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The Laying On of Hands -
A Forgotten Chapter in Baptist History

By W. J. McGlothlin, D.D.
Louisville, KY

      Imposition of hands as a religious ceremony has been practiced in Christian history for three distinct purposes - on religious officers to set them apart for their special work, on the newly baptized for the gifts and graces of the Holy Spirit, and on excluded members when restoring them to the fellowship of the church. Not all Christians have had all or even any of these practices, but they have all been practiced from early, if not the earliest days of Christianity. Let us see what the Scriptural basis for these practices is.

      The ceremony of laying on of hands is very ancient. It appears first in Scripture when the people are commanded to put their hands upon the Levites and offer them as a wave offering to Jehovah. Moses is instructed by Jehovah to lay his hand upon Joshua as a part of the ceremony by which he was to be recognized as Moses' successor. Numbers 27:18; Deuteronomy 34:9. This act was not, however, for the gift of the Spirit for he is said to be already ''a man in whom is the Spirit.'' The exact significance of the act is not made clear. Neither of these instances was in any sense an ordination, nor was the imposition of hands a part of the ceremony for ordaining priests. The hands of the officiating priest were laid upon the head of the scape-goat and some other sacrifices before the animal was slain, thus transferring

the sins of the people to the sacrificial animal. These were the only uses of the ceremony of imposition of hands in the Old Testament.

      When we come to the New Testament we find that Jesus often laid his hands upon the sick to heal them (Luke 4:40; Mark 6:5), and on little children in blessing them (Matthew 19: 15). But so far as we know, he neither instituted, nor used, nor commanded his followers to practice any ceremony of laying on of hands for any purpose whatsoever. Such ceremonies had always been the special prerogatives of the priestly class and he did not belong to that family, nor assume any of its prerogatives, nor employ any of its ceremonies, so far as we know. Neither did he, as far as we know, transfer any of these things to or impose them upon his followers. So far as we know, he laid no hands upon the newly baptized for the gift of the Spirit, nor upon anybody in the way of ordination to the work of ministering, nor did he command his followers to do so.

      However, his followers very soon after his death, began to use this ceremony of the imposition of hands. When the church at Jerusalem had chosen seven men to oversee the charitable work of the church, they were set before the apostles ''and when they had prayed, they laid their hands upon them." Acts 6:6. This is the first instance of the use of the ceremony of the imposition of hands in Christian history, so far as we are informed. We are not informed as to the source and origin of the ceremony, nor of its significance was it the perpetuation of some ceremony practiced among the Jews? or was it the carrying out of a command of Jesus which has not been rewarded? or was it a new ceremony instituted by themselves? None of these questions can be answered except by conjecture. Nor can we say whether it confer[r]ed grace, or symbolized the gift of grace from God, or was simply a solemn way of recognizing God's call of these men to a spiritual work. Further, we cannot say whether

it gave any authority or power which they did not before possess. In short, we know that such a ceremony was used, but can say nothing more about it.

      In Acts 13:3 we learn that the ceremony is again used, along with fasting and prayer, in sending forth Barnabas and Saul on their first missionary journey. Here it could hardly have been an ordination, since both men had been preaching and doing missionary work for several years. But here again we are not told its source or significance; we are merely informed that the Holy Spirit said to them, "Separate me, Barnabas and Saul, for the work whereunto I have called them. Then, when they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them, they sent them away.'' Acts 13:2f. Here it would seem to be the ceremony ·of separating some missionaries to a special, new, difficult and dangerous undertaking, but its significance is again left unexplained.

