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Baptism in Scotland Before the Reformation
Percival Waugh, 1926
     THE Baptist ideal of the Church conceives it as pure, evangelical, and missionary, and all those who compose it as voluntary confessors of Christ's name, consecrated to His service. The hereditary membership announced in infant baptism destroys its purity and invalidates its witness.

     The pagan influences and spurious philosophies seen beating upon the Christian Church in the days of the Apostles penetrated with dire success when these inspired leaders were removed. The ordinance of Baptism in its chaste simplicity as sanctioned by the Lord was among the first of the hallowed solemnities to be degraded by the attribution of mystical and magical potencies. The Second Century conception of water-baptism as having efficiency to convey the remission of sin rapidly evolved corollaries deducing its regenerating power and its consequent necessity to salvation, while the doctrine of original sin required that infants should not be denied the sacrament. Thus early the Gospel was contaminated and perverted, and the contrite confession of a penitent was submerged by illusion and error.

     The facts relative to the administration of baptism in Scotland during the early Christian centuries remain, in regard to its subject, largely in the "palpable obscure," though in regard to mode they are clear. The Lives of the first Missionaries, written many centuries after by monkish chroniclers who amassed legends and infused their mediaeval ideas into the words and acts of those self-devoted pioneers, furnish only a modicum of trustworthy material. Of this order are the Lives of St. Ninian and St. Kentigern, but in contrast Adamnan's Life of St. Columba is of value as having been penned within a hundred years of his death on the spot where he laboured and by a successor in his office, albeit it bears the character of saint-worship rather than of biography.

The Pictish Church

     The Pictish Church founded by the labours of Ninian -- who "had preached baptism1 from Candida Casa or Whithorn (the first ecclesiastical building of stone in Scotland) -- carried forward by Kentigern in the south-west and by missionary teachers to the east and far north, is to many a shadowy entity. The
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1 Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, under A.D. 565.
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most recent writer on its history advanced somewhat guardedly the view that infant baptism was not the rule. He says: -- "Infant baptism was, for a time, unknown and, later, was apparently neither frequent nor usual in the Church of the Picts,"2 and adds that there is no indication that infants generally were baptized. The spiritual consideration leading to that view -- that the Church's insistence on morality and character logically demanded a reasoned and personal acceptance of the obligations of the Christian life from its memberswould more readily carry us to the same conclusion if we saw it operating in the Churches of to-day. Ailred's statement that Ninian "in very infancy was regenerated in the water of holy baptism,"3 was dismissed more summarily in the same author's earlier book as Twelfth Century colouring and with the remark that the history of the sacrament of baptism excludes it.4 It would be pleasant for a Baptist to be able to accept this view, but incertitude prevents any hurried acquiescence. The supposed virtues of water-baptism gave force to the claim on behalf of children, checked though the practice might have been for a time by the later notion that post-baptismal sins were not remissible; and it seems improbable that one who spent years in Rome at the end of the Fourth Century, as Ninian did, should escape the infection of the prevalent ideas of the time. Ninian's preaching among the Southern Picts resulted, we are told, in many converts, among whom "mothers with their children" were baptized.5 Kentigern's activities two centuries later, catholicised by Joceline for Twelfth Century use, are presented with a like colouring. He himself is stated to have been "dipped in the laver of regeneration and restoration" in infancy by Servanus.6 Joceline further states that Kentigern administered the ordinance to the infant son of his protector, Rederech.7 Disregarding these Romanised narratives, it is nevertheless difficult to reach any positive conclusion as to the practice of the Pictish Church in its pristine state. When Rome crushed or captured it, the usage of infant baptism becomes undoubted.

The Celtic Church

     The Church of Columba, drawing its origin from the Celtic Church of Ireland, naturally was one with it in principle and practice. The latter, comparatively sequestered, held to the older Roman tradition and did not readily accept later accretions, and thus divergences from the Latin order arose. All alike, however, shared in the departure from Apostolic teaching on the subject of Baptism, and the confession of belief sought from individual converts was eclipsed by virtual abandonment in tribal and family accessions.

