Commentary: Age for baptism has gotten younger through the centuries


Vance Havner (1901-1986), a Baptist prophet of an earlier generation, said; “Far too often churches have inoculated people with Christianity. Given them enough of the real thing to make them think they really have it.”

Jesus said, “suffer the little children and forbid them not to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” (Mathew 19:14) He also admonished; “It is better for him if a millstone is hung around his neck and he is thrown into the sea, than that he may cause one of these little ones to sin.” (Luke 17:2) Jesus reserved one of his sternest warnings, to those who would lead children astray.

A previous column looked at the 19th century Baptist practice of “Adult Baptism.” This piece will focus on changes in attitudes towards ages of baptism of children in the 20th century. Its purpose is to promote a discussion on how to effectively evangelize and disciple children today.

The acceptable age for a public profession of faith and baptism has declined significantly among Southern Baptists over the past 200 years. Throughout most of the 19th century the youngest candidates for baptisms were teenagers, who were considered adults by the standards of the day. Most were in their mid-teens and seldom younger than 13. By the beginning of the 20th century, the average age had dropped to about age 13, with younger children, ages 10 to 12 increasingly being baptized. By the mid 1960’s when the SBC began reporting the ages of those baptized nearly half were 12 or younger, with over a thousand each year being 6 or younger.

At the same time, today, other Baptist bodies around the world, and some IMB missionaries and affiliated national pastors still maintain the mid-teens as being an acceptable minimum acceptable age for baptism.

Baptism in and of itself does not save. It is a loving act of obedience and a visual testimony that one is following and submitting to the Lordship of Christ. In Baptist practice once a person is baptized, it marks a new journey of a believer of pressing on to maturity. With the understanding of “once saved always saved.”

At the same time few pastors’ have not had a request from someone wanting to “get their baptism on the right side of their salvation.” Often with the explanation that when they were previously “baptized,” they had little concept of what they were doing except “joining the church.” Baptism in and of itself may provide a false sense of security to millions of Southern Baptist, including those who may have given little evidence of growth.

What were some of the factors contributing to the change attitudes to baptism ages among Southern Baptists in the 20th century?

  • Increase in evangelism promoted by the continued establishment of new Sunday Schools, especially in rural churches throughout the early 20th
  • 1895 Baptist Young People’s Union (discipleship ministry) adopted by the SBC, primarily targeting teens and young adults. It eventually grew to cover all age divisions.
  • Children’s Mission Program’s, Sunbeams (1896), Royal Ambassadors (1908), and Girls in Action (1913) were established which focused on missions and evangelism.
  • Beginning in 1921, the publication of the SBC Handbook with a listing of the top churches for baptisms for each state. Increasingly “success” in the denomination was measured by “nickels and noses.”
  • 1923 VBS is introduced to Baptists of the south primarily in urban areas, by the 1950’s most rural churches were beginning summer VBS ministries.
  • 1937 Child Evangelism Fellowship ~ specifically targeting children for professions of faith and baptism. A driver in the establishment of this ministry was a quote attributed to Charles Spurgeon, “A child of five, if properly instructed, can, as truly believe, and be regenerated, as an adult.”
  • 1946-1964 the post WW2 arrival of Baby Boomers in unprecedented numbers drives the growth of children’s and youth ministries.
  • 1947 The de-facto Cold War against “Godless Communism” begins, following a speech by President Truman. “Religion” was seen as an antidote for children against this threat, driving up church attendance of all denominations across America in the following decades.
  • 1950-1954 SBC Adopts a Five-Year Witnessing/Outreach emphasis which culminates with the “A Million More in 54” campaign to enlist one million people in Sunday School. Promotional materials for this emphasis published in 1953 focused on reaching children.

All the ministries and the cultural phenomena listed above have had a great impact on the lives of children and churches. They raised the awareness of the need to evangelize and disciple children. No one would want to undo the good that any of these ministries have accomplished. On the other hand, have they possibly led to what Vance Havner described as “inoculations” instead of “conversions?” If so, what can churches do today to address the issues?

Dr. Roy Fish, for many years professor of evangelism at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, emphasized the importance of counseling a person making a profession of faith. This reflected his personal experience as a teenager who “walked down the aisle three times.” The first two times those greeting him were excited that he had come, made sure he filled out the paperwork correctly, but as Fish explained never shared the plan of salvation. He said he knew God was speaking to him, but he also knew nothing had really taken place, until the third time.

Dr. Oscar Thompson was also an Evangelism Professor at Southwestern Seminary. He emphasized the importance of sharing the gospel with children in a way which was age appropriate. Explaining younger children needed to have the gospel shared in a visual or concrete way. This was because younger children are incapable of grasping many abstract thoughts.

Thompson also emphasized the role of the Holy Spirit to bring conviction. He explained and illustrated how children could be easily manipulated by adults. Children, especially in a group situation, not only want to please adults, but are more susceptible to peer pressure. Thompson emphasized dealing with each child individually and letting the Holy Spirit guide the conversation.

Laypeople who are sensitive and who understand the plan of salvation can share the gospel. Yet, implicit in the practice of ordination is the role of the pastor as a “gate keeper” of the flock. Those who are ordained have been entrusted with the responsibility to administer the ordinances of baptism and the Lords Supper. To insure those receiving them were in good standing with the fellowship and had experienced conversion prior to baptism.

Discipleship of children and youth to continue their growth after baptism is imperative. This includes suggestions of following up with a formal catechism either before or after baptism which was a 19th century practice. Statistics and a casual glance in most churches reveal many young people drop out of church either before or during college. On the other hand, it’s not unusual for those who have made a profession of faith early to have almost a “second conversion” when they are discipled through their teen years. This is a result of beginning to understand abstract concepts of their salvation through the filter of a maturing mind.

The peak of baptisms in the SBC was in 1972 during the revivals associated with the Jesus Movement. Since that time many of those children and youth baptized have had their own children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. They are not reflected in the numbers of baptisms recorded today as might expected as baptisms have declined.

This long decline is a good reason for Southern Baptists to spend time evaluating evangelism, baptism, and discipleship practices.

Charles Jones  is a Southern Baptist historian and a retired pastor.