Commentary: History reflects shifts in what's considered appropriate age for baptism


What do Baptists consider to be an appropriate age for baptism?

The answer to the question varies and will surprise those who assume that there is a prescribed tradition, set in stone, carefully and meticulously passed down from generation to generation. Two hundred years ago it was rare for anyone to be baptized who was not considered an “adult.” On the other hand, since Southern Baptist began reporting the baptisms by age in 1966, typically one third of the baptisms have been children ages 11 and younger.

Throughout the 20th Century there was a marked shift toward younger ages for baptisms among Southern Baptists. To understand where Southern Baptists are today, it’s important to understand where they have been. A place to begin is exploring the 19th Century practice described as “adult baptism.”

The purpose of this column, and one to follow, will be to explore the practice of baptism in SBC life, past and present. To open a discussion on how to evangelize, baptize and disciple followers of Christ more effectively in the 21st Century. To revisit the question of what an appropriate age for baptism is today.

In the biographical sketches of literally thousands of Southern Baptists, published before 1900, it’s rare to find anyone baptized before the age of 15. Examples from Baptist leaders of the south illustrate the point: Richard Furman age 17 in 1772, Jesse Mercer age 19 in 1788, William B. Johnson age 22 in 1804, John A. Brodus age 16 in 1843, James P. Boyce age 22 in 1845, Lottie Moon age 18 in 1858, Annie Armstrong age 19 in 1869, E.Y. Mullins age 16 in 1877, and George W. Truitt age 19 in 1887. Their average age at baptism was 18.8 years old.

Today, the answer to what is the “appropriate age for baptism” varies based on location and the expectations of different bodies. Among English, Scottish and German (American) Baptist the expectation is for a candidate to be in their mid-teens or older.

Many IMB missionaries and native pastors follow this same practice in locations around the world. Bob Calvert, a former IMB missionary among the Massai in Kenya said “I never baptized a child in Kenya. Our evangelism efforts always focused on adults.”

James DeVotie was baptized in 1831 at age 19 in Savannah, Georgia. He became the first Corresponding Secretary (Executive Director) of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board in 1877. At the time of his baptism, having been raised Presbyterian and converted at age 16, he expressed that he agreed with the Baptist practice of “adult baptism.”

An 1838 book by William Hauge, pastor of the FBC Boston, was titled, “Eight Views of Baptism or Internal Evidence of Adult Baptism.” The book was published to refute a book published on the virtues of infant baptism titled, “The Baptized Child.” In his book Hauge equates “adult baptism” with “believers’ baptism.” Although he does not define or intimate what was meant by the word “adult.”

Adulthood in the 19th Century, and earlier, was associated with the onset of puberty, typically occurring in the early teens. One went from a child to an adult; the developmental concept of “teens” was introduced in the 20th Century. Although in the 19th Century it was rare for a girl to marry before age 16 and there were similar restrictions on the age of military service for males. Public schools seldom went beyond 7th grade. The average age of a student entering the University of Georgia before the Civil War was 14.

Paul expressed this perspective in writing, “When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things.” (1 Corinthians 13:11) In other words, teenagers were considered “adults” and baptism was an “adult” decision.

Historically speaking baptism has had additional life-changing consequences which may explain the delay until adulthood. In Europe and Colonial America, baptism resulted in the forfeiture of certain civil rights, lead to religious persecution and in some cases death. Just as baptism today carries the same consequences in many parts of the world. A child living under those circumstances would not be expected to be mature enough to make decisions with life-changing consequences.

Children in the 19th Century were not ignored; they were taught the basic Biblical truths as a prelude to salvation. Baptists developed catechisms that children were taught and expected to memorize. Those catechisms were in effect evangelistic tools. Sunday Schools slowly began to be established and by the end of the 19th Century most SBC churches offered Sunday School for at least part of the year. While children were not ignored, at the same time, they were not expected to be mature enough to make adult decisions.

An understanding of the nature of conversion at the time may also provide insight into delaying a profession of faith and baptism. Baptists tended to be more Calvinistic in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Salvation was often described as a process rather than viewed as a one-and-done event. The 2nd Great Awakening (1787 ff.) saw the introduction of the “anxious seat” or “mourner’s bench” as a place where sinners began to “pray through” in their search for God.

Biographical accounts often described experiencing a prolonged season, weeks, months and sometimes years, of deep conviction and searching before a conversion breakthrough. The biographies of Richard Furman of South Carolina and Georgian, Elishia Perryman who was saved at age 30 in 1799 illustrate the point. Both men described a prolonged season of deep conviction when they were seeking after God to determine if they were one of “the elect.” Something which a child would not be expected to be capable of comprehending, much less doing.

Toward the end of the 19th Century and into the early 20th Century many Southern Baptists began to embrace what may be described as a milder version of Calvinism. The influence of evangelists like D. L. Moody and Sam Jones may have lent some credence to a quicker path to salvation by “walking the sawdust trail” at a tent meeting.

Some attribute this version of Calvinism to the influence of E.Y. Mullins on SBC theology. It was probably also nurtured by the popular progressive spirit of the era, one that promoted the improvement of society by joining movements. In Baptist life this included the WMU (1888), BYPU (1895) and Baptist Laymen’s Movement (1909). In other words, salvation, baptism and joining the church was not only good for you, but it was good for society at large.

Researching the ages of those baptized at the onset of the 20th Century reflects the acceptable age for baptism had lowered. While the average age was still 13 years of age in the early decades of the 20th Century, increasingly, it was not uncommon to see those younger than 12 being baptized as well.

The next column in this series will explore baptism trends and the drivers in SBC life in the 20th Century. Including those driving changes in the acceptable ages of candidates for baptism. It will address the issues of child evangelism, discipleship, and the spiritual role of pastors as gatekeepers of the flock.

Charles Jones is a Southern Baptist historian and a retired pastor.