      In Timothy 4:14, Paul warns Timothy not to neglect the gracious gift (Charisma), ''which.'' said he, ''was given thee through prophecy with imposition of the hands of the presbytery.'' Here there is evidently reference to the ceremony of imposition of hands by which some spiritual gift was actually confer[r]ed upon Timothy. But here again, many questions remain unanswered. What was this gift? Was the ceremony at Timothy's baptism or in connection with an ordination, as we call it, at the beginning of his ministry as a Christian preacher? We do not know. Moreover, the gift was conferred through (by means of) prophecy along with the laying on of hands. In the parallel passage II. Timothy 1:6, Paul puts Timothy "in remembrance that thou stir up (stir into a flame) the gift (Charisma) of God, which is in thee through the laying on of my hands." Putting the two passages together we learn that "the gift of God" came to Timothy through the agency of prophecy and the imposition of the hands of the presbytery along with Paul. The

gift was actually imparted, not merely symbolized. What was this "gift of God"? With the exception of I Peter 4 :10, this word is used in the New Testament exclusively by Paul. By it he certainly does not mean any ecclesiastical authority or power, but the presence of the Holy Spirit in his life, enabling him to manifest such powers as healing, gift of tongues, prophecy, power of teaching, etc. These gifts Timothy had received through prophecy and the imposition of hands.

The expression, "lay hands hastily on no man, " (I. Timothy 5 :22) is generally interpreted as referring to ordination, but Ellicott and other commentators, with more probability it seems to me, refer it to the imposition of hands at the restoration of excluded and now penitent members to renewed fellowship in the church. This interpretation accords with the context of the passage and with what is known to have been the custom of the early Christians.

      So much for the passages bearing on the ceremony as used in ordinations. But there is still another use of the ceremony in the New Testament, viz., the gift of the Holy Spirit to ordinary believers. When Jesus wished the disciples to receive the Holy Spirit "he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Spirit. " John 20:22. No sort of ceremony was interposed. Again, on the day of Pentecost, the Spirit came upon them without the interposition of any symbolic or other human action. Still again, as Peter preached to the Gentiles in the house of Cornelius, at Caesarea, "the Holy Spirit fell on all them that heard the word," (Acts 10 :44), even before baptism.

      On the other hand during the mission of Philip at Samaria, many had believed and been baptized without receiving the Holy Spirit. Hearing that Samaria had received the Word of God, the apostles at Jerusalem sent unto them Peter and John, "who, when they were come down, prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Spirit: for as yet it was fallen on none

of them: only they had been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. Then laid they their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit." Acts 8:14-17. Here a number of persons, some time after baptism, receive the Spirit through prayer and the laying on of hands.

      Annanias laid his hands upon Saul of Tarsus that he might receive his sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit, but in this case, before he was baptized. Acts 9:17.

      An interesting case occurs in Acts 19. When Paul reached Ephesus on his third missionary journey he found that others had preceded him and had won some disciples. But they were very imperfectly taught. They had not only not received the Holy Spirit, but had not even heard "whether the Holy Spirit was” and had been baptized "into John's baptism." After some further instruction, ''they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them; and they spake with tongues and prophesied." Acts 19:1-6. There are many things we should like to know about this incident, e. g. How did John's baptism differ from other baptism? Why had these men not received the Holy Spirit? and others. But for our purposes it is sufficient to notice that Paul laid his hands upon them after baptism for this gift of the Holy Spirit. As a result the Spirit was received, but the ceremony was without prayer, so far as the records inform us.

      Finally, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, urges his readers to "leave the doctrine of the first principles of Christ," and press on to full growth; "not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God, of the teaching of baptisms, and of laying on of hands, and of the resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment.'' Hebrews 6:1f. Here the author is addressing all Christians, and the laying on of hands is classified with the first principles, the things that

should be known at the beginning of the Christian life. Imposition of hands would, therefore, seem to be a well established custom at that time, and to be immediately after baptism. Its purpose or significance is not stated, but judging from the previous passages we have studied, it seems probable that it was practiced on the newly baptized for the gift of the Holy Spirit.

