Yesterday was the first anniversary of my youngest son’s baptism. Infant baptism is the norm among United Methodists today. But many of my non-Methodist friends practice “infant dedication.” In fact, while the two practices are different, they function (in many respects) similarly in Christian faith communities: each marks a moment when family and congregations commit to raising a child to grow into a relationship with Christ.
For United Methodists, as with many others in Christianity, infant baptism is a sacramental act that marks the beginning of a new relationship with Christ. Still, there has always been a certain amount of tension even within Methodism between the practice of infant baptism and John Wesley’s emphasis on the “heart strangely warmed” conversion event that he believed every Christian should experience (thus, the importance of confirmation).
The other day I shared a gem on Methodists and marriage from Karen Westerfield Tucker’s excellent contribution to The Cambridge Companion to American Methodism (ed. Jason Vickers, 2013). Here’s one more section of her essay that’s worth noting—this time on the ambiguities of Methodist and Wesleyan practices of infant baptism and/or dedication:
“One action taken by the MEC [Methodist Episcopal Church] beginning in 1844 and adopted by the Methodist Episcopal Church, South at its founding was, in provisions for the ‘Instruction of Children’ in their respective Disciplines, to encourage preachers to invite parents to ‘dedicate’ their children in baptism; the concept of dedication was already present in the Methodist Protestant Church’s initial infant baptismal rite (for example, ‘thou has made it our privilege to dedicate our children to thy service’).” (143)
This liturgical case study reveals the emergence of “infant dedication” within the Methodist tradition. The case also shows how precision in language makes a tremendous difference both to doctrinal formulations and the practice of faith. What begins as a tension in the sermons of John Wesley ends in a potential conflation of ideas in the language of the baptismal rites. In time, doctrine “develops” in the formation of diverse, theologically-informed practices among the variety of Wesleyan churches:
In the first half of the twentieth century, the holiness churches started to make explicit what had become implicit in their infant baptism practice and hinted at in the baptismal formulations of other denominations: They produced a rite of infant dedication that stood alongside—and sometimes was a “dry” parallel—to the infant baptism rite. The Church of the Nazarene [CN] introduced a dedication rite in 1936, which soon was more widely used than the baptism service. The CN’s 1972 Manual demonstrates how, in effect, dedication and baptism were often conceptually conflated; under the heading “The Sacrament of Baptism” appears a single rite with the subheading “The Dedication of Baptism of Children.” (143)
The Free Methodists went so far as to make the two rites (infant baptism and infant dedication) interchangeable with the exception of the word “dedicate” or “baptize” and the withholding of water in the latter rite. The similarity of language, Westerfield Tucker intimates, led to increasing conflation of doctrine among clergy and laity alike. The trend also continued in the Methodist Church and subsequent United Methodist Church, until the practice of infant dedication was finally closed:
[B]y the 1940s, moves started to be made (especially in the Methodist Church and eventually the United Methodist Church) toward the formulation of infant rites where baptism was understood to be: a means of grace and new birth with the accompanying means of covenant; adoption, initiation, and incorporation into the Church; and (through the influence of the Liturgical Movement) participation in the paschal mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection. The creation of the UMC in 1968 brought practices of infant dedication (from the Evangelical United Brethren) and infant baptism [in the Methodist Church] head to head; both practices were permitted to coexist until authorized UMC rites were produced—without the option of dedication. (144)
Notably, the United Methodists reaffirmed the practice of infant baptism and rejection of infant dedication in the official statement “By Water and the Spirit” (adopted by General Conference 1996; summary statement on infant dedication, here).
My point here is not to instigate controversy about infant baptism and infant dedication. Although I affirm the practice of infant baptism myself, I recognize that, in both cases, parents and churches are proclaiming, in different ways, the need for God’s grace in raising a child and seeking to set the child apart for God’s purposes. Still, the inconsistent liturgical history of Methodism and the Wesleyan family of churches that developed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries reveals that doctrinal and liturgical developments are far more complex than mere evolution or devolution. As Westerfield Tucker’s essay demonstrates, no matter how stable a contemporary doctrine or liturgical practice may appear to be, attention to history often reveals fascinating ambiguities that call into question the constancy of doctrine in any given tradition.