Amazing articles on just about every subject...

The Sacraments

( Originally Published 1888 )

Religion has always formed for its outward expression rites or symbols to serve as rallying points for faith and worship. Some simple object or act of common life has generally been pressed into this sacred use, and thus has been so charged with special significance, so freighted with new meaning, that in time its true origin, as a religious rite, has come to be forgotten.

Baptism and the Lord's Supper are the two symbolical and representative sacramental rites of the Christian Religion.

They are the two simple acts of washing and eating exalted above life's other common acts for the purposes of organized Christianity ; and their history has been much the same as that of other representative religious rites not only of Christianity but of the older Religions. Beginning simply and naturally, in time they have come to be regarded with superstitious reverence, and to be adored, not for the truth they were set apart to represent, but for them-selves. We are all perfectly familiar with the two opposite ways of regarding them that prevail among us. The Roman Catholic Church holds them as sacred mysteries to be reverenced beyond all other religious acts, because of some supposed vital relation in which they stand to the soul of man, while the extreme wing of so-called rational or non-churchly Christianity regards them as archaic and out-worn rites, no more claiming the allegiance of people to-day than the grand and impressive ceremonial of the Egyptian Religion or the sacrificial rites of old-time Judaism. The truth about them, as usual, lies between these two extremes. There is nothing in the accounts of their early institution or in the nature of the case, to warrant us in giving them the reverence of the Roman Catholic, and there is much to make us value them far beyond those who treat them as the mere playthings of superstition. Any rite or symbol that has been loved and venerated by large numbers of earnest people, and that has ministered to spirituality and peace, however opinions may differ as to its permanent usefulness, demands respectful treatment from all.

There are two questions to be considered in this chapter on the Christian Sacraments, their history, and their perpetual significance and value.


Baptism is the first of them, and it takes us far away from our present surroundings to the remote East, among peoples whose modes of thought and expression differ widely from our own, and whose habits of life, owing to climatic conditions wholly dissimilar to ours, are often such as we can hardly understand.

In Oriental countries, owing to the dust and heat, both cleanliness and comfort demand very frequent bathing of the whole body; and the out-door life and comparatively small amount of clothing worn make the bath a simpler matter than with us. We cannot there-fore be surprised when in all the great Religions of the East we find the act of washing the body, either completely or in part, used to symbolize internal purification, or transformation of character.

There has been much fruitless discussion, among people who felt it necessary to perpetuate the exact form of administration of Baptism known to the early converts of Christianity, concerning the use and prevalence of this rite among the Hebrews before Christ's time, but it is much more to the purpose to discover that the rite was connected with the religion not only of the Hebrews but of all other Eastern peoples ; that the Egyptians, Persians, and Hindoos, as well as the Hebrews, baptized those whom they wished to initiate into the full privileges of faith, or for whom they desired greater holiness of life.

Thus, when John, the herald of the Messiah arose in the wilderness of Judea, no priest, but an intensely devout and earnest layman who, in common with many of the Jewish sect of the Essenes and with some of the older prophets, had retired to the wilderness to gain spiritual power by contemplation, prayer, and fasting, he naturally coupled with his preaching the simple, healthful act of bathing the body.

The Essenes were even more scrupulous bathers than the Pharisees, for the sake of their ablutions always choosing their solitary abodes on the banks of rivers or in the vicinity of clear mountain springs. Indeed, ceremonial bathing took up a great part of their time, and so there is no reason why the baptism of John should have awakened more surprise among the people of Palestine than it did. The bath in water was so much a part of the outward religious life of the Hebrews that no one could think it strange or other than appropriate that when he found their hearts stirred by his preaching the prophet not only spoke earnestly to them about their lives, but gave them a bath in the river Jordan, whose soft, refreshing waters flowed near by, so sending them back into the world freshly consecrated to God and His service.

From this natural beginning grew the Christian rite of Baptism, for although John's active mission was soon ended, the early Christian teachers, some of whom, as indeed Jesus himself, had received baptism in the Jordan, continued the practice of baptizing those who came under the deeper influences of the religious life.

At first the rite seems to have been limited to those who in adult life embraced the spiritual truths Jesus taught, but little by little, as in the older religions, it came to be performed on infants and little children, the ceremony in these cases differing somewhat from that used in the baptism of adults. It is impossible to trace the steps by which this change came about. The sources of church history in the first and second centuries are exceedingly meagre, and we have no means of knowing whether infants were baptized in Apostolic times or not. It is certain, however, that the practice of Infant Baptism was not universal, in some quarters perhaps not common, even so late as the middle of the fourth century, for the Fathers, Chrysostom, Gregory Nazianzen, Ephrem of Edessa, Ambrose, Basil, and Augustine, all born of Christian parents and all save one during the first half of this century, were not baptized until they reached adult life. Nor can we be certain which influence was stronger in bringing about its general acceptance—the natural and proper feeling that the Christian Church was a school for the education of young and old in faith and worship, or that dark superstition fostered by Augustine, that even infants dying without the bath of Baptism were consigned to everlasting fire.