      To sum up the Biblical evidence for the practice of laying on of hands. In the Old Testament laying on of hands was not a part of the ceremony for setting apart the priests. When the tribe of Levi was originally set apart to God's service the people laid hands upon them and offered them as a wave offering to Jehovah, but not in ordination. Numbers 8:10£. Moses laid hands upon Joshua, thus constituting him his successor. Numbers 27:18-23. The priests laid their hands upon the head of many of the sacrifices before they were killed, transferring to the animal the sins of the individual or of the nation as the case might be. This was the extent of the use of the ceremony in the Old Testament.

      In the New Testament Jesus often laid his hands upon people to heal them or in blessing, but never so far as we are informed either to confer the Holy Spirit after baptism, or in ordination. Nor did he command his followers so to do.

      But the Christians soon began the practice. It is true that no apostle or preacher of the New Testament, with the possible exception of Timothy, nor any deacon, is known to have been ordained by the ceremony of laying on of hands. The seven at Jerusalem were inducted into the work of serving tables by prayer and the laying on of hands; but they are nowhere called deacons and seem to have disappeared from the church when the conditions which called the body into existence ceased. Nothing is said as to the ordination of deacons in passages where they are mentioned.

      The two missionaries, Barnabas and Saul, were sent forth,

several years after they began to preach, to a new task by fasting, prayer and the laying on of hands, but this could hardly be called an ordination. Timothy had received an actual Charisma or spiritual gift through prophecy and the laying on of hands of the presbytery and of Paul; this was probably at the beginning of his ministry and might, it is probable, be justly called an ordination. But it must have been a very extraordinary one. This is all we know of the ceremony in ordinations.

      We saw the ceremony twice used, once by Peter and John, and once by Paul, on the newly baptized for the gift of the Holy Spirit. We saw an indication in I. Timothy 5:22, according to the best commentators, that people excluded from the church, on repenting, were received back into fellowship by the laying on of hands. And finally we saw that the author of Hebrews regards the laying on of hands as one of the first principles of the Christian life.

      Looking at all this we must be impressed with its indefiniteness and the narrow limits of our real knowledge of the practice of the New Testament churches. There is not a command in the New Testament, either by Jesus or the apostles, to lay hands on anybody for any purpose whatsoever, except Paul's warning to Timothy, ''lay hands hastily on no man.'' As used in the case of Timothy it did not symbolize, but secured the "gift of God"; likewise after baptism it secured the gift of the Holy Spirit in the cases given. All the New Testament passages together do not tell us the source of the practice, nor its significance, nor whether it is binding on all Christians, nor whether the laying on of hands after baptism and for the restoration of excluded members to fellowship are as binding as in ordination. In short we have to interpret the practice rather than the teachings of the apostles, and our knowledge of their practices is very meager. Further, we have to determine whether their practice is binding on us.

      Now in this state of our knowledge it is not surprising that people have differed in practice. What have the Christians actually done? Well, almost all Christians have used the ceremony of the imposition of hands in the ordination of most of their various officials; and they have usually supposed, that as in the case of Timothy, it actually confer[r]ed upon the recipients some grace or power which they did not before have. Further, the early Christians and the great majority of Christians down to the present time practice the imposition of the hands upon the baptized for the gift of the Holy Spirit as in the cases of Peter, and John, and Paul; and they believe that the Holy Spirit is thus imparted, as in those cases. In the case of infant baptism this ceremony is postponed for some years of instruction, but it always precedes communion. (Recently the pope his reduced the age from eleven to seven). Finally, most Christians throughout the history since the first century have restored to fellowship in the church through prayer and the laying on of hand.

