My brother Travis posted some hesitant support for the practice of infant baptism recently. A great discussion on the symbolic/sacramental nature of baptism followed. Without having much to add to the subject, here is a contribution in the form of a passage from Garry Wills’s Head and Heart: American Christianities.
[T]he most nagging fear that plagued the Puritan conscience was the relation of conversion to baptism. If membership in the church was granted only to those who could testify to their personal conversion, what was the point of baptizing infants? They would not be saved before their conversion as adults. Thomas Hooker tried to explain baptism as a kind of pre-preparation for conversion, an act that “established the heart,” making it “capable” for later acts of preparation – which just involved baptism in all the other controversies over “preparation.” Hooker said that infant baptism sets a seal on the child, aiming him toward conversion, without itself effecting conversion. Such a child has no sanctifying holiness, but a kind of “federal holiness,” as part of the saved community without being individually saved. Since all the first Puritans to land in Massachusetts had been baptized as infants in the Anglican Church, and since they did not formally renounce their membership in that body (whose head, the King, had given them their Charter), they refused to let Anabaptists enter the colony.
Simply excluding Anabaptists would not solve the deeper problem of “pedobaptism” (infant baptism) among the Saints. They continued the practice of their Anglican forbears, but soon ran up against a new problem. What if infants baptized in Massachusetts grew up with their parents expecting their first “seal” to be completed by an experiential conversion, but no conversion occurred? Such adults could not be admitted to communion. And if these unconverted adults wanted their children baptized? Strict teaching forbade this. As Thomas Hooker put it: “The predecessors [grandparents] cannot convey this right without the next [immediate] parents…. Apostasy takes off the federal holiness of the children.” Others were just as adamant: “That practice, that exposeth the blood of Christ to contempt, and baptism to profanation, the church to pollution, and the commonwealth to confusion, is not to be admitted.”
Others invoked the typology of circumcision, and said that Abraham’s seed had been given the promise… Since the Covenant of Grace had for its “type” (forbear) the covenant with Abraham, a minister, Peter Bulkely, argued that children of the Saints were “within the covenant.” If they were not, membership of the church might dwindle drastically in a generation or two…
This was an issue that tore families apart…. The issue was so divisive that individual churches could not resolve the problem. The General Court took the drastic step of calling for another synod, but this time the matter was not dealt with as decisively as the Antinomian crisis had been…
Somewhat surprisingly, the ministers had thought they were responding to a demand by the laity that their children be baptized, but the greatest resistance to the new policy came from laypeople. The ingrained conservatism of the community made it fear innovation, and a minority of the pastors played on this, keeping alive the controversy. They objection was not simply to the baptism policy, but to the synodal authority that was obtruding it. This was too Presbyterian [i.e. denominational] for lovers of Congregationalist orthodoxy. “Although the Synod established a new orthodoxy, most churches refused to accept it.” The issue died down only when Presbyterian [=denominational] values spread in the church. Even after it had died down, it flared up again when the fervor of the Great Awakening made people yearn for the old purity. Thus the issue continued to divide Puritans well into the eighteenth century.
It is interesting to note the political implications of the act, not only for secular politics but within the polis of the church. In a way, the complexities of the debate seem similar to the debate over whether pastors should marry non-believers. What this hits home for me is that there is no “pure theology,” but only theology in the context of politics.