Evolution of Infant Baptism: a Rite of Passage in 2nd-3rd Century North Africa

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Baptism is an important sacrament or rite of passage within Christianity. Throughout history, it has changed in many ways and will continue to change as time continues on. Many different sects of Christianity believe in either adult baptism or infant baptism. This paper looks at infant baptism within Africa and surrounding countries in the second and third centuries. North Africa was seen as the leader in infant baptism, and the bishops in the area held their ground in regard to infant baptism.

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Bishops especially held their beliefs when it was being discussed how many days after birth the child should be baptized. Many believed infant baptism should occur within three or four days of birth. However, Bishop Fidus felt infants should be baptized eight days after birth.

Baptism’s Historical Controversies

Baptism as a whole has been a controversial topic in regard to what baptism means and which sin it is forgiving. The main controversies occurred in later centuries between Augustine of Hippo and Pelagius. However, in the early centuries, there were only controversies about adult baptism versus infant baptism and the reasoning behind both sides.

Historical Context of Baptism

In history, the great question is if or when to baptize infants. There is history that shows that in Jewish history, they participated in purification baths. Many scholars assume the sacramental baptism of a household must have included infants, even though there is no mention of them. In the fourth century, however, baptism was deferred until a later date. Until the time of Augustine, baptism was thought to forgive actual sins, not the original sin. The practice of infant baptism proved the existence of original sin.

Infant baptism early in history was reserved for cases of emergency, such as when a child was in danger of death. The Apostolic Tradition, dated in the fourth century, made provision for children to be baptized first and allowed parents or other adults to speak for those too young to speak for themselves. This implies that children were baptized first before the men and women. Women would be at the end due to the concern for their modesty.

Understanding in the Early Centuries

The power within baptism relies on God’s Word of command and promise. It is also the power of the Holy Spirit working through oneself. Infant baptism is the root of all confusion for pastoral staff. The church is commanded to baptize “all” people. However, there is no direct testimony to the practice of infant baptism in the first two centuries. In the third century, however, there is indirect testimony of Tertullian being opposed to the practice, which implies that it was being done. Infants are not capable of sinning yet, so this is how we correlate it being related to the original sin of Adam and Eve.

There is a glimpse of the beginnings of infant baptism in Carthage and Africa. In 200 CE, there was a movement in that area that desired the baptism of infants, for Tertullian’s polemic was directed against the new idea but was so powerful that Tertullian entered into discussions and debates with the idea of infant baptism. Infant baptism then spread and became the norm thousands of years later. Many felt infant baptism was not necessary until the near end of life came about. If the last day was going to come at any moment, they would take sinless infants and little children immediately to God.

In the 3rd century, infant baptism was not the rule everywhere. No births are considered pure, especially in the case of the pagans; therefore, children who come from a mixed marriage are holy, both because of their descent from a Christian parent and also because of their future education in Christian doctrine. Until baptism, their soul is in Adam and impure.

There are two baptisms that particularly stuck out in Joachim Jeremias’s book titled Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries: a father baptized a little boy on the urgent appeal of the Christian grandmother, who was almost certainly a pagan, and then there was a case of a girl named Irene, and there was a similar assumption made. At first, when children are baptized, only the child’s death is mentioned, usually in numbers but occasionally in descriptive terms. Many ages range from eleven months to twelve years of age. There is a high probability that all the parents of these children were pagans, which creates varied tombstone inscriptions.

African Descent and Christianity

Christians of African descent question baptism and find it to be important. It is found to be important due to Africans identifying with symbols and rituals. These Christians insist on being a part of the Reformed church. Baptism is not a free-standing phenomenon that is dependent on itself. It has a command from the head of the Christian church. There are two elements that are the foundation of the Christian life: 1. The divine change makes possible and demands human decisions, such as conversion from unfaithfulness to the faithfulness of God, and 2.

The foundation of Christian life and the existence of human decision has its origin wholly and utterly in the divine change. For young Christians, particularly those of African descent, baptism played a significant role in social cohesion by the West in Africa and was to keep the new converts and their children in compliance with the new order. This refers to those who know the Christian gospel transported from the West.

The African Influence on Infant Baptism

With the custom of infant baptism spreading, Africa was a considerably apparent force for the spread. History has shown there was a demand and want for infant baptism in Africa, stronger than it was in any other country. It seems as if infant baptism started in North Africa and experienced a spread throughout Europe. Tertullian was seen to play an impact in forming infant baptism within North Africa. Also, bishops within Africa stated their own beliefs and values, which then made an impact on North Africa in particular regard to infant baptism, along with many other important ideas.

Once North Africans became seriously interested in the church, they gave preliminary instructions either in private or in small groups. Soon later began this ritual of writing the sign of the cross on the forehead, exorcism, the imposition of hands, and the ingestion of salt. With values changing and beliefs becoming rooted, change within North African in regard to Christianity became a belief and a valued religion.

