Immersion is a mode of baptism in which the candidate is deeply immersed or completely submerged in water, either in a large baptismal font in the church or in a pool or stream in the open. Immersion may be single, forward (as in Krimmer Mennonite Brethren practice) or backward (Mennonite Brethren practice), or trine, forward (Brethren in Christ and Church of the Brethren). The practice of pouring upon the head of a candidate kneeling in a stream, as occasionally practiced in Mennonite Church, Old Order Amish, General Conference Mennonite, and some other groups, has no relation to immersion, although it is similar to a practice found in the second-century Christian Church. Immersion came into the Mennonite Brethren in Christ / Evangelical Missionary Church group through the Brethren in Christ (Swankites) group which merged with it in 1883. Immersion was the most common practice in the early centuries of church history and on down into the Middle Ages, although the alternate modes of sprinkling and pouring were also used at times. By the time of the Reformation it had been almost entirely displaced in the West, though still practiced in the East.
Immersionists base their practice upon their sincere conviction that the New Testament Greek word for baptize (baptizo) means to immerse, upon the circumstantial evidence of certain cases of New Testament baptism (e.g., the Ethiopian eunuch and Jesus), and upon such Scriptures as Matthew 3:16, Acts 8:32, Colossians 2:12, and Romans 6:4. They hold that immersion best symbolizes the new birth experience of death and resurrection with Christ -- death to the old life and resurrection to newness of life. The backward posture is based on the idea of burial, while the forward posture with its kneeling and bowing is held to symbolize Christ's suffering and death when He knelt in Gethsemane and bowed His head on the cross, as well as to reflect an attitude of submission by the candidate.
Immersionists are often exclusive in mode, recognizing no other mode as valid and requiring rebaptism of transfers who have not been immersed. This was generally the rule of the Mennonite Brethren Church in Russia and North and South America prior to the 1960s, although it was not the case with the Mennonite Brethren Conference of Ontario before it united with the Mennonite Brethren General Conference in 1939. This conference had been organized originally (1924?) as an Evangelical Mennonite Brethren group (Allianz-Gemeinde), which practiced immersion but not rebaptism of transfers. No other immersionist Mennonite group, except the Krimmer Mennonite Brethren requires rebaptism.
All cases known to the writer (Harold Bender) of the introduction of immersion in Mennonite history, temporary or permanent, are given in the following paragraphs. Conrad Grebel, as an exception to early Anabaptist practice and at the insistence of the candidate, apparently baptized Wolfgang Ulimann by immersion in the Rhine River near Schaffhausen in February 1525. It is not to be understood, however, that Grebel or Ulimann intentionally adopted immersion as a variant form, but rather that Ulimann in his enthusiasm, like Peter who wanted not only his feet but his entire body washed, "did not want only to have a bowl of water poured over him but desired to be pressed under and covered over with water in the Rhine altogether naked" (reported in Johannes Kessler's Sabbata, printed in St. Gall, 1902, from the original contemporary manuscript).
Sebastian Franck, who in his Chronica of 1531 described a large variety of supposed Anabaptist groups, listing even their minor differences in practice, fails to mention the practice of immersion by any Anabaptist group. The only possible evidence to the contrary is that cited by Friedrich Roth, who quotes (p. 212) Clemens Sender's chronicle, De Ortu et Progressu, as saying that some rebaptisms were performed at Augsburg in the Lech River, whereby the men were naked, the women in bathing clothes; the mode of baptism is not stated. The same chronicle reports baptisms in Augsburg as being performed in the homes. It is also known that several of the Augsburg preachers had been baptized by pouring and used this mode in their baptizing.
The assertion that Menno Simons taught immersion is based upon two statements in which Menno refers in passing (not in a direct discussion of the mode of baptism) to baptism as a "dipping in the water" (induycken in den water) and as a "baptism in the water" (doopsel in den water). Krahn (p. 137) and Horsch ("Did Menno . . .") have shown, however, that Menno elsewhere refers to baptism as "receiving a handful of water" (handt vol waters) and as being baptized "with the water" (met dat water), and both conclude that Menno had in mind only one form, namely, that of pouring or sprinkling. Bernhard Rothmann's Bekenntnisse von beyden Sacramenten (Münster, 1533) also speaks of baptism in dual terms as "inducking int water" and "int water gedumpelt werden," but says also that baptism means a dipping in (eyn induckinge) or sprinkling with water (waterbesprengung). Since there is documentary proof that baptism at Münster was performed by "pouring a little water on the head," it is clear that the terminology used by Rothmann was traditional and symbolical, and does not require the actual practice of immersion. The same is true of Menno Simons' terminology. Since immersion was little known in Western Christendom at this time (1530-60), although it was practiced in the Eastern Church, and since there is no evidence of any dispute among the Anabaptists of Western Germany or Holland about the mode, and since it is historically certain that pouring or sprinkling was practiced by the Anabaptists in this area, it is not very likely that Menno conceived practically of baptism as immersion in the modern sense.
Some Dutch Mennonites who were associated with the Collegiants (not an organized church, but a fellowship) were no doubt immersed, since the Collegiants twice a year practiced communion and conducted baptismal ceremonies by immersion at their center of Rijnsburg. Immersion was introduced in this group soon after it was established in 1619, probably under Polish Socinian influence (the first Socinian confession of 1574 specified immersion as the mode of baptism), since this was before the introduction of immersion by the English Baptists (1640), who actually took over immersion from the Collegiants.
Under Collegiant influence there was occasional practice of baptism by immersion in the Mennonite congregations at Amsterdam, Leiden, Rotterdam, and Schiedam during the 17th and early 18th centuries. The group at Surhuisterveen which practiced immersion were not Mennonites but a small group of followers of Alexander Mack, founder of the Church of the Brethren, who lived at Westerveen near Surhuisterveen from 1720 to 1729.
Jan Tammes of Groningen was excommunicated in 1688 from the Old Flemish congregation there because he advocated immersion and freedom for all members to preach as was the case among the Collegiants. Adriaan Houttuyn (1700-77), who was a preacher of the Waterlander congregation at Hoorn 1732-77, was an adherent of Collegiant principles including baptism by immersion. He published a booklet in 1752 giving reasons to prefer immersion above sprinkling, also a sermon on immersion in 1770 when he immersed at Rijnsburg.
Under Collegiant influence Arrien Jansen, a deacon in the Leeuwarden (Netherlands) Mennonite congregation, persuaded a part of the congregation to adopt immersion in 1715. Although in a short time affusion again replaced immersion, the stone immersion font remained in the meetinghouse until 1850. Jansen had promoted the idea since 1674 and caused much dissension. In 1720 he withdrew with his adherents but was readmitted to the congregation in 1725.
The immersion idea was strongly opposed by Bastiaan van Weenighem (1625-97), an influential elder (ordained 1659) of the Rotterdam Mennonite congregation and a strong leader of the orthodox party with T. J. van Braght. He published two vigorous attacks on immersion in 1666 and 1668, Nootwendighe verantwoordinge van zeventien redenen and Ganze Natuere des Doops. He was attacked in turn by the Collegiant Joan Arentsz in Eindelijck Verklaringe der gedoopte Christenen (1668).
Under the influence of an English Baptist a small part (two preachers and 15 members) of the Hamburg, Germany, congregation adopted immersion and separated from the main body in 1648-50. They were called Dompelaars, and continued to worship in the Hamburg Mennonite meetinghouse until 1708, when they built a church of their own. With the death in 1748 of their last preacher, Jacob Denner, they became extinct.
In Krefeld a small Dompelaar movement stirred up the question of immersion ca. 1700-30 in the Mennonite Church. Gosen Goyen, one of the Krefeld Mennonite preachers, was baptized by immersion in the Rhine in 1724. How many members of the Krefeld Mennonites followed Goyen is not known. Jan Crous, who was also a Krefeld Mennonite preacher, opposed Goyen. The small group of pietistic Dompelaars of this area migrated to Pennsylvania in 1719 to become the Church of the Brethren there, who of course practiced immersion.
The Cornelis Ris Confession of 1766 (Hoorn, Holland) says, "We understand under a baptism an immersion or submersion of the entire body in water, or a copious sprinkling of the same (which last mode we in these northern regions almost universally consider more proper, since the benefits [of baptism] are represented thereby)." Since the footnotes of Ris at this point submit a number of reasons against immersion, evidently the recognition of immersion by the Ris Confession as a valid form of baptism " is purely theoretical, and immersion was not intended to be practiced by those using the confession; they practiced sprinkling.
Steven Blaupot ten Cate (Geschiedenis der Doopsgezinden in Friesland, 1839) asserts that the Ukowallist or Groningen Old Flemish group in Holland (begun in 1630) practiced baptism by immersion, but an earlier detailed description given by Gehring in 1720 (Gründliche Historie, 224) of a Ukowallist baptismal service states that the elder "took a dish full of water, . . . knelt down beside the candidates, and baptized each one separately."
