AT 15: Adult Baptism in the Early Church: Some evidence from Ireland

By Eoin de Bhaldraithe
Originally Published in Anabaptism Today, Issue 15, June 1997

In the report of the Evangelical-Roman Catholic dialogue on mission we read:

A large number of Evangelicals (perhaps the majority) practise only believers' baptism. That is they baptise only those who have personally accepted Jesus Christ as their Saviour and Lord and they regard baptism both as the convert's public profession of faith and as the dramatisation (by immersion in water) of his or her having died and risen with Christ.'

Members of the mainline churches, on the other hand, are almost all baptised as infants. Unfortunately, this very often leads to mere nominal christianity. Scholars still disagree on the prevalence of infant baptism in the early church. Yet new evidence continually impresses on us how widespread adult baptism was. It seems clear, for example, that many of the holy wells in Ireland were the adult baptisteries of the pre-Norman church. Here we re-examine some of the local evidence as a Roman Catholic contribution to the debate.


St Patrick came to Ireland as a missionary bishop some time in the fifth century. The date of his death is disputed: either 461 or 491 AD. He has left us two documents. The first is a letter excommunicating Coroticus, a British chief who carried away some of his neophytes into slavery in Britain. The better known one is his Confession which is largely autobiographical.2Those documents mark the beginning of historicity in Ireland. Ecclesiastically, they offer an even more important insight into the British church that sent him to Ireland.3

Studies on Patrick continue to abound. Most recently David Howlett and Maire Brid de Paor have discovered the chiastic structure of the Confession.4 The work of Daniel Conneely sets his thought firmly in the context of the fifth century controversies on grace. So when Patrick tells us how in his youth he was dead in sin and unbelief Conneely insists that "we must interpret him here as meaning exactly what he says and not diminish his presentation, for an entire argument is built on it".5

From the five passages cited by Conneely we may quote the following. "I did not believe in the living God, nor had I believed in him from childhood, but remained in death and unbelief."6 While he was a slave in the wood of Foclut, probably in present day County Mayo, God literally made him a believer. All this makes much more sense if Patrick was not baptised at the time. Indeed it is virtually incomprehensible if we presume that he received baptism as an infant.

He prayed several times in the day and night for "the Spirit was fervent" in him.7 This means that the Spirit had come upon him now for the first time. Like the Gentiles who came to Cornelius, he received the Spirit before baptism. Then when he returned to Britain or Gaul he was baptised and ordained.

Patrick came from a Christian family. He tells us in the Confession that his father was a deacon and his grandfather a presbyter. But at this time even that fact would not guarantee baptism. Augustine, who died earlier in the fifth century, was reared by a Christian mother yet she did not baptise him. Such was the custom at the time. The Confessions of both, then, describe a sinful unbelieving youth and adult conversion. As well as Augustine and Patrick, their near contemporaries, Jerome, Basil and Ambrose were baptized and ordained in quick succession.


When we read early church history without presuming infant baptism, many other possibilities emerge. St Columba, apostle of Scotland, known as Colm Cille in Ireland, died in 597 AD. Adamnan, his tenth successor as abbot of lona (679-704), wrote a biography of the founder in the style of the time.8 From it we get some insights into practice at the turn of the eighth century.

Adamnan tells us that while Columba was still in the womb, his mother saw a vision which indicated that the child would be famous. There is, however, no indication of the child being sanctified in the womb like John the Baptist. Next we are told that he was fostered to a priest called Cruineachtán. One night he saw a ball of fire standing over the child as he slept. Then the priest "understood that the grace of the Holy Spirit had been poured from heaven on his foster-son". This statement would be meaningless if Columba had already been baptised and was regarded as having the Spirit in infancy. Rather, like Patrick, he was now receiving the Holy Spirit prior to his actual baptism.

An objection to this might be that Adamnan later mentions another time when "the grace of the Holy Spirit was poured" on Columba. So perhaps the phrase could be used of a child who already had the Spirit. This later vision is quite different, however, as Adamnan says that the grace came "abundantly and in an incomparable manner" It lasted three days. The secret mysteries of the Scriptures were revealed to Columba.9 It was the culmination of his mystical experience. The vision of his foster father is most naturally interpreted as a first coming of the Spirit.

The ritual

In the Bangor Antiphonary we find a hymn, Ignis creator igneus', which was to be sung at the blessing of the paschal candle on the night of the Easter vigil. Michael Curran translates the last two verses as follows.

You store up the nourishment of divine honey in the secret recesses of the honey-comb: purifying the innermost cells of the heart, you fill them with your work, so that the swarm of new offspring, begotten by the word and the Spirit, may leave behind the things of earth and soar towards heaven on carefree wings.

Curran regards this as "a fine expression of the deeply experienced reality of the early church on Easter night". He believes that it indicates that at the time there must have been "a large number of candidates for initiation at Easter".10 The purification and the abandonment of earthly things by the neophytes could only refer to adults, not to infants. This precious document was compiled about 680 AD and so is roughly contemporary with Adamnan. This is the kind of initiation he presupposes for Columba.