      The participation of the Celtic Church in these perversions appears in the Lives of St. Patrick and St. Columba. The insistence of Patrick — who is designated in the Old Irish Life of Columba as "the father of baptism" and doctrine of the
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2 A.B. Scott, B.D. -- The Pictish Nation, its People and its Church, 1918, p. 535.
3 Ailred's Life of St. Ninian, ch. I.
4 S. Ninian, Apostle of the Britons and Picts, 1916, p. 28.
5 Life of St. Ninian, ch. VI.
6 Life of St. Kentigern, ch. IV.
7 Ibid, ch. xxxiii.


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"Gael"8 -- on the virtue of baptism led to his being accused of being a worshipper of water,9 and the narratives of the deaths of certain of his converts following immediately on their baptism betray the prevalent belief that the sacrament regenerated and washed away all guilt.10 In Columba's Life two such incidents also appear, both of aged men who, believing, were baptized and at once thereafter expired.11 Baptism and death in closest sequence became the highest beatitude under this ancient dogma. There is not evidence to negative the probability that infant baptism was the custom of the Celtic Church from an early date.12 The record of Columba's own baptism given in the Old Irish Life, probably dating from the Eleventh Century, is that "immediately after his birth" he was taken for baptism by the priest, Cruithnechan, who subsequently became his foster-father,13and his practice, as indicated by the one instance presented in Adamnan's Life, grounds the inference that he had carried a familiar usage from the country of his birth. Once, when on a journey in Ardnamurchan, an infant -- whom he speaks of as a "little boy" was brought by the parents and he baptized the child.14 It does not seem legitimate to interpret "infans" or "puerulus," as -- used in Scotland in the Seventh Century, as meaning a child of intelligent years. It was an age when, for a leader to embrace Christianity was to accept it for the tribe or household. Accordingly the baptism of the people of Northumbria is indicated as the outcome of a victorious battle,15 and that of households, including domestic slaves, takes place after the example of the head.16

      Regeneration through baptism having been a foundation doctrine of the Roman Church all through the centuries, the fate of unconscious infants dying without baptism was not in doubt since the time of Augustine. Their original sin condemned them, and they were relegated to an infernus puerorum, the hell for such as died in original sin only, without actual sin. Their pain, however, was "verrai litil", easy and "soft."17 On earth they were not deemed worthy to be classed with Christians, and were denied burial in consecrated ground.

The Mode of Baptism

     The Church of Rome had not in the Sixth Century deported far, as it slid later, on the path of misguidance in relation to the mode of Christian baptism. Immersion was still the ordinary use, and this mode the Pictish and Celtic Churches followed. It was Columba’s practice. For the baptism of the child in Ardnamurchan he is said to have wrought a miracle, emulating that of Moses, and after blessing a rock, whereupon an abundant stream flowed forth, "in it [in qua] he at once baptized the infant."18 Even more explicit is the account of
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8 W. F. Skene, Celtic Scotland, Vol. II., p. 475.
9 A. R. M'Ewen, D. D., History of the Church in Scotland, Vol. I., p. 32.
10 J. B. Bury, Life of St Patrick, 1905, pp. 140, 307.
11 Adamnan's Columba (Reeves’ Edn.), Book I., ch. xxvii.; Book III., ch. xv.
12 A.H. Newman, D. D., A History of Anti-Pedobaptism, 1902. -- "There is no sufficient evidence that the Iro-Scottish Church rejected "baptismal regeneration or infant baptism" -- p. 24.
13 Celtic Scotland, Vol. II., p. 477.
14 Adamnan, Book II., ch. ix. -- In the Old Irish Life the place figured is Derry, and it is "a little child" that suffers baptism.
15 Adamnan, Book I., ch. i.
16 Ibid, Book II., ch. xxxiii.; Book III., ch. xv.
17 Archbishop Hamilton's Catechism, 1551.
18 Adananan's Columba, Book II., ch. ix.

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a baptism in Skye. A pagan man from oversea is borne to the feet of the Saint and, hearing the Gospel through an interpreter, believes -- it will be noted that Columba did not preach in the dialect of the Picts -- "and the river in which he was baptized" was called after him.19 No exception to immersion is signified in the Life.

     One of the divergences of the British or Celtic Church from Rome lay in the form of administration of the ordinance and, as Bede tells us in a much -- discussed passage,20 Augustine, the missionary of Pope Gregory the Great to Britain, demanded conformity to the Latin model. The precise difference is not stated, but seems to have consisted in single rather than triple immersion, and the omission of the anointing with the chrism or sacred oil.21 Trine immersion was directed by an early Roman order (as still in the Greek Church), though the single use was sanctioned for Spain by Gregory himself. The omission of unction was a subject of complaint even some centuries later. The Stowe Missal, possibly dating from the Tenth Century in its oldest part, contains the earliest extant Baptismal Office of the Irish Church. It shows Latin influence and directs trine immersion, with the alternative of aspersion or sprinkling, but its rubric, ordaining the administrator to "descend into the font,"22 affords evidence that immersion was the older and the preferable custom. A logical impulse carried these baptizers of infants further than their modern successors, for there are signs that they conceded the Holy Communion, as was the ancient custom, to the infant neophytes. It is clear that the earlier Celtic Church was Baptist in the immersionist sense, though on the matter of believer's baptism it had, through early corruption, gravely departed from primitive teaching and practice. To infant baptism it had added political or herd baptism, as had the Roman Church.

     The breach with apostolic simplicity widened as the Church of Rome became dominant in Scotland, and its teachings and ceremonies tended to the occult and mysterious. It had already degraded the pure and simple ordinance to a magical ritual and overlaid it with accretions.23 Immersion in mere water after the primitive example was not enough; the water must be consecrated by a solemn ceremonial and, as now sacred, be reserved for further use; exorcism must deliver the child from evil spirits; the use of spittle, salt, oil precede or succeed the administration. Yet, broadly, the Mediaeval Church adhered to immersion, and the ecclesiastical statutes of the Aberdeen Synod of the Thirteenth Century are definite upon that head. It was requisite that a suitable font be provided for each parish Church and, covered with a lid, be locked when not in use. Extant examples of these ancient fonts, from the Thirteenth Century downwards, show that their suitability lay in their sufficiency for the immersion of infants.24 Parents might baptize a child in peril of death, using the appointed formula in Latin or in English; but the non-recognition of Gaelic
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19 Ibid, Book I., ch. xxvii.
20 Ecclesiastical History, Book II., ch. ii.
21 M'Ewen, History of Church in Scotland, I., p. 87; F. E. Warren, B.D., The Liturgy and Ritual of the Celtic Church, 1881, p. 64.
22 Warren, 65, 216.
23 The ceremonial additions were numerous, as detailed in Archbishop Hamilton's Catechism of 1551: -- (1) At the Kirk door the minister uses an exorcism, blowing on the bairn; (2) The sign of the cross is made on brow and breast; (3) Salt is put in the mouth; (4) Matthew 19:14, is read; (5) Godparents lay hands on the child, repeating Creed and Paternoster; (6) The minister anoints the child's nostrils and ears with spittle. At the font, when the name is given, the devil and his works are renounced on the child’s behalf; he is then anointed with oil on the breast and between the shoulders. An inquisition of belief follows, and next the inquiry -- Will you be baptized? The sponsors answer -- I will -- "to signifie that na man can be saffit bot be consent of his for will." Baptism follows, and the child is anointed with the chrism on the forehead, then clad in a white linen cloth called a Cude, and finally a lighted torch or candle is placed.
24 Many of such fonts are described and figured by Mr. J. Russell Walker in Proceedings, Society of Antiquaries, Scotland, 1887, 346 ff., and others have been rescued since from the debris of ruined Churches.


