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A Review of The History of Baptism
By Robert Robinson.
Edited by David Benedict, A.M.
The American Baptist Magazine
and Missionary Intelligencer
, 1818
[The reviewer is unknown.]

      It is painful to reflect that an institution which our Saviour was pleased to ordain for the benefit of his disciples, has occasioned among them so much controversy as there has been upon the subject of Baptism. But what shall be done? Shall we conclude that since good men are divided on this subject, it matters but little whether the disciples of Christ conform to his positive institutions or not? We cannot, we dare not form such a conclusion. We do not think ourselves at liberty to sacrifice an ordinance of the gospel for the purpose of bringing the divisions of Christians to a close. We long to see the children of God united. But we despair of its being accomplished so as to promote the cause of religion, till they meet on the ground of truth.

      Viewing the subject in this light, we feel bound in duty to our Redeemer and to our erring brethren, to contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the faints; - not, indeed, to do it with bitterness and clamour, but with christian fidelity, in meekness and love.

      The Bible we deem to be the only proper authority for regulating our faith and practice in religion. It is with the fullest confidence that we can direct inquirers to that sacred book; for the Bible, in our apprehension, makes Baptism a plain and simple subject. But the distinguishing sentiments of the Baptists shrink not from any argument that can be brought, either from reason, or from history. Some of our opponents, we know, aware that their practice cannot be supported by the Bible, are in the habit of referring to Ecclesiastical History. Here they find, that, so early as the third century, the baptism of children is mentioned ; and hence they infer that it was a primitive practice of the church to baptize infants. But after a patient examination, we have been thoroughly convinced that a full and lucid statement of facts relating to the subject, would not only show clearly that no such inference ought to be made, but would present much direct evidence in favour of the sentiments which are peculiar to the Baptists. Such a History, written in the temper of the Gospel, we have long wished might be in the hands of every Christian. While we would have none forget the sufficiency, and the exclusive authority of the Scriptures with regard to the institutions of Christ, we are very willing that all the light should be thrown upon them which can be derived from any other source. Truth has nothing to fear from investigation.

      Besides, a History of Baptism is not only important, in order to clear the subject of the difficulties in which it has unhappily been involved, and remove the doubts which may have been suggested to the mind of the humble believer who is inquiring, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? - but it is so connected with other subjects, that it opens a wide field to the man of literature, and casts much light upon the state of Christianity in different ages of the church, and in different parts of the world.

      Under these impressions, we could not but feel deeply interested, when the intention of publishing an abridged edition of Robinson's History was announced. The object we deemed worthy Hie attention of the reverend gentleman, to whom the American Baptists are so much indebted for his indefatigable labours in collecting and preserving the scattered materials of their history.

      The work has at length appeared; and, on many accounts, it calls for a review. It contains a great variety of matter, and is divided into forty-two chapters. We cannot give our readers a general idea of the whole, in so few words, better than by presenting the Author's Recapitulation in nearly his own language.

      The first chapter narrates the origin of baptism; and it appears to have originated in an order of God, executed by John in the little kingdom of Judea, then a province of the Roman Empire, in the reign of Tiberias Cesar.

      The second inquires what baptism John administered, and shews it was that of immersion in water.

      The third treats of the persons baptized, and proves they were only believers, and here Jesus is introduced as Lord of the New Economy.

      The two next proceed to inquire whether baptism were in use anions; the Jews before John, or among the Gentiles; and it is attempted to be shown that it was not, but was altogether a new and divine appointment.

      The seventh chapter treats of the improvement of the institution by Jesus Christ. He did not alter the subject, a believer, or immersion, the mode, but he extended the commission to baptize so as to include the Gentiles of that age, and all mankind, who might become his disciples in future ages.

      The next chapter observes that the congregations collected by the immediate Apostles of Christ were baptized by immersion, and that none but believers appear on this occasion; and here ends sacred history, without exhibiting; any infant, or any sprinkling.

