The Bible describes several adults being baptized (notably Jesus and the Ethiopian eunuch that Phillip baptized). And while it mentions many others being baptized, it doesn't explicitly mention infants (although supporters of infant baptism do have a biblical basis).

What is the earliest explicit mention in historical documents of infants being baptized? I'm guessing that such a mention might take the form of a specific reference to an individual or group of infants being baptized, or something like instructions for the process of baptizing infants.

(To clarify, I am looking for explicit references to infant baptism outside of the Bible; there is considerable debate over whether the scriptures support infant baptism or if they only allowed for credobaptism alone. All of that is more suited to other questions on this site).

  • 1
    Arguably, the baptism of households are explicit (i.e. oikos-baptism). Not to mention a clear link between baptism and circumcision in Col. 2:11-12. But I'd recommend reading Joachim Jeremias' Infant Baptism, along with Kurt Aland's rebuttal and Jeremias' response (three separate books) for a lengthy discussion of sources. – Dan Apr 21 '18 at 18:25
  • @Dan I’d like something more solid than “arguably”, although that is useful supplementary information (although as I stated, I’m looking for references outside of the Bible). – Thunderforge Apr 21 '18 at 18:44
  • Understood @Thunderforge that’s why I only commented. When a historical event is being questioned based on a lack of explicit evidence, I avoid spending much more time than just commenting, sorry. I can’t find historical evidence that Jesus ever went poop, either. The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. The enduring practice of infant baptism is evidence of its prevalence in the early Church, yet the burden of proof has somehow been flipped in Protestant-dominated scholarship. – Dan Apr 21 '18 at 21:47

What is the earliest explicit mention of infant baptism?

For those who prefer the Sacred Scriptures:

Peter replied, “Each of you must repent of your sins and turn to God, and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This promise is to you, to your children, and to those far away[a]—all who have been called by the Lord our God.” - Acts 2:38-39

It seems that St. Irenaeus (202 AD) is the earliest to reference to the practice of infant baptism. In 185 AD, he wrote the following:

Irenaeus, c. A.D. 185:

He came to save all through means of Himself—all … who through Him are born again to God—infants, and children, and boys, and youths, and old men. He therefore passed through every age, becoming an infant for infants, thus sanctifying infants; a child for children, thus sanctifying those who are of this age, being at the same time made to them an example of piety, righteousness, and submission … (Against Heresies II:22:4)

Note here that the term "born again" was synonymous with baptism to early Christians. That really didn't change until the time of the pietists in the 17th century. - Infant Baptism

There is no argument against infant baptism in the Early Church although Tertullian himself favored believer's baptism.

One argument in support of the baptism of infants comes from the fact that controversy over the practice is conspicuously absent from the history of the early church. There is no question that Origen was baptized as an infant in 180 A.D., just 80 years after the death of the last Apostle, John the Evangelist. There are other possible references to infant baptism at earlier dates, but these references are somewhat unclear in their meaning. Born in the mid fourth century (358 A.D.), Augustine wrote, "This doctrine is held by the whole church, not instituted by councils, but always retained." Tertullian (ca. 155-230) did argue in favor of believer's baptism, but this was in reaction to the un-biblical practice that was being taught in some areas that Christians should wait to be baptized until just before death, and not in reaction to infant baptism. Francis Schaeffer argued, "Those who would teach that the practice of the early Church was not infant baptism should be able to show in Church History when it started. There is no such break recorded." - Infant baptism

For more on infant baptism and the Church Fathers one can read this:


“He [Jesus] came to save all through himself; all, I say, who through him are reborn in God: infants, and children, and youths, and old men. Therefore he passed through every age, becoming an infant for infants, sanctifying infants; a child for children, sanctifying those who are of that age . . . [so that] he might be the perfect teacher in all things, perfect not only in respect to the setting forth of truth, perfect also in respect to relative age” (Against Heresies 2:22:4 [A.D. 189]).

“‘And [Naaman] dipped himself . . . seven times in the Jordan’ [2 Kgs. 5:14]. It was not for nothing that Naaman of old, when suffering from leprosy, was purified upon his being baptized, but [this served] as an indication to us. For as we are lepers in sin, we are made clean, by means of the sacred water and the invocation of the Lord, from our old transgressions, being spiritually regenerated as newborn babes, even as the Lord has declared: ‘Except a man be born again through water and the Spirit, he shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven’ [John 3:5]” (Fragment 34 [A.D. 190]).


"Baptize first the children, and if they can speak for themselves let them do so. Otherwise, let their parents or other relatives speak for them" (The Apostolic Tradition 21:16 [A.D. 215]).


