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The History and Rituals of Baptisms

Published May 26, 2011        by Sarah

Baby Baptism

Baptism is an important ritual in many faiths.  While the ceremonies differ, the symbolism is typically the same: baptism is a washing away of sin.  It has traditionally been, and remains, a purification ritual in which water plays a big part, both symbolically and literally.  How did this ritual develop?  How do different cultures celebrate baptism?  And what does it mean today?  Baptism is a beautiful ritual, and when you know its history, it becomes that much more meaningful.

We typically associate baptism with Christian religions, but the roots begin with Judaism.  Mikvah, or ritual immersion, was performed when one needed to be restored to purity.  This happened after being exposed to something deemed by the Torah to be “unclean.”  This could be anything from becoming defiled via contact with a corpse or being with a woman while she was menstruating. Women were to cleanse after menstruation or childbirth.  Until the person was cleansed, he/she was not allowed to attend temple.

The person who needed cleansing brought an offering, such as lambs, doves, or grains, and the priest would ritualistically cleanse the body with water, oils, and perfumes.  Converts to Judaism also underwent the ritual cleansing.  Mikvah is still very important to the Orthodox Jewish community, and often, the baths are elaborately done.

In Islam, there is a ritual called Ghusl, which is a ritual washing required for prayer or certain rituals.  It is done after having sex, menstruation, childbirth, and death by natural causes.  It is also commonly practiced before Friday and Eid prayers, in preparation for haji, or the journey to Mecca, and before converting to Islam. There are rules governing the prayers said during ablution, as well as what types of water are permitted for use.

Both of these rituals have much in common with the Christian idea of baptism.  One key difference, though, is that both mikvah and ghusl are performed on an as-needed basis, so to speak.  They are done repeatedly throughout life to regain purity.  The Christian ritual of baptism is done once in a person’s life.  Instead of purifying the person from a specific “unclean” act, the baptism represents the desire of the baptized to follow the ways of the church and repent from sin. It is not a purification of sin, per se, but a symbolic act.

There are different forms of baptism among Christian religions and different practices concerning the age at which one is baptized.  In the Catholic, Episcopal, and Lutheran Churches, for instance, baptism is performed near birth to wash away “Original Sin,” which it is believed all people are born with.  In many other faiths, baptism is delayed until a child is older, or even till adulthood.  This is because the belief in Original Sin is not universal in Christianity.  Also, many churches believe the person should be old enough to make the conscious choice to become baptized, and thus an official member of the church.

While water plays an important role in baptism, not all ceremonies are the same.  In Catholic ceremonies, for instance, the baby is held over the baptismal font, and water is sprinkled lightly over his head.  This is called aspersion baptism. In other faiths, the person to be baptized kneels and water is poured over his head.  He may also kneel in water.  This is affusion baptism.

Immersion baptism is when the congregant is fully submerged in water.  This is practiced by Anabaptists and Baptists.  In these faiths, people are not baptized until they are adults.  Immersion is often done in baptismal fonts, swimming pools, bathtubs, rivers, or lakes.  Some sects, including Armenian Baptists, and some Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Anglicans, partially immerse the baptized, dunking their heads under water. Other faiths, like the Baptists and Anabaptists, demand full immersion.

Despite the differences in baptismal practices among faiths, there are many more similarities.  Water purifies and removes sin, whether on a symbolic level or a literal level.  Converts to religions typically undergo baptism to indicate their dedication to following the tenants of the faith.  Whether it is done repeatedly, as with mikvah and ghusl, or once, as with Christian faiths, it is an important ceremony. Often times, after the baptism, family and friends congregate at the home of the little one and celebrate with a meal and baptism gifts.