Baptism at Southern Christian Institute

Baptism holds a central place in Stone-Campbell theology as an essential component of God's plan of salvation. Two important aspects of baptism have been held as key to understanding the act through the two centuries of Stone-Campbell history:

  • Scriptural baptism, and therefore the only acceptable form of baptism, is the immersion of penitent believers.
  • Baptism is the act through which God remits the sins of the penitent believer.

Both Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell inherited and retained John Calvin's view of baptism as an outward sign of the Christian’s piety toward him. Baptism is not a mechanical act; it is the act by which believers surrender their lives to God in faith and obedience. In the Stone-Campbell tradition it is through baptism's transformative power that believers change their state and become members of God's kingdom.

Campbell began to question the efficacy of infant baptism, and his quest led him to undertake an extensive study on the subject. His study led him to conclude that adult believers should be baptized and that the scriptural mode of baptism was by immersion. On June 12, 1812, Alexander and Thomas Campbell, their wives, one of Alexander's sisters, and several other members of the Brush Run Church were immersed on a simple profession of faith in Christ.

For Alexander Campbell, baptism was for penitent believers ready to subject themselves to God. This must be a conscious decision, and infants had no power to say yes or no, nor did they have any sins to be remitted through the act of baptism.

One can study Campbell's views in depth in the published debates he held with Presbyterians John Walker in 1820 and W. L. McCalla in 1823.  Between 1820 and 1823 there appears a discernible shift in his opinion on when forgiveness takes place. In Campbell's debate with Walker he held that baptism was the sign of the salvation already received by the faithful believer. The renewing of the Holy Spirit led the believer to baptism. On these points Campbell's position was in agreement with that of the Baptists.

By 1823 Campbell was linking forgiveness of sins directly to the act of baptism. "I do earnestly contend that God, through the blood of Christ, forgives our sins through immersion -- through the very act and in the very instant." A person is not clean before he or she is washed, Campbell argued.  Baptism, with faith as the principle of action, is the means by which God, through the blood of Christ, imparts forgiveness.

In the 1830s Campbell became occupied with three vital questions that he felt pressed to answer in his teaching on baptism:

  1. Is baptism a work by which one secures pardon for sin?
    Campbell's answer: "We do not place baptism among good works. In baptism we are passive in everything but in giving our consent."
  2. Does ignorance of the full significance of ones immersion invalidate it and require the person to submit to "rebaptism"?
    Campbell's answer: If a person had been baptized upon a simple confession of faith in Christ, he or she was a citizen of God's kingdom. It was in baptism that ones sins were forgiven, but knowledge of this at the time of ones baptism was not an essential of the necessary faith. Campbell gave as an example Paul explaining the meaning of baptism to the Roman, Galatian, and Corinthian Christians after they had been baptized.
  3. Are there true Christians who have not been immersed? Are all those living lives of faith in Christ but who, through ignorance or honest misunderstanding, have never been immersed condemned to eternal damnation?
    Campbell's answer: Since baptism was both an inward and an outward act, it was possible for a person to be changed inwardly yet not to be scripturally baptized. " is possible for Christians to be imperfect in some respects without an absolute forfeiture of the Christian state and character."

Campbell insisted that he was not speaking of those who obstinately rejected this or any ordinance or who willingly remained ignorant of God's will.  And Campbell's recognition of unimmersed believers did not extend to accepting them as members of the visible church. On this issue, he disagreed with Barton W. Stone, whose followers generally practiced open membership (acceptance of the pious unimmersed).

Barton W. Stone's reformatory work began before Campbell's, but for his group baptism was not as crucial an issue. By 1807 he had come to support believers' immersion as the proper form of baptism, but felt the matter should be left to the individual's conscience. Stone urged forbearance between the immersed and the unimmersed.

Stone at first rejected Campbell's view of baptism for the remission of sins but later came to agree with him on the connection between baptism and forgiveness.

