Baptism, from Greek βαπτίζω (baptízô), is a religious act of purification by water usually associated with admission to a Christian church. Although the primary meaning of the Greek word for baptism is dip or plunge, the term was used also historically to mean perform ablutions.

The Christian ceremony of baptism evolved from the Jewish tradition of purification by immersion in a ritual bath. John the Baptist performed baptisms “for the remission of sin” and Jesus and his disciples seem to have inherited this tradition from John. After Jesus‘ death, however, Christians began using the ceremony of baptism as an initiation rite into the Christian faith, symbolizing dying to one’s old self and being “reborn” in Christ. Since then, baptism has come to play a key role in the sacramental tradition of Christianity, and various Christian traditions of baptism have evolved among different denominations.

In a broader sense, the word “baptism” can also be used for any ceremony, trial, or experience by which one is initiated or purified. It is used also for the Amrit (holy water) ceremony of Sikhism and other religious washing rituals.


Main article: History of baptism

Background in Jewish ritual

Christian baptism seems to have emerged from Jewish rituals of purification. In the Hebrew Bible and other Jewish texts, immersion in water for ritual purification was established for restoration to a condition of “ritual purity” in specific circumstances. For example, Jews who became ritually defiled for various reasons had to bath in a mikvah before being allowed to participate in the Temple of Jerusalem. Immersion was also required for converts to Judaism and as part of the initiation of priests.

The Greek term “baptize” was also used to describe daily Jewish ablutions. For example, in the New Testament, Luke 11:38 recounts that, when Jesus ate at a Pharisee’s house, “the Pharisee was astonished to see that he did not first wash (βαπτίζω—literally ‘baptize himself’) before dinner.” Also, Mark 7:4a states: “When they (the Pharisees) come from the market place, they do not eat unless they wash (βαπτίζω) themselves.”

The Essenes, who were particularly concerned with purification, were known to have practiced a tradition of ablutions that went beyond the normal Jewish standards. John the Baptist, whom some think was an Essene himself, carried out a ministry of baptism for Jewish pilgrims, many of whom were on their way to the Temple of Jerusalem and thus required such an immersion.

Biblical and apostolic tradition

In Christian tradition, John’s “baptism of repentance” is usually considered to be distinct from Christian baptism. However, Jesus himself participated in this rite, and in John 3:22-4:2, Jesus is described as carrying out a ministry of baptism similar to that of John.

After Jesus’ death, baptism became a sign of entry into the Christian faith. Some 3,000 Jews in Jerusalem were reportedly baptized as believers at Pentecost (Acts 2:41). Other baptisms described in the New Testament include the baptism of converts in Samaria, (Acts 8:12-13) an Ethiopian eunuch, (Acts 8:36-40), Saul (Paul) of Tarsus (Acts 9:18), the household of Cornelius (Acts 10:47-48), Lydia’s household (Acts 16:15), the Philippi jailer’s household (Acts 16:33), and various Corinthians (Acts 18:8; 1 Corinthians 1:14-16).

None of these accounts gives an exact description of how baptism was administered, although Acts 8:38 says that “both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and he baptized him.” Paul used the figure of speech of “burial” in connection with baptism in Romans 6:4—”We have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” Colossians 2:12 likewise states: “When you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.” The idea of baptism thus came to take on the meaning of being initiated into the Christian faith by dying to one’s old self and being reborn “in Christ.”

A number of scholars believe that immersion, whether partial or complete, was the dominant mode of baptism in the early church, although other forms were also admitted in certain circumstances. In imitation of the Baptism of Jesus himself in the Jordan River, early Christians preferred rivers for performing baptisms, and this was also suitable for the baptism of large crowds. Another reason for this preference is that running water was also preferred in the Jewish tradition ritual immersion. Christian writers of the second and third centuries such as Justin, Clement of Rome, Victor I, and Tertullian remarked that seas, lakes, ponds and springs are equally proper baptismal sites.

