Canadian Baptismal Records Overview (National Institute)
The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Canadian: Religious Records by Brenda Dougall Merriman, CG, CGL. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
The three most commonly-used genealogical church records are baptisms, marriages, and burials, often mislabelled ‘BMDs’. Baptismal records are not birth records, but they are close enough in many instances that we can use them as birth substitutes if no birth record exists.
To begin, it is necessary to understand what baptism is in theological terms, how it evolved through history and how different denominations looked at it.
Baptism was one of the earliest sacraments of the Christian church, established to symbolize the washing away of sin through Christ’s death and the entry into membership in Christ’s church by the individual who was baptized. The sacrament had its origin in the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist as recorded in Matthew 3:12-17. The direct connection between being baptized as Christ was, and joining his church, accounts for the alternate name for baptism which is christening.
By the ninth century, the form and idea of baptism had been clearly established, and it continued until the Reformation. The child who was baptized was seen as saved by Christ’s example, and the unbaptized was not saved and hence could not enter heaven. This idea was of vital importance in people’s attitudes to baptism and its practice. Since the child could not make the baptismal vows itself, others had to do so on its behalf. Parents were prohibited from acting in this way, so sponsors or godparents took this role. They were never family members and there were usually three, two of the same sex as the child and one of the other. The importance of the act of baptism is indicated by the fact that it could not be repeated.
Since baptism was so necessary for salvation, infants were usually brought to church quickly, within a few weeks of birth, or even days in some countries. A child whose life was in danger had to be baptized quickly, lest it die and be relegated to damnation. Since a priest was not always present, the church decreed that any responsible person could baptize the child, providing they used the standard trinitarian formula. This non-clerical baptism was valid, but the child had to be brought to church as soon as convenient for an acknowledgment of the act, either by the bishop or by the priest at a public service. If there was some doubt about the form used, the church also instituted ‘conditional baptism’ in which the priest used the trinitarian formula preceded by the words “if thou are not already baptized.” The sacrament was very elaborate, involving a ceremony which began at the church door and continued by the font inside the church, and in which the child was sprinkled with water (aspersion), anointed with oil, touched with saliva and clay, dressed in a white robe and given a candle.
At the time of the Reformation, almost all the reformers had their own ideas about the nature of baptism and the validity of the form then in use by the Roman Catholic Church. At the Council of Trent, at which the Church tried to deal with the various questions raised by the reformers, the idea of ‘one baptism forever’ was confirmed, both emergency and conditional baptism likewise, but the number of sponsors was reduced to two (even one was acceptable).
Martin Luther retained the view of baptism as an act of salvation, brought through faith. It is the sponsors’ faith which speaks for the child, and who promise to see the child is raised in the proper religious fashion. Luther did away with conditional baptism, and the prohibition against blood relatives being godparents was removed. Gradually over the next three centuries the restrictions about who could be a godparent fell away in all denominations.
Church of England (Anglicans)
The Church of England (Anglicans) did not vary considerably from the Roman Catholics, and the Book of Common Prayer even emphasized that “Infants should be brought to the font as early as possible.” The anointing with holy oil, or chrism, was of such importance for the first two centuries after the Reformation in the Church of England, recently-baptized children were referred to as 'Chris's'; burials of such infants in 17th century registers often omit the name and refer to the child simply as ‘a charms of John Smith’ giving the father’s name.
The Anglicans retained three godparents until the revision of the prayer book in 1661, when it went to two as well. Parents were still forbidden to be their own child’s godparents until 1865. Gradually a resumption of the custom of three godparents grew also. At a Manitoba christening in 1974 at which there were only two godparents, the Anglo-Catholic mother of the child shamefacedly said that she knew there ‘should’ be three. This is a matter of English Anglo-Catholic practice and not theology, however. In some instances, royal christenings for example, there can be half a dozen sponsors or more. The practice has become so loosely-defined that local or family custom seems to determine the role and number of godparents.
When the Methodist movement began as an outgrowth of the Church of England in the 18th century, one of their basic tenets was that baptism was not the act of salvation but a sign of a regeneration which was already taking place through God’s grace. This moved the importance of baptism somewhat down the ladder. De-emphasizing the role of baptism in the Methodist church would have great effects on Canadian practices, and hence church records.
The Reformed churches, which included Presbyterianism, the Dutch and German Reformed movements, made an even greater change. For them, baptism was merely symbolic, an indication of a salvation which had already happened or would happen. The ideas of emergency or conditional baptism were discarded as irrelevant. The baptismal vows taken on the child’s behalf were made by the parents, with the sponsors acting as witnesses only.
