I've been getting a lot of questions lately about baptism—the usual dunking/sprinkling, infant/adult discussions, but other queries as well. Often the letter writers wish to know if their beliefs about baptism are grounded in the practices of the early church. The answer is usually yes and no, for while most churches retain some early baptismal practices (in altered form), I'm not aware of any church that repeats the entire ancient ceremony.

In about A.D. 215 Hippolytus, an important ecclesiastical writer and theologian who was for some reason quickly forgotten after his death, recorded in detail the process by which converts in Rome were baptized. As summarized by scholar Michael Walsh, Hippolytus's account began: "Immediately before the ceremony came a fast, a long period of prayer, an all-night vigil in a darkened building. Then, in the dim light of wavering torches, the Devil was solemnly abjured to flee in a series of exorcisms. The candidate entered the baptistery.

"First he or she turned toward the west to renounce Satan, then toward the east to confess Christ. There were repeated anointings with oil, the symbol of strength. Once at least the naked candidate was anointed from head to toe. Then, oiled as if for bathing, the candidate entered the font, climbing in … or stepping down until knee-deep while a deacon poured water over the head, or pressed the candidate's head down into the pool."

The baptismal candidate also had to answer a series of questions, which Hippolytus lists: "And when he who is being baptized goes down into the water, he who baptizes him, putting his hand on him, shall say thus: 'Dost thou believe in God, the Father Almighty?'

"And he who is being baptized shall say: 'I believe.'

"Then holding his ...

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