“Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:5).
An encounter at the border
Christadelphians who live close to the US/Canada border are quite used to discussions with the customs agents. The following was an exchange recently reported to me.
Where are you going? — To a religious meeting. What sort of meeting? — a baptism. An adult baptism? — Yes of course. Customs agent — I could never understand the way most church practice christening! (Hand over pamphlet.)
Thus is the message spread: but it did give rise to some thought about the ways we practice “adult baptism”. All agree as to the fact that baptism of adults, after acceptance of the gospel and a true confession of faith, is a crucial, critical, vital step in the walk of a disciple to the Kingdom. But there are a few related topics I would like to consider.
As most know, John Thomas, an emigrant to the USA from England in 1832, began to discover what we regard as the True Gospel. And in fact it was by the act of adult baptism that the initial steps towards that end began. In July, 1835, one Albert Anderson was baptized, at his own request, by John Thomas, and this began the rift between the Campbellites and John Thomas (for it was that community he had joined by being baptized in 1832.) This event had ramifications:
many Christadelphians trace their descent from Albert, who was the first follower of John Thomas,
not much later his wife, Louisa, wrote a letter that questioned the fact that Thomas Campbell did not insist on adult baptism as a requirement for salvation. This letter caused a firestorm of controversy, which later divided the Cambellite movement.1
So John Thomas studied the gospel, and it was on his recognition of the importance of the True Hope of Israel in 1847 that he requested re-baptism by one John Tomline Walsh. Walsh, although at the time sympathetic, soon became estranged. So John Thomas’ true baptism was valid, not because of who baptized him, but because of his beliefs when baptized.
Many were baptized in the following years, with the name “Christadelphian” being coined when the baptized members of the Coffman extended household in Illinois wanted to register as conscientious objectors, and a denominational name was needed for that purpose. The house where this event took place still stands deep in the farmlands of the state.
The next baptism we might note we might note is that of Robert Roberts, who was baptized in the River Dee “on a beautiful Sunday Morning”, in the city of Aberdeen, Scotland. This took place in the summer of 1853, when he was 14. He was re-baptized ten years later, an event noted only in the magazine of our community at the time, the Messenger of the Churches. He commented on the reason in 1874: “The Editor has only once been re-immersed, and that was twelve years ago, on attaining to an understanding of the things concerning the name of Jesus, of which he was ignorant at his first immersion, when 16 (sic) years of age.”2
The age of adulthood and baptism today
Of the tens of thousands of baptisms recorded, relatively few give the age at which the individual was baptized: and it is interesting that the vast majority of these cases, the age is over 70. Of those somewhat younger, a very few are younger than 16, but as with Robert Roberts above, we have a couple of examples around 14, and at least one just under. The topic for the appropriate age for baptism has been discussed a little. This was particularly when there was an urging some while ago that no-one under the age of twenty should be baptized, based primarily on the age of adulthood mentioned in the Old Testament. For example, the age is typically 20 (Lev 27:3, Num 1:18 etc.). The age of commencement of service for Levitical priests is sometimes 30 (Num 4:3) but can be as low as 20 (1Chron 23:27.) Thus, it was argued, from Acts 8:12, where it says “But when they believed Philip preaching the things concerning the kingdom of God, and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women”, hence only those above 20 could be validly baptized.
This was discredited at the time, and is clearly erroneous based on examples such a Joseph, who was a man at seventeen (Psa 105:17, Gen 37:2). We can also remember Josiah: “For in the eighth year of his reign, while he was yet young, he began to seek after the God of David his father: and in the twelfth year he began to purge Judah and Jerusalem from the high places, and the groves, and the carved images and the molten images” (2Chron 34:3). As he was eight years old when he began to reign (see vs 1), clearly at the age of 15-16 he was “seeking after the God of David”. And of course Jesus was quite capable of debating with the elders in the Temple at age 12.
It is sometimes pointed out that our American society regards the age of true adulthood at eighteen: before that age, one cannot vote, enter into legal contracts, nor marry without parental permission before that age (with rare exceptions.) However, when it comes to criminal responsibility, the picture is far different. I believe the State of Michigan still holds the unfortunate title of convicting as an adult one who was eleven years and nine months old when he committed his crime.3 In general courts are quite happy to assume an adult knowledge of right and wrong anywhere from 14 years old.
The best comment that I have come across was made by CC Walker almost a hundred years ago.
“[Can 15 or 17 year old be considered adults?]. This is rather a difficult question. Such would, of course, be “babes” by comparison with what they would soon become under the influence of the word of God and the meetings. But it would be possible to err in deferring the obedience of faith. Practically we can only do our best in individual cases as they arise. It is very difficult to draw the line of ‘average.’ Not many girls of fifteen and boys of seventeen have a serious grasp of the truth; and this should be remembered in dealing with such cases. On the other hand, far be it from any of us to discourage the young in any way.”4
My comments on this, and it must be my personal opinion, is that anyone below the age of 15 should be carefully counseled, but not discouraged in their desire for baptism. Thirteen, or even fourteen year olds, should not be refused, but it would be an exceptional case for one so young to be baptized. Undoubtedly some who are this age are mature enough to realize the life-long commitment they are making, as was Robert Roberts (but recognize that he chose to be re-baptized upon a fuller understanding of the Truth.)
By whom baptized?
It is sometimes assumed that we are baptized into the Christadelphian community. This is quite incorrect: as we pointed out before, certainly John Thomas was baptized on the basis of his faith and beliefs, and not by someone who shared his beliefs. We are baptized “into Christ”. All who are baptized and who share, with us, the set of Biblical beliefs as summarized in what is known as the Birmingham Amended Statement of Faith, or equivalent document, are accepted as members.5 Thus it is possible (although rare) for an individual, unassociated with the Christadelphians, to have been baptized holding these same views. When I say rare, I personally know of only a couple of cases. It is much more common that a person would like to join with us in fellowship, having become convinced of the Truth, but is reluctant to be baptized, even though their former baptism was on a very defective basis.
Of course, the case of someone joining the “amended” fellowship from any of the large number of affiliated, but divided, groups is quite different. Several editors of The Christadelphian magazine, for example, joined the “amended” fellowship having been baptized into one of the other groups, but were not re-baptized on joining the “amended” community. This is true of the vast majority of similar cases. An interview to establish the validity of the original baptism is all that is required: what differences there are in beliefs between the communities is often not even mentioned in the original baptismal interview. Of course, it is a personal matter: but re-baptism is something that is hardly practiced, by and large, within our larger community.
These are only a few thoughts on the topic of baptism. Its importance cannot be denied: but many details of by whom, to whom, and even the topic of the significance of the “right hand of fellowship” must be left for another time.
1. For more (or an abundance of) information, simply do an Internet search for “Lunenburg Letter”.
2. The Christadelphian, 1874, p 610.
3. We was eventually sentenced to Juvenile detention, was released, but is back in prison on other charges.
4. The Christadelphian, 1915, p 267.
5. Of course, this assumes that fellowship is restricted to those who share such beliefs.