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Baptism, from the very beginning of Christian history is a major ceremony or ordinance (called sacrament by the liturgical churches), instituted by Christ Himself in the Great Commission, the ceremony of initiation into membership in the church.


At the time of the Reformation the Roman Catholic Church taught that baptism was essential to salvation, that it was efficacious for the washing away of original sin and all sins committed up to baptism, that it conveyed divine grace automatically (ex opere operato), and that it should be administered to infants at the earliest possible moment, since they are lost without baptism, and that the mode should be pouring or sprinkling. Luther (and the strict Lutherans after him) made but slight change in the meaning of baptism. He denied the ex opere operato character of the sacrament, making it conditional upon faith in the recipient, but taught baptismal regeneration. However, since it is obvious that the infant himself cannot exercise faith, he was forced to claim either that the infant had a "sleeping faith" given him by God, or that the godparents (patrons at the baptism) exercised a substitute faith for the infant. Zwingli and Calvin (followed by the Reformed churches generally) held that baptism had no power to convey grace but was only a symbol of acceptance in the church and a pledge to Christian nurture. All forms of Protestantism (Lutheran, Reformed, and Anglican) except Anabaptism, as well as Roman and Greek Catholicism, practiced and required infant baptism for the entire population (usually required by law), thus using it as the necessary and effective instrument to continue or establish and maintain a national or mass church. Regardless of the theological meaning given to it by the church, the mass of the people of that time held infant baptism to be the magical or semi-magical means to salvation, the means of incorporation into the general Christian society, and the solemn religious recognition of the beginning of life. With this great meaning it has remained deeply imbedded in the popular mass mind, both Catholic and Protestant. The tenacity with which state church leaders have clung to infant baptism and vigorously fought all movements for its modification or abolition is abundant proof that it is a necessary pillar of the state church system. Every movement, however, which emphasizes personal belief, commitment, regeneration, and holy living, almost inevitably tends to minimize or nullify the sacramental character of baptism and the baptism of infants, in favor of adult baptism understood as a symbol of regeneration and a pledge to holy living. This was not only true to Anabaptism and its descendants, but is evident in Socinianism, Arminianism, Pietism, and modern Revivalism as well.

The question of the relation of the various Reformation (Catholic, Protestant, Anabaptist) conceptions of the meaning of baptism and the proper subjects of baptism to the original New Testament (NT) teaching and the practice of the early church is of course answered differently today by the various groups. This is due in part at least to the lack of explicit N.T. statements on these points. There is no clear-cut case in the New Testament of infant baptism, although the advocates of the latter confidently assert that the report of whole households being baptized must include children, and that the correspondence between baptism and circumcision as the rites of initiation into the people of God under the two covenants strongly implies infant baptism as a parallel to infant circumcision. These arguments were in fact used by the reformers to answer the challenge of the Anabaptists who demanded proof from the Scripture (claimed by the reformers as the sole authority for faith) for infant baptism. Modern scholars have in general agreed that infant baptism cannot be positively proved from the New Testament either theologically or historically, thus granting the Anabaptist claim, and many concede that the logic of the requirement of personal repentance, faith and obedience as called for by Christ and the apostles, requires baptism to be only upon confession of faith, although few go so far as to call for the abandonment of infant baptism. Karl Barth (Die kirchliche Lehre von der Taufe, Zürich, 1943) is one of the few (but very influential) who both theologically and practically abandon infant baptism in favor of believers' baptism. Oscar Cullman (Die Tauflehre des N.T. Erwachsenen- und Kindertaufe, Zürich, 1948) and Joachim Jeremias (Hat die älteste Kirche die Kindertaufe geübt? Göttingen, 1938) take the opposite position. In any case the concept of baptism is closely tied to the conception of the church.

The Anabaptists' insistence upon believers' baptism and upon the meaning of baptism as a symbol and pledge had three roots: first, their Biblicism, second, their concept of the church, and third, their concept of the nature of Christianity. Reading the New Testament and finding everywhere baptism tied to repentance and faith, they concluded that baptism should not be administered to anyone but believers, and that infant baptism was accordingly no baptism at all but only a "water-bath." Since, however, baptism is commanded by Christ, they admitted no one into the churches without it and accordingly "re-"baptized everyone, though not counting it essential to salvation. Their concept of the church as a voluntary fellowship composed only of those who had an experience of conversion and could intelligently commit themselves to discipleship, holy living, and brotherly love, a church to be kept pure from sin and separated from the world, was in direct contrast to the prevailing mass church concept. Adult baptism is, however, essential to the Anabaptist type of church, whereby baptism becomes a distinguishing mark of separation and commitment. Since no compulsion is to be used to force people to belong to the church, to keep them in the church, or to maintain a holy life, voluntary membership with believers' baptism as its outward symbol logically becomes the only admissible procedure of initiation. Finally the Anabaptist concept of discipleship or newness of life in which the Lordship of Christ was to be made to apply to every phase of life, required a type of personal commitment and intelligent discrimination which only adults could have. Believers' baptism thus was essential to Anabaptism, though it was a consequence rather than the foundation of Anabaptist faith.

The evidence of the position of the Anabaptists and Mennonites on baptism from the very beginning to the present is so voluminous, clear, and well known as not to require detailed proof from the sources. A few citations will suffice. Already in 1524 (letter to Thomas Müntzer) Conrad Grebel said: "Baptism is described in the Scriptures to mean that the sins of the one to be baptized (who is repenting, and believing both before and after) are washed away through faith and the blood of Christ; that it [further] means that he must be and has become dead to sin and is walking in newness of life and spirit, and [further] that one will assuredly be saved if he lives out the meaning [of baptism] by the inner baptism according to faith." And in December 1524 he (or Manz?) says in his Protest and Defense to the Zürich Council: "Of such passages and their like the entire New Testament Scripture is full: from which I have now clearly learned and know of a surety that baptism is nothing else than a dying to the old man and the putting on of a new; also that Christ commanded to baptize those who had been taught and that the apostles baptized none except those who had been taught, for Christ indeed baptized no one without external evidence of readiness, and certain testimony [of faith] or desire. Whosoever says or teaches other than this does something which he can prove with no Scripture and I should like to listen to anyone who, out of the Scriptures, can prove to me clearly and in truth that John, Christ, or the apostles baptized children or taught that they should be baptized."

The first article of the Schleitheim Confession of 1527 is on baptism and reads as follows: "Observe concerning baptism: Baptism shall be given to all those who have learned repentance and amendment of life, and who believe truly that their sins are taken away by Christ, and to all those who walk in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and wish to be buried with Him in death, so that they may be resurrected with Him, and to all those who with this significance request it [baptism] of us and demand it for themselves. This excludes all infant baptism, the highest and chief abomination of the pope. In this you have the foundation and testimony of the apostles. Matthew 28, Mark 16, Acts 2, 8, 16, 19. This we wish to hold simply, yet firmly and with assurance."

Menno Simons speaks often about baptism. Typical quotations are the following: "For however diligently we may search day and night, we yet find but one baptism in the water, pleasing to God, which is expressed and contained in His Word, namely the baptism on the confession of faith, commanded by Christ Jesus, taught and administered by His holy apostles." "The believing receive remission of sins not through baptism, but in baptism, in the following manner: as with their whole heart they believe the precious Gospel of Jesus Christ which has been preached and taught to them, namely the glad tidings of grace, remission of sins, peace, favor, mercy and eternal life through Jesus Christ, our Lord, they experience a change of mind, renounce self, bitterly repent of their old sinful life, and with all diligence give attendance to the Word of the Lord who has shown them such great love; and fulfill all that He has taught and commanded in His holy Gospel. Their confidence is firmly established upon the word of grace promising the remission of sins through the precious blood and the merits of our Lord Jesus Christ. They therefore receive holy baptism as a token of obedience which proceeds from faith, an evidence before God and His church that they firmly believe in the remission of sins through Christ Jesus, as has been preached and taught them from the Word of God" (Writings, 244).

Riedemann's Rechenschaft (1545) says the following in the section "Concerning the Baptism of Christ and of His Church." "Now because it is a testament of the recognition, knowledge and grace of God, baptism is also, according to the words of Peter, the bond of a good conscience with God, that is, of those who have recognized God. The recognition of God, however, cometh, as hath been said, from hearing the word of the gospel. Therefore we teach that those who have heard the word, believed the same, and have recognized God, should be baptized—and not children."

All the Mennonite confessions and catechisms have clear statements on the meaning and administration of baptism which clearly prove that the original Anabaptist interpretation is still everywhere maintained. There have been periods and places, to be sure, where the actual practice has fallen behind the theory of the confessions, and where baptism at a certain age has become traditional, without a corresponding living experience. In order to overcome this danger some groups have introduced a personal public testimony by the candidate concerning a conversion experience, as well as a careful examination of the candidate either by the bishop or elder, or the ministerial body, or a representative group of members. In Holland the emphasis upon a personal intelligent commitment has led to a very late age for baptism even into the twenties (see Admission into the Church.)

Mode and Ritual

Although baptism by trine immersion was certainly the common practice in the early and medieval church it was discontinued in the course of time (except in the Greek Orthodox Church) so that by the time of the Reformation, pouring was the only mode commonly used. The Reformers continued this mode. The Anabaptists likewise used pouring, which has continued since to be the standard mode among Mennonites except in those groups which have introduced immersion. Conrad Grebel's "Protest and Defense" (1524) specifically uses the phrase "poured over with water" in referring to the baptism at Pentecost: "they were thereafter poured over with water meaning that just as they were cleansed within by the coming of the Holy Spirit, so they also were poured over with water externally to signify for the inner cleansing and dying to sin." Riedemann's Rechenschaft, in describing "The Manner of Baptizing, or How One Baptizeth," says, "The Baptizer telleth him to humble himself with bent knees before God and his Church and kneel down, and he taketh pure water and poureth it upon him." K. Vos, in his article on baptism by pouring (Doopsgezinde Bijdragen 1911), has assembled numerous citations showing that this was also the method in Holland.

Fortunately a detailed description of the administration of baptism on one of the very first occasions, in Zollikon near Zürich 25 January 1525 has been preserved. It is the baptism of Hans Bruggbach (Brubacher?) by Felix Manz. After Bruggbach had confessed his sins and requested baptism as a sign of his conversion, Blaurock asks Bruggbach, "Do you desire the baptism?" to which he replies "Yes." Manz says, "Who will forbid me, that I should not baptize him?" (Acts 10:47), to which Blaurock answers, "No one." Manz then takes a metal dipper (as used in the typical kitchen of that time), pours water from it over the head of the candidate, and says, "I baptize you in the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit." It is worth noting that there is record that Grebel, Manz, and Blaurock each performed at least one baptism in the earliest days of the new movement, thus indicating that no particular ordination was as yet required of the one who did the baptizing. The record also shows that baptisms were performed at any time and place, usually in the homes of the candidates or wherever the meeting was being held. However, in St. Gall Grebel baptized a large number (several hundred) in the Sitter River in April 1525, and Wolfgang Ulimann, the St. Gall Anabaptist leader, had been baptized in the Rhine River near Schaffhausen in February. The St. Gall chronicler Kessler describes this latter baptism as follows: "Ulimann . . . ran into Conrad Grebel and was by him so filled with the knowledge of rebaptism that he did not wish only to be poured over with water from a dish, but to be taken altogether naked into the Rhine by Grebel and pressed under and covered over (undergetruckt und bedeckt werden)." Remembering that this is only a report by a chronicler of the opposition party written some years afterward and therefore not absolutely reliable, one may conclude that Grebel had intended to follow the customary practice of pouring the baptismal water out of a vessel, but yielded to Ulimann's request for immersion, since they were at the bank of the Rhine. There is no other evidence of the practice of immersion in Anabaptist history anywhere, and the evidence of the uniform practice by pouring is so overwhelming that the Ulimann case must be considered purely exceptional.

Some Baptist historians, in their desire to claim Anabaptist support for their immersion practice, have distorted the Ulimann case and have also claimed that Menno Simons taught and practiced immersion. This is, however, completely in error as has been fully proved by John Horsch, in "Did Menno Simons Practice Baptism by Immersion" (Mennonite Quarterly Review 1 (January 1927): 54-56). In fact Menno speaks at three places about the practice of baptism (Writings, 123, 139, 350).

The influence of the Collegiants in Holland, who practiced immersion, and with whom many Mennonites had intimate fellowship in the 17th and 18th centuries, led some Dutch Mennonites to adopt immersion. In Leeuwarden Preacher Arrien Jansen at the beginning of the 18th century adopted the position that immersion was the only true baptism and persuaded a part of the church there to practice it. Consequently a large stone baptismal font for immersion was installed in 1715. Although immersion was soon displaced and pouring restored, the stone font remained in the church until 1850. There was also a small faction of the Hamburg Mennonite Church, known as the Dompelaars, who separated in 1648-1650 and continued for 100 years as a separate group, who practiced immersion, influenced thereto by an English Baptist who had joined the Hamburg congregation. The small group of Mennonites in Baden, Germany, who in 1858 followed Michael Hahn and are known as the "Hahnische" Mennonites also adopted immersion.

However, the chief instance of the entrance of immersion into the Mennonite brotherhood is that of the Mennonite Brethren, organized in 1860 in South Russia, who adopted immersion as their exclusive mode of baptism at the very outset. From the beginning this group has required those who were baptized by some other mode to be rebaptized by immersion. In view of the fact that Baptist influence was present at the beginning of the Mennonite Brethren movement, it is probably correct to assume that immersion came from this source. Jacob Reimer, of Gnadenfeld, Molotschna colony, the center of the first Mennonite Brethren development, in whose home the election of the first ministers in May 1860 had taken place, had already in 1837 become convinced through reading Baptist literature that immersion was the right mode. Abraham Unger, a prominent leader, was very friendly to the Baptists. Baptist leaders August Liebig and Gerhard Oncken of Hamburg were welcome visitors in the 1860s and 1870s, and Unger was in correspondence with Oncken 1859-1860. There was also correspondence with the Baptist preacher Alf at Adamov in Polish Russia in 1860. In fact a Mennonite congregation near Adamov, with Peter Ewert as elder, also adopted immersion at this time. The Krimmer Mennonite Brethren Church (KMB), which was organized in 1869 in the Crimea as an offshoot of the Kleine Gemeinde there, also adopted immersion under the erroneous impression that Menno Simons baptized by immersion.

The Alliance (Evangelical) Mennonite Church was founded in 1905 in Russia as an offshoot of the Mennonite Church, in part at least to bridge the gap between the Mennonite Brethren, who refused to recognize baptism by any other mode than immersion, and the Mennonite Church, who practiced pouring. This it does by practicing immersion, but recognizing other modes.

In North America immersion was adopted by the Mennonite Brethren in Christ (MBC), in the 1950s called the United Missionary Church (UMC) (except in the Pennsylvania Conference, where MBC was still used). At first the mode of baptism was left optional with the candidate, but gradually immersion came into favor and by 1896 the conference discipline made immersion the exclusive form. In 1891-1896 a division occurred in the Defenseless Mennonite (Egly) Church (now called Evangelical Mennonite), in which immersion was one of the factors, which led to the organization of the Missionary Church Association in 1898 with immersion as the exclusive mode of baptism. The Christian Apostolic Church (New Amish, Neutäufer, Fröhlichianer) organized in 1832 in Switzerland, which was joined by a minister and a number of members of the Langnau (Emmental) Mennonite Church, also adopted immersion as the mode of baptism. The Brethren in Christ group practiced immersion from its beginning in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania in 1770. The Evangelical Mennonite Brethren Church, through close association with the Mennonite Brethren (MB) and Krimmer Mennonite Brethren groups, now permitted both modes, pouring and immersion, although formerly immersion was not permitted.