      The ninth chapter, and the two following, narrate the Eastern, Human, and Mohammedan favourite practice of bathing, and the twelfth shews that the primitive Christians erected similar buildings for the purposes of sacred bathing, and called them baptisteries, from baptism, which they practised by immersion there.

      The next four chapters describe several baptisteries, both of eastern and western Christians, and shew that their histories are credible, and their conduct proper only on supposition that they baptized believers by immersion.

      The seventeenth chapter introduces artists depicting baptism, and unwarily obscuring what they meant to elucidate.

      The next treats of fonts both natural and artificial, and shews that a confusion of names introduced a confusion of things, by which means the original practice of baptism became more corrupted.

      The baptism of infants, that is, of minors, so called in general, follows, and here it is observed that the equivocalness of words went to add to the corruption of baptism.

      The next chapter shews that the weak fondness of parents, and the enthusiasm of the monks helped yet more to corrupt baptism, by transferring to babes an institute proper only for men.

      The twenty-first chapter and the two following, shew that Africa, the least enlightened part of the Christian world, cherished the baptism of babes ; and that Augustin, (otherwise called Austin) brought it to perfection there in the fifth century; and here the author attempts to prove that 'the novel practice had no extent or duration worth mentioning.'

      The next chapter shews how the Orientals depraved the institute, and brought it down gradually to children.

      Chapter the twenty-fifth examines a pretended canon of some African monks, who imported infant baptism into Spain in the sixth century.

      The next chapter shews how the Emperor Charlemagne imposed on the Saxons a law for infant baptism, to serve the political purpose of enslaving them, and others of mankind, and how other despots copied his example, and turned the institute of Christ into an engine of state.

      The twenty-seventh chapter account for the extensive progress of infant baptism, by shewing how well it suited the interest of various classes of men.

      Next follows an account of several consequences of making baptism necessary to babes, and so brings an the last stage of the corruption, of it, the practice of baptizing infants unborn.

      The thirty-third chapter traces the history of aspersion, and attempts to shew that the monks introduced from Pagan rites the practice of sprinkling holy water, which in the end was mistaken for christian baptism.

      The next treats of the real practice of primitive baptism, which it some countries truly, and in others falsely, is called Ana-baptism, and the three following chapters narrate the present state of baptism in various churches, Eastern and Western, Greek, Roman, Reformed, and Renovated, by the original pattern.

      Having narrated the several states of this divine institute, the subject closes with an attempt to shew the true ground on which religion in justice ought to rest ; and as baptism is a positive institute, both commanded and exemplified, a list is given of the first churches, in which there does not appear any sprinkling, or so much as one infant, whence the conclusion is, that infant baptism is not of divine appointment, and that Christianity is not in this institute openly or covertly inimical to the birth rights of mankind; on the contrary, by requiring personal knowledge and virtue, it is the best friend of a good system of civil government, and deserves well of mankind. It removes ignorance, the bane of virtue, and by educating the world, teaches mankind at once to be both rational and religious, fit members of civil society, and "meet to be partakers of an inheritance with the saints in light." The history of Baptism, as presented in these chapters, is, certainly, one of no ordinary stamp It was written under peculiar advantages. The author, it will be recollected, was a man eminent for his literary acquirements. He resided near the University of Cambridge in England, and had access to the immense library of that venerable institution. Hence he was enabled to collect a multitude of interesting facts not generally known; and to substantiate them by minute references to the authors consulted, and copious extracts, which he has inserted at the bottom of the page, in the original Latin and Greek. Many of these the Editor has judiciously retained as standing testimonies to the facts related; and, at the same time, he has translated the most interesting into English. Some, however, that are very important, he has omitted. We will mention a few. It is ascertained that Gregory Nazianzen the younger, who lived in the fourth century, was not baptized till he was about thirty years of age. If his parents, during his childhood, were Christians, the fact that he was not baptized before, affords an argument that infant baptism was not, at that period, generally practised. Now there is a passage in a Poem which he wrote on his own life, which proves that at the time of his birth, his father was not only a Christian, but also a minister of the Gospel. He thus relates the earnest, paternal solicitation, which he received from him to enter the ministry, and assist him in the office of bishop of Nazianzen:

      'You have not lived so long as I have been labouring in the ministry. - Do me the kindness, do.'

