In the frontier world of Methodism, where a rugged individualism was required to survive and revivals emphasized personal decisions for Christ, baptism was understood more as an act of human choice than divine grace.
Placing supreme faith in their own abilities, early Methodists were among many Christians who paid little attention to the mystery of God’s presence in the sacraments. God did not choose church members; individuals had to decide for themselves.
Now, at the end of a century that has seen two world wars, the Holocaust and the “ethnic cleansing” of populations, there is a turning away from the idea that human beings approach God solely on their own terms.
The United Methodist Church is the latest religious group to place a renewed emphasis on sacramental life in a proposed statement on baptism that makes it clear that God calls members to the church, not the other way around.
The church’s General Board of Discipleship is proposing no longer referring to people who have been baptized but have not made a personal confession of faith as preparatory members, but considering all baptized persons down to the youngest infant full members of the church.
“The sacrament is primarily a gift of divine grace. Neither parents nor infants are the chief actors; baptism is an act of God in and through the church,” says the proposed statement “By Water and the Spirit: A United Methodist Understanding of Baptism.”
The statement and proposed changes in church law will be presented to the United Methodist General Conference in April in Denver.
To the people proposing changes to consider baptized infants full church members, it is a matter of a return to Methodist tradition.
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Movement, believed in balancing the sacramental and evangelical aspects of the faith, according to the drafters of the baptism statement.
Retaining the sacramental theology from his Anglican heritage, Wesley taught that, in infant baptism, a child was cleansed of the guilt of original sin, initiated into a covenant with God and admitted into the Church. A willing human response later in life also was required, but the path to salvation begins with God in baptism.
In the United States, Wesley’s sacramental teachings tended to be ignored in favor of a faith where human ability and action were stressed.
This trend intensified as the culture influenced the church from the rugged individualism of frontier life to the optimism that carried into the 20th century about technological and scientific advances solving the problems of humanity.
“By the middle of the 20th century, Methodism in general had ceased to understand baptism as authentically sacramental. Rather than an act of divine grace, it was seen as an expression of human choice,” the proposed baptism statement says.
Today, the tendency to downplay baptism and emphasize confirmation or other adult professions of faith is particularly strong in areas such as the South and Midwest where denominations such as Baptists that do not believe in infant baptism dominate the religious culture.
At present, the church has two categories of members - preparatory and full. Under the new proposal, people would become full members after they are baptized, and professing members after they make a profession of faith at an older age.
“Baptized members are full members of the church in a theological sense,” said the Rev. Mark Trotter, chairman of the church’s Baptism Study Committee, which worked for seven years on the baptism statement.
In practical terms, the new understanding would mean that not only children but people with severe mental disabilities would be considered full members of the church.
“It says that God is able to and wills to include all persons,” said the Rev. Daniel Benedict, director of worship resources for the General Board of Discipleship.
Other Christian groups also are moving in the direction of emphasizing the mystical elements of their faith.
A task force on sacramental practices in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America proposed allowing infants to receive communion, and urged churches to recapture their tradition of celebrating communion weekly. U.S. Roman Catholic bishops earlier this year held up the right of church members with mental disabilities to receive the sacraments whenever feasible under church law.
The tragedies of the 20th century and the realization of the limits of technology have contributed to the religious swing toward dependence on God, say people who worked on the United Methodist statement.
Even the fields of science and philosophy have themselves been humbled by the realization there are some things humans may never figure out, said Trotter, pastor of First United Methodist Church in San Diego.
“We’ve lost our confidence in human beings and their own ability to solve their problems,” he said.
Interest in New Age religions and the popularity of books on spirituality are all signs of a spiritual hunger that “runs rampant throughout our culture,” said Gayle Felton, a professor of Christian nurture at Duke Divinity School and one of the writers of the baptism statement.
“I think the move back toward a sacramental religion … is a recovery of the divine as a force beyond us, rather than within us,” she said.