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baptism [Gr., =dipping], in most Christian churches a sacrament. It is a rite of purification by water, a ceremony invoking the grace of God to regenerate the person, free him or her from sin, and make that person a part of the church. Thus, baptism is usually required for membership in the church. In Roman Catholic and Anglican theology baptism is also held to confer an indelible character on the person, requiring him or her to worship. Formal baptism is performed by immersion (as among the Baptists) or by pouring or sprinkling water on the person to be baptized. This ceremony is accompanied, in churches that accept the dogma of the Trinity, by a formula asking the blessing of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In some churches the child is baptized soon after birth and has sponsors (godfather and godmother) who make declarations of faith in his name. The rite is sometimes called christening, and this term is applied especially to the giving of a baptismal name. Other churches withhold baptism until the person is relatively mature. Some Protestant groups, such as the Religious Society of Friends, reject all outward baptismal rites. Similar customs are known in many non-Christian cultures. The baptism of Jesus himself can be considered part of the founding of the Christian Church.
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Pope John Paul II baptizes a child held by his mother in the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican during a special Mass, a traditional papal commemoration of Jesus' baptism in the River Jordan. AP/Wide World Photos.


(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Baptism is a sacrament ("sacred secret") common to all Christian traditions. Practiced by religious traditions worldwide, it became associated with the early Christian movement following the baptism of Jesus of Nazareth by John, called the Baptist or the Baptizer. Jesus would later issue a Great Commission to his church:

Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 28:19)

Two forms of baptism are in use today. Some Christians practice "believer's baptism." Adults are baptized, usually immersed fully in water, upon their confession of faith that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior. This affirmation declares they have become "born again."

Others practice infant baptism. Babies are baptized by sprinkling drops of water on their foreheads. Parents or godparents make baptism vows, awaiting the child's coming of age when the child personally confirms those vows and makes his or her "confirmation." After a period of study, usually in a series of classes, a public service is held where the child is received into church membership and, if not allowed already according to the dictates of the denomination, receives or "makes" his or her first communion.

A few traditions view baptism as the mark of salvation. They believe that with few exceptions, only those baptized will receive entrance into heaven. But most Christian traditions believe baptism to be an outward sign of an inward reality. Those baptized have been "cleansed of sin" by God, "washed clean" by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

The Religion Book: Places, Prophets, Saints, and Seers © 2004 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.


Christians initiate new members into their faith tradition through the ritual of baptism. According to Christian scripture Jesus himself commanded that his followers observe this custom. Several centuries after Christ's death Christian leaders encouraged newcomers to prepare for this initiation during the period we now call Lent and receive baptism at Easter. Thus their new lives as Christians were symbolically linked to the death and resurrection of Jesus commemorated during the Easter festival. Today Easter still serves as a traditional time for baptisms in a number of Christian denominations. In addition, many congregations jointly renew their baptismal vows on Easter Sunday morning or during the Easter Vigil.

Baptism, Purification, and Initiation in the Ancient World

The English word "baptism" comes from the ancient Greek word bap- tein or baptizein, meaning to plunge, dip, wash, drench, bathe or immerse. Throughout the ancient world peoples of many different religious traditions incorporated washing or immersion in water into their religious rites. In these contexts, water usually acted as a purifying force. Some of the mystery religions of ancient Greece and Egypt - pagan religious cults which promised secret spiritual knowledge to a select group of members - began their initiation rituals with water baths. Certain Greek cults also linked baptismal rites with the acquisition of immortality. A few Middle Eastern cults, including that of the god Mithras and the goddess Cybele, advocated a baptism in blood, which was thought to confer spiritual vitality or spiritual rebirth (see also Hilaria).

Around the time of Christ the ancient Hebrews practiced a number of bathing rites. They took ritual baths to cleanse themselves of impurities before taking part in certain religious activities. In addition they adopted the practice of baptizing converts to Judaism. This ceremony, which required that candidates immerse themselves nude in a body of flowing water, was thought to remove impurities and seal the convert's membership in the house of Israel. John the Baptist, a Jewish prophet whose ministry preceded that of Jesus, immersed his followers in the flowing waters of the Jordan river as a sign of their repentance, or desire to return to God, and the forgiveness of their sins. Jesus himself was baptized by John, an event which signaled the beginning of his career as a teacher and healer (Matthew 3:13-17, Mark 1:9-11, Luke 3:21-22). Jewish baptismal customs laid the foundation for the Christian sacrament of baptism.