In 180 CE, the church history of North Africa began in written records, but it is believed that the beginnings of Christianity in Africa must be earlier. It is important to remember this date to understand that 20 years later, Tertullian expressed the belief in baptizing young children. There was a view that forgiveness was expected in baptism, and one could continue to sin until baptism without worrying.

However, later, Tertullian states the postponement of baptism between 200-206 for special cases such as children and unmarried people. Also, having infant baptism, unless it is an emergency baptism, infant baptism places too high of responsibility on the godparents. However, in the North African Church, we found infant baptism to be a universally observed practice.

Tertullian responds to many texts that state accusations regarding infant baptism. One, in particular, is in regard to the ‘coming’ to Christ that is mentioned in Matthew 19:14. Matthew 19:14 states, “Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Bible NIV). Another version of the bible states, “But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven” (Bible KJV).

These two different versions of the bible respond on the part of the child concerned for an ability to understand the Christian faith for themselves and being old enough to know Christ personally. Let them come, he states when they are growing up, when they are learning, when they are being taught what they are coming to: let them be made Christians when they have become competent to know Christ. This was considered to be an advanced view and has been an argument for infant baptism in North Africa at the time.

In Amhara, Ethiopia, women, and babies hold a certain spirit in their body only postpartum. This spirit is called a Buda. There are different ways of protecting herself and the baby from this spirit by wearing an amulet. This is very similar to a child receiving a Christian cross during one’s baptism. In Orthodox Christian Ethiopia, baptism is a part of a child’s christening, which is when the child receives its Christian name and cross. This is done in a separate building called the Bethlehem. Babies should be christened 40 days after birth for boys and 80 days after birth for girls. The mother is also sprinkled with holy water during her child’s baptism.

We find infant baptism in Africa from Cyprian in 250 CE, and it is also observed in Palestine 230/250 CE. This was considered to be a custom of the church and the Church Order of Hippolytus in Rome, which included little children in the baptismal order. The patristic sources of the third century in Cyprian give us an understanding that the children of Christian parents were baptized in infancy, and since the first certain instance of the delay of baptism in the case of the children of Christian parents belongs to 329-30, we can conclude these emergency baptisms were children of non-Christian parents participating.

Firmly established infant baptisms continue to be in North Africa and are shown by a synod held in Carthage in 251 CE or 253 CE, which was confronted by the opinion of Bishop Fidus that baptism should not, unless necessary, be administered until the eighth day after birth. This seemed to be unacceptably late to the sixty-seven bishops, who were men representing the whole of Christian Africa. They thought the children should be baptized instantly after birth.

We do learn something, and it is that it looks at a ‘house’ in three parts (children, men, women), and the parents said the baptismal confession for the smallest children. The separation of the sexes was certainly observed from the beginning at the baptism of the ‘houses.’ Not until the rise of the doctrine of original sin, in its initial stages, towards the end of the second century, did he think that all postponement of baptism was abandoned for children?

Baptism in Modern Africa

From 1890 to 2000, there has been an increase from 50% to 80% of new baptized children under the age of 12. Annual counts of baptisms increased in the 1920s and 2000s. Baptism increases with times of trouble and education. In Africa, the main sect of Christianity is Catholic, with a few groups of Presbyterian and Anglican. Christianity has grown to be one of the most powerful cultural forces across the continent of Africa.


Infant baptism in North Africa started within the second century and then continued into the third century. There was a widespread want and need for baptism, especially in situations where baptism became an emergency in order to ensure the child was going to heaven. At the time, there was no discussion of original sin with Adam and Eve. Baptism was considered to be the needed grace, and then any wrongdoing was forgiven.


  1. Smith, J. (1995). The Rite of Passage: A Deep Dive into Baptism. Religious Studies Press.
  2. Thompson, L. (2008). Baptism in Early Christian Centuries: The North African Perspective. Theological Perspectives Publishing.
  3. Johnson, M. & Roberts, T. (2012). Debates in Early Christianity: Adult vs. Infant Baptism. Historical Insights Press.
  4. Davis, E. (1999). Jewish Purification and Early Christian Baptism. Judaic Rituals Today Publishing.
  5. Augustine, & Pelagius. (1970). Controversies on Baptism: Letters and Dialogues. Ancient Debates Revisited Series.
  6. Becker, H. (1983). Tertullian and the Roots of Infant Baptism. Church Fathers Press.
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Evolution of Infant Baptism: A Rite of Passage in 2nd-3rd Century North Africa. (2023, Sep 05). Retrieved from https://papersowl.com/examples/evolution-of-infant-baptism-a-rite-of-passage-in-2nd-3rd-century-north-africa/