The word baptism derives from Greek (the language of much of the New Testament) and means washing or dipping, to cleanse.

Baptism in the Gospels

Jesus' baptismIn the early chapters of the Gospels (e.g. Matthew 3:13-17) we read of Jesus' cousin, John the Baptist, baptising people in the River Jordan, as a sign of repentance for sin. Jesus himself came to be baptised, though John was reluctant, saying ‘I need to be baptised by you!' When Jesus came out of the water, ‘heaven was opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending' on him in the form of a dove (see Big ideas: Dove). This marked the beginning of his public ministry. Before his Ascension, Jesus told his followers to ‘make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit' (Matthew 28:19).

Baptism in the Early Church

Baptism in water became a Christian sacrament of initiation into the church. In his letters, Paul explains that going under water symbolises sharing in the death of Christ and thereby dying to one's former sinful life: ‘We were buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead … we too may live a new life' (Romans 6:4). Baptism by being totally immersed in water was a public act of witness, and is still practised in this way by some Christian denominations, notably Baptists. Other Christian denominations simply sprinkle or pour water over the head instead.

‘Infant baptism'

There are occasions recorded in the New Testament, when whole families, probably including children too young to understand, were baptised. Many Christian denominations baptise babies and small children.


The term christening (literally ‘making Christian') is often used instead of baptism, in churches such as those belonging to the Church of England, which baptise babies. Godparents make promises on the child's behalf, which it is hoped the child will confirm for themselves later.


Baptism is also linked with name-giving; hence the term ‘Christian name' for first name. While today we associate this mainly with infant baptism, conversion from other faiths or pagan practices has also traditionally been marked by giving a new name.

Baptism of fire

Tongues of fire at PentecostThe expression ‘baptism of fire' comes from John the Baptist's prophecy that Jesus would ‘baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire' (Luke 3:16) (see Big ideas: Fire). Jesus told his disciples, ‘John baptised with water, but in a few days you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit' (Acts 1:5). When this happened on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-5), ‘tongues of fire' rested on each disciple. Today, the expression means a challenging situation or ordeal, faced for the first time.

Baptism in literature

Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles

Some people believe it is essential for babies to be baptised to ensure they will go to heaven. In Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, set in 19th century England, Tess baptises her dying, illegitimate baby herself, so that he will be saved and be with God in heaven. However, she cannot have him buried in consecrated ground because people believed then that someone could only be buried in consecrated ground if they had been baptised by a priest in the church.

Related topics

Big ideas: Dove; Fire

Other cultural references

Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles

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