In Bonny Morris’ family, babies get baptized, usually before their first birthday.
“It’s a tradition I firmly believe in,” she said.
The Spokane grandmother was planning on having her 8-month-old granddaughter Ashley baptized today, on Easter. But she can’t find a minister to perform the rite, because she doesn’t belong to a church and neither do the baby’s parents.
“I’ve made her a beautiful christening gown and now she’s probably going to outgrow it,” Morris said.
Baptism, a universal ceremony among all Christians, has changed since Morris’ children were small.
A quarter-century ago, Morris popped into a Catholic church on Easter and had her oldest daughter baptized. “It was so simple then,” she said.
No longer will most ministers do that. While many churches baptize new members on Easter morning or during the Easter vigil, ministers are asking questions of the people they baptize. Many won’t baptize children until they are old enough to profess their beliefs.
Other pastors require at least one parent to be a member of a church before baptizing an infant.
The safeguards are meant to put meaning back into the sacrament of baptism.
“You just can’t baptize indiscriminately,” said the Rev. Mike Savelesky, pastor of St. Peter’s Catholic Church. “This is not a magic rite. If there is not a context of someone being nurtured in the faith, then you postpone the baptism until they are.”
Since Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River, Christians have baptized each other as a rite of initiation.
It’s always been the most significant sacrament among Christians, said Jim Dallen, chairman of the religious studies department at Gonzaga University.
“Baptism is necessary for being identified as a Christian,” he said.
Many people seek baptisms for the wrong reasons, said the Rev. Dave Peterson, pastor of First Presbyterian Church.
Fearing a child will go to hell if he dies before being baptized is the wrong reason, Peterson said. Family tradition is also a poor reason for baptism, he said.
“People don’t understand the nature of baptism,” he said. “We are celebrating God’s gift of grace to us, his unmerited favor, his free love.”
In order to preserve the symbolism, it’s important to evaluate parents’ ability to keep the promises they make during baptism, he said.
That response further alienated Morris’ family from organized religion.
“We simply want to dedicate this child to God,” she said. “I don’t see how that has anything to do with joining a church.”
Turning away a family seeking baptism for their baby is one of the hardest things a minister has to do, Peterson said.
“Their motives are genuine. They want to do the right thing for this child,” he said. “But they don’t see that the Christian life, through the Christian community, is what really matters.”
From the beginning, baptisms have been done in a variety of forms. They still are.
“My suspicion, from the data we have, is that it was never a rigid thing,” Dallen said.
Among Spokane churches, the Southern Baptists immerse, the Presbyterians sprinkle and the Roman Catholics do both.
All baptisms have two things in common, Dallen said. They are done with water and in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
In the early years after Christ’s death, most baptisms were of adults becoming Christians. In those cases the person was usually immersed, Dallen said.
By the 11th or 12th century, when the Western world was generally Christian, most baptisms were for infants, he said. For practical reasons, some groups switched from immersion to sprinkling.
“Baptismal water was regarded as fairly holy,” Dallen said. “When you put little babies in water, one of the tendencies is for them to urinate. If you consider that water holy, that might be offensive.”
Even before then, Christians debated whether the water for baptisms should be running or standing, cold or warm, Dallen explained.
While the Bible instructs “go forth and baptize all nations,” it doesn’t say how. To this day the discrepancies remain.
Southern Baptists and many other denominations immerse because that is how the Bible describes Jesus’ baptism.
“There is actually no record of people being sprinkled in the Bible,” said the Rev. Terry Little, pastor of Pines Baptist Church. “We want the Scripture to be the mode and method of why we do things. We as Baptist people are kind of picky about this.”
Roman Catholics are moving back to their roots in returning to immersion baptisms.
“The church is calling us back to our traditions,” said Savelesky. “How you do it says something about what you believe.”
Like Southern Baptists, Catholics believe baptism is symbolic of the dying and rising of Christ.
“Will it still be baptism if you just pour a little bit of water? Yes, it would be,” he said. “Should it be that way? No, it shouldn’t.”
Savelesky and other pastors are quick to explain that the act of baptism doesn’t change anything; the water does not wash away sin.
“It’s a symbol of what happens in salvation,” said the Rev. Little, of Pines Baptist. “It doesn’t mean that the person comes out of the water perfect.”
But the symbol has surprising power for many who choose to be baptized.
Since his baptism last month at First Presbyterian, Steve Simmons said the changes in his life have been striking.
His marriage has been stronger, said 27-year-old assistant soccer coach at Gonzaga. His life has been more focused.
Simmons said he was skeptical about churches and organized religion. When he and his wife moved to Spokane eight months ago, they shopped around for a church with a critical eye and settled at First Presbyterian.
Now, he looks at his move to Spokane in a different light.
“I think God has a plan for me. It changed my life in a positive way,” said Simmons. “My wife was baptized as a baby. I was baptized as an adult. I can’t say which is more meaningful. But I can say that baptism has been very meaningful to both of us.”