The newly organized Mennonite Brethren group in South Russia, which had its official beginning in the Molotschna settlement on 6 January 1860, adopted immersion in September 1860. Friesen says (Brüderschaft, 245): "The Molotschna Mennonite Brethren congregation came independently to its concept and practice of baptism without personal contact or correspondence with the Baptists, but influenced by their writings." But the Mennonite Brethren congregation in the Chortitza settlement did not adopt immersion until 1862. A. H. Unruh in his Geschichte der Mennoniten-Brüdergemeinde says, "Abr. Unger came into a connection with the Baptist preacher Oncken, and it was under this influence that the question of baptism arose"; in other words, immersion.
A primary source regarding the introduction of immersion into the new movement is the diary of Jakob Becker, now in the Tabor College Library (Hillsboro, Kansas). According to this document Johann Claassen, who had been in St. Petersburg, first brought the idea of immersion to Becker and Bartel and convinced them that the Scripture required immersion. He also gave them a booklet on baptism, "in which I found explained by various doctors and theologians what baptism is. . . . When I with Heinrich Bartel had searched the book through, we were fully convinced that we had not received a Scriptural baptism." A. H. Unruh (p. 67) says that Jakob Reimer was stirred up on the question of baptism by reading the life story of Ann Judson, the Baptist missionary in Burma. Friesen (242) says this was in 1837, and that Reimer's father had learned of immersionists on a journey to Prussia in 1835. Becker, apparently not knowing of Reimer's attitude, says under date of 9 June 1860, "We knew at that time as yet nothing of an immersion," and indicates that Claassen first brought up the question of mode in connection with the commission of Becker to baptize two women. Becker reports that he then decided to find out what Menno Simons taught on baptism, since the original Mennonite Brethren declaration of 6 January 1860 (Ausgangsschrift), declared "that we in all other points agree with Menno Simons." He was satisfied when he found that Menno taught that the apostolic baptism was nothing else than "in unhindered water" (im unbeschwerten Wesser), gathering that this meant immersion in a stream of running water. Becker adds that he discovered further that "several had become acquainted with immersion through books and periodicals, who then also stood for it vigorously." Some additional immersionist literature read., according to Friesen largely introduced through Reimer, was: a tract published by the Free Evangelical Church in St. Gall, Switzerland, in which baptism by immersion was practiced; a tract of Baptist origin; a magazine Friedensglocke; and some "old books in which the baptism by immersion" was explained. After studying diligently the Word of God, Menno Simons' works, and other Christian literature, a number were convinced that immersion was the Scriptural baptism. The first application of the new convictions about the mode of baptism occurred on 23 September 1860, in the stream Kuruschan in the Molotschna settlement (half way between Waldheim and Gnadenfeld), when Becker baptized Bartel, Bartel in turn baptized Becker, and Becker then baptized three others in the presence of a "carriage full of brethren and sisters." Other baptisms followed on 9 and 14 October. Some prominent leaders of the Mennonite Brethren movement, such as Heinrich Hübert and Jakob Reimer, were baptized later (May 1861) and only Johann Claassen on 30 June 1862, when most of the members had been baptized. Some of those that were baptized in 1860 were baptized by kneeling in the water and dipping forward three times. At Easter of 1861 it was, however, decided that the mode of baptizing once backwards symbolizes more closely the burial of the Lord Jesus Christ and since that time this mode was the only one used.
About the same time, 1861, under the influence of the Baptist preacher Alf, several Mennonites of the congregation near Adamov, Poland, received baptism by immersion; but they did not unite with the Baptists because they differed on the oath, nonresistance, and feetwashing, and because some were immersed forward. The Krimmer Mennonite Brethren, founded in 1869 in the Crimea, adopted immersion at once as their sole mode of baptism. Elder J. A. Wiebe, the founder, states in a manuscript, "The form of baptism of the Krimmer Mennonite Brethren Church," after giving Scriptural evidence for baptism while kneeling, "In the small Martyrs' Mirror (i.e., Isaac von Duhren's Geschichte der Martyrer, 2nd ed., sold by Gottlieb Schad, Molotschna, 1863) it says clearly on page 8, 'At that time (i.e., in the first century) baptizing was not sprinkling, but the entire person was dipped in and under.' " This supports his initial statement, "We were anxious to have our form of baptism as taught in God's Word and as practiced by the apostolic churches during the persecution times." Wiebe also interpreted certain passages in Menno Simons' works as indicating that Menno taught immersion.
The Allianz-Gemeinde (Evangelical Mennonite Church), founded in the Ukraine in 1905-7, practiced baptism by immersion but without requiring rebaptism of un-immersed transfers; its daughter groups in North and South America have done the same.
In North America immersion was made the exclusive mode of baptism by the River Brethren (Brethren in Christ) Church at its founding in 1770, under Dunkard (Church of the Brethren) influence. The Mennonite Brethren in Christ (now largely Evangelical Missionary Church) from the beginning (1875) made the mode of baptism optional, but gradually immersion came into favor; in 1896 it was made the exclusive form. The Missionary Church Association broke off from the Defenseless Mennonites in 1896, partly on the point of making immersion the exclusive mode of baptism.
The Evangelical Mennonite Brethren Church (now Fellowship of Evangelical Bible Churches), which long used pouring only, changed over to immersion about 1925 (by local congregational option, not by conference decision); only one congregation practiced pouring only by the 1950s, and one other permitted immersion on request by the candidate. The Evangelical Mennonites (formerly Defenseless Mennonites) originally had only pouring, but now make the mode optional; a growing minority of baptisms are performed by immersion. The Emmanuel independent church at Meade, Kansas, has only immersion since 1950. The Apostolic Christian Church, organized in 1832 in Switzerland, adopted immersion as its mode of baptism, requiring its Mennonite fraction (from the Emmental congregation) to be rebaptized. A preacher of this group (Benedict Weyeneth) who visited the Amish Mennonite congregation at Croghan, New York, succeeded in detaching a large part of the membership and ministers in 1852 and organizing them as an Apostolic Christian congregation, having led them to believe that immersion was the only true form of baptism,
While the remaining North American Mennonite bodies all recognize immersion as valid baptism and do not require rebaptism of transfers, only by exception do they allow immersion as an optional mode.
The intensity of feeling by some immersionist Mennonite groups, particularly on requirement of rebaptism of transfers with its attendant implication of invalidation of baptism by pouring or sprinkling, added at times to the difficulties hindering good inter-Mennonite relations. This was earlier true also of the relations between the Church of the Brethren and Mennonites. On the other hand, the identity of baptismal doctrine and practice between Mennonite Brethren and Baptists has resulted in a greater openness to Baptist influence, both in North America and Russia, and has resulted in some Mennonite Brethren transfers to the Baptists, both of ministers and members.
Occasionally certain claims for immersion have been made by Baptist and Mennonite historians; e.g., that Menno taught and practiced immersion, that "most Anabaptist congregations gave the baptismal candidates free choice of mode" (implying that immersion was recognized and practiced by the Anabaptists as an alternate mode), and that "there always were immersionists among the Mennonites, at least until 1750 or later." The latter two claims made by Friesen (Brüderschaft, p. 249) were taken over from the French Baptist historian, C. A. Ramseyer (Histoire des Baptistes, 1897). But general Anabaptist recognition of immersion or practice of it on an optional basis has not been demonstrated as is seen above. The general historic practice of Mennonites up to 1860, with few exceptions, was pouring or sprinkling. -- Bender
Frank Wray's discovery that Pilgram Marpeck used almost two thirds of Rothmann's Bekentnisse as a basis for his Vermanung throws some further light on the form of baptism used by the Anabaptists in South Germany. Rothmann only once refers to baptism as "waterbesprengung," and prefers terminology which describes baptism as immersion. In contrast Marpeck (with one exception) always adds (at least twelve times) to Rothmann's immersion terminology the phrase "or water poured over him" or similar phrases. Marpeck simply deletes Rothmann's assertion, "Everyone knows well that baptizing means to put under or to thrust into the water." At only one place does Marpeck refer to baptism as immersion (einduncken), viz., in the Verantwortung where he is defending the description given in the Vermanung. The evidence indicates strongly that Marpeck's brotherhood baptized by pouring.
However, Rothmann's writing is not to be interpreted as meaning that the Münsterites used immersion as their mode of baptism. Cornelius Krahn, who examined all the sources carefully, shows that pouring was the mode practiced. Gresbeck, an eyewitness, states that Jan van Leiden said in his trial that they baptized by using "a little water upon the head" (Cornelius).
