BONUS ONLINE CONTENT: Covenant children

Against what offender did Martin Luther write the forceful sentences “I have deemed it unnecessary to answer his kind of book. For who can stop the mouths of all people, even of all devils? I have long ago found that if I stop one mouth of the devil, he opens ten others, and the lie grows constantly greater”? Pope Leo X or Clement VII? A cardinal? A Catholic prince of the Holy Roman Empire?

No: Moravian Anabaptist leader Balthasar Hubmaier, who had published a book, On the Christian Baptism of Believers (1525), arguing that only adults who had confessed faith in Christ should be baptized. Hubmaier wrote: “The word or teaching should precede the outward baptism, along with the determination to change one’s life by the help of God.”

The magisterial reformers—those like Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin who wanted to achieve reform with the help of the state and its magistrates—sought to change many practices of late medieval Catholicism. But the baptism of infants was not one of them. They opposed the Anabaptists on numerous grounds, but one of their most forceful complaints was the fact that the Anabaptists no longer baptized infants. To the magisterial reformers the denial of baptism to infants literally damned them; even those who denied the sacramental power of baptism believed that the rejection of infant baptism excluded the child from the nurture and fellowship of God’s people.


Don’t look at the water, look at the Word

To Luther, that denial of baptism’s power was blasphemy—rejecting the power of God to act redemptively in a manner of His own choosing, through the Word and water of baptism. He wrote in his treatise Concerning Rebaptism (1528), “When faith comes [that is, when those baptized as infants come to faith later in life] baptism is complete. A second baptism is not necessary;” and in a 1528 sermon on the catechism, “Don’t look at the water and see if it is wet, he said, but rather that it has with it the Word of God. It is a holy, living, heavenly, blessed water because of the Word and commanded of God, which is holy.”

In addition, Luther argued, the baptism of children had been practiced since the days of the apostles. Among other Scriptures, he based his argument in the story of Jesus saying “Let the children come unto me” (Matt. 19:13–15). One story about Luther says that at times of despair when he thought he felt the assaults of the devil, he would touch himself on the forehead (where he would have been marked with the water of baptism) and repeat to himself “Baptismatus sum” (I am baptized.) 

While specific theological emphases differed among the Swiss reformers, they all argued for maintaining the practice. Zwingli argued that children should be baptized and brought into the covenant on analogy with the practice of circumcision in the Old Testament: “The children of Christians are not less the children of God than their parents are, or than the children of Old Testament times were: but if they belong to God, who will refuse them baptism?” His successor as pastor of the church in Zurich, Heinrich Bullinger, agreed, saying in one sermon, “Since the young babes and infants of the faithful are in the number of reckoning of God’s people, and partakers of the promise touching the purification through Christ; it follows of necessity, that they are as well to be baptized, as they that be of perfect age who profess the Christian faith.” And Strasbourg’s leader of reform, Martin Bucer, said at one point, “All children, indiscriminately, should be brought to the Lord. If they already belong to the Lord, and theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven, why should we deny them the sign of baptism, by which they who belong to the church of Christ are in the habit of being received into it?”

Zwingli did wish that the baptized could receive better religious education, though. He noted in his 1523 Exposition of the Articles (the “articles” in question being the articles of faith of the Zurich church) how good it would be to revive the rigorous program of instruction which the early church had practiced before baptism: “Since the children are baptized so young their religious instruction might begin as soon as they come to sufficient understanding. Otherwise they suffer a great and ruinous disadvantage if they are not as well religiously instructed after baptism as the children of the ancients were before baptism, as sermons to them still preserved prove.”

Calvin stood somewhere in between Zwingli and Luther. In his Institutes he called baptism “the sign of the initiation by which we are received into the society of the church, in order that, engrafted in Christ, we may be reckoned among God’s children” as well as “a token and proof of our cleansing. … a sealed document to confirm to us that all our sins are so abolished, remitted, and effaced that they can never … be recalled, or charged against us.” Like Luther, he found no power in the water; the power was in the Word of God united with the water. 

Similar points were made by the English reformers in the Thirty-Nine Articles, adopted during Queen Elizabeth’s reign; article 27 read “Baptism is not only a sign of profession, and mark of difference, whereby Christian men are discerned from others that be not christened, but it is also a sign of Regeneration or New-Birth, whereby, as by an instrument, they that receive Baptism rightly are grafted into the Church; the promises of the forgiveness of sin, and of our adoption to be the sons of God by the Holy Ghost, are visibly signed and sealed; Faith is confirmed, and Grace increased by virtue of prayer unto God. The Baptism of young Children is in any wise to be retained in the Church, as most agreeable with the institution of Christ.”


From dipping to pouring

The magisterial reformers did change some aspects of church ceremonies surrounding baptism, however. The common late medieval practice was for babies to be baptized by being dipped in their parish font within eight days after they were born, although more and more priests and parents were opting for pouring over dipping. The ceremony was almost invariably private.

The reformers made baptism public and insisted, as they did with other forms of worship, that it be conducted in the vernacular. From the very first Book of Common Prayer in 1549, the English church required that baptism should be administered on “Sundays and other holy days, when the most number of people may come together.” They also eliminated various ceremonies. Luther retained most ceremonies in his first baptismal rite in 1523, but when he produced a revised order in 1526 he eliminated breathing on the child, giving salt, one of the exorcisms, two anointings, and the giving of a lighted candle, although he continued to retain the giving of a baptismal robe and the dipping of the child three times while the minister pronounced the name of the Trinity.

Calvin abolished all of the ceremonies in favor of delivering exhortations about the meaning of baptism “so that there might be no more impediment to prevent the people from going directly to Jesus Christ.” The English church, as might be expected, was in the middle regarding ceremonial, though the 1552 prayer book abolished the exorcism, a procession into the church, the anointing, and the giving of a robe. The Prayer Book continued to recommend dipping the child into the font three times and making the sign of the cross. In practice, most baptisms began to occur by pouring; the rubrics allowed this to happen if the child was weak, and many parents succeeded in persuading their pastors that this was the case. Calvin was indifferent to the mode from the beginning and most of his followers baptized by pouring from the start.

When the Anabaptists protested, then, this was the context of their protest: their vision of a church consisting only of those who had confessed the faith with full knowledge of its content and its dangers, set against the magisterial reformers’ vision of a Christian society where children were welcomed into the covenant and where there might, in fact, be regenerating power in the Word attached to the water. The two visions have been dueling ever since.


mag coversChristian History’s 2015–2017 four-part Reformation series is available as a four-pack. This set includes issue #115 Luther Leads the Way; issue #118 The People’s Reformation; issue #120 Calvin, Councils, and Confessions; and issue#122 The Catholic Reformation. Get your set today. These also make good gifts.

By Jennifer Woodruff Tait and John Oyer

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #118 in 2016]

Jennifer Woodruff Tait is managing editor of Christian History. John Oyer (1925–1998) was professor of history at Goshen College, director of the Mennonite Historical Library at Goshen, and editor of the Mennonite Quarterly Review. A portion of this article is adapted from one by him in CH 5.
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