Unitarian and Universalist views on baptism, late 18th C.

Here are two documents that give a picture of late eighteenth century Unitarian and Universalist views of baptism.

1783: Unitarian baptism ceremony
late 18th C.: Description of Universalist dedication ceremony


1783: Unitarian baptism ceremony

Joseph Priestley, best known as the discoverer of oxygen, was also a Unitarian minister. He published a prayer book while still living in England, and presumably he continued to use the same formula for baptism when he came to North America. I do not find this a very likable baptism ceremony; Priestley dwells a great deal on how children can go astray, and how parents can fail in their duties to raise children well. Nor does it seem to me to differ all that much from orthodox Christian baptism ceremonies of the same period, except in the absence of the trinitarian formula. I include it here, not out of affection, but because it’s the earliest Unitarian naming ceremony that I could find that plausibly was used in North America.

Joseph Priestley, Forms of Prayers and Other Offices, for the Use of Unitarian Societies (Birmingham: Pearson and Rollason, 1783), pp. 141 ff.:


The person who officiates, and the parents of the child (if convenient) standing up, in the presence of as many of their friends as they may think proper to assemble, let him address them as follows:

My christian friends,

As you are no presenting this your child to be baptized into the christian religion, I shall take this opportunity of explaining, in a few words, the nature and end of this ordinance.

When our Lord Jesus Christ gave his commission to his apostles about the propagation of his religion in the world, he bad[e] them teach and baptize all nations; and he himself, that he might fulfil all righteousness, submitted to be baptized by John in the river Jordan. Now this baptism, or washing with water, properly expresses that purity of heart and mind and of life which is required of all that profess the gospel of Christ; and when applied to infants, must be considered as a declaration of the parents that they are christians, and a solemn promise before God, and witnesses, that they will educate their child in the principles of the christian religion, as contained in the books of the New Testament.

There we learn that God sent his son Jesus Christ to reclaim the world lying in wickedness, and to reconciles sinful men with God; by assuring them of the divine favour and acceptance on their sincere repentance, and that he himself is appointed by God to judge the world at the last day; when all mankind shall rise again from the dead; when the wicked shall go to a place of punishment, and the righteous into life eternal. There we also learn that after performing many unquestionable miracles, such as no man could have done if God had not been with him, in confirmation of his doctrine, he submitted to death, was publicly crucified, and laid in his grave; but that God raised him to life again, after which he was seen and known by many of his former disciples, and in their presence ascended up into heaven.

Now this act of bringing your child to christian baptism is a declaration that, as christians, you believe these things to be true, and that you are ready to solemnly promise before God, and us who are here present, that you will educate your child in this faith. Do you make this promise?

Then let the parents (or any other persons who will undertake for the christian education of the child) signify their assent by saying I do, or in any other manner that shall be sufficiently expressive of it.

After this, let the person who officiates take the child in his arms, and asking its name, say (as he sprinkles it with water, or immerses is, at the pleasure of the parents) This child, whose name is N. M. I baptize in the name of Jesus Christ; adding, if he thinks proper, in order to his being instructed in the principles of that religion which was the gift of God by Jesus Christ, and which was confirmed by the holy spirit.

This being done, let him address the parents in the following manner:

My christian friends,

As you have now devoted this your child to God by the ordinance of baptism, engaging to educate it in the principles of the christian religionk of which you make profession, I shall endeavour to suggest to you a few motives to the religious and christian education of your child.

A religious and christian education is the greatest benefit you can confer upon a child, and all the riches and honours of this world are not worthy to be named with the solid advantages that may be derived from it. It is to teach him so to live here, as to be happy for ever hereafter.

The virtuous education of your children is likewise a debt which you owe to society, and to the civil constitution under which you live; to the good laws, and wise administration of which, you owe the peace and security of your lives. Now a virtuous and proper education will make your children an advantage, and an honour to their country; but except they be well principled, they may prove the pests of society; so that it might have been better for the world if they, or their parents, had never been born.

The religious education of your children is, moreover, a duty which you owe to God and to religion your children, Parents, are not your own, so as that you are not accountable for the care and conduct of them to another. You, and your children, are equally God’s. He is their father in the most important of all senses, and he only puts them into your hands for their improvement Their infant minds are to be formed by you to virtue and immortality. Be sensible, then, of the important trust. Bring up your children as for God; that when he requires them at your hands, you may deliver them up to him well instructed, and trained up in the best principles and habits; perfect in those lessons which they were put under your care to learn; their tempers corrected, and formed to the love of goodness, to the love and fear of God, fit to live with him, and enjoy his favour for ever; and for this you will received a glorious reward. Your pious labor, whatever be the result of it to you children, will not, with respect to yourselves, be in vain in the Lord.

Lastly, the virtuous and religious education of your children is the best provision you can make for the peace and comfort of your own future lives; one of the most important duties being the love and respect of children to their parents.

You, Parents, have peculiar advantages for watching over the morals of your children, as they are ever under your eye, and you have a natural and uncontrouled [sic] authority over them, at a time when their minds are exceedingly pliable; so that it is almost in your power to make them what you please. By all means, then improve this advantage, which nature, and the God of nature, give you, to the best of purposes. And you have this encouragement, that if you train up your children in the way in which they should go, when they are old they will not depart from it; but if you neglect their education in their early years, the task will be peculiarly difficult, and the effect uncertain, afterwards; as you will then have bad principles and bad habits to root out; and divine providence is often awfully just, in permitting wicked children to be a curse to their criminally indulgent parents.