For the Anabaptists (Baptists, Mennonites, Amish, Tunkers), the idea of infant baptism was wrong. They said there was no scriptural basis for it, and instead instituted ‘believer’s baptism’ in which a person of years of discretion would make their own decision to apply for baptism based on their beliefs and experiences.
As for the ceremony itself, even the denominations which retained a close theological idea of baptism with the Catholics simplified it. The essential part of it, aspersion with water, remained, while the touching with saliva and clay disappeared. Some of the Anabaptists replaced aspersion with immersion, the dipping of the whole body into the water.
Some chose to do this backwards, some forwards and some specified a flowing stream to symbolize the washing away of sin. The Tunkers required immersion three times. The immersion of the body completely in the water, for some, also symbolized lowering into the grave, ‘dying into the life of Christ.’
Society of Friends (Quakers)
One group, the Society of Friends or Quakers, dispensed with baptism completely. They did away with almost all the trappings of church life as it had been known, including all the sacraments, vestments, even the clergy and the church buildings. However, they did begin, almost immediately, registering the births of new member of the congregation, which is fortunate for genealogists.
Who Could Be Baptized?
One vital issue which every genealogist must understand is the attitude of various denominations to eligibility for baptism. If a clergyman was approached by parents with a child, would he perform the baptism without demur, would he insist on some conditions, or might he refuse to do it at all?
The groups which saw baptism as an act of salvation for the child could not, legitimately, turn anyone away. To do so would put the child’s immortal soul at risk and they would not consider it. So, no matter what the status of the parents or the child, they were taken to the font and the sacrament performed.
This applied to the Roman Catholic church, the Lutherans (despite their feeling that baptism was a sign, not the act of salvation) and particularly the Anglican clergy. Actions of Anglican priests were legislated by the English Parliament, and one law stated that priests could not turn away anyone asking for baptism.
The Reformed churches saw things quite differently. If a parent were to take the baptismal vows on behalf of a child, then that parent had to be able to prove they were worthy to do so. Some denominations required them to be members of the church, others merely asked them questions to ensure their seriousness. The Moravian point of view, which might well have been reflected in the minds of others, was that the church shared responsibility with the parents for the spiritual teaching of the child. If the parents were not members of the church, then the church could not ensure its role could be fulfilled, and so would decline to become involved.
This last idea, that clergy could choose which children to christen and which to turn away, caused a great deal of grief and conflict in Canada. People who had grown up in Britain with its established customs of automatically taking your child to church for baptism found the difficult attitudes of missionary clergy off-putting. If their view was that the unbaptized child was in spiritual danger, the action of such clergy would be very alarming. Given that there may not have been many clergy available for the baptism, the situation might cause parents considerable anguish.
Here is an example from early Ontario. A Presbyterian minister was riding between towns when:
I was accosted by David McKenzie a man whose face I did not recollect ever to have seen who said that he had a child to baptize. I said to him that it was true that I had baptized Neil Ross’ child but that I had since entertained serious doubts of the propriety of having done so. That according to our formalities we were not allowed to dispense ordinances to those who were not church members and that he had better wait a little.
He immediately got into a towering passion. Said he wd. not wait—that he wd. get it done elsewhere—that at home children were baptized when 8 days old and that he cd. not think of waiting—that our rules were a great deal too strict—and that he saw but little prospect of having a church established on that road. I replied that if the principles by which we were regulated were too strict and required modification it was not for me or for any other individual minister to set them aside altogether, &c. &c. He turned away and went off as he said to stop his wife whom he said was on the road [i.e., on her way for the baptism].
Another Presbyterian, William Proudfoot, not only refused baptism but was then angry that the family took the infant elsewhere. William Bell, the first clergyman in Perth, Ontario, once found a couple with an infant at his door on a winter’s night. The child’s parents were both ill, and the godparents feared for the child’s life also. Bell referred to such unexpected supplicants as ‘ignorant and immoral,’ and refused to perform the baptism. They took the baby to a nearby Roman Catholic priest who did christen the child. The baby and its father died shortly thereafter.
A genealogist looking for information about this family would probably not be searching in the local Roman Catholic records, but if they did, they would find an unexpected baptism. Not knowing the circumstances, they might be puzzled about the apostasy of a family previously completely Protestant.
If we are looking for baptisms and do not find them where expected, one reason may be theological differences between the clergy and an ancestral family.
- “I baptise thee in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
- William Fraser, “Diary of William Fraser, August 1834-July 1835,” Transactions of the London and Middlesex Historical Society (1930) as quoted in Frances Hoffman and Ryan Taylor, Across the waters (1999), p. 283.
- William Bell, Hints to emigrants (1824), p. 122.
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