The Wikipedia articles on affusion and catechesis contain the following (unsourced) claims:

The most common use [of affusion], however, was for ill or dying people who could not rise from their beds. It was consequently known as "baptism of the sick". Receiving this baptism was regarded as a bar to Holy Orders, but this sprang from the person's having put off baptism until the last moment—a practice that in the fourth century became common, with people enrolling as catechumens but not being baptized for years or decades. While the practice was decried at the time, the intent of the criticism was not to encourage baptism by immersion, but to refrain from delaying baptism.

In the fourth century, a widespread practice arose of enrolling as a catechumen and deferring baptism for years, often until shortly before death, and when so ill that the normal practice of immersion was impossible, so that aspersion or affusion—the baptism of the sick—was necessary.

I find myself at a loss to come up with a motivation or explanation for this alleged behaviour. From a post here by James T I understand early Christian communities may have imposed fairly lengthy periods of instruction for catechumens—even a period of three years would be "nothing particularly special", according to James. The intent, on the part of the receiving church members, was to ensure the converts' beliefs were both sincere and orthodox. However, this doesn't explain why the converts themselves would want to defer their baptism for so long after the mandatory period of instruction. Even presuming that someone sought a Christian affiliation only to improve their social status, as Augustine of Hippo condemned, what advantage was there for them in remaining unbaptised? And if such a person was insincere in their beliefs, why bother with a deathbed baptism at all?

So in summary, my questions are as follows:

  1. Is it true, as the articles above state, that it was common in the distant past for converts themselves (i.e., not the church) to delay baptism for decades, or even until shortly before death?

  2. If so, what were their reasons for doing so?

  • See Hebrews 10:26.
    – user46876
    Commented Sep 2, 2020 at 12:08
  • I can't speak to Catholic church history, but I believe Ezekiel 18 has been used to justify death-bed repentance, and would therefore contribute to those early beliefs. Taken at its word, it preaches that no matter how evil a person, if they turn away from their evil (at any time) and live in righteousness, they're saved. From that simple perspective, it looks like a loop-hole because the chapter doesn't dwell on the sincerity of the conversion.
    – JBH
    Commented Sep 5, 2020 at 2:09

1 Answer 1


In the first centuries CE, religious instruction was at first given after baptism. In later centuries, believers were given increasingly specific instructions before being baptized, especially in the face of heresies in the 4th century.

By the fourth and fifth centuries CE, baptism had become a several-week-long rite leading up to the actual baptismal washing on Easter. During this time, catechumens attended several meetings of intensive catechetical instruction, often by the bishop himself, and often accompanied by special prayers, exorcisms, and other rites. By then, postponement of baptism had become general, and a large proportion of believers were merely catechumens (Constantine was not baptized until he was dying); but as baptisms of the children of Christians, using an adaptation of the rite intended for adults, became more common than baptisms of adult converts, the number of catechumens decreased.

The motivation for postponing baptism was likely that baptism was believed to forgive sins, so the issue of sins committed after baptism arose (the general practice of confession was not established until the 11th century CE).

  • A good start. But it would be greatly improved if you could attach some sources to this post.
    – Ken Graham
    Commented Sep 2, 2020 at 14:55

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .