Infant Baptism in the Anglican Formularies

The reformed liturgy for baptism in the 1549 Prayer Book includes a biblical justification for the baptism of infants, Mark 10:13-16:

At a certayne tyme they brought children to Christe that he should touche them, and hys disciples rebuked those that brought them. But when Jesus sawe it, he was displeased, and sayed unto them: Suffre lytle children to come unto me, and forbyd them not; for to suche belongeth the kingdom of God. Verely I say unto you: whosoever doeth not receyve the kyngdom of God, as a lytle chylde: he shall not entre therin. And when he had taken them up in his armes: he put his handes upon them, and blessed them.

Though the passage referenced does not mention baptism at all, the tradition of Jesus blessing the children (preserved in all three synoptic gospels) was strongly associated with the baptism of infants in patristic sources (Jeremias, Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries, 1960 p. 48-55).

Prior to 1549, it was the parallel passage in Matthew’s Gospel (19:13-15) that was used in the baptismal liturgy (Blunt, Annotated Prayer Book, p. 220). The change from Matthew’s to Mark’s version of Jesus’ blessing of the children may be indicative of the arguments then circulating against infant baptism. The Markan version has a more emphatic ending than Matthew, which simply ends “And he laid his hands on them, and departed thence.” It seems possible Cranmer found the Markan ending more useful in a context in which the baptism of infants faces questions. Another possible motive for the change may have been to show that the ritual action, the “due use” of the sacrament, corresponds to the actum Domini. The description read from Mark’s account — “when he had taken them up in his armes: he put his handes upon them, and blessed them” — is then enacted in the administration of the sacrament — “Then the Priest shal take the childe in his handes, and aske the name: and naming the chyld, shal dippe it in the water” (the 1549 prescribes a triple immersion, but 1552 and subsequent editions a single).

Nevertheless, while Jesus’ blessing of the children was traditionally associated with infant baptism, the synoptic pericope (in the contexts in which it appears in Mark, Matthew, and Luke) does not specifically address baptism. In the late 16th Century arguments against infant baptism — focused on the New Testament’s lack of an explicit authorization for it — gathered steam. Article XXVIII of the 1552 Articles of Religion (i.e., the XLII Articles) says simply “The custom of the Church to Christian young children is to be commended and in any wise to be retained in the Church,” grounding the practice in custom; whereas, the parallel article in the 1563/1571 Articles, (i.e., XXVII of the XXXIX Articles) is strengthened to “The baptisme of young children, is in any wyse to be retayned in the Churche, as most agreable with the institution of Christe.” This change likely reflects the growth of the anabaptist movement.

Thomas Rogers, in his 1585 commentary on the Articles (the earliest such commentary, commended by Archbishops Whitgift and Bancroft), elaborates on the brief explanation provided in Article XXVII, articulating five proofs: (1) the universality of the grace of God does not exclude children; (2) the analogy from circumcision; (3) the Lord’s saying “to suche belongeth the kingdom of God” — the explanation included in the prayer book; (4) the Lord’s command that all should be baptized; (5) that Christ died to save infants as well as adults. To these five he adds the note that “All christian churches allow of the baptism of infants.”

The Prayer Book Catechism as it appeared in 1549, 1552, and 1559 did not include a section on the sacraments. I do not think this an oversight, but rather indicative of how it was originally designed to be used. The Catechism teaches baptized children three texts that they will continually use as they participate in the prayer-life of the church. In other words, the Prayer Book Catechism does not simply provide facts to know, but provides texts to use. Indeed, the Catechism itself suggests this approach, as it presents the Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer as necessary tools in the child’s spiritual warfare against the world, the flesh, and the devil. Moreover, the PBC was never intended to work alone; it is designed to work with the rest of the Prayer Book. Explanation of each of the two sacraments is provided within the liturgies designed for their administration; every time these liturgies are used, the congregation hears the same explanation of these sacraments read aloud. Furthermore, the Catechism and liturgies are not the only vehicles of teaching; sermons too are vital to the Prayer Book system.