It is, however, largely to the influence of this Father that we must trace the materialistic be-lief concerning Baptism as necessary to save the soul from future torment, which in all its hideous untruth, like a dark shadow, haunted the Western Church during the Middle Ages. The Church of Rome, in a form so mild, however, that Augustine would have censured it as unorthodox, still holds to the doctrine, and thus virtually declares that the infinite grace of God, the infinite possibilities of the human soul, are made dependent by our Heavenly Father on the sprinkling of a few drops of water during life on the head of a man or child. Our own baptismal service, which was framed before the Church had fully emancipated itself from the unspiritual philosophy of the Middle Ages, is not wholly free from traces of the Augustinian belief, and many persons, especially of the Evangelical wing of the Episcopal Church, have been sorely tried by certain clauses in it.' It has been repeatedly declared, however, both in England and America, that the Church imposes no irrational or superstitious view of Baptism on her clergy or laity ; that her baptismal service is not to be interpreted against the rational convictions of this or any age.

As the early simplicity of the doctrine of Baptism disappeared, there grew up about the rite many curious and interesting customs, such as exorcism, or setting free from the power of the devil, a rite which had hitherto been used only in cases where people were supposed to be possessed with demons. Anointing with the sacred oil, or chrism, was also one of the connected rites ; and the laying on of hands, which later came to be separated by an interval of time from Baptism, and grew into the rite of confirmation, which we must always regard as the proper completion, with the candidate's own free consent, of the baptismal rite which he received in infancy.

But perhaps the most striking thing in the history of the outward part of the rite is the change which, in the West, gradually came about, from the complete immersion of the body in water to the sprinkling of a few drops on the candidate's head. " For the first thirteen centuries," says Dean Stanley, " the almost universal practice of Baptism was that of which we read in the New Testament, and which is the very meaning of the word `baptize,'—that those who were baptized were plunged, sub-merged, immersed into the water "; and in this judgment fully coincide such eminent scholars in the English Church as Conybeare and How-son,' and Bishop Ellicott and Professor Plumptre, and Church historians like Kurtz and Mosheim.

In the Greek Church trine immersion is the rule, and unless it be, as in the early ages, in the case of persons too sick or feeble to undergo immersion, sprinkling, or even pouring, is not recognized as baptism. In the Western Church, however, gradually, as most religious ideas and customs have grown up, immersion changed to sprinkling, the Cathedral of Milan and the large and influential Baptist body now alone observing the rite in its primitive form. The reason for this almost universal change in Western Christendom is sufficiently clear, and shows how infallibly time discerns the essential spirit and meaning of any form of truth committed to it. Baptism was simply the common act of washing taken to symbolize the purification of the soul, the continuous process of new birth that goes on in every truly advancing life ; and while in the warm East it would be more natural to perform it by dip-ping the whole body in water, in colder climates, and especially in churches established in cities and towns, or where intelligence and culture prevailed, release from the mere letter of obedience to Scripture, or of conformity to early custom, would necessarily be attended not only with indifference to the amount of water used, but with a certain repugnance to the public bath. There is no question that were the conditions favorable, a plunge in a lake or river, under the blue sky of heaven, in some calm, secluded place, would be far more impressive than the sprinkling of the forehead with water from a stone font or a bowl in a church.

But, with us, immersion is so manifestly inexpedient, so opposed to modern ideas, and the spirit that requires it is so unlike the spirit of liberty in ritual things inculcated by the teaching of Christ, that one cannot help wondering that a large body of religious people should still be found clinging to it, and indeed making the observance of it their raison d'etre.