Controversy exists regarding whether baptism is to be administered in the name of Jesus, or in the name of the Trinity. The Book of Acts refers several times to baptism in the name of Jesus (2:38, 8:16, 10:48, 19:5). However, most traditions adopt the formula given in the so-called “Great Commission,” in which the risen Jesus commands his disciples: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).

In the apostolic age, the majority of new Christians were adult converts, but soon many Christians had children whom they wanted to include in the grace of salvation, and thus infant baptism become the prevalent custom in the Catholic and Orthodox churches.

Outside of the Bible, probably the earliest known written instructions for administering baptism is that of the anonymous book known as the Didache, or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, which most scholars date to about the year 100. It gives the following instruction:

Concerning baptism, baptize this way: Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living water [that is, in running water, as in a river]. But if you have no living water, baptize into other water; and if you cannot do so in cold water, do so in warm. But if you have neither, pour out water three times upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit.

Post-apostolic period

During the second and third centuries and beyond, immersion continued to be the normal method of baptism. However it was usually not administered immediately upon conversion, as in the cases described in the Book of Acts. Instead, a period of study was usually required, in which a covert would become a candidate for baptism, known as a catechumen.

Baptism played a somewhat different role in certain so-called heretical sects. For example, Jewish Christians such as the Ebionites continued to practice Jewish traditions of hand washing and ritual bathing, not only upon conversion, but throughout their lives as Christians. Gnostic sects rejected the idea that baptism represented the believer symbolically sharing in Christ’s death and resurrection, since they denied the idea that Jesus was physically raised from the dead. Some Gnostics practiced baptism as a first stage of initiation and followed it later with a ceremony known as the bridal chamber, in which believers entered into a mystical union with God.

Other controversies soon emerged concerning baptism regarding such questions as whether women could administer the rite, whether post-baptismal sins could be forgiven, when a baptism received from a heretical priest was valid, whether one could be saved without baptism, and what exactly baptism accomplished in relation to salvation. Major treatises on baptism were soon written by Christian writers like Tertullian, Cyprian of Carthage, Augustine of Hippo, and others.

Later changes

Throughout the Middle Ages, there was considerable variation in the kind of facility required for baptism, especially in the Western (Catholic) tradition. Some churches had baptismal pools large enough to immerse several adults simultaneously while others had smaller baptismal fonts. During the twelfth through the fourteenth centuries, Western Christianity shifted from the tradition of immersion to that that of pouring, and finally to sprinkling.

During the Protestant Reformation, new traditions of baptism and its significance began to emerge. Some reformers saw baptism as a symbolic act rather than a transforming sacrament, while others accepted the traditional view that it is through baptism that the believer is “buried” and “reborn.” As early as the time of John Calvin, some held that immersion in water was not actually required. Instead, they posited a waterless “baptism in the spirit,” citing Jesus’ statement on the day of his Ascension in Acts 1:5: “For John indeed baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized in the Holy Spirit not many days hence.”

Later, the Anabaptists developed the concept that since baptism was an act of faith, the recipient must be old enough to confess his or her faith directly, and not through a god-parent as in the Catholic tradition. This led to the practice of believer’s baptism, later adopted by the Baptist churches and other denominations. In the nineteenth century, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints instituted a tradition of being baptized on behalf of one’s ancestors, while in the twentieth century the Unification Church made its baptismal holy water ceremony part of it marriage blessing ritual, in which a couple together is thought to be adopted into God’s direct lineage.

Baptism Baptismal Font Church Religion Christianity


Modern practice

Today, most Christian groups practice some form of literal water-based baptism and agree that it is important. However, there are many disagreements regarding such issues as the method of baptism, who is qualified to give or receive this sacrament, and what exactly baptism means or does to the believer.

Manner of baptism

Today, Christian baptism takes many forms among Christian denominations, but the three basic forms are as follows:

  • Aspersion is the sprinkling water on the head
  • Affusion is the pouring water over the head
  • Immersion is the submerging of the entire body in water

Who may administer and receive baptism

There is debate among Christian churches as to who can administer baptism. The examples given in the New Testament only show apostles and deacons administering baptism, and the ancient Christian churches interpret this as indicating that baptism should be performed by the (male) clergy except in extremis, that is, when the one being baptized is in immediate danger of death. Many Protestant churches, however, see no specific prohibition in the biblical examples and permit any believer to baptize another.

