NOTE: This is Part 9 of a multi-part series on Baptism and Baptists. Today’s post deals with the historical data concerning the rise of sprinkling as a mode of baptism.
Since even paedobaptists are agreed that the apostolic practice was immersion, how and why did a change take place in the early church?
Affusion was first permitted as early as the second century A. D., but even then only under extraordinary circumstances if immersion could not be used. During the third and fourth centuries the false doctrine of baptismal regeneration brought about a change in the significance of baptism, giving rise to the practice of infant baptism. This change in doctrine resulted in a modification of the practice of baptism to forms such as affusion or aspersion.
In spite of this, immersion continued to be the official mode of baptism in both the Western Latin Church, and in the Greek Orthodox Church immersion has been the only mode of baptism practiced since earliest times.
During the 13th century, Aquinas noted that immersion was even more common than sprinkling. It was not until 1311 A. D., in Ravenna, that the first law passed making sprinkling an authoritative baptism.
What of the Reformation Era? William Wall’s celebrated explanation of the rise of affusion and aspersion in his widely heralded History of Infant Baptism tells the story:
Now, Calvin had not only given his Dictate, in his Institutions, that the differenceis of no moment, whether thrice or once; or whether he be only wetted with thewater poured on him: But he had also drawn up for the use of his church at Geneva (and afterward published to the world) a form of administering thesacraments, where, when he comes to the order of baptizing, he words it thus: Then the minister of baptism pours water on the infant; saying, I baptize thee, etc. There had been, as I said, some Synods in the Dioceses of France that had spoken of affusion without mentioning immersion at all; that being the common practice; but for an Office or Liturgy of any church; this is, I believe the first in the world that prescribes affusion absolutely.
Hughes Olds chronicles the transition from immersion to sprinkling in the sixteenth century. The Reformers were agreed that immersion, pouring, and sprinkling were all acceptable modes of baptism. They regarded the mode of baptism as adiaphorous (theologically indifferent).
Yet, during this time, immersion was the preferred mode of baptism, and specific conditions were given for diverging from immersion to pouring. The very fact that these conditions are given indicates sprinkling had, in the words of Olds, “only recently become the normal procedure.”
Olds explained how the reformers made a valiant attempt to revive immersion in the churches. From their writings, it is clear that Luther and Zwingli began to advocate immersion for two reasons.
First, the clear teaching of Romans 6 affirming the believer’s union with Christ in his death and resurrection as pictured in baptism, which had been the traditional interpretation since the Patristics, fueled the attempt.
Second, with the revival of Greek studies, they realized that the Greek lexicons supported immersion.
The Reformers had tried to reinstate immersion but had failed. Convincing Christians that the mode was an essential element in baptism proved impossible. Reformed-minded priests in Germany discovered that their change to immersion was undermining their introduction of the use of German for the baptismal liturgy. Since the use of a common language was crucial to the reform movement, immersion was discarded.
Space permits only a short survey of the mode of baptism during the English Reformation of the sixteenth century. The first liturgy of King Edward VI required baptism by trine immersion. Edward VI and Elizabeth were both immersed.
King James I, who came to the throne from Scotland early in the seventeenth century, had been taught sprinkling from the Scottish divines, who themselves had imported it from Geneva, and he favored this mode over immersion.
It was during the Protectorate, when Presbyterianism was in vogue, that the Westminster Assembly voted, by a majority of one (twenty five to twenty four) that sprinkling and immersion were both valid modes of baptism, and that sprinkling should be mentioned in the church directives without immersion.
During the Restoration, when the Anglican church regained ascendancy, immersion continued to be the official church position, but in practice most churches practiced sprinkling.
But of course, by this time, a growing group of dissenters called “Baptists” were pressing their claims for believer’s baptism by immersion as the only valid biblical position.
Thomas Aquinas, Summa, 3.66.7.
Wall. History of Infant Baptism, vol. 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1862), 583.
William Wall, History of Infant Baptism, 580–1.
Hughes O. Olds, The Shaping of the Reformed Baptismal Rite in the Sixteenth Century (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992) 264-ff. See also John Calvin, Institutes, 4.15.19. Jules Corblet, Historie dogmatique, liturgique et archeologique du sacrament de bapteme, 2 vols. (Brussels, Paris, and Geneva, 1881-1882), vol. 1, 235ff. gives a listing of documents chronicling this transition.
 Ibid., 277.
Under the persecution of Mary, many fled England and Scotland to Geneva. Having renounced the authority of the pope, they straightway fell under the spell of Calvin. One such reformer was John Knox, who upon his return to Scotland, brought Calvin’s mode of baptism with him. Scotland’s James VI became England’s King James I and with him he brought sprinkling as his favored mode of baptism.
See Hinton, History of Baptism, 156-161.