“Every soul that is born into flesh is soiled by the filth of wickedness and sin. . . . In the Church, baptism is given for the remission of sins, and, according to the usage of the Church, baptism is given even to infants. If there were nothing in infants which required the remission of sins and nothing in them pertinent to forgiveness, the grace of baptism would seem superfluous” (Homilies on Leviticus 8:3 [A.D. 248]).

“The Church received from the apostles the tradition of giving baptism even to infants. The apostles, to whom were committed the secrets of the divine sacraments, knew there are in everyone innate strains of [original] sin, which must be washed away through water and the Spirit” (Commentaries on Romans 5:9 [A.D. 248]). - The Church Fathers: Infant Baptism

For those interested the following question may be helpful: Has the term “born again” always been synonymous with baptism with the Christians of the Early Church?

Use the "Comment" button if you can find a reliable, accurate reference to an original pre-17th century document that separates the term "born again" from baptism. I'd be happy to see it.

| improve this answer | |
  • 2
    Irenaeus doesn't mention infant baptism and Tertullian is a proponent of credobaptism (knowing what you are doing). Likewise Justin Martyr says you didn't get to choose your parents, but you may choose God as your Father (again credobaptism). That is the early church belief. Faith comes by hearing. – SLM Apr 21 '18 at 13:35
  • 3
    The Irenaeus quote doesn't reference baptism at all. It boggles the mind how you think this counts as 'explicit'. – bruised reed Apr 21 '18 at 16:57
  • 1
    Yeah, I'm having a hard time seeing an explicit reference to infant baptism in the Iraneus quotes (the fact that you didn't bold any part of it may be a sign of this). The quote from Origen is much clearer and the sort of thing I had in mind. Also, it would be worth clarifying that your second quote is an encyclopedia summary and not a primary source. – Thunderforge Apr 21 '18 at 17:55
  • 2
  • 1
    This is a great answer, I'm guessing those commenting in here came in with equal and opposite preconceived notions, so I'm just going to lay this comment in here to cancel out the noise (instead of deleting it, which is what I probably should do). – Peter Turner Apr 23 '18 at 13:30

There are various passages in the New Testament and early Christian writers which have been interpreted to imply or support infant baptism. However, since you ask for explicit mentions, I'm going focus on ones that are unambiguous. Irenaeaus of Lyon's Against Heresies 2:22:4 hangs on the meaning of "born again" in his era.

The first unambiguous discussion of infant baptism is the argument against the practice in Tertullian of Carthage's On Baptism 18 (198-203 CE). I offer two translations:

Tertullian, as translated by Sydney Thelwall (1885)

according to the circumstances and disposition, and even age, of each individual, the delay of baptism is preferable; principally, however, in the case of little children. ... The Lord does indeed say, “Forbid them not to come unto me.” Let them “come,” then, while they are growing up; let them “come” while they are learning, while they are learning whither to come; let them become Christians when they have become able to know Christ. Why does the innocent period of life hasten to the “remission of sins?” More caution will be exercised in worldly matters: so that one who is not trusted with earthly substance is trusted with divine! Let them know how to “ask” for salvation, that you may seem (at least) to have given “to him that asketh.” ... If any understand the weighty import of baptism, they will fear its reception more than its delay

Tertullian, as translated by Alexander Souter (1919):

in view of the circumstances and will, even the age of each person, a postponement of Baptism is most advantageous, particularly, however, in the case of children. ... The Lord indeed says: "Forbid them not to come unto Me." Let them come, then, while they are growing up; let them come while they are learning, while they are being taught whither to come; let them become Christians, when they have been able to know Christ. Why hurries the age of innocence to the remission of sins? Shall we act more cautiously in worldly matters? Shall one to whom earthly substance is not entrusted, be entrusted with heavenly? Let them know how to seek salvation, that you may be seen "to give to him that asketh." ... If any should understand the importance of Baptism, they will be more afraid of its consequences than of its postponement; unimpaired faith is sure of salvation.

The view that Tertullian was the first unambiguous reference to infant baptism was affirmed by Lutheran scholar Heinrich August Wilhelm Meyer (Commentary on Acts [16:15], New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1883, p. 312).

Importantly, however, as I read it, the Tertullian passage indicates that others are at least considering infant baptism at his time. Tertullian seems to be responding to someone else quoting Jesus statement, "Forbid them not to come unto Me", in favor of infant baptism.

The challenge of such a late dating of infant baptism is that not long thereafter, Origen of Alexandria, who was incredibly knowledgeable and widely traveled, takes the practice for granted as normative:

Every soul that is born into flesh is soiled by the filth of wickedness and sin. ... In the Church, baptism is given for the remission of sins, and, according to the usage of the Church, baptism is given even to infants. If there were nothing in infants which required the remission of sins and nothing in them pertinent to forgiveness, the grace of baptism would seem superfluous (Homilies on Leviticus 8:3 [248 CE])

The Church received from the apostles the tradition of giving baptism even to infants. The apostles, to whom were committed the secrets of the divine sacraments, knew there are in everyone innate strains of [original] sin, which must be washed away through water and the Spirit (Commentaries on Romans 5:9 [248 CE])

Around the same time about 252 CE, Cyprian wrote a report from a council of sixty-six bishops affirming that baptism should take place shortly after birth against the view of Fidus that they should be baptized on the eighth day after birth. These sixty-six bishops seem to take infant baptism for granted, and evidently there were no vocal opponents of infant baptism in the conversation. (There were several councils of Carthage from 251-254 or so, and it's not clear which one this letter is from.)

It is clear that we are lacking in reliable records on this topic for early centuries. As Adolf Harnack said, "Complete obscurity prevails as to the Church's adoption of the practice of child baptism" Adolf Harnack, History of Dogma, Volume 2, 1896 [1885], p. 142.

I should also mention that The Apostolic Tradition, an important work with 3rd century or earlier content, includes this passage:

“Baptize first the children, and if they can speak for themselves let them do so. Otherwise, let their parents or other relatives speak for them” (21:16)

However, The Apostolic Tradition has an unclear transmission and editorial history, and the majority of the work seems to assume adult converts, so it isn't very helpful in dating the emergence of the practice.

In short, our first clear source on infant baptism is an opponent around 200 CE, but our next sources around 250 CE show support for infant baptism was widespread, and regard the practice as old and uncontroversial.

| improve this answer | |

The early church taught credobaptism or believer's baptism. Like at Acts 2:37. Peter preached (first time using the keys to Jews). They heard and believed and were baptized. Same later when Peter uses the keys for the first time with Gentiles at Cornelius'.

Subsequently, Tertullian CE 200 and Justin Martyr CE 150 teach this, learning from apostles.

And for this [baptismal rite] we have learned from the apostles this reason. Since at our birth we were born without our own knowledge or choice, by our parents coming together, and were brought up in bad habits and wicked training; in order that we may not remain the children of necessity and of ignorance, but may become the children of choice and knowledge, and may obtain in the water the remission of sins formerly committed, there is pronounced over him who chooses to be born again, and has repented of his sins, the name of God the Father and Lord of the universe; he who leads to the laver the person that is to be washed calling him by this name alone. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.viii.ii.lxi.html

Most trace the idea of infant baptism to begin about the time of Cyprian CE 240. Interestingly Cyprian is in the line from Tertullian.

But again, if even to the greatest sinners, and to those who had sinned much against God, when they subsequently believed, remission of sins is granted—and nobody is hindered from baptism and from grace—how much rather ought we to shrink from hindering an infant, who, being lately born, has not sinned, except in that, being born after the flesh according to Adam, he has contracted the contagion of the ancient death at its earliest birth, who approaches the more easily on this very account to the reception of the forgiveness of sins—that to him are remitted, not his own sins, but the sins of another. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf05.iv.iv.lviii.html

After Cyprian comes Augustine about CE 400 with the same thinking as a result from his belief in original sin. Man is born dead, as a consequence of inheriting Adam's sin. Babies too are born in sin. If they die, Augustine taught, they go to hell. This evil belief lingers today in certain churches. The solution? Get them water baptized. Forget what apostles and the early church taught. See Augustine's Against Pelagius.

So, Scripture and the early church taught credobaptism. Christ who said, "Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven. Mt. 19:13". The earliest reference to infant baptism appears to come from Cyprian who is followed by Augustine.

| improve this answer | |
  • 5
    -1 because the question did not ask if credobaptism is part of the deposit of truth, but rather asking what the earliest explicit record of infant baptism is. – aska123 Apr 21 '18 at 15:47
  • 2
    How would you respond to the Origen quote in Ken's answer? – bruised reed Apr 21 '18 at 16:58
  • @bruisedreed I'd say I'm glad he did more research and edited his answer. On Origen, it'd be nice if he could link to the actual comments, so we may all see them (see a comment under his answer). And of course some do not think Origen an ECF, being labeled a heretic. Not sure he's the best source to prove a Christian doctrine. Re: credobaptism, it is necessary for readers to understand what happened. For the early church, it was the formula believe and be baptized. For heretics and Augustine, it was don't believe (infants), go to hell because of original sin, so be baptized and be saved. – SLM Apr 21 '18 at 18:14
  • Discussion of Augustine for this question is absurd. By his time, infant baptism was the dominant Christian practice, so his opinion hardly matters in a discussion of the practice's origins. – sondra.kinsey Jan 3 '19 at 11:52
  • @sondra.kinsey True enough; the points, among others, were to trace the teaching of infant baptism with Augustine as the rock of that POV (it may be the reason most today practice infant baptism as their origin) and to counter the assumption that Irenaeus supported infant baptism. – SLM Jan 3 '19 at 15:28

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.