Reclaiming Baptism

Nothing becomes a cliché faster than the truth. An insightful or witty person will find a new turn of phrase that captures something in a succinct, graceful, or clever manner and soon it becomes so overused that we can hardly bear to hear it. So it was with the sacraments. Works of grace becoming manifest in a person’s life—acts of great meaning and power—over time became empty forms. In particular, baptism was robbed of its meaning and became something else entirely. It came to signify entry into a religious community without requiring inner transformation.

Baptism in the Early Church

Originally, water baptism was the recognition of a preexisting change in an individual. An inward transformation or conversion was marked by an outward act of washing that symbolically cleansed the individual of a past life and marked the start of a new life as a member of the church. Baptism was an act of symbolic purification, and the person being baptized acknowledged the need for cleansing and purification. There was a recognition that an old way of life was flawed and a new life necessary. The real act of joining the church took place within the individual before the symbolic act was performed.

Over time, the symbol became the act in the minds of the participants. Rather than a ceremony to recognize and celebrate an already existing condition, they began to view the instrument of baptism as the means of entry into the church. With the shift from an inward conversion to an outward ritual, actual change became unnecessary. Whole families were baptized (including slaves and servants) when the head of the household converted. Whole armies were baptized because a king or emperor ordered it.

Moreover, a total cleansing of all sin was attributed to the symbolic act of cleansing. Water baptism became more than a mark of membership; it was a talismanic act that compelled complete reconciliation with God, regardless of the spiritual condition of the person being baptized. To maximize the benefit, some, like the Emperor Constantine, postponed baptism until they were dying so that there was no chance for new sin afterwards and they could enter immediately into heaven.

Early church members believed that without baptism (that is, without water and the words), there was no salvation; so, in a time when infant mortality and childhood death were common, it became the practice to baptize babies soon after birth. Clearly, an infant could not have made a decision to become a member of the church, much less testify to a spiritual transformation.

The result of these changes was a complete redefinition of the act of baptism. What had been the mark of a significant turning point—indeed the single most important event in the life of an individual—degenerated into an empty ritual.

Baptism in the Reformation

One of the more significant aspects of the Protestant Reformation was recognition of this emptying of baptism and the insistence by more radical Protestant sects that baptism be the consequence of a mature decision to take on the responsibilities of church membership. This represented a giant step in recovering the meaning of baptism.

Early Friends took the process a step further by eliminating the outward form entirely. Spiritual conversion was recognized as the essential act. Once the inward turning towards God had taken place, there was no need for an external ritual. They believed that a baptism had taken place, but in a pure and spiritual form. Friends saw themselves as reviving the baptism of Fire and the Holy Spirit that Jesus promises in the Gospel of Luke. For many years, there even was no formal membership among Friends. There was no need—those who had experienced a transformation were members.

What is the situation among contemporary Friends? We have no outward rituals—membership is recorded in the meeting records when one of two things happen: an applicant goes through a clearness process that results in membership being approved in meeting for business; or a child is granted membership at the request of his or her parents. In following this practice, are we being faithful to our spiritual ancestors? Have we thrown out the meaning of membership along with the water of baptism? Have we lost our own baptism of Fire and the Holy Spirit?

Birthright Membership

Granting membership to children born or adopted into the meeting is significant to many parents. They feel it is important for their children to be recognized as part of their faith community. But granting birthright membership, without asking for a later commitment on the part of children, in effect reinstitutes infant baptism. This has changed the meaning of becoming a member. As happened centuries earlier to water baptism, this grant of membership is not a turning to and opening oneself up to God. It is no longer a transformation. It doesn’t even signify that the new member holds Quaker values.

Many yearly meetings have eliminated birthright membership or have made it optional—i.e., the parents can ask for membership for children when they are born or adopted. In some meetings, parents who take membership are offered the same option. In some cases, a child may be granted an associate membership, but frequently when the child associate member reaches adulthood, he or she is simply maintained in the meeting records.

It is time for us to give up birthright membership and to take our formal relationships with our children seriously. Meetings need to appreciate the psychological needs of both children and their parents for recognition of a child’s connection to the Society of Friends, and a short-term associate membership can meet this need. As they grow, we need to teach our religious values, our spiritual traditions, our way of knowing God, and when our children mature, we need the courage to ask for and accept their spiritual decisions.

Asking for Commitment

This leads us directly to a second problem: not asking for real commitment from applicants for membership. Sometimes this comes because we are desperate for members, and sometimes because we can’t agree on what that commitment should be.

Too many of our meetings have barely enough members to fill even the essential committees. Our budgets cannot support all the good works that we want to accomplish. When there is a meetinghouse, the money for rent, mortgage, or maintenance can be a burden on too few contributors. It’s easy to become so anxious for new members that anyone who asks to join us looks like a good candidate. We may be more concerned not to scare them off than to be sure that they have found the spiritual home they need.

But not all our meetings are small and struggling. Often we seem to simply not be sure what should be required of an applicant. Instead of having a set of questions for the candidate, we first have to run through a set for ourselves: Is it elitist to expect new members to hold any specific beliefs? Aren’t we all seekers, and isn’t that what it means to be a member of the Religious Society of Friends—to be a seeker? The questions that too often go unasked are: What is being sought by this seeker? Will he or she find it with us? And what is it that we ourselves have found and want to share? Sometimes a meeting or a clearness committee anticipates that disharmony would result from discussion of such questions and avoids them. How often do we ask if the clearness process has become merely a welcoming?

It would seem that simply to state the problem is to see the solution: As a religious society, we need to ask new applicants to make a commitment. Clearness committees for membership need to work with an applicant to achieve clarity that the Society of Friends is the right spiritual home. But have we, as a Society, passed the point at which we have such clearness among ourselves? As mentioned above, not all clearness committees have a common understanding of what it means to be a Friend. In this respect, they may accurately reflect the meeting that appointed them and even the state of our Society as a whole.

Living our Faith

And this brings us to a third problem: unless a clearness committee or a meeting knows what it means to be a Friend, membership in the meeting (and consequently in the Religious Society of Friends as a whole) is meaningless.

As individuals, we may be living good lives, but are we living as Friends? In the face of terrible persecution, early Friends chose to be Friends because they experienced the Spirit of God as their immediate guide. They knew that the words and water of external baptism were unnecessary because they had already experienced an inward baptism of the Holy Spirit and of Fire.

Friends need to reclaim that baptism, that conviction, that commitment. We need to make our lives a sign to the world that we each have been convinced—that we too rely on God to be our guide.

Paul Buckley

Paul Buckley is a member of 57th Street Meeting in Chicago, Ill. Currently he attends Clear Creek Meeting in Richmond, Ind.