Did the Lord’s Churches Baptize by Immersion Before the 17th Century?
By Thomas Williamson
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Thomas Williamson, 3131 S. Archer Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60608.
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In most Protestant and denominational Baptist colleges and seminaries today, it is commonly taught in the Church History departments that there were no churches on earth that baptized by immersion prior to the 17th Century.
This is just another way of saying that there were no Baptist churches and no true New Testament churches prior to the 17th Century. Supposedly, at some point in the Middle Ages, all true churches vanished from the face of the earth. and the institution of the local church had to be restored later.
As BMA Baptists, we have never accepted such teaching. Point 17 of the 1950 BMA Doctrinal Statement affirmed belief in the “Perpetuity of Missionary Baptist Churches from Christ’s day on earth until His second coming.” This means that there have always been true churches on earth, baptizing by immersion, for the last 20 centuries.
Section 10. C. of the 1988 BMA Doctrinal Statement reads: “The Perpetuity of the Church Instituted by Jesus during His personal ministry on earth (Matt. 16:18, Mark 3:13-19; John 1:35-51), true churches have continued to the present and will continue until Jesus returns (Matt. 16:18, 28:20).”
However, in the last century, some church history scholars have come to the conclusion that the Anabaptists and other evangelical groups prior to the 17th Century baptized exclusively by pouring rather than by immersion, which would mean that those “churches” were not true churches. (Section 10. D. of our Doctrinal Statement requires baptism by immersion).
Some scholars have even pointed to the year 1641 as the date when Baptists recovered the apostolic practice of immersion, stating that Baptists and all other evangelical groups baptized only by pouring prior to that date.
If these scholars are correct, then our BMA Doctrinal Statement is mistaken, and our traditional belief in the perpetuity of the church is also mistaken.
So which is it?
To prove that no one, through the Middle Ages up to 1641, baptized by immersion, would be extremely difficult, requiring a degree of omniscience possessed only by God Himself. But if we can show that there were at least some evangelical groups that were immersing prior to 1641, then we will have successfully defended our conviction that there have always been true churches on earth, and that the gates of hell have not prevailed against the institution of the Lord’s Church.
The notion that there was no baptism by immersion before 1641 can be quickly disposed of. In 1614 (27 years earlier), Leonard Busher, a Baptist of London. in a petition to King James I, stated that Christ “commanded” those who “willingly and gladly” received “the word of salvation to be baptized in the water, that is, dipped for dead in the water.” (Armitage, History of the Baptists, p. 440).
In 1644. Dr. Featley, an opponent of the Baptists, complained that “They flock in great multitudes to their Jordans, and both sexes enter the river, and are dipt after their manner…. This venomous serpent … is the Anabaptist, who, in these latter times, first showed his shining head, and speckled skin, and thrust out his sting near the place of my residence, for more than 20 years.” (Armitage. p. 441), In other words. Baptists were immersing near Dr. Featley’s home prior to 1624. There is no hint that this was a totally new practice among Baptists, only that they started using a stream near Featley’s home around 1624.
In 1656, Henry Denne, a Baptist, defended the practice of immersion by reminding Anglicans that immersion was the ancient practice of their church: “Dipping of infants was not only commanded by the Church of England. but also generally practiced in the Church of England till the year 1606; yea, in some places it was practiced until the year 1641, until the fashion altered…” (Armitage, p. 443).
In the Roman Catholic Church, most baptisms were by immersion until the 14th Century: “Thomas Aquinas, the chief of the schoolmen, who flourished about the year 1250, says, in his theology, that while immersion is not essential to the validity of baptism, still, as the old and common usage, it is more commendable and safer than pouring.” (Everts, The Church in the Wilderness, p. 37).
The 19th Century German Catholic scholar Doellinger stated that “Baptism by immersion continued to be the prevailing practice of the Church as late as the 14th Century.” (Graves, John’s Baptism, p. 207). Baptism by pouring, while occasionally practiced, was not sanctioned by the Roman Catholic Church until the Council of Ravenna in 1311. “Synods, as late as the synod of Tarragona, 1391, spoke of the submersion of children in baptism.” (Schaff, History of the Christian Church, v. 5, p. 712).
“It is equally clear that the form of baptism was immersion. This was at the time, the practice of the whole Christian world. The great Roman Catholic writers affirm that immersion was the proper form of baptism. Peter the Lombard, who died A.D. 1164, declared without qualification for it as the proper act of baptism.” (Christian, History of the Baptists, vol. 1, p. 81).
The Catholic Encyclopedia, in its article on “Baptism,” says, “The most ancient form usually employed was unquestionably immersion. This is. . . evident from the writings of the Fathers and the early rituals of both the Latin and Oriental churches…. In the Latin Church, immersion seems to have prevailed until the 12th Century. After that time it is found in some places even as late as the 16th Century.”
St. Jerome, early 5th Century, taught that “we are thrice dipped in the water” and Pope Leo the Great. in the 5th Century. wrote: “The trine immersion is an imitation of the 3 days’ burial” while Pope Gregory the Great in the following century stated that “The reason why we use 3 immersions at Rome is to signify the mystery of Christ’s 3 days’ burial.” (Cramp, Baptist History, p. 35).
Tertullian, in the 3rd Century. described the rite of baptism in detail, showing that it was done by immersion at that time. Martin Luther, 13 centuries later, taught that “baptism, in which the minister dips the child in the water, is a symbol of death and resurrection, and Luther therefore preferred total immersion.” (Latourette, History of Christianity, p. 713).
While Catholics, Episcopalians and other Protestants have, for the most part, abandoned the practice of immersion, the Eastern Orthodox Church has always baptized by immersion throughout its history, and still does so today.
St. John Chrysostom, Orthodox Bishop of Constantinople, baptized 3,000 new members by immersion on Easter Sunday, 404 AD. Chrysostom taught that “Baptism is an immersion, and then an emersion. When our heads enter the water as a tomb, the old man is buried, and plunging down is wholly concealed all at once.” (Graves. pp. 201. 203).
The 18th Century church historian Robert Robinson wrote about Baptists in the 5th Century. “At the beginning of the 5th Century, when infant baptism first came up, there were in Africa at least 400 hundred congregations of Anabaptists, called from Donatus, the name of 2 of their most eminent teachers, Donatists. . . . The Romans baptized by dipping on a profession of faith. The Donatists baptized by dipping on a proof of virtue accompanied with a general profession of Christianity; and as they thought the Romans had ceased to be Christian churches on account of their immorality, they did not hold their baptism valid, and they rebaptized every one that quitted the Roman communion to join theirs.” (Robinson, Ecclesiastical Researches, pp. 7-8). Note that according to Robinson, both the Donatists and the Roman Catholics were immersing at that time.
Through the Middle Ages, the Catholics and Orthodox were baptizing by immersion, yet we are expected to believe that there were no Baptists or evangelicals who baptized by immersion during this period! Where is the proof of this?
In 1590 the Italian Roman Catholic Cardinal and nephew of the Pope, Robert Bellarminc, wrote: “Ordinarily, baptism is performed by immersion, and that to represent the burial of Christ.” (Graves. p. 207). During the 16th Century, many Catholic, Lutheran and Anglican baptisms, and all Orthodox baptisms, were performed by immersion. It is very hard to believe that no Baptists or evangelicals were baptizing by immersion at that same time.
The Waldenses. who spread from their mountain strongholds of France and Italy into most regions of Europe, were Baptists who practiced immersion. “‘The Waldenses were Baptists in that they practiced only immersion. . . .,’ Mezeray says, ‘In the 12th Century they [Waldenses] plunged the candidate in the sacred font..'” (Jarrel, Baptist Perpetuity, pp. 162-163).
“The contemporary writers, Eberhard and Ermengard, in their work, ‘contra Waldenses’ written toward the close of the 12th Century, repeatedly refer to immersion as the form of baptism among the Waldenses.” (Christian, pp 81-82).
Concerning the 15th Century Bohemian Waldenses, Broadbent says. “One of the first things they (the Czech Brethren) did was to baptize those present, for the baptism of believers by immersion was common to the Waldenses and to most of the brethren in different parts, though it had been interrupted by pressure of persecution.” (Broadbent, The Pilgrim Church, p. 130).
“No historian has ever charged the ancient Waldenses with the practice of sprinkling and pouring for baptism. We may consider it a point generally admitted that the ancient Waldenses possessed the Baptist peculiarity of holding the burial in baptism of those who are dead to sin.” (Ray, The Baptist Succession, p.331).
Prior to the 17th Century, the Baptist practice of immersion was not brought up against them by their persecutors, because the Catholics and other denominations were also immersing at that time, so the mode of baptism was not a point of controversy.
An unbiased look at the historical evidence shows that our BMA confession of faith is correct in teaching Baptist perpetuity. The practice of baptism by immersion is certainly an essential element of Baptist perpetuity.
The purpose of citing the practices of other denominations is not to hint that they were the mother churches of the Baptists – they were not. Rather, it is to show how absurd it is to believe that there were no immersionist Baptists prior to the 17th Century, at a time when most other religious societies were baptizing by immersion.