Baptism, Communion, and Confirmation in the Reformation Movement:
Impact on Ministry with Children in Churches Today[i], Part II
As I shared in the first part of this two-part blog, this year marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting his 95 theses, marking a significant moment in the gathering movement for the reform of the Catholic Church. As events unfolded, these reform efforts were not well received, and the break with Rome known as “The Reformation” came about. This was actually a collection of reform movements across Europe, including Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, and Anabaptist.
These Reformation movements of the 16th century brought with them new understandings regarding child baptism, communion, and confirmation that deeply impacted church practice. These new views had direct impact on how children were included in the life of the church, their participation in the sacraments, and the kind of spiritual instruction and nurture they received. This two-part blog gives an overview of the new positions and practices reached in four major branches of the Reformation movement.[ii] The first blog focused on churches in the Lutheran and Reformed traditions. This one focuses on churches in the Anglican and Anabaptist traditions. What part of the Reformation “family tree” is your church a part of? Which one(s) serve as the foundation for or fit well with your own church’s ministry efforts with children?
Thomas Cranmer: Church of England
In England, Thomas Cranmer authored the Book of Common Prayer (1549, 1552), which gave instructions regarding the practice of baptism for the newly reformed Church. Heavily influenced by both Luther and Bucer, the rite called for baptism to be done at times of regular corporate worship. The baptismal rite followed the earlier Sarum Rite in many respects but godparents were to promise on behalf of the infant that they would “forsake the devil and all his works, and constantly believe God’s holy word and obediently keep his commandments.” The baptismal rite closes with a final exhortation to the godparents, reminding them that it was
... your parts and duty to see that these infants be taught, so soon as they shall be able to learn, what a solemn vow, promise, and profession they have made by you. And that they may know these things the better, ye shall call upon them to hear sermons, and chiefly you shall provide that they may learn the creed, the Lord’s prayer and the ten commandments in the English tongue. (Book of Common Prayer, 1549, in Turner CD, 2000)
And, this important addition reveals the new model of catechetical instruction that the church intended to carry out:
... the children be brought to the bishop to be confirmed of him, so soon as they can say in their vulgar tongue the articles of faith, the Lord’s prayer and the ten commandments, and be further instructed in the catechism, set forth for that purpose. (Book of Common Prayer, 1549 – emphasis added, in Turner CD, 2000)
Baptism then is carried out with the infant to identify him or her as one who is part of the Church. It is carried out by others on his or her behalf, “in token that hereafter he shall not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified, and manfully to fight under his banner against sin, the world and the devil, and to continue Christ’s faithful soldier and servant unto life’s end” (Book of Common Prayer, 1552, in Turner CD, 2000).
This approach has some language that is compatible with a Lutheran understanding of baptism as a means of grace, and other language that fits with a Calvinist focus on the promises of God and confirmation of faith. This has led to the Anglican practices being understood and practiced in both ways in the Church. Whichever approach is taken, there is a heavy emphasis on the necessity of instruction in the faith and the need for personal confirmation of the faith as the child grows. This led to a veritable explosion of writing and printing of catechisms in England and their use in homes, schools, and the church. Parents and godparents were expected to teach the catechism at home. Schoolteachers taught and prepared their students for reciting the catechism to their priests. Priests were required to have regular times of instructing and checking the knowledge of the catechism by children in their parishes.[iii]
Menno Simons: Anabaptists
The Anabaptist traditions of the 16th century (e.g., Swiss Brethren, Moravian, Hutterite Brethren, Mennonites) rejected the idea and practice of infant baptism all together. Their emphasis on the church being formed of believing persons who have responded to the call of God led them to practice believer’s baptism. Baptism was seen as part of the economy of obedience, not salvation, and faith (conversion) must come prior to baptism, with baptism being an outer sign of an already accomplished inner spiritual reality. Infant baptism was replaced with rites of infant dedication, with baptism being postponed until persons could give an account of their faith (Johnson, 1999, p. 268).
Infant dedication (seen as an ordinance, not a sacrament) brought the entire congregation together as the parents, supported by the congregation, dedicated the child to God and promised to raise and instruct the child in the faith so that he or she could one day respond in faith to the gospel.
Menno Simons, a leader within the Anabaptist movement, understood children to have inherited a sin nature, but not to be held accountable for actual sins due to their young age. They are “innocent” because through the grace of Christ their sinful natures are covered, at least until they reach an “age of discretion.”
Our entire doctrine, belief, foundation and confession is that our innocent children, as long as they live in their innocence, are through the merits, death, and blood of Christ, in grace, and partakers of the promise. (Simons, Reply to Gellius Faber, cited in Miller, 2001, p. 202)
Children then were raised and taught by their parents to understand the faith and its importance so that when they were old enough they could respond in faith to the salvation offered in Christ and be baptized. This instruction was generally not from a prescribed catechism (though some groups developed them), but through learning the Scriptures and parental discipline and guidance in what it meant to have faith in Christ. Dramatic conversions were not expected, but personal embracing of the faith modeled by the family and church community was understood to be the norm (Miller, 2001, p. 210).
General practice was to allow baptism when a child reached an “age of reason” or “age of discretion,” but when exactly this was reached was debated. In some cases this was seen as age 12, but this practice was not yet universally settled. The minimum age for baptism was variously proposed as six, seven, ten, eleven, twelve, fourteen and even older (Miller, 2001, p. 206-207). Without this personal faith commitment and baptism the child was not viewed as a part of the church.
