The Wesley brothers and the Methodist denomination retained the Anglican belief in salvation through baptism, as taught in the 39 Articles, when they left the English state-church to start their own religion. Commenting on John 3:5, Wesley affirmed, “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit—Except he experience that great inward change by the Spirit, and be baptized (wherever baptism can be had) as the outward sign and means of it [he cannot enter into the kingdom of God].” He states here that baptism is the means of the new birth. He also declared, “It is certain our Church supposes that all who are baptized in their infancy are at the same time born again; and it is allowed that the whole office for the baptism of infants proceeds upon this supposition.”[i] In his Doctrinal Tracts (pg. 246, 251) he wrote, “What are the benefits . . . we receive by baptism, is the next point to be considered. And the first of these is the washing away of original sin, by the application of Christ’s death. . . . the merits of Christ’s life and death, are applied to us in baptism. . . . infants are . . . proper subjects of baptism, seeing, in the ordinary way, they cannot be saved unless [sin] be washed away in baptism. Infants need to be washed from original sin. Therefore they are proper subjects for baptism.” [ii] John’s brother, the Methodist hymn-writer Charles Wesley, wrote against the Baptists, “Partisans of a narrow sect/ Your cruelty confess/ Nor still inhumanly reject/ Whom Jesus would embrace./ Your little ones preclude them not/ From the baptismal flood brought/ But let them now to Christ be saved/ And join the Church of God.”[iii] The Wesleys only called adults already baptized as infants to conversion because of their heretical Arminian theology. Since they rejected the Biblical truth that once one is saved, he is always saved (Romans 8:28-39), they held that one who was regenerated in infant baptism could fall away and become a child of the devil again, at which time he would need a second new birth.
John Knox, the great enemy of Scottish Catholicism, and essentially the founder of Scottish Presbyterianism, also supported the Reformed connection between salvation and baptism. He described baptism as “a holie syne and seale of God’s promises.”[iv] Knox referred to being “received in baptism into [God’s] familie and congregation,” and spoke of baptism as “the syne of our entrance into the household of God our Father.”[v] Knox declared, “That lyke as water outwardlye doth wash away filth, so by baptism we are cleansed in soul.”[vi] The liturgy of Knox claimed that regeneration “stands chiefly in these two points, in mortification, that is to say, a resisting of the rebellious lustes of the fleshe, and in newness of life, whereby we continually stryve to walk in that pureness and perfection wherewith we are clad in baptisme.”[vii] The Scotsman followed Calvin in affirming a necessity of precept for infant baptism, but not an absolute necessity: “Without injurie infants cannot be debarred from the common syne of God’s children,” but “neither yet is this outwarde action of such necessitie, that the lacke thereof shuld be prejudiciall to their salvation, yf that prevented by death, thei may not be conveniently be presented to the church.”[viii] Knox’s fierce opposition to Popery appeared in his contention that Papist baptism is not the “true baptisme whilke Cryst Jesus did institute.”[ix] The problem with the Catholic sacrament was not its connection with the salvation of the infant receiving it, for Knox retained the salvific baptismal doctrine of Reformed theology; the Catholics erred, rather, in the nature, end, and necessity of the grace communicated in infant baptism.
By happy contrast, the medieval English Bible translator Wycliff progressively rejected aspects of the Catholic doctrine of infant baptism. Wycliff taught, “Bodily baptizing is a figure, how mennis soulis shuld be baptisid fro synne both originall and actual. . . . Baptisme is a tokene of waishing of the soule fro synne . . . bi virtu taken of Cristi’s deth.”[x] He taught that the baptismal immersion (the mode practiced upon infants in English Catholicism and early English Protestantism) was a picture of Christ’s death and resurrection, and of the death to sin and resurrection to new life in the one baptized. “And so this water that we ben putte inne is token of Cristis tribulacioun fro his bygynnyng to his deth . . . the baptizing of us in this water betokeneth biriynge of Crist. . . . Oure taking up of this water betokeneth the rysinge of Crist fro deth.[xi] . . .The baptizing of us in this water betokeneth . . . how we ben biried with him fro synne that rengneth in this world. Our takynge up of this water betokeneth . . . how we shulden rise goostli in clennesse of newe life.”[xii] “Wycliffe seems to have argued that the sacrament is not necessary to any who die in infancy, but his protest merely called down Episcopal and conciliar denunciations, and even at a later date ‘Wycliffe of damnable memory’ was still condemned for his conclusion ‘that it is presumptuous to say, that infants dying without baptism will not be saved.’[xiii] . . . In England there had been a long tradition of protest against the belief in an absolute necessity [of baptism for infant salvation], and Wycliffe had already made some pertinent criticisms of it. Perhaps the main reason for his rejection was his refusal to believe that God cannot and will not ‘save an infant unless an old woman or someone perform this ceremony of baptism.’ But again, his doctrine of the twofold baptism made it impossible for him to accept the external rite as the test of the internal work, for after all, could not Christ ‘without any such washing, spiritually baptize, and by consequence save infants?’[xiv] . . . Even in the fourteenth century automatic theories [of baptismal efficacy] had been opposed by such thinkers as Wycliffe, who had separated between the external baptism of water and the inward purgation of the Holy Spirit, which ‘God Himself must do.’[xv]”[xvi] Furthermore, “Wycliffe had had no place for the doctrine of ‘character’[xvii] [an indelible character being conveyed in baptism] and the later Reformers dismissed it as meaningless and artificial. The English attitude was summed up by Tyndale, when he described ‘character’ as ‘one of those feigned words with which the Papists make merchandise.’[xviii]”[xix] It is a matter of historical dispute if Wycliff ever adopted the Baptist baptismal position, but it appears certain that many of the Lollards did. Thus, J. T. Christian, in his History of Baptists, (the chapter “The British Baptist Churches” is cited) wrote:
It is evident that Wyclif made great advances in reform over the Roman Catholic Church of his day. Year after year marked a further departure from Rome and her dogma. In nothing was this more manifest than in infant baptism. In the early years Wyclif firmly believed in the efficacy of infant baptism, but in later years he appears to have greatly modified his views. Thomas Walden gees so far as to call him “one of the seven heads that came out of the bottomless pit for denying infant baptism, that heresy of the Lollards, of whom he was so great a ringleader.” Walsingham says: “That damnable heretic, John Wyclif, reassumed the cursed opinions of Berangarius” (Walsingham, Ypod. Neust., 133), of which it is certain denying infant baptism was one. Collier expressly tells us “he denied the necessity” of infant baptism (Collier, An Ecclesiastical History of Great Britain, III. 185). The statement of Collier is unquestioned. Wyclif did not deny infant baptism itself, but the necessity of it. He did not believe that a child dying unbaptized would be lost (Wall, History of Infant Baptism, I. 436, 437). This was greatly in advance of the age and marked Wyclif at once a heretic and “an enemy of the Church.”
