I recently finished Everett Ferguson’s Baptism in the Early Church.  This massive tome of 860 pages thoroughly explores the theology and practice of baptism in the first five centuries of the church.  What follows is a brief summary of Ferguson’s main findings.


Baptism was a big deal to the early Christians.  It was modeled on John’s practice, as well as Jesus’ example and command.  Unlike Jewish and pagan precursors which saw ritual washings as related ritual purification, Christian baptism was intended for spiritual cleansing and moral transformation.


Great pomp and ceremony developed very early around the church’s practice of baptism. While traditions differed from region to region as well as over time, in general, baptism was performed in the nude, via triple immersion, with the laying on of hands, exorcisms, renunciation of the devil, anointing with oil, confession of the creed, post-baptismal eucharist, and the wearing of a white garment. 


Our earliest evidence indicates that adult immersion was the normal practice of the church (Epistle of Barnabas, Shepherd of Hermas, Hippolytus, Tertullian, Cyprian), with most churches practicing a triple immersion (once for each day Jesus was in the earth, or once for each name in the triune formula).

Salvific Importance

From the very beginning, the church understood baptism to be essential to salvation, necessary for forgiveness, and resulting in regeneration[1] (Jn 3:5; Tit 3:5).  Even the splinter and heretical groups agreed.  Baptism identified one with Jesus in His death, burial, and resurrection.


In the Bible, people were baptized immediately after coming to faith in Christ.  However, in a very short time the church began to delay baptism under after a believer had been through a period of catechesis. Justin Martyr was the first to note the church’s practice of a period of catehesis prior to baptism (Pseudo Clementine, Hippolytus).  The catechesis was clearly designed for people of reasonable age, not infants and small children.

Infant Baptism

By the late 2nd century, however, infant baptism began to be practiced in certain parts of the church, but only in the case of deathbed baptism (we don’t know the name of a single person baptized as an infant under normal circumstances until the 4th century).  Over the next four centuries, however, baptizing all infants became gradually accepted, until it was the predominant practice in the 5th century.



[1] But they also stressed the need for faith, so it wasn’t the view the Catholic Church holds to today.