Confirmation Practices in the Reformation Churches
Maxwell Johnson notes a general pattern that developed regarding confirmation practices as the Reformation developed.
One of the great ironies of the Protestant Reformation is that, in spite of the Reformers’ almost unanimous deletion of confirmation from the list of sacraments in the Church, Lutheranism, Reformed Protestantism, and Anglicanism all ended up with some form of ‘confirmation’ as the preliminary rite leading to the reception of first communion. (Johnson, 1999, p. 270)
For those reform groups that practiced infant baptism, confirmation was initially rejected as a sacrament, but eventually embraced as a rite of initiation into full participation in the life and worship of the church. Catechetical instruction became a prerequisite to being confirmed in the faith, and communion became available to those who were confirmed. Confirmation, often carried out on the day before the principal feasts of the church calendar (i.e., Christmas, Easter, Pentecost) involved a public examination of the faith of the children by a pastor. The congregation offered prayer for them, and the pastor laid hands on them and prayed that the Holy Spirit would strengthen them in the faith. Once this was completed, the children were admitted to their first communion celebration. The following quotes from both Martin Bucer (Lutheran) and from the Book of Common Prayer (Anglican) illustrate these practices.
Such children who through catechetical instruction are sufficiently advanced in Christian knowledge to be permitted to go to the Lord’s table shall on a high festival such as Christmas, Easter and Pentecost, at the instance of the elders and preachers, be presented by their parents and sponsors to the pastors in the presence of the congregation in a place designated in the churches for that purpose. The elders and all other ministers of the word shall stand about the pastor, who shall then examine these children in the chief articles of the Christian faith. When they have answered the questions and publicly surrendered themselves to Christ the Lord and his churches, the pastor shall admonish the congregation to ask the Lord, in behalf of the children, for perseverance and an increase of the Holy Spirit, and conclude this prayer with a collect ... Finally, the pastor shall lay his hands upon the children, thus confirming them in the name of the Lord, and establish them in Christian fellowship. He shall thereupon also admit them to the table of the Lord, adding the admonition that they continue faithfully in the obedience of the gospel and readily receive and faithfully heed Christian discipline and reproof, especially from the pastors. (Martin Bucer, Ziegenhain Order of Church Discipline, in Turner CD, 2000)
The curate of every parish, or some other at his appointment, shall diligently upon Sundays and holy days half an hour before evensong, openly in the church instruct and examine as many children of his parish sent unto him as the time will serve, and as he shall think convenient, in some part of this catechism ... And all fathers, mothers, masters and dames shall cause their children, servants and apprentices who have not learned their catechism to come to the church at the time appointed, and obediently to hear and be ordered by the curate, until such time as they have learned all that is here appointed for them to learn. And whenever the bishop shall give knowledge for children to be brought before him to any convenient place for their confirmation, then shall the curate of every parish either bring, or send in writing, the names of all those children of his parish who can say the articles of their faith, the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments: and also how many of them can answer to the other questions contained in this catechism ... And there shall none be admitted to the Holy Communion, until such time as he or she can say the catechism and be confirmed. (Prayer Book of the Church of England, 1552, in Turner CD, 2000)
This “rite of passage” into full participation in the life of the church made preparation for this event important, motivating parents and parish leaders to invest time in teaching the basics of the faith in formal ways. Confirmation then became a major driving force for the instruction and spiritual nurture of children. As Johnson comments, “in spite of the (differences in) theological understanding, all were, in practice, fully initiating only ‘responsible’ and faith-professing ‘adult’ individuals whose intellect and will had been shaped by catechetical education” (1999, p. 289).
Reflection on Your Church’s Beliefs and Practices with Children
In the Reformation period, changes of theology and practice regarding child baptism and communion led to changes in confirmation practices and how children were instructed in the Christian faith. While many evangelical denominations in the U.S.A. today do not practice infant baptism or confirmation, our beliefs about baptism and communion do impact what we expect of children, and how we provide for their instruction in the faith. What part of the Reformation “family tree” does your church belong to? How does this influence your approach to ministry with children? If you don’t practice confirmation, how does your church prepare youth for membership in the church, ensuring they have a good grasp of the faith, a deeply personal faith, and a vital lived-out faith? It’s worth reexamining your denominational roots to help you think more clearly about ministry with children today.
Johnson, M. E. (1999). The rites of Christian initiation: Their evolution and interpretation. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press.
Miller, K. B. (2001). Complex innocence, obligatory nurturance, and parental vigilance: “The child” in the work of Menno Simons. In Bunge, M. (Ed.), The child in Christian thought (pp. 194-226). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
Turner, P. (2000). Ages of initiation: The first two Christian millennia. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press. [Note: This book also contains an extensive CD-Rom of documentation.]
[i] This blog is an adaptation of a portion of an article published in the Christian Education Journal, Series 3, Volume 8, No 1, Spring 2011, pp. 146-163.
[ii] I rely heavily on the work of Maxwell Johnson (The rites of Christian initiation: Their evolution and interpretation, The Liturgical Press, 1999) for the summaries that appear in this section.
[iii] For an excellent study on the growth and use of catechisms in England during the 16th through 18th centuries, see Ian Green’s work, The Christian’s ABC: Catechisms and catechizing in England c. 1530-1740 (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1996).