The method of immersion varies. The Mennonite Brethren group practices single immersion backward, the Krimmer Mennonite Brethren group trine immersion forward, the Mennonite Brethren in Christ-United Missionary Church group single immersion forward.

In some periods and regions the matter of baptism in running water (a stream) became an issue, and at times became an accepted practice in some congregations, while others permitted (and still permit) the candidate to have his choice. (This applies to both modes, immersion and pouring.) The reasons for the introduction of this practice are obscure. Some prefer "living water," i.e., running water; others seek to follow the example of Christ who was baptized in the Jordan River. Baptism "in water with water," as it is sometimes called, has nothing to do with immersion. The introduction of the practice of baptizing in the stream was the occasion for serious difficulty among the Amish churches of Ohio and Pennsylvania in the 1850s.

The Church of the Brethren, founded in Schwarzenau, Germany, in 1708 (migrated to Pennsylvania 1719-1722), adopted immersion, probably under Dompelaar influence. The aggressiveness of this group, which often settled near Mennonite communities in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Ohio, and Indiana, and its insistent claim that only immersion was baptism, even to the extent at times of teaching that those not immersed cannot be saved, caused much trouble for the Mennonites; and a considerable number of Mennonite families transferred to the Brethren Church. The first book by an American Mennonite author, Heinrich Funck's Spiegel der Taufe (Germantown, 1744), was largely a defense of the Mennonite understanding and practice of baptism against the immersionists.

The Mennonite baptismal ritual in all groups and modes is essentially the same. The candidate is asked a series of questions regarding his basic faith, after which he is asked to pledge renunciation of the world and its sin as well as faithful obedience to Christ and His Word, and submission to the rules and regulations of the church which he is about to join. Thereupon the elder or minister baptizes him (in the mode of pouring or sprinkling the candidate kneels during the ceremony), then welcomes him into the fellowship of the church by the right hand of fellowship and, in some groups, by the kiss of brotherhood. In pouring, slightly divergent practices have developed. Some ministers dip the water out of a vessel with two hands (or one hand), which they then pour upon the head of the candidate by opening and inverting the hands. Others have the deacon or assistant minister pour water from a vessel into the cupped hands resting upon the head, where they are then inverted. Still others place the hands already inverted upon the head and have the assistant pour water upon the hands and head, and some simply pour the water directly from the pitcher upon the head.

An 1869 account (Mitteilungen des Sippenverbandes der Danziger Mennoniten Familien . . . III, Göttingen, 1937, pp. 68-69) of a baptism in a West Prussian rural church (Ellerwald) reports a baptism performed by this method. Vos (Doopsgezinde Bijdragen 1911) has clearly shown that while the earliest form in Holland was for the elder to dip a handful of water in one hand, as early as 1567 the Old Flemish had the custom of having the elder pour water three times from a stone jug while holding his left hand on the head of the candidate. (He also points out that the Old Flemish rebaptized those transferring to their group from other Mennonite groups.) Vos closes his article (p. 16) with the summarizing comment that the development of the form of baptism among the Dutch Mennonites was from pouring from a dish or jug, to pouring a double handful of water, then to pouring a single handful, and finally in recent times to having the minister moisten his fingers in the baptismal dish and press them gently against the forehead. In West Prussia differences between the various groups in the mode of pouring, carried over from the time when the Flemish and Frisian groups were distinct, persisted to the end in 1945.

See also Infant baptism; Dedication of Infants; Baptismal Theology; Baptism, Age at; Baptismal Instruction


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Horsch, John. Infant baptism : its origin among Protestants and the arguments advanced for and against it. Scottdale, PA: The author, 1917.

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Author(s) Harold S Bender
Date Published 1955

Cite This Article

MLA style

Bender, Harold S. "Baptism." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1955. Web. 17 Jul 2024.

APA style

Bender, Harold S. (1955). Baptism. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 17 July 2024, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 224-228; v. 4, p. 1063. All rights reserved.

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