Emergency Baptisms in Geneva

Baptism 1

Here is a section from Scott Manetsch’s excellent book Calvin’s Company of Pastors about why emergency baptisms were banned in Geneva. An emergency baptism was when a newborn who was about to die was baptized.

During the first decades after Geneva’s Reformation, the Consistory [pastors who oversaw Geneva’s spiritual care] investigated a handful of baptismal cases in outlying villages where godparents or midwives performed emergency baptisms out of concern for the salvation of a sickly newborn infant. While Lutheran churches in Germany permitted this traditional practice, Geneva’s ministers viewed emergency baptisms as pernicious because the sacraments should only be performed by ministers in the assembly of the faithful in conjunction with the preaching of the Word, and they were predicated on the false Catholic teaching that baptism was necessary for salvation. It was with these theological concerns in mind that the Consistory sharply rebuked a woman named Claude Mestral in 1548 for allowing a midwife to baptize her sick infant out of the mistaken belief that “if the children of believers do not have the external sign [of baptism] they will perish.” Though emergency baptisms became extremely rare in reformed Geneva after 1550, nevertheless, the parental instinct to assure the spiritual well-being of sickly children through baptism was very difficult to root out entirely. This is seen in the fact that, in the rural parish of Russin in 1599, parents continued to bring sick newborns to their pastor in the middle of the night to request baptism. The Venerable Company instructed the pastor of Russin and other countryside ministers to remind their congregations that “the doctrine which claims baptism is necessary for salvation is false” and that all baptisms should be celebrated in the presence of the Christian assembly and in conjunction with Christian preaching.

There are several interesting ideas in this paragraph.

First, it is clear that in Geneva, baptism was not considered necessary to salvation. Therefore, I think it follows, given the general teaching on the covenant, that baptism was administered because the child was in covenant, not in order to bring the child into the covenant.

Second, the pastors in Geneva kept a close eye on liturgical practices that would undermine Biblical truth. Allowing mid-wives to baptize sick newborns taught a particular view of baptism: that without it a child was not saved. They saw this as dangerous and therefore eliminated the practice. We should carefully watch our liturgical practices, both in worship and outside, to make sure our actions are not undermining the truth.

Let me give two examples. First, what does it say if we allow unordained fathers to baptize their children? Second, what does it say if we allow women to teach men in small groups, Sunday school, church conferences, etc. but refuse them the pulpit? Too many Christians assume that liturgical practices have little impact. That is deadly and allows false teaching to creep in unnoticed.

Third, again showing pastoral wisdom, Geneva’s ministers looked at why a person was doing a particular action. Wanting to have a child baptized was a good thing. But the why mattered. If you wanted your child baptized because you thought baptism was necessary for salvation there was a problem that needed to be addressed. Doing the right thing does not always mean the right thing is being done for the right reason.

Finally, baptism was a church event, not a family event. It was to take place in worship where God’s people were gathered and where God’s Word was preached.  There are numerous reasons for this including the necessity of the Word. But one key reason is that raising children takes the effort and prayers of the whole church body. The child is becoming part of God’s people. When we baptize babies we have vows for the parents, but we also have vows for the congregation. This is one of our liturgical practices that we believe reinforces a Biblical truth: the whole congregation in various ways and at various levels is responsible for leading a child to Christ and teaching them the ways of Christ. Here are the congregational vows we include in our baptismal service.

Covenant Vows for the Congregation
Minister: Do you promise as a covenant community to assist [Parent’s Name] by word, prayer, and Christian fellowship to raise [Child’s Name] in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
People: By God’s grace we do!

Do you, the people of the Lord, promise to receive [Child’s Name] with love into Christ’s Church, pray for him, help instruct him in the faith, encourage, and sustain him in the fellowship of believers to the end that he may faithfully walk with Christ all his days and come at last to his eternal kingdom?
People: By God’s grace we do!

In Geneva, baptism was important but did not save, was communal, not individual, and was to attached to the Word, not separated from it.

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