Early Christian Baptism

The Bible relates that after his death on the cross the resurrected Jesus appeared to the original disciples commanding them to go forth and baptize new converts in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19-20). This event, along with Jesus' own baptism, convinced early Christian leaders to make baptism a fundamental element of the Christian faith.

The New Testament gives few clues as to the nature of the very first Christian baptisms, but seems to suggest that as soon as interested newcomers accepted the gospel of Christ they were baptized (Acts 8:35-39, 16:30-33). By the second century, however, documents produced by Christian writers tell of a period of preparation for baptism which included prayer, fasting, and religious instruction. This process could last as long as three years.

By the third century a number of different baptismal ceremonies had taken shape. Easter had emerged as the preferred date for baptisms in several areas, although in some places Pentecost served as an acceptable alternative date. In the fourth century, especially after the Council of Nicaea, an important meeting of early Christian leaders that took place in 325 A.D., Easter became the standard date for baptisms. The baptismal ceremony usually took place during the Easter Vigil, which began late at night on Holy Saturday.

The following composite of early Christian baptismal customs offers a glimpse into these ancient ceremonies. The officiant began by asking the Holy Spirit to descend upon the water in the baptistery, a large tub or small pool used for baptisms (see also Eight). The baptismal candidate disrobed, faced west, and formally rejected the Devil and his works. (Since the officiants were men, women did not disrobe. Some scholars affirm that women completed this part of the ceremony under the supervision of a female deacon). The officiant then anointed the candidate with the oil of exorcism as a means of expelling evil spirits. After entering the water the candidate turned to face the east and expressed his or her faith in each person of the Holy Trinity, God the father, Jesus the son, and the Holy Spirit (for more on the Christian significance of the direction east, see Easter, Origin of the Word). After each one of these three confessions of faith, the officiant dipped the candidate in the water. The candidate then emerged from the water, was anointed, and dressed. There followed another anointing combined with the laying on of hands, signifying the coming of the Holy Spirit.

Afterwards the newly baptized Christians were given a cup of water and a cup of milk and honey, which represented the joys of heaven. Then they took part for the first time in the celebration of the Eucharist. During Easter Week they received instructions concerning Christian religious services and took part in special celebrations.

Preparation for Baptism

Just as the baptismal ceremony expanded over the centuries, so, too, did the required preparation for baptism. Some early Christian writings suggest that catechumens, or candidates for baptism, were expected to fast and pray for one or two days before the ceremony. Other Christian leaders thought a longer period of penance was in order (for more on the concept of penance, see Repentance). By the fourth century, the period of preparation had shifted from about forty hours to forty days. A number of important figures from the Bible endured forty-day periods of hardships after which they experienced spiritual aid (see also Salvation). Jesus himself fasted for forty days before beginning his ministry (Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13, Luke 4:1-13). Influenced by these stories, third- and fourth-century Christians began to concentrate preparations for baptism into the forty days preceding Easter. Scholars believe that Lent, the forty-day period during which all Christians prepare to celebrate the great events commemorated at Easter, was in part modeled on the period of preparation that catechumens underwent before their Easter baptisms.

As time went on these preparations became increasingly elaborate. For example, not only did married candidates fast, but also they refrained from bathing and from conjugal relations during this fortyday period. They stood barefoot at church services, during which they received special instructions and admonitions. Separated from the baptized throughout the service, they were expected to leave before the celebration of the Eucharist. After their baptisms they put on new, white robes (see also New Clothes). They appeared in these robes at church until the following Sunday, later dubbed Low Sunday.

The Meaning of Baptism

For the early Christians baptism signified more than entry into a community of faith. It also conferred the forgiveness of sins and the companionship of the Holy Spirit. Certain scripture passages suggest that the early Christians viewed the central ritual act of baptism - the three total immersions in water - as symbolic of burial and resurrection (Romans 6:1-11, Colossians 2:12). Thus the ceremony was also thought to represent the candidate's spiritual death and resurrection, that is, the end of his or her old life and the beginning of a new, Christian life.

Infant and Child Baptisms

Among the early Christians adult baptism was the norm, although infant and child baptisms were not unheard of. As the new faith spread, these early baptisms became more frequent. By the fifth century Christians viewed them as unremarkable. In the sixth century the emperor Justinian I passed a law making infant baptism mandatory. The sheer number of baptisms wore away at the custom of the Easter or Pentecost baptismal ceremony presided over by the bishop. Moreover, the formal period of preparation for adult baptism, tied to the emerging Lenten season, fell into disuse as fewer adults and more children underwent the ritual. Together these trends weakened the once-strong preference for Easter baptisms.

Further Reading

Bradshaw, Paul F. The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. Ferguson, Everett. "Baptism" and "Baptistery." In his Encyclopedia of Early Christianity. Volume 1. New York: Garland, 1997. Johnson, Maxwell E. "Preparation for Pascha? Lent in Christian Antiquity." In Paul F. Bradshaw and Lawrence A. Hoffman, eds. Passover and Easter: The Symbolic Structuring of Sacred Seasons. Two Liturgical Traditions series, volume 6. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999. Meslin, Michael. "Baptism." In Mircea Eliade, ed. The Encyclopedia of Religion. Volume 2. New York: Macmillan, 1987. Metford, J. C. J. The Christian Year. London, England: Thames and Hudson, 1991. Rees, Elizabeth. Christian Symbols, Ancient Roots. London, England: Jessica Kingsley, 1992. Talley, Thomas J. The Origins of the Liturgical Year. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1986. Weiser, Francis X. The Easter Book. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1954.
Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2002

What does it mean when you dream about baptism?

To be baptized in a dream may signal that the dreamer is undergoing spiritual renewal in waking life. Perhaps the dreamer has been going through great change and upheaval and has come through it a new person.

The Dream Encyclopedia, Second Edition © 2009 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.


where St. John performed rites. [N.T.: John 3:23]
Roman centurion baptized by Peter. [N.T.: Acts 10, 11]
John the Baptist
prophet who baptized crowds and preached Christ’s coming. [N.T.: Matthew 3:1–13]
scallop shell
vessel used for conferral of sacrament. [Christian Symbolism: Appleton, 88]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


a Christian religious rite consisting of immersion in or sprinkling with water as a sign that the subject is cleansed from sin and constituted as a member of the Church
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
References in periodicals archive ?
Persons were called before Council and Consistory for not baptizing their children at all, for baptizing them in Catholic territory, for lying about children born out of wedlock, for not showing up for their child's baptismal service, for giving their children idolatrous or Catholic-sounding names, for not making their children attend catechism classes on Sundays, and for a host of other things.
Xavier's extensive letters to Loyola talk of his arms being so tired from baptizing people that he couldn't lift them, of nights spent sobbing in prayer, and of sailing dangerous, uncharted waters.
Baptizing by proxy is a tenet of Mormon theology in which church members research their genealogical histories and submit names of non-Mormon ancestors as candidates for baptism.
* Baptizing three- and four-year-olds counters believer's baptism.
Father Lourdel gave some final instructions before baptizing them.
Irwin was quoted in a local paper acknowledging that he did not seek parent's permission before baptizing the children: "It's like if a child who's diabetic goes into King Soopers, gets a candy bar and then goes into shock.
Some local clergy balk at baptizing infants whose parents didn't wed in church, but Francis readily granted their request, the newspaper said.
Baptizing infants also recognizes that the lifelong calling of following Jesus as his disciple begins when a new life enters the world and the human family.
When his disciples tell him that Jesus is also baptizing and many are coming to him, John sees the plan of God.
The apostles are a little unnerved by this and promptly play catch-up by baptizing the assembly and proceeding to catechize them.