There is no ground on which the change from immersion to sprinkling can be justified except the ground of enlightened common-sense, but there it is safe to rest—unsafe not to rest—all our beliefs and opinions. There, likewise, is our justification for baptizing infants. Baptism is intended to symbolize and so keep before the world the great truth of regeneration, the new birth, or resurrection from the death of ignorance, selfishness, lust, and sin, which is a continual process in true lives. And being the natural door to the Church, which we regard as a school for the nurture of Christian life, and not an exclusive body of perfectly righteous men and women, it is inevitable that we should bestow it upon children. We baptize them in token of the fact that they are God's children ; and as members of a regenerated and regenerating society, of which the Church is the perpetual type and witness, early incorporate their innocent lives into the Church's life. Infant Baptism, and our view of the Church as a mixed school for the nurture of faith and worship and holy life, are so closely bound together that we can hardly think of them apart. Under Calvinism, which does not recognize God in the soul of every being, and under the Independent theory of the Church as a company of mature persons voluntarily associating themselves for religious purposes, Infant Baptism has no true place and must inevitably fall into disuse. The Baptists, Charles Kingsley once said, are the true and logical Calvinists, for they do not believe that people are God's children until they have passed through certain changes of feeling which may or may not come, and so they refuse to baptize them as if they were such. To us who believe that humanity is " God-related," that the human is grounded in the divine, the finite in the infinite, Infant Baptism is not only richly significant, but, if Baptism is to be maintained at all, almost a necessity.

Thus we may bring our children to Baptism, " nothing doubting but that God alloweth this charitable work of ours," and giving Him thanks that it " hath pleased Him to regenerate them with His Holy Spirit "—that is, to give them naturally the privileges of children of the Most High, and in order to make them sharers in the regenerating influences of Christian society, to "incorporate them into His holy Church."


The Lord's Supper originated as naturally and simply as Baptism, but under circumstances far more touching. The Master, about to suffer a painful and humiliating death, sat with his. twelve disciples at night in an upper room somewhere in Jerusalem. It was Pass-over time, and they, like all faithful Hebrews, had come up to the city to celebrate together this most significant of all their festivals, and now the meal was almost done. We can never know all that was passing in Jesus' mind,—how much regard he felt for the venerable Passover ritual he was so scrupulously observing, nor how clearly he foresaw the establishment of a religion, looking to him as its founder, which should supersede the Hebrew Faith. We can never be certain how widely he hoped or expected his parting request should be observed, but we are told that as he reclined with them he took up some of the bread that lay on the table, and instead of using the regular words, " This is the body of the Passover," or " This is the bread of affliction," he said, in view of his approaching martyrdom for the principles of true religion which he had persistently taught, " This is my body which is given for you : this do in remembrance of me." Then he took up the cup of red wine and water, the drinking of which was one of the last acts of the Festival, and instead of the words commonly uttered, said : This cup is the seal of the covenant presently to be made in my blood which is to be shed for you. Then after chanting together the anthem beginning, Not unto us, not unto us, but unto Thy name give glory for Thy mercy and for Thy truth's sake," the group arose and passed silently out in the light of the great yellow moon into the narrow street, through a gate of the city, down into the valley, of the Kedron, and so on to the Garden of Gethsemane. This is the simple beginning of that most venerated and cherished rite of the Church, the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper, about which cluster not only some of the sacredest and sweetest, but some of the saddest and most corrupt traditions of the Christian world ; now a bond of the holiest brother-hood, now a mark of unchristian strife and superstition.

At first it was celebrated at evening, the time when Christ had instituted it, and always at the close of a common meal called the ayopn, or love feast, and with prayer and praise, whence from avxapzaria, the Greek word for thanksgiving, it came to be called the eucharist. As early as the third century the simple devotional forms with which it was at first observed expanded into an elaborate sacramental liturgy," which is the basis of our own and of all the Catholic eucharistic liturgies. Then it came to be regarded as a holy mystery, participation in which was necessary to insure everlasting life ; and when, as has happened in all great Religions, the ideas of a priesthood and material sacrifice were developed in the Church, the Lord's Supper in the hands of the officiating priest became a veritable sacrifice of the body and blood of Christ, into which, by a miracle, as the prayer of consecration was offered, the bread and wine were changed. This belief, which to-day finds its support in the Roman Catholic Church, and which declares that Christ's death is repeated every time a priest standing before the altar consecrates the bread and wine, was of course a late development, and in the theology of the enlightened Christian teachers of Alexandria had no place. With them, as with us, the bread and wine on the altar were simply, as our Prayer Book calls them, God's "gifts and creatures of bread and wine," which they received, according to the Saviour's " holy institution, in remembrance of his death and passion." The sacrifice they offered to God was "the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving," and of their own " souls and bodies," and the body and blood of Christ of which they partook was " spiritual," not material food. The body of Christ was moral truth as displayed in his character, and the blood of Christ was love or charity.

