’s Word, and who have dedicated themselves to Him. Further, they baptize only by total immersion, as Jesus was immersed in the Jordan River. Thus, they keep the important symbol of baptism—that of one’s voluntarily dying to his former course of life and being raised up to a new life in God’s service.
Taking these matters seriously, as Jesus and his apostles did, they do not find it necessary to complain, as did the front cover of Témoignage Chrétien, that only one out of ten baptized parishioners is Christian. Instead, their ranks of zealous Christian workers, actual voluntary teachers of others, are growing by leaps and bounds throughout the earth. Regularly hundreds of newly dedicated persons are baptized at semiannual and annual assemblies held throughout the earth. Over seven thousand were baptized at an assembly in 1958 in New York city.
Why do so many take up this “yoke” that Christ said his followers must take upon themselves? It is not just because this is a Christian command, but also because these principles, as they really existed in Jesus’ day are so thrilling that when one learns of them he realizes he has to tell them to other people.
When Jehovah’s witnesses say that baptism must be by immersion, and that it must be in symbol of one’s dedication to God, they are following the example that was set by Jesus, by his disciples and by all the early Christians. To those who disagree with this principle Jesus set, they reply simply that no man who claims to follow Christ ever has any right to deny his example, or even to imply that it was wrong.
Volume 1, page 551.
Volume 21, page 187.
Volume 1, Page 366.
Histoire Dogmatique, Vol. 1, page 223.
Histoire Dogmatique, Vol. 1, page 236.
Louis Réau, Iconographie de l’Art Chrétien, Vol. 1, page 240.
Louis Réau, Iconographie de l’Art Chrétien, Vol. 1, page 241.