Baptism, Age at
There are two dimensions to the subject of the age of baptism: the question of a minimum age at which reception into church membership is viable; and the question of the attenuation and loss of persons when baptism is unduly postponed.
The Minimum Age of Baptism
For Protestant denominations opposed to baptizing infants, the tendency for the age of baptism to become lower over time presents a concern for the renewal of the normative vision for a believers church of truly committed adults. The estimated average age of baptism for 10 representative Anabaptist men and women, 1525-1536, was 36.4, with none under the age of 20, two between the ages of 20 and 29, four between 30 and 39, and four between 40 and 49. In 1973 the median age of baptism for four Mennonite denominations (Mennonite Church, General Conference Mennonite Church, Mennonite Brethren, Evangelical Mennonite Church) plus the Brethren in Christ Church was 14.9. By its very nature, the voluntaristic character of a believers church is valid only for one generation and must be repeatedly renewed as the faith is transmitted to the next generation. The problem is that the fervency and diligence of the first generation is seldom equaled by the succeeding generations. In order to bring the children of the voluntary members of any given generation into conformity with the normative vision, they are usually programmed by an educational process to make their own commitments preparatory to baptism. Communal and peer-group pressures to conform set in, and the corresponding parental or congregational obligations to guide them through the "rite of passage" seem to be most applicable at the lowest possible age of discretion.
The Kauffman-Harder study of five Mennonite-related denominations (1973) documented the downward trend in the age of baptism. For the oldest generation of members (over 50), it was 16.3; for the middle generation (30-49), it was 14.9; and for the youngest generation (tinder 30), it was 14.0. The median age for women (14.7) was significantly lower than for men (15.2), reflecting the fact that women reach puberty and, presumably, the age of maturity (i.e., discretion) at an earlier age than men. The spread ranged from age 8 or less at baptism (109 cases) to 40 plus years at baptism (49 cases). Thirteen percent of all members had been baptized before the age of 12. Moreover, the 1973 data revealed significant differences between the five denominations. The median age of baptism was lowest in the Mennonite Church (14.0) and highest among General Conference Mennonites and Mennonite Brethren (16.4), with the Evangelical Mennonite Church and Brethren in Christ (14.1 and 14.5) more like the Mennonite Church (MC) practice.
Mennonite Brethren work at this issue by stressing their historic qualification of the conversion experience, with baptism following the candidate's conversion testimony before the congregation, on the basis of which the person is certified as ready for membership. The concept of the conversion experience is not totally absent in the other groups but is not as explicitly emphasized. Among General Conference Mennonites, only 65 percent of the members could identify a personal experience of conversion (compared to 93 percent for the Mennonite Brethren). The higher age of baptism among General Conference Mennonites is the consequence of a tradition in the Canadian churches (which comprised 42 percent of the General Conference Mennonite Church) of postponing baptism to an age several years beyond adolescence.
It is not surprising that the greatest concern for the lowering age of baptism has been expressed in the Mennonite Church (MC). In 1963 Melvin Gingerich reported his findings from the second Mennonite Family Census. He found the median age of baptism to be 14.6. He also found that of 3,150 young people living in the Mennonite Church homes studied, 399 (12.6 percent) had been baptized before the age of 10. "What does this mean," he asked, "in the context of the responsible decision demanded of those who accept the Christian life?" (Gingerich, Family Census, 4). He referred his readers to Gideon Yoder's book, The Nurture and Evangelism of Children (Scottdale, 1959), which argued that parents and congregations in the Anabaptist tradition should seek to guide their children in their faith at their own maturational levels of understanding until they arrive at the age of accountability. Then they are mature enough to make their own decisions and understand their own need for God's salvation and what it means to be truly converted and committed to Christ. A position statement adopted by the Mennonite Church's general conference in 1959 carried the same title as Yoder's book and identified the criteria for determining the age of accountability, but it was a regression in one respect: it legitimized early adolescence as the age when children normally reach the age of accountability. Critics of the practice of such an early baptism argued that many MC young people who are baptized have not been converted. They assented to their parents' beliefs with their minds, but were not deeply convinced in their hearts. One woman, who was baptized at the age of 12, admitted that she joined the church because all of her girl friends were doing it. At the age of 20 she really became converted and expressed the wish that she had waited for baptism until it really meant something to her. A minister related that his parents pushed him into baptism at an early age, before he understood what it was all about, and asserted that this was little better than infant baptism (Martha Wagner in Gospel Herald [Sept. 8, 1964], 788).
