Universalists have used a number of ceremonies to welcome children. Some early Universalists started out as Baptists, and so were probably wary of infant baptism. Other early Universalists worked on the frontier of Euro-American settlement of North America, and were more flexible about the ceremony they used to welcome children; in fact, some early Universalists also practice adult baptism. Universalist views changed over the years; baptism was less popular in the early 19th C., almost universal in the late 19th C., and waned again in the 20th C. An excellent overview of Universalist views on baptism may be found in “Baptism on the Universalist Frontier,” by Lewis Perry, Journal of Unitarian Universalist History, vol. XXIX, 2003, pp. 3-18.
John Murray, arguably the central figure in the founding of institutionalized Universalism in North America, did not approve of infant baptism since, he said, it had no scriptural warrant. Upon his arrival in North America in 1770, some of his early converts to Universalism asked for baptisms; instead, he developed a ceremony which called “dedication,” in which he named the child, and dedicated her or him to God. The following documents describe early child dedications from the late 18th C. to the mid-19th C.
How John Murray developed the dedication ceremony
A letter in which John Murray describes, in some detail, how he came to develop the child dedication ceremony, his rationale behind the ceremony, and a short description of a typical ceremony as performed by him.
From Letters and Sketches of Sermons, by John Murray (Joshu Belcher, Boston: 1813), vol. 3, pp. 366-367:
To an Inquirer.
You ask an account of the ceremony I have originated, instead of infant sprinkling. On my first appearance in this country, during my residence in the State of New-Jersey, I was requested, as the phrase is, to christen the children of my hearers. I asked them what was their design in making such a proposal to me? When they replied, they only wished to do their duty. How, my friends, returned I, came you to believe infant sprinkling a duty? “Why, is it not the command of God to sprinkle infants?” If you will, from scripture authority, produce any warrant sufficient to authorise me to baptize children, I will immediately, as in duty bound, submit thereto. Our Saviour sprinkled no infant with water: those who were baptized by his harbinger, plunged into the river Jordan, which plunging was figurative of the ablution by which we are cleansed in the blood of our Saviour — But infants are not plunged in a river.
Paul declares he was not sent to baptize, and he thanks God that he had baptized so few: nor does it appear that among those few, there were any infants. It is not a solitary instance, to find a whole household without a babe. The Eunuch conceived it necessary there should be much water for the performance of the rites of baptism: all this seems to preclude the idea of sprinkling and of the infant baptism: and it is said, that whole centuries passed by, after the commencement of the Christian era, before the sprinkling of a single infant. I am, however, commencing a long journey — many months will elapse before my return. I pray you to search the scriptures, during my absence; and if, when we meet again, you can point out the chapter and verse, wherein my God has commanded his ministers to sprinkle infants, I will immediately prepare myself to yield an unhesitating obedience.
I pursued my journey — I returned to New-Jersey, my then home — but no authority could be produced, from the sacred writings, for infant sprinkling. Still, however, religious parents were uneasy, and piously anxious to give testimony, public testimony of their reliance upon, and confidence in the God of their salvation. Many, perhaps, were influenced by the fashion of this world; but some, I trust, by considerations of a higher origin.
I united with my friends in acknowledging that when God had blessed them by putting into their hands, and under their care, one of the members of his body which he had purchased with his precious blood, it seemed proper and reasonable, that they should present the infant to the God who gave it, asking his aid in the important duty, which had devolved upon them, and religiously confessing by this act, their obligation to, and dependence on the Father of all worlds. Yet we could not call an act of this kind baptism; we believe there is but one baptism; and this, because the Spirit of God asserts, by the Apostle Paul, that there is but one baptism, and the idea of this single baptism is corroborated by the class in which we find it placed. One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all. Ephesians iv. 5, 6.
