In his early ministry John Wesley took a strictly orthodox view of baptism, even to the point of rebaptizing those already baptized by dissenting ministers. However, his views underwent change and in 1750, in correspondence with the Baptist minister Gilbert Boyce, he cited the Quakers in support of his assertion that baptism was not ‘necessary to salvation’.
In A Treatise on Baptism (1756) Wesley drew extensively on his father’s earlier work The Pious Communicant (1700) to produce a robust defence of the practice as a sacrament instituted by Christ and of perpetual obligation. Here the benefits conferred are those traditionally associated with baptism: the washing away of original sin; entry into the new covenant in Christ; incorporation into the Church; and regeneration or new birth. However, he later struggled to reconcile the idea of baptismal regeneration with his growing conviction that new birth results from personal conversion.
In the <span class="font-italic">Sunday Service of the Methodists</span> (1784), intended for use in the United States, Wesley made significant alterations to the baptism services contained in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. In particular, his omissions from the baptismal prayers virtually severed the sacramental link between baptism and regeneration. To accommodate Puritan concerns, the role of sponsors or godparents disappeared, and there was no provision for the private baptism of infants. A second edition of the Sunday Service published in 1786 similarly distanced baptism from the washing away of original sin, and the 'signation' immediately following the baptism was omitted.
As early as 1795 the Plan of Pacification provided for the administration of baptism, as well as of the Lord's Supper, by the Methodist itinerants. For many years, however, many Methodist parents still took their children to the parish church for baptism. A Wesleyan Metropolitan Office for the registration of births and baptisms was established in London in 1815. Faced with cases where clergy refused to bury anyone baptized by other than an Anglican minister, in 1842 the judgment of the Privy Council in the Gedney Case upheld the validity of Wesleyan baptisms.
Reacting to the resurgence of sacramentalism in the Church of England as a result of the Oxford movement, Methodist theologians in the 19th century tended to reject the idea of baptismal regeneration and to interpret the sacrament in covenantal terms. A revised Wesleyan Methodist service book published in 1882 described baptism as a ‘solemn covenant’ requiring the continuing assistance of the Holy Spirit. Infant baptism was said to be administered on the basis of the ‘virtual promise’ by the parents to raise their child in the ‘nurture and admonition of the Lord’.
The other branches of Methodism were generally no less committed to the practice of baptism (at least in theory), though their liturgies reflected an equally low opinion of its sacramental efficacy, and the UMFC Handbook of 1887 allowed for its administration by local preachers. In 1822 Harry Major drafted a statement on baptism for the BC Conference. Richard Kinsman, another Bible Christian, went so far as describing baptismal regeneration as ‘Satan’s second lie’. A recurring feature of the non-Wesleyan rites was a tendency to minimize the grace conferred at baptism. Instead, great emphasis was placed on the life of Christian discipleship as the sphere in which grace is conferred. Nevertheless, in controversy with Baptists, all branches of Methodism maintained the efficacy of infant baptism, disciplining any minister who would undertake to baptize only those able to profess their faith. (Sympathy for the Baptist viewpoint in the Sunderland PM District in 1827 was quickly quelled by the General Committee. And in 1841 Joseph Barker was expelled from the MNC ministry partly for his refusal to baptize infants.)
In the case of infants, a common feature among Methodist baptismal liturgies in the 19th century was a growing emphasis on the duties of parents in the Christian nurture of children. Some authors described baptism as the Christian equivalent of circumcision in Judaism, initiating the child into the Christian community. The introduction of explicit promises by parents as part of the baptismal service reflected a continuing societal outlook in Methodism, but also the weakening of commitment to membership. The prominence of the parental promises in the service reflects the fact that infant baptism in Methodism in this era was mostly interpreted as a conditional covenant effective only when parents and children fulfilled their respective obligations.
Since 1932 Methodist understanding and practice of baptism has developed in response to various influences, ecumenical and liturgical. A committee was appointed by the Uniting Conference to examine the issue of infant baptism. It reported in 1935 and the Conference of 1936 adopted the resulting Memorandum. A further ‘Statement on Holy Baptism’ was adopted in 1952. The Book of Offices (1936) drew mainly on the 1882 Wesleyan order in order to provide services of adult and infant baptism (the latter including parental promises) acceptable to the uniting traditions. Under the influence of the modern Liturgical Movement, the Methodist Service Book (1975) restored signation and the role of sponsors. More controversially, the pre-Reformation custom of presenting a lighted candle was also restored to the service. Rather unsatisfactorily, the 1975 liturgy avoided issues that have been contentious in Methodism by making no reference to regeneration or the washing away of original sin.
In 1987 the Faith and Order Committee presented to Conference a report on baptism under the title 'Christian Initiation'. It reiterated the orthodox positions that trinitarian baptism is unrepeatable and that the validity of infant baptism is supported by scripture, but provided for the convictions of those who believed that baptism should be postponed. The 1995 document 'Called to Love and Praise' also dealt with these issues. An article by Martin Ramsden argued the need to recognise that the New Testament transcends the traditional dichotomy between divine grace and human faith in our thinking about baptism.
The baptismal services in the Methodist Worship Book (1999) reflect a stronger sacramental theology than earlier Methodist rites. Though studiedly ambiguous, these liturgies explicitly link baptism with the traditional benefits, including the washing away of original sin and regeneration. A new feature in the case of infants is that the parental promises now follow (rather than precede) the act of baptism in order to stress that the grace conferred by the sacrament is not conditional upon the fulfilment of pledges concerning the Christian nurture of children. Whilst the logic of this approach would support the indiscriminate baptism of infants, officially Methodism still maintains that infant baptism is permissible only in ‘appropriate circumstances’. Thus, despite much recent theological reflection on what it means to be a ‘church’, the societal origins of Methodism continue to exert a degree of influence on its understanding and practice of baptism in the 21st century.
See also Sacraments
Letter from 'Clericus Rusticus' in The Watchman:
'The late occurrence at Ipswich seemed calculated to call forth some explanation [of the duty of the clergy towards anyone "not baptized by an episcopal minister"]; but we are left in the same state of doubt as before. It appears to me that baptism administered by a Methodist preacher cannot be regarded in any other light than that of lay-baptism. The Wesleyan system appears to me to make no pretentions to clerical orders; and even if it did, there would be great room for questioning their authority.'
'Burials by Anglican clergy of children baptized by Methodists', in The Watchman, 15 April 1840, p. 126