The traditional churches also require that a candidate for baptism be familiar with Christian doctrines. Catechumens must be able to express their faith either by answering certain doctrinal questions during the baptismal ceremony or reciting a formal creed. In the case of infant baptism, the child’s godparent fulfills this role and takes responsibility as the child’s spiritual guardian.

Meaning and effects of baptism

Many Christian groups assert that baptism is a key requirement for salvation. This view is shared by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions, by numerous Protestant churches. Martin Luther, for example, said: “To put it most simply, the power, effect, benefit, fruit, and purpose of Baptism is to save… To be saved, we know, is nothing else than to be delivered from sin, death, and the devil and to enter into the kingdom of Christ and live with him forever” (The Large Catechism, 1529)

For Roman Catholics and many others, baptism is a sacrament of initiation into the life of the children of God. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1212-13). However, the Catholic tradition holds that there are actually three types of baptism by which one can be saved: Sacramental baptism (with water), baptism of desire (explicit or implicit desire to be part of the Church founded by Jesus Christ), and baptism of blood (martyrdom). The liturgy of baptism in the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran, Anglican, and Methodist traditions makes clear reference to baptism as a symbolic burial and resurrection, and also an actual supernatural transformation. In other words, baptism is literally and symbolically not only cleansing, but also dying and rising again with Christ. In addition, Catholics believe that baptism cleanses the taint of original sin.

By contrast, Baptist and Calvinist groups espouse baptism as a worthy practice of initiation into the Christian faith, but generally hold that baptism has no sacramental power in itself. Rather, it testifies outwardly to the invisible and internal operation of God’s power, which is separate from the rite itself. In some cases a person may be “saved” first by repentance and forgiveness, with the baptismal ceremony representing a confirmation of this process.

A river baptism in North Carolina at the turn of the 20th century. Full-immersion (submersion) baptism continues to be a common practice in many African-American Christian congregations today.

A river baptism in North Carolina at the turn of the 20th century. Full-immersion (submersion) baptism continues to be a common practice in many African-American Christian congregations today.

Comparative summary

Comparative Summary of Baptisms of Denominations of Christian Influence.