Similar concerns have been expressed in the other denominations. Norman Bert wrote that in the Brethren in Christ tradition, "maturity" meant20 to 25 years old. In some conservative parts of the [BIC] church, young people were not expected to "make a start" until they were married. The Brethren held to this late age for conversion [not] in order to give their young people a chance to sow their wild oats before joining the church. They expected conversion to happen at a mature age because it demanded a serious, responsible decision. (Bert, Adventure, 37-38). In the General Conference Mennonite study conference on the believers church in 1955, delegates meeting in small groups expressed concerns like the following: "The Anabaptists took a stand for adult baptism, while we are in danger of swinging back toward infant baptism, especially if we baptize seven-year olds. How can such a child become a part of the church fellowship and would he be eligible for the office of deacon? Not only do we have the problem of knowing when children are old enough to join the church, but there is -also the problem of allowing age alone to become the only criterion. Upon reaching this age they more or less automatically join the church. Some churches start too young and find that when the person grows older he has another and more meaningful experience." (Regier, Proceedings, 229-30). The statement of findings adopted by the conference delegates reiterated these concerns and encouraged "a careful study of the Scriptures in the light of the requirements of church membership suggested in this [believers' church] statement." Regier, Proceedings, 10).
A 1980s reasoned study of this issue in the light of biblical and historical theology is found in the book by Marlin Jeschke, Believers' Baptism for Children of the Church (Scottdale, 1983). The author's thesis was that the New Testament pattern for the baptism of adult converts entering the messianic community from a fallen world cannot be applied in the same way to the children of the church, who should be expected to grow up under the nurture and influence of the Christian community and should not be expected to have the radical conversion of their first-generation ancestors. Their experience will rather be one of appropriation and ownership of the faith in which they have been raised. Jeschke argued for a new perspective on this issue: "to move children from [their childhood] innocence to the Christian way in adolescence" and to baptize them at this point in their lives " as a sign of their crossing-over from innocence into an owned faith" (p. 146).
The Loss of Unbaptized Persons
Although the second dimension to the age of baptism issue has received much less attention, there is much reason to be concerned about the attenuation and loss of persons when baptism is postponed or rejected. This is the problem of seepage from our churches as a result of the ineffective nurture and evangelism of children and the inept transmission of a meaningful self-identity.
The decennial census of members, children, and ex-members of the General Conference Mennonite Church reveals some startling statistics in this regard. From 1960 to 1970, a total of 17,530 people were received into membership in 222 reporting churches, 51 percent by baptism (mostly teenagers), 43 percent by transfer from another church, and 5 percent by reaffirmation of faith. During the same decade 15,956 memberships were terminated by death, transfer, or deletion from membership roles. Thus, the ratio of receptions to losses was a bare 1.1. Only 45 percent of the children between the ages of 15 and 19 had been baptized; and about one-fifth of the children over 20 years of age had still not been baptized and received as members. It is especially in the Canadian churches, where the median age of baptism is the highest of any area conference, that a significantly lower percentage of teen-age children are ever baptized and received into membership. In the Conference of Mennonites in British Columbia, only 28 percent of the children aged 15-19 had been baptized, compared to 93 percent for the Western District Conference. Moreover, there was a much greater seepage of men than of women. In the British Columbia provincial conference, only 36 percent of the male children (aged 20-24) of members had ever been baptized, compared to 69 percent of the women. Among General Conference Mennonites as a whole, it appears that about 15 percent of the offspring of members are never baptized and are thus lost to the General Conference Mennonite Church, if not to the wider Christian church.
This discussion of the age of baptism question leads to the conclusion that the problem is not primarily one of some ideal modal age of baptism, but rather a question of effective evangelism and teaching in the process of leading people to wholehearted Christian discipleship. This requires a theory of Christian education that takes seriously the developmental sequence in the maturational process and its correlation with authentic Christian.
Bert, Norman A. Adventure in Discipleship. Nappanee, 1968.
Gingerich, Melvin. The Mennonite Family Census. Goshen, Ind.: Mennonite Research Foundation, 1963.
Harder, Leland, ed. The Sources of Swiss Anabaptism: The Grebel Letters and Related Documents. Scottdale, PA: 1985: 527-75.
Kauffman, J. Howard and Leland Harder. Anabaptists Four Centuries Later: A Profile of Five Mennonite and Brethren in Christ Denominations.Scottdale, 1975: 70-73.
Martin, Maurice. Identity and Faith. Scottdale, Pa. 1981.
Mennonite Church (MC) Position Statement on the "Nurture and Evangelism of Children," adopted by General Conference (MC) on 27 August 1959, and published in Ernest D. Martin. The Story and Witness of the Christian Way. Scottdale: MPH, 1971: 81-83.
Regier, P.K., ed., Proceedings of the Study Conference on the Believers' Church. Newton: GCMC, 1955: 10, 25, 93, 113, 118ff., 228-30.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 53-55. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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