Though there isn’t a section on the sacraments, Baptism is the focus of the opening questions. It begins with the fact of the child’s baptism, as the justification for learning the Catechism. In the second answer, the child explains what happened at her baptism: “I was made a member of Christe, the childe of god, and an inheritour of the kingdome of heaven.” So, while there is not a discussion of the Lord’s Supper, there is a brief explanation of the meaning of baptism, using language drawn from the New Testament (e.g., I Cor. 12:27; Gal. 3:26; Rom. 8:17). However, this explanation does not touch on the growing concerns over infant baptism.

Many users felt that explicit teaching was required to address the question of infant baptism to prepare laity to defend their baptisms against those who kept pointing out that the New Testament does not speak of it. The Prayer Book Catechism was frequently supplemented by the use of other, more advanced catechisms (Ian Green, The Christian’s ABCs, 1996, p. 95). The three most commonly used were Calvin’s Catechism, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the 1572 catechism of Alexander Nowell, Dean of St. Paul’s (Blunt notes that some believed him to be the author of the Prayer Book Catechism; Green and Cummings both think Cranmer is likely the author). Nowell’s 1571 “Middle Catechism” (distinguishing it from a previous and much longer one) received official sanction in the 1571 Canons, which required it be used in schools.

In Nowell’s Middle Catechism, after establishing that repentance and faith are necessary for baptism, the master then asks the scholar: “Why then are Infants baptised, which by age cannot perform these things?” The scholar answers,

Because they be of God’s Church; and God’s blessing and promise made to the Church by Christ  (in whose Faith they are baptised) pertaineth unto them. Which, when they come of age, they must themselves learn, believe, and acknowledge, and endeavour in their lives to express the duty at their Baptism promised and professed.

This answer matches the rationale provided within the Prayer Book liturgy. In the margins alongside this answer hints towards further explanations are provided in the form of scriptural citations. The passages given indicate supplemental reasons that match up with the proofs summarized by Thomas Rogers. Among these are Genesis 17 and Colossians 2, which points to the covenantal explanation that had already been emphasized in the earlier catechisms of Geneva (1560) and Heidelberg (1563) and which Rogers (1585) gave as his second proof.

The Genevan Catechism, written by John Calvin, provided the most extensive explanation of these most widely-used “advanced” catechisms. Rather than one question and answer, Calvin dwells on this matter for several questions. Faith and repentance do not need to “goe before the ministracion of the Sacrament” (from a 1577 English version) “for that is onely requisite in them that be of age and discrecion.” For children these are only necessary once they come of age. The catechist then presses the student for proof that children ought to be baptized:

For in like maner Circumcision was a Sacrament of repentaunce, and Moses and the Prohetes dooe witnesse, and also a Sacrament of faithe, as Sainct Paule teachesth, and yet God did not debarre little Children, from the receiuying of the same.

Further proof is requested, to which the answer is that the universality of Christ’s salvation (and the sacramental sign of it) would otherwise be rendered more not less exclusive than it was under the Law of Moses, since that system applied the sacramental sign of circumcision to infants.

Similarly, but more briefly, Heidelberg (in a 1617 English version) provides the following explanation:

Yea [infants also are to be baptised] for sithence they belong to the couenant of grace, and church of God; and sith remission of sinnes is promised also to them, they are to haue the seale thereof, and to be distinguithed from the children of Infidels, as in the old Testament was done by circumcision, to which Baptisme hath succeded.

At King James I’s Hampton Court Conference (1604) the “godly” argued that something must be done about the two official catechisms provided — the Prayer Book Catechism was too short and Nowell’s too long. As a result, a section on the sacraments was added to the Prayer Book Catechism — retained in 1662. It was probably written by John Overall, then Dean of St.Paul’s, later Bishop of Norwich. The addendum shows the influence Nowell, Overall’s predecessor as Dean of St. Paul’s, in a number of ways (including the sequence of questions) but hardly at all in its explanation of infant baptism.

Question. What is required of persons to be baptized?

