Baptism today often means sprinkling water on the head. At one time, for some Christians, it amounted to washing feet.

Most early Christians practiced baptism by immersion, but a minority took their cues from John 13:10: they believed baptism by the washing of feet precluded the need to wash head and hands. This view began in Syria and spread west by the late 100s. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons (in modern France) conjectured that Jesus, during his descent into hell, purified the dead by baptizing them by washing their feet.

Not everyone agreed on foot washing’s sacramental value. By the early 300s, the rite was so controversial, one important church council outlawed it. At the end of the fourth century, though, Ambrose, bishop of Milan, defended footwashing’s baptismal significance: while full baptism purified someone from personal sins, he argued, foot washing purified the neophyte from original sin.

In the early medieval period, foot washing increasingly was seen merely as the supreme example of humility. And the rite was moved to Maundy Thursday, the night the Last Supper is commemorated .

Today, several Protestant groups hold foot washing in high regard. Seventh Day Adventists, in reverse of Ambrose, believe baptism represents justification once and for all, and foot washing, ongoing sanctification. Some even regard the ordinance as a “miniature baptism.”

Mark Galli is Associate Editor of Christian History.