Is Participation an Endorsement?: Infant Baptism, Church Discipline, and the Consciences of Believers

Given the strong views on baptism held by the first three pastors of the Wapping church (John Spilsbury, John Norcott and Hercules Collins) and these early Baptists’ commitment to holding members accountable to the teaching of Scripture, it should come as no surprise that church members were often disciplined for having their infants sprinkled. On October 2, 1677, Charles Cheney was excommunicated for (among other things) “the grand Error of the Baptisme of Infants.”[1] The next month, the Wapping Church Book records that Elizabeth Durbon “was sharply Reproved for the Sin of Sprinkling her Infant Contrary to the Rules of Christ and the Gospel.”[2] Durbon was not excommunicated because when confronted with her “evill” act, she repented of it and “fell under it before them for doing that which was Contrary to the Command of Christ and the practice of the Apostles and the Constitution of this Church and her own Covenant.” Likewise, in September of 1685, a Brother Hemings was brought before the church where he “did there acknowledge his Evele” in the sprinkling of his child.[3]

It was even considered a serious matter merely to attend an infant’s sprinkling. This was apparently considered an endorsement of an unbiblical and disobedient practice. In March of 1685, a Sister Leader was “sharply Reproved” by the church for being present at an infant’s sprinkling. No further action was taken against Sister Leader since “she did Acknowledg her falt therin.”[4] This was apparently an ongoing issue, as nearly a decade later a word of “Advice” was given by the church to midwives who were church members and might be asked to assist in the sprinkling of an infant.

At the same time this Advice was given to the Midwifes in our congregation that they be not concerned Nither in the holding the Child at Sprinekling nor at prayers Nor doe not promote nor Incurrige Godfathers nor Godmothers as so Called but that they beare such a testemony for the truthes they ownes against the contrary practise as that they may not defile ther Conscience and as may be an honor to the profession of Christ that they makes of him.[5]

This entry helps to explain why the church would discipline members who attended an infant sprinkling. These Baptist midwives were instructed not to participate in the ceremony, nor in any way to encourage the process. Their presence would be a condoning of the practice. By not participating, these women would be able to bear witness to their own beliefs as to the proper nature of baptism. In so doing, they would both guarantee a clear conscience and live up to their own profession of faith in Christ.

[1]Wapping Church Book, 2 October 1677. The other charges against Cheney were “neglect of his Duty in the Church” and “breaking his word.”

[2]WCB, 13 November 1677.

[3]WCB, 22 September 1685.

[4]WCB, 17 March 1685.

[5]WCB, 18 September 1694.

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