Answer. Repentance, whereby they forsake sin: and Faith, whereby they stedfastly believe the promises of God made to them in that Sacrament.

Question. Why then are Infants baptized, when by reason of their tender age they cannot perform them?

Answer. Because they promise them both by their Sureties: which promise, when they come to age, themselves are bound to perform.

The emphasis here is placed on the vicarious pledging, which highlights the vital role that the Prayer Book assigns to godparents (who are not mentioned at all in Calvin, Heidelberg, or Nowell). At the end of the liturgy for Baptism, the minister charges the godparents:

FORASMUCH as these children have promised by you to forsake the devill and al his workes, to beleve in God, and to serve him: you must remembre that it is your partes and duetie to see that these infantes be taught, so soone as they shalbe able to learne, what a solemne vowe, promyse, and profession, they have made by you. And that they maye knowe these thynges the better: ye shall call upon them to heare sermons, and chiefly you shal provide that thei may learne the Crede, the Lordes prayer, and the ten commaundementes, in the english tounge: and all other thinges which a christian manne ought to knowe and beleve to his soules health. And that these children may be vertuously brought up to leade a godly and christian life; remembring alwayes that Baptisme doeth represent unto us our profession, which is to folow thexample of our Saviour Christe, and to be made lyke unto him, that as he dyed and rose againe for us: so should we (whiche are Baptised) dye from synne, and ryse agayne unto righteousnesse, continually mortifying all our evyll and corrupte affeccions, and dayly procedyng in all vertue and godlynesse of lyvyng.

This explanation not only reflects the role assigned to godparents in the liturgy, it also corresponds to the opening questions of the Prayer Book Catechism.

Question. What is your name?

Aunswere. N or M.

Question. Who gave you this name?

Aunswere. My Godfathers and Godmothers in my Baptisme, wherein I was made a member of Christe, the childe of God, and inheritour of the kingdome of heaven.

Question. What did your Godfathers and Godmothers then for you?

Aunswere. They did promise and vowe three thinges in my name. First, that I should forsake the devil and all his workes and pompes, the vanities of the wicked worlde, and all the sinne full lustes of the fleshe. Secondly, that I should beleve all the articles of the Christian fayth. And thirdly, that I should kepe Goddes holy will and commaundementes and walke in the same al the daies of my life.

Question. Dooest thou not thinke that thou arte bound to beleve, and to doe as they have promised for thee?

Aunswere. Yes verely. And by Gods helpe so I wil. And I hartily thanke our heavenly father, that he hath called me to thys state of salvacion, through Jesus Christe our Saveour And I pray God to geve me hys grace, that I may continue in the same unto my lives ende.

The explanation of infant baptism in the 1604 addendum to the Catechism echoes these earlier questions. Though there are many ways in which the difference between the 1604 addendum and the 1549 original is apparent (e.g., the shift from personal language in the addendum), nevertheless, this answer shows that Overall was concerned that the new section fit or complement what was already well-established.

This explanation favors the practical over the abstract. It does not exclude other explanations, but focuses the attention of the child on what he would have been able to see and hear over and over again in church whenever a baby was baptized — the godparents bring the baby forward, name her, make vows on her behalf, after which the minister would take the baby into his arms and wash her. Perhaps it is not too much of a stretch to see a similarity to the biblical justification of infant baptism included within the liturgy, the reading of Mark 10:13-16, which also focuses attention on a vivid moment in Christ’s ministry, on an event seen and heard, rather than drawing attention to more abstract arguments (like, e.g., Paul’s identification of baptism with circumcision in Colossians 2:11).

Drew Keane

Drew Nathaniel Keane is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Writing and Linguistics at Georgia Southern University and a PhD candidate in the School of English at the University of St. Andrews, writing a thesis (tentatively) titled The Use of the Prayer Book: The Book of Common Prayer (1549-1604) as Technical Writing for an Oral-Aural Culture. With Samuel L. Bray, he edited the 1662 Book of Common Prayer: International Edition (IVP Academic, March 2021). From 2012 to 2018 he served on the Episcopal Church’s Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music. More of his work is available at

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