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by these statutes -- which the Durham Council of 1228 allowed25 -- exhibits the despite of the Roman Church in Scotland for the Celtic Church. If the child recovered, what was lacking in the baptism was supplied by the priest at the Church-salt, the anointing, exorcisms everything usual was to be done beside the font, "except the immersion and the blessing of the water."26 The water in which the child had been baptized at home by the lay administrator was poured into the fire or brought to the font and the vessel used was burned or devoted to Church purposes. The distinct utterance of the precise words of the baptismal formula was essential, for in them "lies the whole virtue of this sacrament and the salvation of the children."27 If the priest on close inquiry had a doubt as to whether the layman had used the formula correctly, he was required to baptize the child, saying, "(before the immersion), . . . I baptize thee "not if thou art baptized, but if thou art not baptized I baptize thee in the name," etc. The rules were not, however, uniform throughout Scotland, as by the Constitutions of Bishop Bernham of St. Andrews in 1242 the rites which "precede the immersion, including exorcism, were not to be used with a child subjected to lay baptism, but the priest was to supply only those that follow. The water of the font became sacrosanct through the blessing, and punishment befel the negligent custodian if misuse occurred, but it was not to be retained for baptisms beyond seven days -- that prolonged period being allowed, doubtless, because of the time taken in the Benedictio Fontis.28 Sponsorship in baptism created a spiritual affinity which forbade marriage between the godparents, or between their respective children.

     The transition. from immersion to pouring or sprinkling shows itself in Archbishop Hamilton's Catechism, which declares: --

"In sum countrei that use to dippe the barne thrise in the watter of the font and in sum countrei thai laive or pouris watter on the barne thrise; quhilk of thir usis be done, it rakkis nocht, for Baptyme is given baith the wais."
     A few years later, in 1559, the statutes of the Catholic Church providing for the re-baptism of children who had undergone the heretical baptism of the Reformers, specifies only "the sprinkling with water" as the mode, to which, of course, anointing and other rites were to be added.29

     The authority of Calvin was reverenced by Knox and his fellow -- Reformers, and aspersion having been approved by him, it became the mode of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland; yet his colleague, John Craig, in a Catechism published in 1581, is indeterminate. He there presents Baptism as the "laying on and taking of the water," the former denoting a death and burial to sin, and the "taking of againe" a rising to a new life. "Laying on" and "taking off," particularly the latter, suggest an immersion. The abandonment of the Scriptural mode was obviously gradual, and while the beginnings of the
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25 Statutes of the Scottish Church, 1225-1559, ed. David Patrick, 30.
26 Ibid, 32.
27 Ibid, 30.
28 Bishop Dowden - "The Parish Church," Scottish Historical Review, Vol. VII., 248.
29 Statutes of Scottish Church, ed. Patrick, 186.


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change are apparent before the Reformation, the true form seems to have lingered into the Seventeenth Century. The first Confession of Faith, 1561, is silent as to node, though there is no dubiety as to the subject, it being declared that baptism appertains to the infants of the faithful, "and so we dampne [condemn] the errour of the Anabaptistes, who deny baptisme to apperteane to children befoir thei have faith and understanding"; but after the renunciation of immersion by the Westminster Assembly by 25 votes to 24, the expanded and revised Confession expressly affirms that "dipping of the person in the water is not necessary: but baptism is rightly administered by pouring or sprinkling water upon the person." In re-enacting this document after the Revolution, the Scots Parliament deemed it proper to repeat the misdirection of the Westminster divines.30

     The Lollards have been claimed as Baptists, but it is proper to note the available facts. Wycliffe, to whom immersion or affusion was indifferent, did not go beyond hoping that infant children, dying unbaptized, might be spiritually baptized by Christ and so gain salvation; and the charge made after his death that he denied the validity of infant baptism is refuted by his writings, and is merely one of those vituperative accusations of which the following centuries provide many examples. His followers advanced beyond their leader in the expression of evangelical truth, but few attained to the apostolic position regarding the sacrament of baptism. In Scotland the Lollards of Kyle in Ayrshire came under the displeasure of the Church dignitaries at the end of the Fifteenth Century, but there is no reference to supposed heretical views on baptism in the thirty-four articles which Knox records31 as having been charged against them, nor, so far as can be traced, do the opinions for which the earlier martyrs of that century suffered -- Resby at Perth; Craw, a Bohemian, at St. Andrews; and an unnamed witness at Glasgow -- involve a different view on the subject from that of the ruling Church. They were evangelicals and reformers, and as such only can we claim special kinship with them.
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30 Act, May 26, 1690, ch. 28.
31 Knox's Works, ed. David Laing, Vol. I., p. 8.

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[George Yuille, editor, History of the Baptists in Scotland from Pre-Reformation Times, 1926. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]



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