The Second Synod of Patrick is a pseudonymous document dated by Bieler to the seventh century. This is its prescription for infants. "On the eighth day they are catechumens. (Octavo die caticumini sunt.) Thereafter they are baptised on the solemnities of the Lord, that is Easter, Pentecost and Epiphany". 11 One might imagine that they were then baptised at the next major feast, and so before one year old. However, the parallel practice of the Eastern church shows that baptism was deferred to a mature age. This is also borne out by the holy wells which were clearly suited for baptising adults.

Yet another text gives us some insight into the actual ritual of baptism. In The Alphabet of Devotion we read:

In baptism three waves pass over a person and in these is made a threefold renunciation; firstly, the world and its pretensions; secondly, the devil and his snares; and thirdly, the lusts of the body. This is what changes a person from being a son of death into a son of light.

This description presumes that renunciation is part of baptism and therefore for adults. The text goes on to say that if one fails in those renunciations, "heaven is closed to him unless he first dips into three pools", namely, repentance, discipline and labour. Dipping in the pool must be the equivalent of the waves passing over a person and so is a clear reference to baptism by immersion.

A few further details of the ritual may not evoke as much sympathy from some evangelicals. The well or font was to contain living water. That meant that it was to be flowing rather than stagnant. It was blessed by a thanksgiving (or eucharistic) prayer. Then holy oil (or chrism) was poured into the water. Water and oil flowed away but the well remained holy or "blessed".

After baptism in some rites water was sprinkled on the people as a memorial of their own baptism. In Gaul and in Ireland, however, the people drank some of the holy water in a ceremony reminiscent of Jesus' words about drinking living water. Christianity was first brought to Gaul by Irenaeus. He was closely connected to the community which gave us the Gospel of John. The church spread from Gaul to Britain to Ireland. Perhaps this is why so many distinctively Johannine emphases are found in the Irish tradition.

Curran implies that the system of baptising adults at Easter was in vogue in western Europe at this time also. It seems that it was about a century later with Charlemagne that baptism of infants was first prescribed for all. This quickly became normal practice on the continent while peripheral Ireland conserved the older way of doing things.

Norman reform

A life of Columba written in the Old Irish language tells how he was baptised immediately after birth. But Maire Herbert shows that this life was written as late as 1150 AD at a time when the Irish church was striving to reform itself by coming into line with practice on the Continent.12 Infant baptism was one of these reforms. When the Normans came twenty years later they made a law that the baptistery was now to be inside the church. The surviving examples show that they were for the baptism of infants but still by immersion.

The Normans had behind them the authority of Pope Alexander III who wrote to Henry II urging ecclesiastical reform in Ireland. The abuses of the Irish church are a common theme of medieval literature. Because it existed on the periphery, many older usages survived in Ireland when they had gone out of fashion elsewhere. What was universal practice at an earlier stage was now regarded as an abuse. This was the main worry of the continentals about Ireland.

Pope Alexander complained that the Irish ate flesh during Lent and did not pay tithes.13 Gerald of Wales, who described the conquest of Ireland, claimed that Henry was ordered to ensure that every household in Ireland would pay one penny a year to the Pope, known as "Peter's pence". 14 The significance of this and other reforms was that they could be imposed by the sword. Because infant baptism was now the law, everybody would have to accept the reforms. In the earlier Irish church one freely embraced Christianity and baptism as an adult. So many people elected to remain pagan. This system the medieval papal church regarded as a great abuse. Today perhaps we are agreed that it is an ideal to which we should all return.

Brother Eoin de Bhaldraithe, O. Cist., is a monk of Bolton Abbey, Moone, Co. Kildare, Ireland


1. B. Meeking, J. Stott, eds., The Evangelical-Roman Catholic Dialogue on Mission l977-1984: A Report (Exeter, Paternoster, 1986), 57.

2 L. Bieler, Libri Epislolarum Sancti Patricii Episcopi: Introduction, Text and Commentary (Dublin, Royal Irish Academy, 1993).

3. C- Thomas, Christianity in Roman Britain to AD 500 (London, Batsford, 1981), chap 14, "St Patrick's Episcopate and the British Church".

4. D.R. Howlett, The Book of Letters of Saint Patrick the Bishop (Dublin, Four Courts, 1994): acknowledgement to M.B. de Paor, p. 110.

5. D. Conneely, St Patrick's Letters: A Study of their Theological Dimension (Maynooth, An Sagart, 1993), p. Ill.

6. Conneely, 68; Howlett, 70.

7. Conneely, 66; Howlett, 63.

8. A.O. & M.O. Anderson, eds., Adomnan's Life of Columba (London, 1961).

9. Ibid., p. 503.

10. M. Curran, The Antiphonary of Bangor and the Early Irish Monastic Liturgy (Dublin, Irish Academic, 1984), P. 63.

11.Second synod of St Patrick, 19; L. Meter, The Irish Penitentials (Dublin, 1963), pp. 191-92.

12. M. Herbert, Iona Kells and Derry: The History and Hagiography of the Monastic Familia of Columba (Dublin, Four Courts, 1996), text in Irish, p. 226; in English, p. 253; date. p. 192; church reform, p. 109.

13. Douglas and Greenaway, eds., English historical Documents, If (London, Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1953), pp- 774-80.