Wiswedel's article on Silesia states that in the town of Habelschwerdt "immersion was apparently practiced" by the Anabaptists, quoting an unnamed source as follows: "For them the whole city was a temple; in private homes of citizens they held their meetings. The Neisse and the Weistritz were the great baptistries, into which adults were immersed and made members of their covenant."
The largest Mennonite immersionist conference (Mennonite Brethren in the United States and Canada) declared officially in 1963 that local churches be permitted "to accept into fellowship believers who have been baptized upon an experiential and confessed faith with a mode other than immersion." Such members were not to be transferred by letter from one church to another, but in 1972 the issue reappeared and a resolution was passed allowing transfers of non-immersed members among churches.
In each of the instances stated above it was made clear that immersion continues to be the one form of baptism practiced. In 1987 the Mennonite Brethren Conference (United States and Canada) for the first time stated that candidates for ordination to the pastoral ministry who have been baptized upon confession of faith by some other mode of baptism be accepted. The rationale stated that pouring (or affusion) signifies the reception of the Holy Spirit and therefore is "biblically tenable."
Conferences still practicing immersion exclusively include the Brethren in Christ, Evangelical Missionary Church, Evangelical Mennonite Church, and the Mennonite Brethren Church.
Immersion has been used on mission fields by those conferences generally using other modes where it appeared to prevent confusion when working in areas where immersionist bodies were also active. Immersion has become an option in some General Conference Mennonite and Mennonite Church (MC) congregations in North America. One General Conference congregation in central Kansas (Hebron) has provided such an option since its founding. That option still remains and a majority of baptismal candidates choose immersion. While little has been said in non-immersionist churches about immersion as an option, some young people in North American Mennonites churches have requested immersion. -- Hein
In addition to the literature given in the article "Baptism," the following should be noted:
Cornelius, C. A. Berichte der Augenzeugen über das Münsterische Wiedertäuferreich. Münster, 1853: 370.
Händiges, E. Die Lehre der Mennoniten in Geschichte und Gegenwart. Ludwigshafen. 1921.
Horsch, John. "Did Menno Simons Practice Baptism by Immersion?" Mennonite Quarterly Review (1927): 54-56.
Horsch, John. Kurzgefasste Geschichte der Mennoniten-Gemeinden. Elkhart, IN: Mennonite Pub. Co., 1890.
Krahn, Cornelius. Menno Simons. Karlsruhe, 1936: 136-38.
Kühler, W. J. Geschiedenis der Nederlandsche Doopsgezinden in de Zestiende Eeuw. Haarlem, Netherlands, 1932: 83.
Unruh, A. H. Die Geschichte der Mennoniten-Brüdergemeinde 1860-1954. Winnipeg, 1954, particularly "Die Einfuhrung der Tauchtaufe," 67-81.
The following writings by Mennonites, all but the first being brief treatises, usually include a treatment of the mode of baptism, and several are polemical anti-immersionist tracts:
Berkey, E. J. The Bible Mode of Baptism. Warrenton, 1906.
The Bible Mode of Baptism. Dale Enterprise, VA: Abraham Blosser, 1884.
Burkholder, Peter. Eine Verhandlung von der Aeusserlichen Wasser-Taufe. Harrisonburg, 1816.
Donner, Heinrich. Unterricht von der heiligen Wassertaufe. Printed at Tiegenhof, 1906, reprint of a first edition of 1792.
Funck, Heinrich. Ein Spiegel der Taufe. Germantown, 1744; English editions 1851 and later.
Heatwole, L. J. Baptism Shown to be a Ceremony of Consecration. Elkhart, IN: Mennonite Pub. Co., 1902.
Holdeman, J. Eine Vertheidigung gegen die Verfälscher unserer Schriften, wie such eine Erklärung und Erläuterung der Absicht der Christlichen Taufe. Lancaster, PA, 1865.
Peters, Isaak. Die christliche Wassertaufe, ihr Zweck und ihre Bedeutung. Elkhart, IN, ca. 1901.
Risser, Johannes. Glaube und Lehre von der Taufe der Mennoniten in Deutschland. Berlin, Canada, 1845.
Shank, L. H. Bible Mode of Baptism. Elkhart, IN, ca. 1900.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, pp. 14-17; vol. 4, pp. 1096-1097, 1145; vol. 5, pp. 421-422. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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MLA style: Bender, Harold S., William Klassen and Marvin Hein. "Immersion." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 18 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/I49ME.html.
APA style: Bender, Harold S., William Klassen and Marvin Hein. (1989). Immersion. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 18 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/I49ME.html.