Indeed, no pains you can take can absolutely insure success; but by the divine blessing it generally does; and there will be a wide difference, with respect to the peace of your minds, between seeing your children turn out corrupt and vicious notwithstanding your best endeavours, or in consequence of your ngelct. In the former case you are disappointed, indeed, and greatly so; but still you have the satisfaction to reflect that you have done your duty, and that you could do no more; whereas, in the latter case, nothing can alleviate your distress.

That the best of consequences, to yourselves, and to your child, may follow your endeavours to do your duty in this respect, Let us now call upon God.

A Prayer.

Almighty and ever-blessed God, we acknowledge and rejoice in the consideration of our near relation to thee, as our creator, preserver, and benefactor; our moral governor also, and our final judge. Thous hast of one blood made all the generations of men to dwell upon the face of this thine earth; and we adore the wisdom of thy providence, that as one generation of our race passes off the face of the earth, another still succeeds; to behold thy glorious works, to learn they will, and to attain to supreme happiness in thy favour here and hereafter.

We thank thee for the rational nature which thou hast given us, whereby we are capable of this excellence and happiness; but more especially we thank thee, that when mankind had debased and corrupted their nature, by an addictedness to vice and folly; when they had lost the knowledge of thee the only living and true God, thou wast pleased to make the most gracious manifestations of thyself and of thy will to us, in part by thy former servants the prophets, but more clearly and fully by thy son Christ Jesus.

We thank thee that, in consequence of these revelations of thy will to us, we are now perfectly acquainted with what it is that thou the Lord our God requirest of us, in order to live and to die in thy favour; even to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thee our God. More especially do we rejoice that life and immortality are brought to light in the gospel of thy son.

We thank thee for his excellent instructions for the conduct of our lives, and his perfect example of obedience to thy will, in the course of a most useful life, and in the painful suffering of death. We thank thee also for the positive institutions of our holy religion, baptism, and the Lord’s supper, so well calculated to impress our minds with a sense of thy great love in sending thy son to live and die for us.

Bless, we entreat thee, the present administration of baptism. May thy servants, who, by joining in this rite, declare themselves to be christians, be careful to live as becomes such; and as they hereby lay themselves under a solemn obligation to educate this their child in the principles of the christian religion, may they be enabled to fulfil their resolution. May they spare neither correction nor instruction for the real good of their child; and may they enjoy the happy fruits of their pious labours, in seeing him grow up in wisdom and in virtues, in favour with God and with man. May he live to be the joy of his parents, and a blessing to society.

Bless thy servants at the head of their family. May they walk together as the heirs of the grace of life, mutually careful to promote each others’ temporal, but more especially their everlasting interests; and may they so live together below in thy fear, and in the discharge of their porper duty in life; that when they are removed hence by death, they may have a joyrful meeting in the regions above; where they shall be happy in the enjoyment of thee their God, of each other, and of their children and friends, to all eternity. This we ask in the name, and as the disciples, of thy son Christ Jesus; through whom, to thee, O Father, the only living and true God, be glory for ever. Amen.

The Blessing.

May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of his holy spirit, be with us all evermore. Amen.


Late 18th C.: Description of Universalist dedication ceremony

While the following document was published in 1833, it contains a record of how Rev. John Murray conducted child dedications ceremonies in the late eighteenth century. This description is influential among Unitarian Universalism in the present day, at least insofar as we insist on calling naming ceremonies “child dedications.” However, most Unitarian Universalists are now far removed from John Murray’s theology. Given that sense of removal, and given that over the past two centuries, Universalists, Unitarians, and now Unitarian Universalists have used the terms “baptism” and “christening” more frequently than the term “dedication,” perhaps we need not be so insistent on calling a naming ceremony a “child dedication.”

John Murray and Judith Sargent Murray (1816), ed. and expanded Thomas Whittemore (1833), The Life of John Murray (Boston: The Trumpet, 1833 [1816]), pp. 214 ff.

…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 tor 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 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 Hit countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.’

[footnote] Mr. Murray rejected the practice of infant sprinkling. To him is to be attributed the ceremony of dedication which has obtained so generally in the Universalist church. His sentiments on this subject will be found scattered through his ‘Letters and Sketches.’ The following is a slight conversation concerning ordinances which passed between Mr. Murray and Rev. Elhanan Winchester, shortly after their first interview.

‘I have had some conversation with Mr. W. on the subject of ordinances.

W. You do not use water baptism, I think, Mr. M.

M. No, sir; we listen to the baptist, and we hear him say: ‘I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but he who cometh after me is mightier than I; he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire’; we know that John the baptist pointed in this passage to the Redeemer, and we prefer his baptism to that of his harbinger; nor can we advocate a plurality of baptisms, when we hear the Apostle say, there is but one Lord, and one baptism….

In the following, Mr. Murray speaks directly of the origin of the ceremony of dedication:

‘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 a command of God to sprinkle infants?’ If you will, from scripture authority, produce any warrant sufficient to authorize 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 rite of baptism: all this seems to preclude the idea of sprinkling and of 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 m 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 stand 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, 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 of 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.’ — Sketches, &c. ii. 366—368.

See also ‘ Letters and Sketches,’ iii. 345. T. W. [Thomas Whittemore]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *