The history of baptism began during early church history. From the first through the fifth centuries, baptism was fundamental to the church. As church history evolved during this time, the history of baptism also morphed; however, it was always a central doctrine, throughout ancient church history. During the first four centuries of the history of baptism, the practice changed, but the theology of baptism did not.
Mode of Baptism in Early Church History
Baptism’s practice was elastic during early church history. For much of the history of baptism, the sacrament was almost exclusively administered on Resurrection Sunday, today known as Easter. This was nearly always after fasting, but the mode of administration varied. Both immersion and sprinkling were acceptable, and bishops used either warm or cold water. The flexibility of administration found early in the history of baptism likely was dictated, at least partly, by the water available. [i]
Baptism, Church History and Persecution
Physical context influenced the history of baptism. Likewise, the Roman Empire’s state culturally affected the history of baptism.
The earliest records, notably the “Didache,” mention the baptism of infants. However, “infant” in this case does not mean “toddler” or “baby.” These infants had to comprehend truths before being baptized, so they had to be cognitively mature. Therefore, these “infants” had to be older than a toddler. [ii]
These earliest records from church history were written while Christians were persecuted. At this stage in the history of baptism, Christians only baptized true converts. The process of being baptized lasted three years. The first year, a person received private instruction, apart from the local church. The second year, the person listened to preaching in the local church. The third year, the person prayed with the local church. These stages were known as “weepers,” “hearers,” and “kneelers” in the history of early church. [iii]
At the end of this program, the candidate had the option of being baptized. During this era in the history of baptism, the candidate fasted for a period, often Lent, before being baptized by the bishop.
Baptism, Church History and Constantine
When Constantine made Christianity acceptable, persecution ceased. This was a turning point in the history of baptism, as it allowed Christians to baptize publicly.
There were two major effects that Constantine had on baptism in church history. First, the three-year discipleship program transformed into a confirmation system. Second, faith statements were made at baptism, to stop people with heretical views from entering the Church. The earliest recorded profession of faith in church history was the Roman Symbol. It has been altered slightly, and is known today as the Apostle’s Creed. [iv]
Augustine’s Influence on the History of Baptism
Over time, the spiritual state of deceased infants was questioned. Augustine, a pillar in Church History, championed the doctrine of depravity. He believed people are unable to achieve God’s merit. Salvation comes only by a work of God’s grace, which occurred at baptism. [v]
Because of Augustine’s teaching, adults who were unbaptized and gravely ill considered baptism on their deathbeds. If they died unbaptized, then they would go to Hell. Similarly, deceased unbaptized children were not saved.
Since salvation came only at baptism, it was necessary to baptize people before they died. This is how infant baptism, in the form it is practiced today, became common. [vi]
Theology of Baptism in Early Church History
Despite the variance in baptism’s administration during Early Church History, the theology of it remained steadfast.
First, baptism was the sacrament of entrance into the community. Anyone who was baptized was a member of the church, and to be a member of the church, a person had to be baptized.
Secondly, baptism was how people were washed clean. The early history of baptism taught that at baptism the person being baptized was washed clean externally by water. At the same time, he or she was washed clean internally by the Holy Spirit.
Throughout the early history of baptism, this theology remained consistent, even though the mode of practice changed dramatically. The outward practice of baptism in Early Church History was influenced by the Roman Empire. However, the theology early in the history of baptism was firmly grounded in God.
[i] Hanna, John. “Ancient Church History.” Redeemer Seminary, Dallas, TX. 2011. Class.
[ii] “Ancient Church History.”
[iii] Hannah, John D. Kregel Pictorial Guide To Church History, Volume 2 (Kregel Pictorial Guides) . Kregel Publications, 2005. Print.
[iv] “Ancient Church History.”
[v] Kregel Pictorial Guide to Church History.
[vi] “Ancient Church History.”