There is no effort in this place to assign Wyclif to a position among Baptist martyrs, but there is no doubt he held firmly to many Baptist positions. Crosby, on the other hand, declared he was a Baptist and argues the question at great length. “I am inclined to believe that Mr. Wyclif,” says he, “was a Baptist, because some men of great note and learning in the Church of Rome, have left it upon record, that he denied infant baptism.” Among other authorities he quotes Joseph Vicecomes (De Bit. Bapt., lib. ii. chap. i). “Besides,” continues Crosby, “they charged him with several of those which are called Anabaptistical errors; such as refusing to take an oath (art. 41. condemned by the Council of Constance), and also that opinion, that dominion is founded in grace (Fuller, Church History of Great Britain, 1.444, Art. 51). Upon these testimonies, some Protestant writers have affirmed that Wyclif was a Baptist, and have put him in the number of those who have borne witness against infant baptism. And had he been a man of scandalous character, that would have brought reproach upon those of that profession, a less proof would have been sufficient to have ranked him among that sect” (Crosby, The History of English Baptists, I. 8, 9).
No doubt the sentiments of Wyclif, on many points, were the same as those of the Baptists, but there is no document known to me that warrants the belief that he was a Baptist (Evans, The Early English Baptists, I. 13).
It is certain that the Lollards, who had preceded Wyclif and had widely diffused their opinions, repudiated infant baptism (Neal, History of the Puritans, II. 354). The testimony of Neal is interesting. He says:
That the denial of the right of infants to baptism was a principle generally maintained among Lollards, is abundantly confirmed by the historians of those times, (Neal, History of the Puritans, II. 354).
The followers of Wyclif and [the] Lollard[s] united and in a short time England was full of the “Bible Men.” “Tis, therefore, most reasonable to conclude,” says Crosby, “that those persons were Baptists, and on that account baptized those that came over to their sect, and professed the true faith, and desired to be baptized into it” (Crosby, I. 17).
The Lollards practiced believers’ baptism and denied infant baptism. Fox says one of the articles of faith among them was “that faith ought to precede baptism.” This at least was the contention of a large portion of those people.
The Lollard movement was later merged into the Anabaptist, and this was hastened by the fact that their political principles were identical (Hook, Lives of the Archbishops of Canterbury, VI. 123). The Lollards continued to the days of the Reformation. Mosheim says: “The Wyclifites, though obliged to keep concealed, had not been exterminated by one hundred and fifty years of persecution” (Mosheim, Institutes of Ecclesiastical History, III. 49).
[i] Wesley, sermon, The New Birth.
[ii] Cited in chapter 9, The Evils of Infant Baptism, Robert Boyt C. Howell, accessed in the Fundamental Baptist CD-Rom Library, Oak Harbor, WA: Way of Life Literature, 2003.
[iii] Charles Wesley’s Journal, 18 October 1756, 2:128.
[iv] Pg. 11, Baptism, Bromiley, citing Knox, IV, pg. 172.
[v] Pg. 17, Baptism, Bromiley, citing Knox, IV, pg. 172 and Knox, IV, pg. 123, respectively.
[vi] Pg. 20, Baptism, Bromiley, citing Knox, IV, pg. 188.
[vii] Pg. 29, Baptism, Bromiley, citing Knox’s Liturgy: Baptism.
[viii] Pg. 54-55, Baptism, Bromiley, citing Knox, IV, pg. 186.
[ix] Pg. 9 Baptism, Bromiley, citing Knox, I, pg. 19.
[x] Pg. 19, Baptism, Bromiley, citing Arnold, II, pg. 328.
[xi] Pg. 22, Baptism, Bromiley, citing Arnold, II, pg. 258.
[xii] Pg. 24, Baptism, Bromiley, citing Arnold, II, pg. 258.
[xiii] Pg. 50, Baptism, Bromiley, citing H. Hart, Ecclesiastical Records, pgs. 365, 386.
[xiv] Pg. 55, Baptism, Bromiley, citing Trialogus, pg. 160.
[xv] Arnold, II, pg. 4.
[xvi] Pg. 186, Baptism, Bromiley.
[xvii] Wycliff, Trialogus, pg. 157-159.
[xviii] Tyndale, Parker Society Series, I, pg. 342.
[xix] Pg. 182, Baptism, Bromiley.