      But what has been the practice of the Baptists and especially the Kentucky Baptists in whom we are especially interested? It may be said that the Baptists have almost uniformly ordained both pastors and deacons by prayer and the laying on of hands, and in the old days fasting preceded the ceremony as in the case of Barnabas and Saul, several of our old confessions of faith prescribing fasting as a part of the ordination exercises. Crosby (History of the English Baptists] IV. 156) tells us that a few Baptists of England in the 17th century refused to ordain by the laying on of hands and in 1729 the Philadelphia Association discussed the question as to whether they could receive baptisms performed by these men. Semple [History of Virginia Baptists>/i>] (p. 124f) informs us that the question as to whether ordination ought to be by imposition of hands or merely by call of the church was discussed for years in the bounds of the Dover Association in Virginia. The question was before

the Association in 1792 and in other years, it was investigated at different times and in different ways, and finally after years of discussion decided in favor of the imposition of hands. Baptists have usually practiced ordination by imposition of hands, but they have not been unanimous in believing in the practice. So far as I know Kentucky Baptists have uniformly ordained by the laying on of hands. If they ever fasted in connection with an ordination that fact is unknown to me, though it may have been done in the earlier years of their history.

      With regard to the effect of ordination Baptists have not been agreed. Does it confer any ''gift of God,'' as in the case of Timothy, any grace or power, not before possessed? Can a man do anything after ordination which he could not do before ordination? All Christians, Catholics and Protestants, who insist that it does confer powers which were not before possessed, agree that these powers are exercised in and through the church. As to what those powers are they are not agreed. Baptists are not agreed among themselves as to whether any powers are conferred. The question turns upon the administration of the ordinances among the Baptists. In the earliest Calvinistic Baptist Confession, that of 1644, ordination is provided for, but at the same time it is distinctly stated that the ordinances and worship of the church must be administered by others if no ordained man can be had. On the other hand the Philadelphia Confession drawn up in 1677, just thirty-three years later, distinctly and positively asserts that only ordained officials can administer the ordinances. That division of sentiment has continued to the present. I have been informed, reliably informed I think, that the English Baptists allow women to baptize on some mission fields, where social customs are thought to forbid its administration by a man. As it appears to me English and Northern Baptists incline to the view that ordination confers no grace or powers, but that it is desirable as a means of keeping unworthy

men out of the ministry, while Southern and possibly Canadian Baptists incline to the view that it does confer some additional power not before possessed, and consequently most of them do not permit an unordained man to administer the ordinances.

      On this question Kentucky Baptists have also been divided, but I judge that at present an overwhelming majority of them believe that ordination confers power not before possessed, and they do not, therefore, permit unordained men to administer the ordinances.

But what has been the practice of Baptists in the matter of laying on of hands after baptism, corresponding to Catholic and Episcopal confirmations? Here we have some very interesting history. The practice, so far as known, first appeared among the Arminian or General Baptists of England, about 1646. It was based upon Hebrews 6:2, where laying on of hands is one of the six principles or first things of the Christian life there mentioned. They insisted that all these six first principles must be observed, and hence soon come to be known as "The Six Principle Baptists." Imposition of hands upon the newly baptized for the gift of the Spirit, found place in their confessions of faith, and before long was generally if not universally held and practiced among them. The great majority made the question a term of communion and suffered nobody to come to the Lord's table until hands had been laid upon him.

The English Calvinistic or Particular Baptists, were never so widely or deeply affected by the practice; and yet, as was to be expected, some of them adopted the custom and strenuously insisted upon it as a condition of church membership and a term of communion. Among those who held this view, Benjamin and Elias Keach, father and son, were prominent and leading representatives. They were both pastors in London and in 1697 drew up a joint confession of faith for their churches. One of the articles in this confession required the laying on of hands

as a Baptist doctrine, though none of the generally received confessions of the English Particular Baptists had any article on the subject.

      On the other hand the Welsh Calvinistic Baptists seem to have very generally insisted on the laying on of hands, and it was through the Welsh Baptists, the General Baptists and Keach's Confession that the practice was so widely introduced among the Baptists of America.

      The General Baptists in America preached it, of course, since they were introduced here directly from England. The Calvinistic Baptists in and around Providence, R. I., were soon led to adopt the practice through the influence of Arminians, some of whom joined the first church at Providence.