      This extract, had it been retained, would have enabled the reader to see for himself, and would thus have placed the matter beyond dispute.

      As Mr. Wall, the ingenious and learned advocate for infant baptism, endeavours to show that the parents of Chrysostom were Heathens at the time of his birth, it is much to be regretted that our Editor, instead of only making a reference, did not retain the extract itself which Mr. Robinson produces from Montfaucon, as proof of what he asserts.*

      So with regard to St. Basil, some would have it believed 'that there is no proof to the contrary, but that he was baptized in his infancy.' We were very sorry to find that the evidence which the author presents, is omitted. +

      The positions which the History maintains, we think in general correct, and well supported, so far as the main subject is concerned; and we wish we could proceed to give the work our unqualified approbation. But we cannot. Before we proceed, however, to the unpleasant task of making our strictures upon those parts which we deem censurable, our readers, we trust, will pardon us if we indulge a few reflections, naturally arising from
* Chrysostomi vit. Op Tom xiii Johannes (Chrysostomus) xxviii annos natus baptizatus fuit. Pater autem ejas, dum in cunalibus esset Johannes, mortuus est: ex narratu vero matris liquet illos ante ortum Johannes Christianasfuisse Natus autem esse putatur anno 347. Haec est scatentia Blondelli, Hermantii, et Tillemontii.
+ S Basil, vit. op. praefix. (St. Basil's Life, prefixed to his works.) Cap. 1. 5. Natus est Basilius circa annum 329. Basilium baptizavit Dianius Caesariensis .... hoc tantum certo scimus, ejus baptismum dilatum f'uisse, saltem usque ad illud tempus, quo Caesaream missus est. Utrum autem etiam usque ad reditum ex Graecia, id non ita exploratum est, sed tamen libentur crediderim eum circa annum 357.

the chapter which considers 'whether the Baptism of John was taken from any Jewish washings, particularly that of Proselytes,' and in which we think the author has very satisfactorily shewn that it was not. It is difficult to conceive how a person, after considering the facts exhibited relating to this subject, can doubt that 'the baptism of John' was ' from heaven,' - a new and divine institution. A few of the difficulties attending the contrary supposition, Mr. Robinson has among many other considerations thus briefly stated in the language of a very learned divine, who was once inclined to that side of the question, but on further examination, was led to doubt its correctness. They are these:

      1. " He had not found any instance of one person's washing another, by way of consecration, purification or sanctification; except that of Moses' washing Aaron and his sons, when he set them apart to the office of priests. Leviticus viii 6.

      2. He says: I cannot find that the Jews do at present practise any such thing as that of baptizing the proselytes that go over to them, though they are said to make them wash themselves.

      3. He asks, where is there any intimation of such a practice among the Jews before the coming of our Lord. If any one could produce any clear testimony of that kind from the Old Testament, the Apocrypha, Josephus, or Philo, that would be of great moment.

      4. He adds: In former times, proselytes, coming over from heathenism to the Jewish religion, used to wash themselves; which is a very different thing from baptism, or one person's being washed by another. Though I must own, I cannot see how infants could wash themselves." *

      Suppose now, we admit the Jewish traditions, which our Paedobaptist brethren have presented us respecting the baptism of proselytes to be correct; that is, suppose we admit it to be a fact, that proselytes washed or immersed themselves at the time of their being received into the Jewish nation; and suppose we call an immersing of one's self, baptism, - no argument can be derived from the practice for the baptism of infants in the Christian church.

