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Baptism is the application of water to a person as a sacrament or religious rite. Sacraments, as a rule, derive their outward form from common social acts but give to them a new spiritual significance. Thus the common meal of the group underlies the rite of sacrifice, and eventually that of the Eucharist; the anointing of the sick with oil underlies Holy Unction; the initiation of the individual into the group life of tribe or family, the naming of a child, and the rites of puberty or adulthood anticipate both baptism and confirmation.
So it is with baptism: rites of cleansing and purification are age-old, and are found in almost all the religions of mankind. This is especially true in the crises of birth, death, warfare, and contact with the dead or with spirits. In "primitive" religion, water was presumably thought of as alive, especially water which welled up out of the earth ("living water") and moved of its own accord in stream or river. Even lakes and seas, whose surfaces are in constant motion, were thought to be living. Hence it was natural to interpose the living force of water between the individual or group and the threat of defilement or danger or contact with destruction. In Greek religion there were many poetic survivals of this fancy, both in rite and in belief, from the living, divine, personified river Scamander in the Iliad to the oracular "singing water" of one of the latest poems in the Greek Anthology. In India the water of the "holy Ganges" was specially valued for cleansing; in Egypt, that of the Nile. In the cult of Isis, Nile water was carried in jars to such distant places as Rome, for use in lustral rites. The ancient Teutons and Celts practiced rites of cleansing and initiation long before Christian influences reached them. Among the Greeks and Romans the newborn child was bathed and named, and recognized by the father as his own. Among some peoples, baptism with blood, or with saliva, was practiced - always with emphasis on the initiation or admission of the child into the tribal or family group.
Origins of Christian Baptism
The Christian sacrament of baptism goes back to the very beginning of the Christian movement (Acts 2:37-42), and even earlier, when John the Baptist required his followers to immerse themselves in the river Jordan (Mark 1:4-5). The rite was ordinarily required of proselytes to Judaism: following circumcision, the converted Gentile immersed himself in water as a cleansing from the contaminations of idolatry, while two Jews stood outside the curtained enclosure and recited passages from the Torah (the Law or Pentateuch), which he was now binding himself to keep. What was distinctive of John's baptism was (1) his requirement of baptism on the part of all Jews, not only proselytes, and (2) its "eschatological" reference, as a symbol of repentance, turning from sin, and preparation for the coming Day of Judgment. Although Jesus himself was baptized, it is a question if he observed the rite in his own ministry (John 4:1-2); the dominical commandment is found only in Matthew 28:19-20, a post-resurrection saying.
Baptism in the early church probably included children (Corinthians 1:16), as did also Jewish baptism of Gentiles (Babylonian Talmud: Yebamoth 78A). The "baptism for the dead" (I Corinthians 15:29) was probably a kind of baptism by proxy (compare modern legal marriage by proxy), by which, it was hoped, the benefits of the sacrament might be conferred upon those who had died before the Gospel had reached them. It was a very extraordinary practice, and like other features peculiar to the church in Corinth, was not followed elsewhere. When the church spread to colder countries, baptism by pouring (or "affusion") became common, at least as an alternative mode of administration. By some groups baptism has been limited to adults. In the days of the martyrs a "baptism of desire" was recognized - when converts were unable actually to receive the rite of water baptism.
According to the New Testament, the benefits of baptism are the inauguration of the new life in Christ ("rebirth" or "regeneration") and the gift of the Holy Spirit (see John 3:3-8; Galatians 3:27). In later practice, in the West, the laying on of hands, which frequently accompanied baptism in -the New Testament period, was separated from it, and became the rite of confirmation, usually administered at the beginning of adolescence and admitting the Christian child to the Holy Communion. In the East, confirmation follows at once in infant baptism. As a rule, adult baptism is followed everywhere by confirmation and first communion; and it is preceded, especially in the mission field, by a period of instruction and spiritual preparation for admission into the church. The usual formula is the one in Matthew 28:19, "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost." It has been argued that the usual New Testament formula was "in the name of Christ" (I Corinthians 6:11); but it is quite possible that this term meant only "as a Christian," and that the mystical sense of baptism "in" or "into" Christ came as a later interpretation. See also confirmation.
Modern Forms of Baptism
In the modern world various forms of baptism are observed. These include immersion (dipping or submerging the person in a pool or stream); pouring ("affusion," either from the bare hand or from a shell or saucer; the shell is usually a scallop shell or is shaped like one); and intinction (the minister moistens one finger and touches the candidate's head, usually his forehead). The use of flowers or other substitutes for water is not usually described as baptism. The Baptists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and some other groups practice mass baptism by immersion.