The beginnings of the practice among Calvinistic Baptists of the middle colonies, in so far as we are informed, was among the Welsh Baptists of New Jersey. The Welsh Tract church made the laying on of hands a term of communion in 1701, refusing to commune with the Baptist churches in the neighborhood because they did not at that time practice laying on of hands. Records Welsh Tract church, I. 7p. In 1706 the Welsh Tract, Philadelphia and Pennepeck churches agreed on what was called ''transient communion,'' that is communion for a short period of the members of one party at the meetings of another. The Welsh people were very active and aggressive in the propagation of their views as to imposition of hands, and in 1709 they note with pleasure, that all the ministers and many of the members of the English speaking churches in that region, had submitted to the ordinance. Two years before this time, i.e., in 1707 these English churches had been organized into the Philadelphia Association, and the laying on of hands was thus given organized support by the largest, most intelligent and aggressive [sic] body of Baptists in America. It was, at this time and for sixty years the only association in America, and it

eventually included churches in Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, New Jersey and New York, and sent its missionaries throughout the colonies. Its beliefs and practices were therefore sure to be widely if not universally accepted. It was now completely converted to the laying on of hands and propagated that faith everywhere. For some years it had been using the confession drawn up in 1677 in England and approved by the first General Assembly of the English Particular Baptists in 1689; in 1742 it ordered the printing of a new edition in America and added two articles, one favoring singing in public worship and the other enforcing laying on of hands on the newly baptized. They were both taken from Keach's Confession and the one on laying of hands is as follows: ''We believe that laying on of hands, with prayer, upon baptized believers, as such, is an ordinance of Christ, and ought to be submitted unto by all such persons that are admitted to partake of the Lord's Supper, and that the end of this ordinance is not for the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit, but for a farther reception of the Holy Spirit of promise, or for the addition of the graces of the Spirit, and the influences thereof; to confirm, strengthen, and comfort them in Christ Jesus; it being ratified and established by the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit in the primitive times, to abide in the church as meeting together on the first day of the week was, Acts 2:1, that being the day of worship, or Christian Sabbath, under the gospel; and as preaching the Word was, Acts 10:44, and as baptism was, Matthew 3:16, and prayer was, Acts 4:31, and singing psalms, etc., was, Acts 16:25, 26, so this of laying on of hands was, Acts 8 and 19, for as the whole gospel was confirmed by signs and wonders, and divers miracles and gifts of the Holy Ghost in general, so was every ordinance in like manner confirmed in particular.''

      The importance ascribed by our fathers to this ceremony is thus seen to be very great. It is an ordinance of Christ, a

conciliation of communion; it is for the further reception of the Holy Spirit or the addition of the graces and influences of the Spirit, to confirm, strengthen and comfort Christians in Christ Jesus; it was established at first by the extraordinary manifestations of the Spirit as the Sabbath, baptism, prayer, etc. It was regarded equally as sacred and important as baptism or communion.

      Following the lead of the Philadelphia Association the Ketocton in Virginia, the Kehukee in North Carolina, and the Charleston in South Carolina and other Associations as they were organized, adopted the Philadelphia Confession making laying on of hands a term of communion. Semple says that for more than twenty years after its organization in 1766 the Ketocton Association made laying on of hands a term of communion. [page 389.] Naturally the custom was transferred to Kentucky by the Baptists who migrated to that fair land. The Elkhorn and Salem and probably other Associations adopted the Philadelphia Confession and the practice of laying on of hands. However, toward the end of the 18th century, it began to be neglected by preachers and churches. This caused sharp discussions in many Associations, since numbers of the brethren still regarded it as one of the New Testament ordinances, instituted by Christ, of perpetual obligation and great value. In response to a query in 1783 the Philadelphia Association say: "Imposition of hands on baptized persons has been the general practice of the churches in union with this Association,' and is still used by most of them; but it was never considered by the Association as a bar of communion. [In this statement they were mistaken wjMc]. Resolved, That any person scrupling to submit thereto, may be admitted to the fellowship of the church without it.'' Mins. 1783. In 1789 the question became a subject of contention in Kentucky. The Salem Association received this query from one of the churches:

     "Whether any of the churches of this Association practicing or not practicing the laying on of hands on church members will be a bar to fellowship?" The Association answered in the negative. Spencer I. 181. From this time on the practice rapidly declined all over the country and completely disappeared in the early years of the 19th century. The Baptists of the country thus gave up in a period of some twenty-five years what they had regarded for a century and a quarter as a cardinal article of their faith and practice, of divine appointment, perpetual obligation and great value to the Christian life. They had put it into their creed, fought for it, divided churches and communities over it; but there blew a breath of new life in upon the Baptist body and lo! it was gone, leaving behind only an inoperative article in their Confession of faith. How are we to explain so strange and startling a phenomenon 1 In 1789-90 a great revival began among the Baptists of the whole, country; in 1800-1 there came another and soon the great foreign mission movement began to stir the slumbering powers of the denomination. It had more important things to do, and so first quit disturbing the peace over the imposition of hands, leaving each church to do as it chose, and soon all of them chose to quit a practice which obviously neither accomplished nor symbolized the gift of the Spirit as it had been supposed to do. One more cause of division and strife, was out of the way, leaving the field a little clearer for the business of Christians, the true work of the denomination, the bringing of the world to Christ.

      It may be of some interest to know just how the ordinance was administered. It must be done by an ordained minister to be valid, just as confirmation in the Catholic and other Episcopal churches must be administered by an ordained bishop, else it is not valid. Moreover validity in both cases meant the conferring of real benefits, grace; if not conferred by an ordained bishop it had no validity and was useless or worse. In fact it

was a case of pure ecclesiasticism. After baptism the minister laid his hands upon the head of each candidate and prayed. If more than one preacher was present they laid their hands upon the head of each candidate and one of them prayed. Sometimes this took place on the bank of the stream immediately after baptism, at other times the candidates were allowed to dress and assemble at the church for this ceremony. But in no case were they considered members of the church or admitted to communion until they had "passed under hands," as it was called.

      John Taylor in his "History of Ten Churches," p. 10, describes the ordinance as he had seen it administered on the occasion of a notable baptizing in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. He says:

      "I think fifty-three were baptized on that day, several young ministers came with [Samuel] Harris, as Elijah Craig, John Waller, with a number of others. The rite of laying on of hands, on the newly baptized, was practiced by the Baptists in those days; this practice was performed as follows: Those upwards of fifty [in number], stood up in one solemn line, on the bank of the river, taking up about as many yards as there were. individuals the males first in the line, about four ministers went together, each one laid his right hand on the head of the dedicated person, and one prayed for him, and after praying for three or four of them, another proceeded till they went through. It would appear as if that solemn dedication might be some barrier to future apostacy; for the prayers were with great solemnity and fervour, and for that particular person according to their age and circumstances.'' p. 10.

On less notable occasions it was probably administered in a more simple way, but the essential things of prayer and the laying on of hands were always there. So far as I know, the custom has disappeared completely from among English and

American Baptists; but I noticed in a recent letter concerning the Russian Baptists, that they practice the ceremony as a solemn and binding ordinance, and it is entirely possible that they would not accept us Kentucky Baptists as orthodox enough to commune with them.

      With regard to the third use of laying on of hands, that is in the restoration of excluded members to fellowship, there is little to say. It has been practiced by a great part of the Christian world throughout history, but if English or American Baptists have ever used it with any regularity I do not know it. No literature referring to it has ever come under my eyes, nor have I ever met with it in my experience.


[By W. J. McGlothlin, editor and author, Publications of the Kentucky Baptist Historical Society, Number Two, 1911, pp. 35-50; via E-Text Collection of SBTS, Louisville, KY, Adam Winters, Archivist. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

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