Denomination Beliefs about Baptism Type of Baptism Baptize Infants? Baptism regenerates, gives spiritual life Standard
Anglican Communion A sign of profession and a mark of separation which, received rightly, affirms the forgiveness received by a believer through faith. By immersion or pouring. Yes. Anglo-Catholic Yes,
“Low church” No.
Apostolic Brethren Necessary for salvation because it conveys spiritual rebirth. By immersion only. No. Yes. Jesus
Baptists A divine ordinance, a symbolic having been saved and of adult church membership, but not necessary for salvation. By immersion only. No. No. Trinity
Christadelphians Essential for salvation but effective only if someone believes properly in Jesus Christ as the Jewish Messiah and in his kingdom. By immersion only No Yes Jesus
Churches of Christ Necessary for salvation as commanded by Jesus after expressing their faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and repenting of sin. At baptism, one receives forgiveness of sin, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and addition to God’s church. Immersion only No Yes Trinity
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Essential to enter any degree of heaven and preparatory for receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands. Church members are also encouraged to be baptized only behalf of their ancestors. By immersion performed by a person holding proper priesthood authority. No Yes Father, Son, and Holy Ghost
Eastern Orthodox Church An essential sacrament through which the “New Man” is born free from ancestral sin. At baptism, a new name is received and previous sins are null and void. By three-fold immersion (other forms only in emergency). Yes. Confirmation and communion immediately follows. Yes Trinity
Jehovah’s Witnesses Necessary for salvation as an expression of obedience to Jesus’ command, a public symbol of the saving faith in Christ’s “ransom sacrifice,” repentance from sin, and dedication of one’s life to Jehovah. However, baptism in itself does not guarantee salvation. By immersion only; typical candidates are baptized at district and circuit conventions. No Yes Jesus
Lutherans The means by which God, through faith, miraculously delivers a person from sin, death, and the devil. Baptism gives new life and brings one into Christ’s kingdom forever. By sprinkling, pouring, or immersion. Yes Yes Trinity
Methodists (Arminians, Wesleyans) Not necessary to salvation, but an important outward sign of one’s membership in the Christian community. By sprinkling, pouring, or immersion. Yes No Trinity
Pentecostalism Traditions vary. Generally, baptism is an ordinance and a symbolic ritual used to witness to having accepted Christ as personal Savior. Also important is the baptism of the Holy Ghost. By immersion. No Varies Trinity or (in some traditions) Jesus only
Presbyterians An ordinance, a symbolic ritual, and a seal of the adult believer’s authentic faith. By sprinkling, pouring, or immersion. Yes, to indicate membership in the New Covenant. No Trinity
Quakers (Religious Society of Friends) An external symbol that is no longer to be practiced. Only in an inward, ongoing purification of the human spirit in a life of discipline led by the Holy Spirit.
Revivalism A necessary step for salvation. By full immersion, with the expectation of receiving the Holy Spirit. No Yes Father, Son, Holy Ghost
Roman Catholic Church “Necessary for salvation for those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for this sacrament” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1257) Usually by pouring in the West, by immersion in the East; sprinkling admitted only if the water then flows on the head. Yes Yes Trinity
Seventh-day Adventists A ceremony in which the person expresses personal faith in Christ. A prerequisite for salvation in the sense that it symbolizes the acceptance of Jesus as one’s savior. By immersion only. No No Trinity
Unification Church Included in the marriage blessing ceremony symbolizing God’s blessing on the couple and part of several ceremonies representing the purification of their lineage. Future generations are freed from original sin and need not be baptized. Sprinkling No No True Parents
United Church of Christ An outward sign of faith not necessary for salvation but one means of entering a local church. By sprinkling, pouring, or immersion. Yes No Trinity

Recognition of baptism by other denominations

The Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, Presbyterian and Methodist Churches accept baptism performed by other denominations as valid, subject to certain conditions. Believing that it is only possible to be baptized once, these traditions hold that people with valid baptisms from other denominations may not be baptized again upon conversion or transfer. Such people are accepted upon making a profession of faith and—if they have not yet validly received the sacrament of confirmation—by being confirmed. In some cases it can be difficult to decide if the original baptism was in fact valid. If there is doubt, conditional baptism is administered, with a formula on the lines of “If you are not yet baptized, I baptize you…” Some Protestant denominations require a new baptism upon joining their church even if one has been previous baptized in another faith, and some Christians get re-baptized in the same church after a serious spiritual “fall.”

Ecumenical statement on baptism

The ecumenical paper Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, prepared by representatives across a spectrum of Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestants traditions of Christianity, attempts to express a common understanding of baptism:

“…Those who heard, who were baptized and entered the community’s life, were already made witnesses of and partakers in the promises of God for the last days: the forgiveness of sins through baptism in the name of Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Ghost on all flesh (Acts 2:38). Similarly, in what may well be a baptismal pattern, 1 Peter testifies that proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and teaching about new life (1 Peter 1:3-21) lead to purification and new birth (1 Peter 1:22-23). This, in turn, is followed by eating and drinking God’s food (1 Peter 2:2-3), by participation in the life of the community — the royal priesthood, the new temple, the people of God (1 Peter 2:4-10)—and by further moral formation (1 Peter 2:11 ff.). At the beginning of 1 Peter the writer sets this baptism in the context of obedience to Christ and sanctification by the Spirit (1 Peter 1:2). So baptism into Christ is seen as baptism into the Spirit (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:13). In the fourth gospel, Jesus’ discourse with Nicodemus indicates that birth by water and Spirit becomes the gracious means of entry into the place where God rules (John 3:5).”

See also

Adapted from New World Encyclopedia

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