The Roots of Baptism (And Confirmation)

The Roots of Baptism (And Confirmation)

“Following their baptism, the new Christians were welcomed into the household of faith and participated in the community meal, the Eucharist.”


Ancient Practices

Baptism has its roots in ancient practices that preceded Christianity. Jewish rituals of purification were centered on the cleansing of the body with water. Many Jewish customs found their way into the initiation rites of the Early Church.

In Apostolic times, Baptism was seen as a water moment of the washing from sin and a cleansing act of forgiveness. The newly baptized emerged from the water and (in many parts of the Church) were anointed, usually over the entire body a representation of the rich, flowing life of the Spirit.[1] Being marked with the sign of the cross with oil, a part of the rite called consignation, the newly baptized were then re-clothed (later in the era they received white garments).  They were then brought into the Eucharistic assembly for the first time, were able to share in the kiss of peace and the people’s prayers, make their own offering of bread and wine, and receive the Body and Blood of Christ.

The conveying of responsibility by the laying on of hands was also an ancient practice existing in Israel; it was a regular and agreed upon method of either transferring or shifting responsibility in the community. This custom predates Exodus, and following this laying of on hands, or public binding, a participation in a common meal as a form of communion with the divine ancestor was shared. Many of these Jewish customs found their way into the initiation rites of the early Church as seen by the Eucharistic practices following Baptism in these gatherings. While the water ritual was the central part of baptism and was seen as the act of initiation, the laying on of hands, the “stirring up” of the Spirit, had an eschatological quality.[2]

New Converts

Questions were asked before the water ritual – questions of repentance and acceptance. For the early Christians, households were baptized together, including slaves and children. If children could not answer the questions of renunciation and commitment for themselves, others answered for them[3].

As the Christian message spread throughout the Mediterranean world and beyond, converts to Christianity were being made almost exclusively from the ranks of pagans. A period of preparation for baptism became an important rule: renouncing Satan and confessing the faith of Christ. There was a period of catechesis in which the story of Jesus Christ was shared, as well as the teachings of the apostles and prayers of the people. This preparation took place over a period of time prior to the celebration of Easter when all new converts were baptized into the Church. Again, following their baptism, the new Christians were welcomed into the household of faith and participated in the community meal, the Eucharist.

Baptismal Practices in the Early Church

The writings of the Early Church Fathers give us great insight into how this practice continued and changed, ever so slightly over the ensuing years. Tertullian of Carthage (c. 155-220) stated that the washing was a cleansing and blessing of our bodies so that the imposition of hands could invite the coming of the Holy Spirit. He speaks of the Spirit’s resting on the waters of baptism, being active throughout the rite.[4] For him, it is not the water but the “seal” which imparts the Spirit, being given by the bishop. The whole rite remains one service, and its “minister” is the Bishop.

During a similar time period, Hippolytus in Rome (c. 17-236)[5] offered a prayer of thanksgiving over oil of thanksgiving, exorcism of oil of exorcism, renunciation of Satan, anointing with oil of exorcism by a presbyter, affirmation of a creed, baptism in water, anointing with oil of thanksgiving by a presbyter in the Baptismal ritual. Following their baptism, drying themselves and being newly vested, the neophytes were brought into the church.  At the end of the rite the bishop laid a hand on each of the candidates, in prayer.[6] Sponsors spoke on behalf of children who were too young to speak for themselves. Infant candidates were baptized, confirmed and communicated at one sacramental action with the bishop present, just as adult candidates were initiated into the Christian community.

A short time later, Cyprian (c. 200-258), Bishop of Carthage, stated his belief in the presence and power of the Spirit in Baptism, but the Spirit was given and received by the power of the laying on of hands.[7] Ambrose of Milan (340-397) spoke of a “spiritual seal” and a “perfecting” or invocation of the Holy Spirit and its gifts on the neophytes, which took place after the post-baptismal anointing and foot washing.[8] (This northern Italian practice began the Western theory that confirmation is the “completion” of baptism.[9])

Practices throughout the Church began to evolve, depending on their location, leadership and theological practices. Jerome (c. 347-420) writes of his distress that presbyters and deacons in churches that are far from the bigger cities have baptized many without the bishop’s presence.[10]  John Chrysostom (347-407) describes the rites of Antioch as having no anointing following baptism; it is in the water that the Holy Spirit descends on the baptized “through the words and hands of the priest.”[11]  In different regions of the church the newly baptized received a signing with the cross (Milan, Rome, Spain, and North Africa), a laying on of hands (Rome and North Africa), a second anointing by the bishop (Rome) and even in some places pedilavium, or foot washing (Milan and Spain).[12]  In Augustine’s time (354-430) Christian preparation took place through worship, biblical preaching, and reading Scripture aloud. Catechumens continued to go through a lengthy period of instruction in the faith. The hand laying and bishop’s participation were viewed as a pastoral presence, not to be seen as a completion of the full initiation rite of the water baptism.

Today, as it was 2,000 years ago, Christian baptism is a complete and adequate entrance into a new relationship with the Father, the Messiah and the Holy Spirit, becoming a full member of the Church.


Sharon Ely Pearson is a 30+ year Christian formation veteran, currently serving as an editor and the Christian Formation Specialist for Church Publishing Incorporated. Wife, mother, soon-to-be-grandmother, and author, she enjoys connecting people with each other and the resources they need for growing in the knowledge and love of Jesus.


[1] Charles P. Price, “Appendix – Occasional Paper Number Four – Rites of Initiation” Baptism & Ministry: Liturgical Studies 1 (New York: The Church Hymnal Corporation, 1994), 96.

[2] Edward N. West, “The Rites of Christian Initiation in the Early Church,” Confirmation: History, Doctrine and Practice ed. Kendig Brubaker Cully (Greenwich, CT: The Seabury Press, 1962), 9.

[3] Daniel B. Stevick, Baptismal Moments: Baptismal Meanings (New York: The Church Hymnal Corporation, 1987), 9.

[4] Donald J. Parsons, “Some Theological and Pastoral Implications of Confirmation” Confirmation Re-Examined, 48.

[5] Price, Liturgical Studies 1, 88.

[6] Paul Turner, Source of Confirmation: From the Fathers through the Reformation (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1993), 12-13.

[7] Allen F. Bray, III, “Baptism and Confirmation: A Relationship of Process” Confirmation Re-Examined, 49.

[8] Kavanagh, 53.

[9] West, 10.

[10] Fisher, 127.

[11] Stevick, Baptismal Moments: Baptismal Meanings, 9.

[12] Johnson, 157 and Stevick, Baptismal Moments: Baptismal Meanings 9.


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