After much deliberation I proposed, and many of my hearers have adopted the following mode: The parent or parents, (I am always best pleased when both parents unite,) bring their children into the great congregation, and standing in the broad aisle, in the presence of the worshippers of God. The Father receiving the babe from the arms of the mother, presents it to the servant of God [i.e., the minister], who statedly ministers at his altar. The ambassador of Christ receives it in his arms, deriving his authority for this practice, from the example of the Redeemer, who says, Suffer little children to come unto me, for of such is the kingdom of heaven. The minister, therefore, taking the infant from its Father, who gives him, as he presents it, the name of the child, proclaims aloud, John or Mary, we receive thee as a member of the mystical body cf him, who is the second Adam, the Redeemer of men, the Lord from heaven. We dedicate thee to him, to whom thou properly belongest, to be baptized with his own baptism, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost; and we pronounce upon thee that blessing, which he commanded his ministers, Moses, Aaron, and his sons, to pronounce upon his people, saying,
The Lord bless thee and keep thee ;
The Lord make his face to shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee;
The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.
For this procedure we have the command, the express command of God. Our reason and our religion concur to approve the solemnity, and our hearts are at peace.
The Lord, we repeat, hath commanded us to bless the people; God himself pronounced this blessing upon all the people, in the first Adam, when he placed him in the garden of Eden, and blessing and cursing came not from the same mouth, upon the same characters. God, our God, is the ever blessing God; nor are blessings given only to the deserving. The blessings of providence, and of grace, are freely bestowed upon the evil and the unthankful; and when the evil and the unthankful obtain the knowledge of this truth, they earnestly sigh to be good, to be grateful.
But the ever blessed God, not only blessed the people in their first general head, but in that seed, which is Christ. In thy seed, said the Lord Jehovah, shall the families, all the families of the earth be blessed. This was a royal grant. We are not, in general, sufficiently attentive to this particular. It is common to talk of being blessed by, and, some say, through Christ, but few, very few, ever think of being blessed in Christ.
The letter continues, but this concludes Murray’s description of the child dedication ceremony as practiced by him.
More from John Murray on dedications
Another letter in which Murray gives his rationale for dedicating rather than baptizing.
From Letters and Sketches of Sermons, by John Murray (Joshua Belcher, Boston: 1813), vol. 3, p. 345:
But you wish, when you are formed into a christian Church, to be made acquainted with your duty respecting ordinances, and on this head, also, the scriptures will afford you sufficient information and direction. As christians, you will not conceive yourselves bound to observe those ordinances contained in the Jewish Ritual, or what is commonly called the ceremonial law; but instead of all these, it has been thought by the generality of professing christians, that our divine Master has substituted the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s supper. Beside these, there are other ordinances, to which some professors of Christianity tenaciously adhere, but baptism and the Lord’s supper have, by a greater part of the religious world, been deemed an essential part of the christian religion. There are, however, a very respectable denomination of christians [i.e., Universalists], which have totally rejected the external use, as well as the abuse of both these ordinances, and this they have done, from a full persuasion that the words of our common Master were spirit and life. Perhaps, there are not many in any denomination, who being able and willing to judge for themselves, will not agree with our Apostle, in considering ordinances merely shadows.
The Universalists, as christians, admit of but one baptism. The baptizer [is] Christ Jesus, and the elements made use of [are] the Holy Ghost, and fire. Yet they believe, that John, by divine direction, baptized with water but even this, though established by divine authority, they consider in the same point of view in which they are directed to consider a variety of other ordinances, that were established by the same authority; in that dispensation, they consider it merely as a figure. Water is a purifying element; but it can only remove external filth, it, however, goes as far as a figure can go, and very properly preceded that one baptism of our divine Master, which should effectually cleanse from all filthiness of flesh and spirit. Hence, he who baptized with water said, He that cometh after me is mightier than I; I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance; but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire.
Judith Sargent Murray describes child dedications
There is not much new in the following description of the dedication ceremony, written by Judith Sargent Murray, John’s wife, after his death. She borrows largely from the above material. Nevertheless, there is some sense that she was an eyewitness to his child dedication ceremonies.
From Life of Rev. John Murray, by John Murray and Judith Sargent Murray (A. Tompkins, Boston: 1855), pp. 243-244, has the following description of a child dedication, written by Judith Sargent Murray after John Murray’s death:
Perhaps no congregation were ever more unanimous, and more perfectly saiisfied with the pastor of their election, than were the people worshipping in the Church in Bennet-Street; and perhaps no minister was ever more unfeignedly attached to the people of his charge, than was the long-wandering preacher. Both the minister and congregation might truly be said to worship the Most High in the beauty of holiness. The ordinance of the Lord’s Supper was administered agreeably to their ideas of its genuine import. Parents brought their children into the great congregation, standing in the broad aisle, in the presence of the worshippers of God; the father received the babe from the hands of the mother, and presented it to the servant of God; who, deriving his authority for this practice from the example of his Redeemer, who says “suffer little children to come unto me,” &c. &c., pronounced aloud the name of the child, and received it as a member of the mystical body of him, who is the second Adam, the Redeemer of men. How often has his paternal heart throbbed with rapture, as he has most devoutly repeated, “We dedicate thee to Him, to whom thou property belongest, to be baptized with his own baptism, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost; and we pronounce upon thee that blessing, which He commanded his ministers, Moses, Aaron, and his Sons, to pronounce upon his people, saying, The Lord bless thee, and keep thee; The Lord cause His face to shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee; The Lord lift up His countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.”
A Universalist dedication ceremony from 1855
The following ceremony for child dedications is from The Universalist Church Companion, prepared by the Merrimac [sic] River [Mass.] Ministerial Circle, by I. D. Williamson (A. Tompkins, Boston: 1855), pp. 110-113:
FORM FOR DEDICATION, OR BAPTISM OF CHILDREN.
[The child should be presented by the parents, or, if an orphan, by near relatives.]
Pastor. —Our Saviour, when on earth, said, ” Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” His words are “the same yesterday, to-day, and forever;” and now, as then, he calls upon us to bring our children unto him, and assures us, that his blessing awaits them.
Beloved friends; you have brought this child here for solemn dedication, [or baptism.] You thus signify your desire to bring up your child in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, and to seek the Divine blessing in the performance of this sacred and important duty.
Will you earnestly and faithfully seek the virtue and happiness of this child?
Ans. —I will.
P. —Will you endeavor to instruct him [or her] in the principles of the religion of Christ, that he [or she] may be led to remember his [or her] Creator in the days of his [or her] youth?
Ans. —I will.
P. —Will you exhort him [or her] to keep God’s holy commandments, and walk continually in the way of truth and duty?
Ans. —I will.
P. —May God give you strength so to do. Then, should all your efforts prove fruitless, you will not feel the guilt of negligence, or the bitterness of remorse. But should your labors be crowned with success, great will be your reward.
What is the name of this child?
P. —A. B., child of innocence, emblem of purity, and image of thy Maker; “Of such is the kingdom of heaven.” Now, in the morning of life, while yet unstained with sin, we present thee, a living offering, a lamb without blemish, to the good Shepherd and Bishop of our souls. The Lord bless thee, and keep thee. The Lord make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee. The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace. Amen.
[ If Baptism is preferred, say as follows: ]
P. —A. B., I baptize thee in the name of the Father, thy Creator and Preserver, and of the Son, thy Redeemer and Saviour, and of the Holy Spirit, thy Comforter and Sanctifier. The Lord bless thee, and keep thee. The Lord make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee. The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace. Amen.
Let us pray.
O Thou God of power, of wisdom, and of love; from thee we have received our life and all its blessings. Thou art the infinite fountain of good; and all our springs of happiness are in thee. May the smiles of thy providence, and the richer gifts of thy wisdom, grace, and truth, rest upon this child now dedicated [by baptism] unto thee.
We pray thee, O Lord, grant thy blessing upon thy servants, to whom thou hast intrusted this child, to be educated as thine. Be pleased to direct and guide them aright in the discharge of this important duty; and may the great Shepherd of Israel crown their labors with success.
Bless thou all now before thee. Grant us the knowledge of thee, and thy grace. May we walk in all virtue and godliness, while on earth, and at last be united around thy throne, in heaven. Amen.