When I was growing up here in the country many decades ago there were two kinds of people: those who went to church and those who didn’t. The churchgoers (and that was most everyone) were almost all either Baptists or Methodists. The main differences between Methodists and Baptists, as far as I could tell, was that Methodists were allowed to dance and drink alcohol, and Baptists were not. The only other difference I was aware of was that Methodists baptised by sprinkling and Baptists by dunking.
We were raised Methodist, much to the chagrin of my Baptist paternal grandmother. When I was a little kid she told me that baptism required full immersion and she quoted some bible verse to prove her point. And I worried about that. So when I was about 12 and going to be baptised at our little Methodist church I asked the preacher if I could get dunked instead of sprinkled. He seemed puzzled by that and told me it was OK to do it either way, but that sprinkling was just fine. I didn’t want to make waves , so I went along with sprinkling. But I worried about whether it took.
Studying the history of Christianity has caused me to think quite a bit about baptism lately; specifically, what a big mess we’ve made out of it.
For the earliest Christians, baptism was a big deal. In order to be baptised, a person was first required to go through a lengthy period of study. Once the candidate was deemed eligible he or she was baptised (either by immersion or by having water poured over the head). In the early church one was baptised while naked, then annointed with oil. It was believed that all sins up to the point of baptism were forgiven. But afterwards the baptised believer had to live sinlessly, since the forgiveness only came once. For this reason people often put off baptism until they were near death.
With the advent of imperial Christianity and the Roman Catholic church this all changed. Roman Catholics baptised infants. This was understood to cleanse the baby of original sin. Sins accumulated thereafter had to be absolved by confession, penance and mass. It was this ritualistic process of removing sin (along, of course, with the sale of indulgences) which motivated Martin Luther to question the notion of salvation by works.
But even after the fuse that Luther lit reached the powder, baptism remained a ritual that was only for newborns. Until the Anabaptists appeared.
The Protestant reformers had insisted that everyone should be allowed to read the Bible (which had previously been available to only a select few within the hierarchy of the Church). So along with the Reformation came, for the first time in well over a thousand years, Bible-reading Christians. Some of these Bible-readers noticed that in the New Testament it is adults who are baptised, not infants. They decided to imitate this Biblical practice, much to the outrage of everybody else, who derisively called them “rebaptisers” or “anabaptists.”
One of the few things both Protestants and Catholics could agree upon was that these anabaptists were dangerous heretics. It is said that few of them died of old age. Tens of thousands were put to death, often by being drowned. Their crime: adult baptism.
Maybe it is this tragic, cruel and stupid history that Wendell Berry had in mind when, in poem VII of the 2008 Sabbaths, he writes:
The depth and volume of the waters of baptism,
the true taxonomy of sins, the field marks
of those most surely saved, God’s own only true
interpretation of Scripture: these would be
causes of eternal amusement, could we forget
how we have hated one another, how vilified
and hurt and killed one another, bloodying
the world, by means of questions, wrongly
asked, never to be rightly answered, but asked and
wrongly answered, hour after hour, day after day,
year after year–such is my belief–in Hell.
These days we aren’t drowning fellow believers over how we interpret baptism, but baptism debates live on, and many of us aren’t above figuratively bludgeoning our fellow Christians about it. We can trot out the doctrinal nuances derived from our own denominational backgrounds and do battle on a dizzying number of esoteric baptismal issues. Who should be baptised? At what age? By whom? In what manner? How many “baptisms” are there? What is the significance of them? Blah, blah, blah. Are these “questions wrongly asked, never to be rightly answered”?
So what should we make of all this? Is baptism really something we need to spend so much time fretting about?
We know that Jesus was baptised by John the Baptiser, who was making a splash in his day by rather dramatically calling folks to turn their lives around, and to signify their doing so by having him dunk them in the Jordan River. After his resurrection Jesus instructed his disciples to go into the world and baptize disciples. And it seems from Paul’s letters that he assumed that all Christians had been baptised. But if baptism is the symbolic representation of a reorientation of our lives (“repentance” in John’s terms) then does it really matter if we’re naked when we’re baptised? Or if we first learned a catecism? Or how old we are? Or who baptises us? Or where? Or how? Or how many times?
I wonder if we are in some respects just swapping circumcision for baptism. Is God keeping score on who got the right kind of baptism and who didn’t? With all the ugly history associated with baptism it’s easy to see why the Quakers just dropped it altogether (along with every other sacrament).
Of course we can all be glad that in the last few hundred years we’ve lightened up on the subject. When people publicly proclaim their new lives by getting baptised, I think that’s wonderful. I love to watch folks get baptised. The spiritual rush is contagious.
But, personally, I don’t think we need to worry too much about the details.