      Here lies the fallacy: - Mr. Wall and others argue as if NO baptism, but that of proselytes, was known among the Jews; and as if John copied from this the ordinance which he administered. But it ought to be remembered that Proselyte-baptism, (if, according to the supposition, it was observed,) so far from being the source and grand model of baptism, was but a part, and a very small part too, of the 'divers washings' practised by the Jews.

      Besides, as Mr. Wall himself acknowledges, they baptized neither their own children, nor those which were born to a Proselyte after his initiation, nor any of his posterity in succeeding generations. But for various ceremonial purifications, as individuals occasionally had need, they did wash or baptize themselves. Such ablutions, we know, were extremely frequent; and this was always viewed as a personal concern.

      Now John came preaching that men should repent; that they should be purified from the defilement of their sins, and be ready to receive the Messiah. This, too, from the nature of the case, was a personal concern. And so the scripture represents it - 'They were baptized of him in Jordan confessing their sins.'

      His was the baptism of Repentance, not of Proselytism. It was to the Jews a symbolical representation of being purified from their sins. Thus far, its design and 8ignificancy must have been readily apprehended by them, as it resembled the frequent baptisms, or ablutions which they
* Dr. Benson. On St. Paul's Epistles. Vol. I. dis. viii. part 2.

practised to purify themselves from other defilements. But to these ablutions they never brought their children. So when they came to the Baptism of John, they would no more think of bringing' their infant children to it, than they would of bringing them to the numerous other baptisms which they were in the habit of observing.

      If, then, the believing Jews had all along, during the life of our Saviour, been accustomed to view baptism among them as a personal duty, and had never considered it requisite or proper to have their children baptized, how must they have understood his final charge to his ministers when be commanded them to teach and baptize all nations? Certainly, unless some special direction was given to the contrary, they must have taken it for granted, that, as formerly, none but adults were to be baptized.

      But we must hasten to remark upon some of the faults of the work before us.

      It has much redundant matter. It sometimes presents minute, critical remarks that are but little to the purpose, and seem to be of no possible use but to exhibit the author's acquaintance with languages. He wanders, often, from the subject, and bewilders the reader by leading him aside to view a multitude of objects which have no special connexion with a history of Baptism.

      But this objection, however important in itself, is trifling in comparison with others which we have to make.

      The notion which the author maintains, (page 17,) that the original Greek word for baptize cannot be translated, but that it was designed by our Lord and his Apostles to express not only a dipping, but also a colouring, appears to us fanciful. It seems unsupported even by the passage which he quotes from Tertullian: Homo in aqua demissus, et inter pauca verba tinctus' - A man is put down, or goes down into the water, and amidst a few words, i. e. while a few words are pronounced, he is dipped. Tinctus, it is true, primarily signifies the same as coloured, tinged. But as the principal action in colouring was dipping, [into a dye] the word came to be used in Latin, like the corresponding terms in Greek, to denote simply a being dipped, wetted much, or immersed, without any reference to a colouring. Thus we find in Ovid the phrase, 'tingere corpus aqua.'*

      We fully agree with Dr. Campbell that the original word put down in our common version, baptize, ought to have been translated, and translated into plain English, immerse. This distinguished gentleman, whose extensive erudition was never doubted, and. whose object was not to vindicate his practice as a Presbyterian, but to elucidate the sense of Scripture as a critic and a man of learning, observes: -

      "In several modern languages we have, in what regards Jewish and Christian rites, generally followed the usage of the old Latin version, though the authors of that version have not been entirely uniform in their method. Some words they have transferred from the original into their language ; others they have translated. But it would not always be easy to find their reason for making this difference. Thus the word ________, they have translated circumcision, which exactly corresponds in etymology ; but the word _______ they have retained, changing only the letters from Greek to Roman. Yet the latter was just as susceptible of a literal version into Latin as the former, immersio, tinctio, answers as exactly
* Fastorum Lib. iv. 790.

in the one case, as circumcision in the other. And if it be said of those words that they do not rest on classical authority, the same is true also of this. Etymology, and the usage of ecclesiastic authors are all that can be pleaded.

