University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Disorderly baptisms in mid-seventeenth century England

Engraving of a 17th century baptism, by Wenceslas Hollar

Engraving of a 17th century baptism, by Wenceslas Hollar, © The Trustees of the British Museum

Baptism is as a rite of central importance within the Christian religion. Deriving from the Gospels, it was one of only two of the original seven Catholic sacraments retained by English Protestants.  In late-sixteenth and seventeenth century England, with high birth rates, and everyone required to attend church by law, it was a very familiar ritual, commonly performed before the congregation on a Sunday.  It also generated much controversy, over its precise theological meaning, as well as the way, time and place in which it should be conducted. During the English Civil Wars of the 1640s, many of the existing practices of the English Church was challenged and reformed, including baptism.  Godparents were banned, as was making of the sign of the cross in baptism, a change which puritans had long sought after. Fonts, where baptisms had always been carried out, and which were often the oldest surviving parts of their churches, were ripped out, or their use discontinued. Some clergy and religious groups wanted to take things further, refusing to baptise illegitimate children or the infants of people who had not signed-up to an agreement binding members of the congregation, or even to baptise children at all, considering that only adult believers should be baptised. As you can imagine, in a world in which many believed that unbaptised infants would be consigned to a special circle of hell called limbo, this caused consternation.  In her recent chapter entitled ‘“The Child’s Blood should lye at his door”: local divisions over baptismal rites during the English Civil War and the Interregnum’ published in a volume of Studies in Church History devoted to religious rites of passage, Dr Fiona McCall shows how this led to violent conflicts in churches between those who those who advocated reforms to the rite, and those who wanted to retain the existing rituals. Discord over a rite that was meant to draw members of parish communities together, served instead to emphasise the extent to which these communities had become fractured and divided.

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