The only real difference between Stone's and Campbell's views on baptism was the admittance of unimmersed believers into the church. Stone did not exclude these individuals, while Campbell did. Stone thought that was wrong:  "We therefore teach the doctrine, believe, repent and be immersed for the remission of sins; and we endeavor to convince our hearers of its truth; but we exercise patience and forbearance towards such pious persons who cannot be convinced."

The Three Streams

Churches of Christ
This stream of Stone-Campbell Christians has been the most strict in their stance on baptism. In the Churches of Christ only those who are adult believers and are immersed are Christians. It is in the act of baptism that forgiveness takes place. Baptism is an act of obedience, and salvation is not received until obedience is complete.

The main point of contention regarding baptism in Churches of Christ came in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and was debated in the pages of David Lipscomb's Gospel Advocate and Austin McGary's Firm Foundation. Lipscomb, like Campbell, held the position that baptism was valid even without explicit knowledge that it was for remission of sins. McGary and his followers believed that baptism as a simple act of obedience was not enough to make it valid. McGary also held that only the Church of Christ taught baptism for the remission of sins. So anyone who had been immersed in another religious group must be "rebaptized" in order to be saved and become a member of the Church of Christ. The debate raged for over a decade, and McGary's became the prevalent one, although Lipscomb's opinion has often been accepted in middle Tennessee, where his influence was greatest.

Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and Christian Churches/Churches of Christ
The major points of contention for these two streams was whether the pious unimmersed may be admitted to membership. Admittance of the unimmersed without the requirement of rebaptism came to be known as open membership and by the mid-twentieth century was the prevalent position of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). 

Two influential studies were written in the early twentieth century which helped give shape to the open membership debate. The first, written by Charles Clayton Morrison, was entitled The Meaning of Baptism, published in 1914. Morrison favored open membership and in this book he set forth the reasons supporting his view. Three years later, Frederick D. Kershner responded with Christian Baptism, in which he took the position that only immersed believers should be admitted to membership.

Morrison argued that immerson should not be a test and that making it one reduced it to a mechanical act. He also pointed out that the early Christians used immersion because it was already familiar as a purification rite. Morrison held that the Disciples should continue immersion, as it would promote unity and help keep the peace within the church.

Frederick Kershner, on the other hand, argued that immersion was central to the act of baptism. Based on his reading of Romans 6 and I Corinthians 15 he concluded that baptism symbolizes the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus and the Christian hope of resurrection.

By the 1920s the open membership issue was a full blown controversy in the Disciples of Christ, dividing them into two separate communions. By the 1970s they had split into two churches, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ.

Other voices entered the discussion of open membership and the meaning of baptism:

  • Historian Robert Fife presented "The Inclusiveness of Church Membership" in 1963 at the 4th Consultation on Christian Unity of the Christian Churches. While defending immersion as the scriptural mode of baptism, Fife tried to strike a balance between excessive legalism and excessive accommodation. He urged a gentle approach to convincing believers to be immersed.
  • The same year Joseph Belcastro wrote The Relationship of Baptism to Church Membership. He concluded from his study of the history of baptism that baptism had never been intended as an initiatory rite or as a requirement for salvation. Rather it was an expression of the life and witness of people who, by their faith in Jesus, were already members. No specific mode of baptism need be required.
  • In 1987, the Council on Christian Unity published Baptism: Embodiment of the Gospel: Disciples Baptismal Theology, by Clark Williamson. In this book, Williamson opened up the discussion to include many possibilities not previously widely considered in the Disciples community. His study and research led Williamson to conclude that, though the New Testament gives us little concrete information about baptism in the early church, there is a variety of interpretation that can be inferred from a close reading of the Gospels, the book of Acts, and the epistles of Paul. Williamson stressed the importance of understanding the act of baptism in the context of God's grace and the Christian's response of faith, resulting in the transformed life of discipleship.


Presently, baptism is viewed in the light of its transformative power. Through the act of baptism Christians surrender their lives to God in faith and obedience and take their place as citizens of  his kingdom.

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