      Now the use with respect to the names adopted in the Vulgate, has commonly been imitated, or rather implicitly followed, through the western parts of Europe. We have deserted the Greek names where the Latins have deserted them, and have adopted them where the Latins have adopted them. Hence we say circumcision, and not peritomy; and we do not say immersion, but baptism. Yet when the language furnishes us with materials for a version so exact and analogical, such a version conveys the sense more perspicuously than a foreign name. For this reason, I should think the word immersion, (which, though of Latin origin, is an English noun, regularly formed from the verb to immerse,) a better English name than baptism, were we now at liberty to make a choice. But we are not. The latter term has been introduced, and has obtained the universal suffrage: and, though to us not so expressive of the action; yet, as it conveys nothing false, or unsuitable to the primitive idea, it has acquired a right by prescription, and is consequently entitled to the preference.*

      The opinion suggested, (p. 34) that John did not know Jesus to be the Messiah till after he had baptized him, seems improbable from the account, Matthew iii. 14, and from the fact that he could not, with propriety, baptize him as he did others, unto repentance

.       The gloss which is given (p. 35) to the plain statement of the Evangelist, insinuating that the appearance of a dove descending from heaven upon our Lord, was only the appearance of a bright light, is, to say the least, little becoming a Christian historian.

      That Tertullian in what he says respecting sponsors was influenced by the notion attributed to him, (p. 174) is unsupported by evidence, and, upon the whole, has to us an air of improbability.

      We were sorry to find the author, (p. 191) apparently denying that infants in the time of Cyprian, about the middle of the third century, were baptized at Carthage, or any where else, except in the district where Fidus lived. In the chapter (commencing p. 177,) on 'the baptism of babes in the time of Cyprian,' we think he has entirely failed in his attempt to prove from the state of society in certain parts of Africa, that, "in a country place, where some of his neighbours bought, stole, captivated, and burnt children, Fidus bethought himself of baptizing new-born infants as an expedient to save the lives of the lambs of his flock."

      The contents of the famous letter sent to Fidus, and the fact, that, in sending it, sixty-six bishops, or ministers, concurred with Cyprian, places it in our minds beyond doubt, that infant baptism, in cases of danger of death, was then practised to a considerable extent. But while we admit that the practice had already commenced, we maintain that the case of Fidus intimates plainly that it had not existed long. - He, a bishop, had not yet ascertained whether a child might be baptized before the eighth day of his age or not. The business, then, of baptizing infants must have been a new thing: - Else it seems utterly incredible that a bishop was not better acquainted with the subject, and that a case which must have occurred so often as
* See Diss. viii. part ii. preliminary to the Four Gospels.

that which Fidus proposes, was not decided before; and the proper practice known to all.

      It is asserted (p. 199,) that "the Donatists admitted none [to baptism] without a personal profession of faith and holiness." No proof is adduced; and the fact itself, to say the least, is very doubtful.

      The author's remarks on "the efforts of Augustin to bring in the baptism of babes," do not, in our apprehension, place the subject in the fairest and clearest light We think his account calculated to impress the reader with the idea that infant baptism was not so common at the beginning of the fifth century as it actually was.

      He introduces (p. 202,) as confirming his representation, a decree of the council which was convened at Mela, A. D. 416, or, according to some, at Carthage, A. D. 418. It stands thus: -

"Also it is the pleasure of the bishops to order, that whoever denieth that infants newly born of their mothers are to be baptized, or saith that baptism is administered for the remission of their own sins, but not on account of original sin derived from Adam, and to be expiated by the laver of regeneration, - be accursed."
      But knowing, as we do, the state of the controversy at that time between the Catholics and the Pelagians, we are inclined to the opinion that the decree aimed principally at the ground of infant baptism, and that the act itself was generally considered proper and necessary by both parties, in case an infant was in danger of death.

      When the business had proceeded thus far, the transition was easy to the practice of ordinarily baptizing all children in early infancy. And though the several things which the author mentions as the causes of its extensive progress in later ages, were all favourable to it, yet the grand cause had been operating, and the practice spreading and strengthening for more than two hundred years before. Hence, to one who is acquainted with the mistakes of those times, it will appear not at all surprising that it came down to Augustin with the claim of Apostolic tradition.

      We regret that the author has passed so slightly over the grand cause to which we have just alluded; - namely, the opinion, which, at an early period, began to prevail among Christians, that Baptism was a saving ordinance, and that without it, none could be received into heaven.

      Forgetting that the phrase 'kingdom of God' is often used in the Bible to denote, instead of heaven, the kingdom or visible church of Christ, as constituted by him on earth, they interpreted his words, John iii. 5 - 'Except a man be born of water, and of the spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God,' as if it were certain that he was speaking directly of heaven; and that his remark must be applied, in its full extent, to all of whatever age; for they believed that a person was 'born of the spirit' in baptism.

      Strange as it may seem to one who is not acquainted with the multitude of errors, which, soon, after the time of the Apostles, were generally received in the Church, the fact that the passage was understood and applied as we have just stated, is undoubted. It is acknowledged by all who have examined the subject; and it sufficiently accounts for the early and general extension of infant baptism. Even those who did not bring themselves to the opinion that infants dying unbaptized must be miserable hereafter, acknowledged that they could not indeed, enter into heaven, the kingdom of God, 'because our Saviour, John
iii. 5, had determined the contrary.'*

      When Christians had adopted such an interpretation, "no wonder" (as the learned Dr. Gale pertinently remarks) "no wonder if they were soon prevailed on by their natural tenderness and affection, to secure the salvation of their beloved infants, which lie too near a parent's heart to be neglected in so weighty a point as that of their eternal felicity. And could it be made to appear that this is the true sense of our Saviour's words, we should soon be brought to believe He intended infants should be baptized. 'Tis not only probable that Infant-Baptism came in this way ; but that this really was the case, must be plain enough to those who are acquainted with the writings of the Fathers . . . . Nothing can be plainer than that the misunderstanding the sense of John iii. 5, gave rise to the error; for the Fathers who speak of it, always deduce it from those words, and upon every pinch, recur to them as their main retreat ; and Mr. Wall confesses that they, as well as himself, looked upon this place as the chief ground of infant-baptism. So that this is not so hard as some fancy to be reconciled to the honesty and integrity of those pious men, who were doubtless liable to mistakes as well as we. For thus in a case most exactly parallel, the same persons who introduced the baptizing of infants, were, equally for admitting them immediately after that to the other sacrament likewise, and that upon just such another mistake of our Saviour's words too: For as they inferred the necessity of Baptism from John iii. 5, so they did also that of the Eucharist from John vi. 53, - 'Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink ha blood, ye have no life in you.' Hence St. Austin,! from these very texts, at the same time argues for baptizing and communicating infants. And this custom of communicating infants accompanied the baptizing them, even from the first rise of Paedobaptism, for several hundred years together, as in the Greek church it does to this day." +

      After what we have already said, we hardly need to add, that if the author is to be understood as referring to the introduction of infant-baptism generally, he goes too far when he says, [519.] "it was the chapter-statutes of Charlemagne, written with the sword in the mangled carcases of men reduced to slavery and beggary, that did the business."

      Here we should gladly bring our remarks to a close. But there are other things in the work before us, which must not be passed over in silence.


[8vo. pp. 566. From the press of Lincoln & Edwards, Boston, 1817]
      There is a digitized volume of this book here.

[From The American Baptist Magazine and Missionary Intelligencer, Volume 1, 1818, pp. 254-262. The author is not listed. The document is from Google Books On-line. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

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