The superstitious view of the Lord's Supper held by the Latin Church in the Middle Ages has, however, its own antiquity. The ancient religions of Persia, Egypt, India, and Greece all had rites very similar to our Lord's Supper, and there were many persons under all these Faiths who supposed that in partaking of consecrated bread and wine they were actually eating the flesh and drinking the blood of their gods. " How can a man be so stupid," says Cicero, writing of the heathen eucharist, " as to imagine that which he eats to be a god? " But antiquity in religious opinions should have little weight when it conflicts with intelligence and common-sense. We sometimes hear heated discussions concerning the propriety of using lighted candles and special vestments and of bowing often in the celebration of the Lord's Supper. But the only thing that can make these wrong, provided a congregation is pleased to have them, is the fact of their testifying to a material and unenlightened, and, indeed, ancient heathen view of the Sacrament. If the introduction of these accessories, harmless in themselves, into Christian worship expresses simply the desire for a more earnest and beautiful ceremonial, then no one can say aught against them, provided they do not violate well-established canons of good taste, but if they are meant to symbolize and teach a materialistic and magical view of the sweet and simple Christian memorial feast, then they are harmful and wrong.

Throughout this chapter we have spoken of Baptism and the Lord's Supper in the customary way of the Church and the Prayer Book as Sacraments, and in the beginning of the chapter we called them representative Sacraments. The word sacrament originally meant an oath or pledge, as that taken by Roman soldiers on entering the army. The Christian Sacrament, then, was the pledge of the Christian's obligation to be true to the laws of God, and since obedience necessarily brings good to man, it was likewise regarded as a pledge on God's part, as indeed Jesus had declared the Lord's Supper to be when he said, " This is the new covenant," or this is the pledge of the new covenant, " in my blood."

Baptism and the Lord's Supper are outward signs or certificates of the relationship between God and man. When we baptize a grown man or a new-born baby we thereby certify the old truth the world needs to be continually reminded of, that we are all children of the Heavenly Father, and so under the most sacred obligations to be true to duty and to Him. We repeat by our act the old truth so easily and so often sadly forgotten, that only through obedience to God's laws, which are likewise the laws of the soul, can the human race find salvation. This our Baptismal Service makes clear when it says to the Sponsors that " Baptism doth represent unto us our profession ; which is, to follow the example of our Saviour Christ, and to be made like unto him." When we come to the Lord's table, we likewise declare, as the priest who administers the Sacrament declares, both the good-will of our Heavenly Father toward us, and the obligation we are under to love and serve Him and our brethren. But the question comes, Is not every good act, especially every religious act in which we engage, likewise a sacrament or pledge on God's part and ours? To that question we have to answer " Yes." Baptism and the Lord's Supper, the bath and the meal, have been set apart from life's many sacramental acts simply as representative sacraments or pledges of the close alliance between God and man and the necessity of obedience to all that God has anywhere declared as His will concerning us. Observing one day in seven as, in a peculiar sense the Lord's Day, we thereby declare that all days are to be regarded as holy days. Assembling as churches or congregations for Christian worship and other religious acts, we thereby testify to the divine life and destiny of mankind and the holy brotherhood of the race. And in Baptism and the Eucharist we likewise set forth the sacredness of all life's common acts and experiences. In the spirit of George Herbert's often quoted lines, we declare that even the commonest and most unhonored tasks ate in truth divine.

How full of instruction and value, then, are these ancient rites of the Church to us. How sacred should we hold them as we remember not only their divine origin, but the faith and zeal, the love and reverence and holy life to which in all the Christian ages they have witnessed and ministered. Every Baptism we see not only recalls the great truths of the Father-hood of God and the brotherhood of man, but seems to connect the present with the past of Christianity, and to proclaim the perpetual youth of those holy sentiments that inspired the multitudes who came to John in the wilderness of Judea ; that stirred the self-sacrificing first disciples of our Lord ; that made the early Christians in the reigns of Nero and Trajan martyrs for Christ ; that have inflamed the zeal of all noble missionaries and true ministers of religion ; and that have softened and sweetened and made saintly the lives of hosts of unknown men and women in all lands and times. As we kneel at the Lord's Table, and with bowed heads eat the bread which symbolizes the blessed character of Jesus, and drink the wine which represents his love, we are carried back to Calvary ; and then, as we remember that the sacrifice there finished meant the perpetual sacrifice, the divine submission of all true souls in all ages, how broad and deep and tender grows the Christianity we profess ; and how many sacred memories are there awakened, memories of our blessed Lord, and of all the prophets and saints of true Religion among all nations ; memories of the early Christians forced to hide in the catacombs, and there among the silent dead to celebrate their eucharistic joy ; memories of our own dear friends who once knelt with us at the feast, but who have now passed on into the unseen, where face to face with truth, they need no longer earth's poor symbols.

These are some of the lessons enfolded in those holy rites of Religion, the Christian Sacraments. They are lessons the world can never afford to miss, lessons in which no soul can be too well instructed, since in them are involved all our true well-being here and hereafter.

Home | More Articles | Email: