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The Primitive Churches
By S.H. Ford

      We now make the bold, yet almost universally admitted assertion, that the primitive churches were in every distinguishing characteristic Baptist churches. We affirm that at the time of the departure of the great Tertullian, their Baptistic features were as yet uneffaced; and that, though lost in the development of the Man of Sin, they have preserved those lineaments intact in the churches to this day. Where shall we seek the proof of this? Whom shall we introduce as witnesses? Shall we let Baptists speak? Will their testimony be received? No; with all their research, and learning, and candor, we shall dismiss them as witnesses in the case. Let Pedobaptists speak; let Presbyterians and Episcopalians testify; and if a jury of rational men can be found, who, guided by their report, can give a verdict against our affirmation, we shall acknowledge that there is no confidence to be placed in testimony.

Did They Baptize Infants?

      M. De la Roque:

"The primitive churches did not baptize infants, and the learned Grotius proves it, in his annotations on the gospel."
Salmasius and Suicerus:
* In Stennett’s answer to Russen, p. 188.
"In the two first centuries no one was baptized, except, being instructed in the faith, and acquainted with the doctrines of Christ, he was able to profess himself a believer; because of these words; ‘He that believeth, and is baptized, shall be saved.’"*
"The baptism of infants, in the two first centuries after Christ, was altogether unknown, but in the third and fourth was allowed by some few. In the fifth and following ages it was generally received. The custom of baptizing infants did not begin before the third age after Christ was born in the former ages no trace of it appears, and it was introduced without the command of Christ."+
"Tertullian has nowhere mentioned Pedobaptism among the traditions of the church, nor even among the customs of the church that were publicly received, and usually observed; nay, he plainly intimates that, in his time, it was yet a doubtful affair. Nothing can be affirmed with certainty concerning the custom of the church before Tertullian, seeing there is not anywhere, in more ancient writers, that I know of, undoubted mention of infant baptism. Justin Martyr, in his second apology, when describing baptism, mentions only that of adults. I conclude, therefore, that Pedobaptism can not be certainly proved to have been practiced before the times of Tertullian; and that there were persons in his age who desired their infants might be baptized, especially when they were afraid of their dying without baptism. Tertullian opposed, and by so doing he intimates that Pedobaptism began to prevail. These are the things that may be affirmed with apparent certainty concerning the antiquity of infant baptism, after the times of the apostles; for more are maintained without solid foundation."**
"Pedobaptism was not accounted a necessary rite till it was determined so to be in the Milevitan Council, held in the year 418."++
      Bishop Taylor:
"There is no pretense of tradition, that the church in all ages did baptize all the infants of Christian parents. It is more certain that

* Epist. ad Tustum Pacium. Thesaur. Eccles. sub voce Evrazis, tom. ii, p. 1136).
+ Epistle to the Churches of Galatia, chap. iii, verse 27 (2.) Annotat. ad Rom., v. 14).
** Hist. Eccles., tom. iii, Secul. II, 108, 109.
++ Institut. Theology, 1. iv, c. xiv.
they did not always do it than that they did it in the first ages. St. Ambrose, St. Hierome, and St. Austin, were born of Christian parents, and yet not baptized until the full age of man or more."*

      We might multiply evidence, every word of which is from those who, nevertheless, practiced infant baptism. But we close with the testimony of the greatest ecclesiastical historian that ever lived, i.e., Neander:

"Baptism was administered at first only to adults, as men were accustomed to conceive baptism and faith as strictly connected. We have all reason for not deriving infant baptism from apostolic institution, and the recognition of it which followed somewhat later, as an apostolical tradition, serves to confirm this hypothesis. Irenaeus is the first church teacher in whom we find any allusion to infant baptism, and in his mode of expressing himself on the subject, he leads us at the same time to recognize its connection with the essence of the Christian consciousness; he testifies of the profound Christian idea, out of which infant baptism arose, and which procured for it at length universal recognition."+
      Is there any possibility of denying this testimony? Is it not convincing, overwhelming, that the churches, previous to Tertullian, practiced but one baptism, and that it was adult baptism? So far, then, they were Baptists.


      We pause not now to argue the question of immersion. We simply wish to ascertain a fact. We ask historian, what did the churches of the first and second centuries do when they performed that ordinance called baptism? Again we call on the most renowned, the most distinguished Pedobaptists, to answer, men who practiced and apologized for sprinkling, yet dared not, as scholars, garble or misrepresent the truth of history.

      Neander’s History of the Christian Religion:

"Baptism was originally administered by immersion; and many of the companions of St. Paul allude to this form of its administration.
* Liberty of Prophesying, v, p. 84.
+ Neander’s History, vol. i, p. 311.
The immersion is a symbol of death, of being buried with Christ; the coming forth from the water is a symbol of a resurrection with Christ; and both, taken together, represent the second birth, the death of the old man, and a resurrection to a new life. An exception was made only in the case of sick persons, which was necessary, and they received baptism by sprinkling."
      Mosheim’s Ecclesiastical History, first century:
"The sacrament of baptism was administered in this century without the public assemblies, in places appointed and prepared for the purpose, and was performed by immersion of the whole body in the baptismal font.

"The sacrament of baptism was administered publicly twice every year, at the festivals of Easter and Pentecost or Whitsuntide, either by the bishop or the presbyters, in consequence of his authorization and appointment. The persons that were to be baptized, after they had repeated the creed, confessed and renounced their sins, and particularly the devil and his pompous allurements, were immersed under water, and received into Christ’s kingdom by a solemn invocation of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, according to the express command of our blessed Lord. After baptism, they received the sign of the cross, were anointed, and, by prayers and imposition of hands, were solemnly commended to the mercy of God, and dedicated to his service; in consequence of which, they received the milk and honey, which concluded the ceremony. The reasons of this particular ritual coincide with what we have said in general concerning the origin and causes of the multiplied ceremonies that crept, from time to time, into the church."

      History of the Church, by George Waddington, M. A.:
"The ceremony of immersion (the oldest form of baptism) was performed in the name of the three persons of the Trinity; it was believed to be attended by the remission of original sin, and the entire regeneration of the infant or convert, by the passage from the land of bondage into the kingdom of salvation."
Cave’s Primitive Christianity:
"The action having proceeded thus far, the party to be baptized was wholly immerged, or put under water, which was the almost constant and universal custom of those times, whereby they did more notably and significantly express the three great ends and effects of baptism. For, as in immersion there are, in a manner, three several acts, the putting the person into water, his abiding there for a little time, and his rising up again, so by these were represented Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection; and, in conformity

thereunto, our dying unto sin, the destruction of its power, and our resurrection to a new course of life. By the person’s being put into water was lively represented the putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, and being washed from the filth and pollution of them; by his abode under it, which was a kind of burial unto water, his entering into a state of death or mortification, like as Christ remained for some time under the state or power of death. Therefore, as many as are baptized into Christ, are said to be ‘baptized into his death, and to be buried with him by baptism into death, that, the old man being crucified with him, the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth he might not serve sin, for that he that is dead is freed from sin,’ as the apostle clearly explains the meaning of this rite. Then, by his immersion, or rising up out of the water, was signified is entering upon a new course of life, differing from that which he lived before, that, ‘like as Christ was raised up from the dead to the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.’"
      Bishop Taylor (Episcopalian):
"The custom of the ancient churches was not sprinkling, but immersion; in pursuance of the sense of the word (baptize) in the commandment and example of our blessed Savior. Now this was of so sacred account in their esteem that they did not think it lawful to receive him into the clergy who had been only sprinkled in his baptism, as we learn from the Epistle of Cornelius to Fabius of Antioch."
      Richard Baxter (Presbyterian):
"It is commonly confessed by us to the Anabaptists, as our commentators declare, that in the apostles’ time, the baptized were dipped over head in the water, and that this signified their profession, both of believing the burial and resurrection of Christ; and of their own present renouncing the world and flesh, or dying to sin and living to Christ, or rising again to newness of life, or being buried and risen again with Christ, as the apostle expoundeth, (Colossians iii, and Romans vi;) and though we have thought it lawful to disuse the manner of dipping, and to use less water, yet we presume not to change the use and signification of it."
      Bossuet (Catholic Bishop):
"The baptism of John the Baptist, which served for a preparative to that of Jesus Christ, was performed by plunging. When Jesus Christ came to john, to raise baptism to a more marvelous efficacy in receiving it, the Scripture says, that he went up out of the water of Jordan, (Matthew iii: 16; Mark i: 10). In fine, we read not in the Scripture that baptism was otherwise administered; and we are

able to make it appear, by the acts of councils, and by the ancient rituals, that for thirteen hundred years, baptism was thus administered throughout the whole church, as far as was possible."*
      Dr. Whitby (Episcopalian):
"It being so expressly declared here, (Romans vi: 4, and Colossians ii: 12,) that we are buried with Christ in baptism by being buried under water; and the argument to oblige us to a conformity to his death, by dying to sin, being taken hence; and this immersion being religiously observed by all Christians for thirteen centuries, and approved by our church, and the change of it into sprinkling, even without any allowance from the Author of this institution, or any license from any council of the church, being that which the Romanist still urgeth to justify his refusal of the cup to the laity."+
      Dr. Wall (Episcopal):
"Their (the primitive Christians) general and ordinary way was to baptize by immersion, or dipping the person, whether it were an infant, or grown man or woman, into the water. This is so plain and clear by an infinite number of passages, that as one can not but pity the weak endeavors of such Pedobaptists as would maintain the negative of it, so also we ought to disown and show a dislike of the profane scoffs which some people give to the English Antipedobaptists, merely for their use of dipping. it was, in all probability, the way by which our blessed Savior, and for certain was the most usual and ordinary way by which the ancient Christians did receive their baptism. ’Tis a great want of prudence, as well as of honesty, to refuse to grant to an adversary what is certainly true, and may be proved so. It creates a jealousy of all the rest that one says. As for sprinkling, I say, as Mr. Blake, at its first coming up in England, ‘Let them defend it who use it.’ They (who are inclined to Presbyterianism) are hardly prevailed on to leave off that scandalous custom of having their children, though never so well, baptized out of a basin, or porringer, in a bed-chamber, hardly persuaded to bring them to church, much further from having them dipped, though never so able to bear it."**

"In the case of sickness, weakness, haste, want of quantity of water, or such like extraordinary occasions, baptism by affusion of water on the face, was by the ancients, counted sufficient baptism. France seems to have been the first country in the world where baptism, by affusion, was used ordinarily to persons in health, and in the public way of administering it. There has been some synods, in some dioceses of France, that had spoken of affusion, without mentioning immersion at all, that being the common practice; but

* In Stennett’s against Russen, p. 175-76.
+ Note on Romans vi:4.
** History of Infant Baptism, Part II, chap. ii, p. 462.
for an office or liturgy of any church, this is, * I believe, the first in the world that prescribes affusion absolutely; and for sprinkling, properly called, it seems it was, at 1645, just then beginning, and used by very few. It must have begun in the disorderly times after 1641." "But then came The Directory, which says: ‘Baptism is to be administered, not in private places, or privately, but in the place of public worship, and in the face of the congregation,’ and so on. ‘And not in the places where fonts, in the time of Popery, were unfitly and superstitiously placed.’ So they reformed the font into a basin. This learned assembly could not remember that fonts to baptize in had been always used by the primitive Christians, long before the beginning of Popery, and ever since churches were built; but that sprinkling, for the common use of baptizing, was really introduced (in France first, and then in the other Popish countries) in times of Popery; and that accordingly, all those countries in which the usurped power of the Pope is, or has formerly been, owned, have left off dipping of children in the font; but that all other countries in the world, which had never regarded his authority, do still use it; and that basins, except in case of necessity, were never used by Papists, or any other Christians whatsoever, till by themselves." "What has been said of this custom of pouring or sprinkling water in the ordinary us of baptism, is to be understood only in reference to these western parts of Europe, for it is used ordinarily nowhere else." +

      Mr. John Wesley:

"Mary Welsh, aged eleven days, was baptized according to the custom of the first church, and the rule of the Church of England, by immersion. The child was ill then, but recovered from that hour. **Buried with him,’ alluded to the ancient manner of baptizing by immersion."++
      NEED WE ADD MORE? Is any other endeavor necessary to substantiate beyond a question that the churches of the first and second centuries were Baptist Churches, so far as baptism is concerned in subject and action? The testimony that might be produced would fill a volume; but the foregoing is sufficient for the candid. Certain it is as that the heavens are above us, that the
* Referring to Calvin’s "Form of administering the Sacraments."
+ History of Infant Baptism, Part II, chap. ix.
** Extract of Mr. John Wesley’s Journal, from his embarking for Georgia, page 10.
++ Wesley’s Notes on Romans vi: 4).
primitive churches immersed all who joined them, and that none were received but professing believers. One other feature of Baptist Churches must be noticed.

Their Church Government

      Were they Episcopal, Presbyterian, or monarchical? Again let history speak. Mosheim says:

"The churches in those early times were entirely independent on of another: none of them being subject to any foreign jurisdiction, but each governed by its own rules and its own laws. For, though the churches founded by the apostles had this particular difference shown them, that they were consulted in difficult and doubtful cases, yet they had no judicial authority, no sort of supremacy over the others, nor the least right to enact laws for them. Nothing, on the contrary, is more evident than the perfect equality of these primitive churches. Having witnessed, in the second century, that the custom of holding councils commenced in Greece, whence it soon spread through the other provinces."*
      This evidence is conclusive that neither Episcopacy nor Presbyterianism was known in the first churches; their government was that now existing among Baptists. but further, Gibbon, the classic historian of Rome, says:
"Such was the mild and equal constitution by which the Christians were governed for more than a hundred years after the death of the apostles. Every society formed within itself a separate and independent republic, and although the most distant of those little states maintained a mutual, as well as friendly intercourse of letters and deputations, the Christian world was not yet connected by any supreme authority or legislative assembly. Toward the end of the second century the churches of Greece and Asia adopted the useful institutions of provincial Synods, and they are justly supposed to have borrowed the model of a representative council from the celebrated examples of their own country, the Amphictyons, the Achean league, and the assemblies of the Ionian cities."
      We here pause again and review our course. We found, in the early part of the third century, ere one hundred years had transpired from the death of the apostles, Tertullian and the Montanists breaking away from the dominant parties in the churches, on the
* Mosheim, first century, chap. 10, sec. xiv.
ground of the innovations, the formalities, and the corruptions, which had almost quenched their life and light. We found that these Tertullianists were Baptists, and that from the churches planted by them descended those persecuted and slandered in every age as Anabaptists. We have now found, by the light of impartial history, recorded by Pedobaptist scholars, that previous to Tertullian and the Montanist schism - that is, previous to the third century - none but adults were baptized. The action of baptism was immersion, universally; and each church was an independent little republic.

      We have now found, by the glimmering and oft-shaded lamp of history, relumed by Pedobaptist scholars, that, previous to Tertullian and the Montenses schism,

      I. None but believers were baptized.

      II. Baptism was immersion, and

      III. Each Church was an independent little republic, knowing nothing of ecclesiastical conferences, synods, general assemblies, or authoritative councils, and, consequently,

      IV. They were all Baptist Churches then.

      For, if the baptism of none but professedly converted believers, and that by immersion, with independent and democratic church government, constitute Baptist churches, then the primitive churches were Baptist Churches

      Where, then, did the Baptists come from?

      When the learned Mosheim, after tracing the origin of every sect, came to the Anabaptists, or Mennonites, that laborious investigator paused and said:

"The true origin of this sect is hidden in the depths of antiquity; and it is of consequence extremely difficult to be ascertained."
      Never was truer statement penned. All up the stream of ecclesiastical history e had tracked them - up to its
main spring he had gone, and found them there. Amid the scenes of apostolic labor, in the purest ages of the church, he traced their existence, but not their origin. Further up into the light of inspired history he would not pass. Their origin was hidden in those remote depths of antiquity. It could be found in the Epistles and Acts of the Apostles, and in the testimony of Jesus. But here he would not seek for their origin, and so he proclaimed that it was lost. it is not hid in those remote depths. It stands forth in unadorned simplicity on the shores of the Jordan, amid the scenes of the Pentecost, and the cities of Greece, while the New Testament flings a flood of historic light over the whole subject. ere, then, is our ancestry - of whom we are proud - the origin of our denomination - for which we are grateful.

      On the shores of the Jordan, thronged with the wondering citizens of Jerusalem, and the gathering multitudes of Judea, the harbinger of the Messiah announced the setting up of the kingdom of Jesus - the institution of the church of Christ. The last of the prophets, and the first of the heralds of the gospel, like the star of morning, shining clear and radiant from the bright sky, and then fading away in the cloudless splendor of the orb of day - in the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ came john, baptizing in the wilderness. That was the beginning.

      Amid the multitudes stood Jesus. Behold the Lamb of God! exclaimed the enraptured herald of the kingdom. And then in those waters, consecrated by a thousand sacred associations, Jesus was baptized, while from the parting heavens came the approving voice of the Father, and the anointing symbol of the Holy Ghost. thus it was, and there it was, that our denomination had its origin. Nor can learning nor ingenuity fix another spot, nor another period.

Baptists! the flag that floats over you is that of Jesus only; the principles that govern you have the authority of Jesus only; the ordinances which distinguish you have the example of Jesus only; and the founder of your churches is Jesus only. Let deep devotion be yours. Let earnest zeal be yours. Let the spirit that animated to deeds of valor and endurance our noble and martyred ancestors be yours. Let us move in harmony, and fight on manfully and wear the armor constantly, and soon the songs of the angels will announce the advent of the era when "the kingdoms of this world shall become the kingdoms of our God and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever."



[From: S. H. Ford, The Origin of the Baptists, 1860, republished by the Baptist Sunday School Committee, 1905 edition, Chapter XV - "Century One," pp. 95-105. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

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