It has been shown elsewhere that John Oecolampad, before the rise of the Anabaptists, did not defend infant baptism. When he realized that an exclusive state-church necessitated the baptism of infants, he became a zealous advocate of this practice. Nevertheless, he was clearly at a loss to find a Scripture basis for his new position. He openly confessed to Zwingli that he had never ventured to assert that infant baptism could be supported by a divine commandment, but for the sake of Christian love and for the reason that it was necessary for the prosperity of the church, the pious should not discard it. In his opinion, the welfare of the church demanded that infants should be baptized. That he had difficulty in persuading his own friends of the rightfulness of infant baptism is evidenced by his letter to William Farel, of February 6, 1525, in which he complains that many of his own circle were against him on this question.
In his principal book against the Anabaptists (1527) he says: “I have never made a commandment in point of the time when such rites should be observed … and I should be willing to postpone baptism until the third year, if such a course were not connected with so many dangers at this time.” To the reformers of Bern he wrote: “We make no law concerning day and year [of baptism], but we demand that our opponents take a similar attitude.” In this way Oecolampad desired to compromise the question with the Anabaptists and was willing to postpone baptism if they would desist from making believers’ baptism a point at issue.
Another reason for Oecolampad’s willingness to postpone (infant) baptism for a time is not far to seek. For years after he had become the leading reformer of Basel and after he had discontinued the practice of exorcism in St. Martins church, many priests of the city continued exorcism and other curious ceremonies in connection with baptism. These usages were retained until the Zwinglian Church was made the state church, in 1529. Those who were Zwinglian at heart, but happened to live in parishes whose priests persisted in the old forms, must have been loath to bring their children to them for baptism, hence it was natural for Oecolampad to desire that baptism might in certain instances be postponed a few years. But whether such a delay in the matter of baptism was ever officially permitted at Basel is not certain. In 1527 Oecolampad says in the above-mentioned book against the Anabaptists: “However, it is true, the Papists’ baptism may well be called an abomination for the sake of the abuses [exorcism, etc.] which go with it; I agree with you [the Anabaptists] on this point. — A Christian should not have his children baptized where such errors are considered right in baptism; but of such abominations, you find none in our way to baptize.”
At the time of his first discussions with the Anabaptists, in 1525, however, Oecolampad although he had for years laboured as a Zwinglian reformer, still observed these “abominations.” In his first book against the Anabaptists, written in this year, he says: “I was also reproached by them because we observe strange ceremonies in infant baptism, namely exorcism of demons, giving of salt, the use of tapers, saliva, breathing upon, etc. These things I would not defend and did by no means commend them.” But since the Council at that time (August, 1525) did not permit the abolition of these customs, he consented to observe them.
Oecolampad held that baptism should be practised not for the sake of the one who is baptized but for the neighbour’s sake. Plainly it is not an easy task to defend infant baptism from this point of view. An infant can not have any obligation toward his neighbour. He advanced the argument that “infant baptism was never forbidden from the time of the apostles,” but was a general practice. It is a remarkable fact that the first important confession of the state-church of Basel does not contain an article on baptism.
Martin Bucer, the leading Zwinglian minister of Strasburg (besides Luther and Melanchthon the greatest of the German reformers) defended infant baptism for reasons of expediency, though faith-baptism alone answered fully to his definitions of baptism. Hassencamp says correctly that “he entertained various doubts regarding infant baptism; he preferred to dwell primarily on the baptism of those who have come to an age of understanding and spoke of infant baptism only supplementarily, pointing to catechising and to Confirmation.” And Gustav Anrich, the most recent biographer of Bucer says: “Though the reformers of Strasburg retained infant baptism and Bucer defended it as not contrary to Scripture, nevertheless there remained among them a certain reluctance in the defence of this practice.”
It was Bucer who first introduced the rite of Confirmation in the new state-church; he is father of this rite among the German Protestants. Recent investigation has elucidated the fact that Confirmation was introduced as a concession to those who were favourably inclined toward Anabaptism. At Strasburg and in Hesse large sections of the population were influenced by the Anabaptists. That everyone was made a member of the ruling church without his knowledge and consent was severely criticized and Anabaptism spread at an alarming rate. Hence Bucer, upon the suggestion of Schwenckfeld, decided that Confirmation should be practised. In connection with this rite the young people should confess their faith and make the vow which others were supposed to have made for them when baptism was administered to them in their infancy. Later Confirmation was generally practised among the Lutherans and Zwinglians. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries a number of religious denominations arose which retained infant baptism but advanced the new idea that baptism is not the rite of initiation into the Christian church and does not convey the right of membership, a thought that is foreign to Scripture teaching.
Bucer’s most prominent co-worker in Strasburg, Wolfgang Capito, for years openly favoured the abolishment of infant baptism; it was feared by his colleagues that he would unite with the Anabaptists.