Baptism in the Westminster Directory for the Publick Worship of God

So I’m not a Presbyterian anymore. That’s old news. But I’m still reading a lot of the same books, and I still pay attention to the same time period of the English Reformation. And now as an Anglican, one surprising discovery is just how much of a common “family resemblance” can be found in the 17th century between the various church parties. Don’t get worried all you Anglicans. I’m not trying to interpret Anglicanism in light of Presbyterianism. I know you hate it when people do that. But, at the same time, I think Anthony Milton is simply correct to point out that the big theological and ecclesiological events of the 17th century in English Protestantism were all events that included the same overarching group of people who were coming from the same place, many of whom understood themselves to be working on the same project and even in the same institution. The Westminster Assembly was an act of Parliament in England with the intention of producing documents for the establishment church of England. It failed, but that was its self understanding. Many of the divines at the Assembly had been practicing “Anglican” clergy before the English Revolution, and a few of them even returned to that mode of ministry after the Restoration. There’s a lot of discontinuity, to be sure, but there are still some surprising points of continuity. And ironically, becoming Anglican has helped me to understand the Westminster documents more clearly.

For one case study, I would like to take a look at the way the Westminster Directory for the Publick Worship of God treats baptism. This document is basically a dead letter now. I have never known a Presbyterian minister who used this version of the Directory. Later American Presbyterian church bodies have entirely rewritten their directories for worship. I don’t know if anyone ever used the original directory or if it was just a “suggestion” that never got taken up. But the Puritans did write it, and it’s in the history books. So I am not arguing that “the Presbyterian doctrine of baptism is X” nor that Presbyterians and Anglicans should have the same baptismal liturgy. Instead, I want to locate some interesting common features between the Westminster Directory for the Publick Worship of God and the primary baptismal liturgy of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. In this post, I will lay out the basic structure of the Directory’s liturgy for baptism and highlight some of its notable features and phrases. In a later installment, I will do the same with the BCP’s baptism liturgy. Finally, I will compare and contrast the two services.

The Opening Explanation and Exhortations

Surprisingly, the Directory does not state that baptisms have to take place in the normal Sunday worship service. It simply says that baptisms should be conducted “in the place of publick worship and in the face of the congregation.” Private baptisms are disallowed, but a special service for the primary purpose of baptism is not. The Directory also does not provide a place for the taking of vows. These may be understood to have already occurred, though there may also have been Puritan protests against vows in the case of infant baptism. It’s not clear to me from the document itself, and the omission is noteworthy. Then the father or some other “Christian friend” is said to present the child to the minister. After that, comes the main format.

First, there is an opening explanation of what baptism is all about. The minister is to explain the institution, nature, use, and ends of the sacrament. A sample explanation is provided. The water is said to be a sign of the covenant and to represent the blood of Christ, “which taketh away all guilt of sin, original or actual.” It also symbolizes the dying to sin and rising to new life. This promise is said to extend to the children of believers because of the covenant promise. We are also reminded that Jesus welcomed little children into his arms. The baptized child is said to be separated from the world and received into the church by their baptism. They are also, by their baptism, “bound to fight against the devil, the world, and the flesh.” Such children are said to be Christians, and then an explanation is given for this, they are “federally holy before baptism.” Indeed, this is why they are to be baptized, as a way to confirm what is already understood to be the case. Then there is a closing line which states that the efficacy of baptism is not inseparably tied to the moment of administration. This means that unbaptized infants are not necessarily damned, and also that baptism can work itself out later in the life of the child. This general section then concludes with an exhortation to the congregation, that they “look back to their baptism,” and to the parent that they must raise the child in the faith.

The Prayer for Sanctifying the Water

The second section of the Directory’s baptismal liturgy is the sanctification of the baptismal water. This might surprise a modern Presbyterian, but the Directory states:

This being done, prayer is also to be joined with the word of institution, for sanctifying the water to this spiritual use; and the minister is to pray to this or the like effect:

“That the Lord, who hath not left us as strangers without the covenant of promise, but called us to the privileges of his ordinances, would graciously vouchsafe to sanctify and bless his own ordinance of baptism at this time: That he would join the inward baptism of his Spirit with the outward baptism of water; make this baptism to the infant a seal of adoption, remission of sin, regeneration, and eternal life, and all other promises of the covenant of grace: That the child may be planted into the likeness of the death and resurrection of Christ; and that, the body of sin being destroyed in him, he may serve God in newness of life all his days.”

Beyond the interesting description of this being a sanctification of the water, notice what the prayer is asking of God. The minister asks God to “sanctify and bless his own ordinance of baptism at this time.” Then it gets more specific. The minister asks God to join the inward baptism of the Holy Spirit to the outward baptism of water, the outward baptism of water that is just about to happen. And then the effects of that sanctifying union are explained.

After this prayer, the minister demands the child’s name and proceeds to baptize.

The Baptismal Act

For the baptismal act itself, the Directory is actually quite different from the BCP. It prescribes pouring or sprinkling. The 1662 BCP allows for pouring or sprinkling but actually calls for immersion as the first choice. The Directory also disallows any other ceremony at this time, with the obvious exclusion of the marking of the sign of the cross. The water is applied as the Triune name is spoken.

The Thanksgiving and Confirmation Prayer

Following the baptism, there is another prayer, this time to thank God for what has just occurred. The minister thanks God for keeping His covenant and for bestowing upon “our children” the “token and badge of His love in Christ.”

Immediately after the thanksgiving, the Directory continues praying, asking God to confirm the baptism. The minister asks God to do the following:

That he would receive the infant now baptized, and solemnly entered into the household of faith, into his fatherly tuition and defence, and remember him with the favour that he sheweth to his people; that, if he shall be taken out of this life in his infancy, the Lord, who is rich in mercy, would be pleased to receive him up into glory; and if he live, and attain the years of discretion, that the Lord would so teach him by his word and Spirit, and make his baptism effectual to him, and so uphold him by his divine power and grace, that by faith he may prevail against the devil, the world, and the flesh, till in the end he obtain a full and final victory, and so be kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Notice here, the infant is said to have already been “entered into the household of faith.” God is then asked to take the infant into His care. If the child dies in infancy, God is implored to receive him into glory. If the child grows up to “the years of discretion,” then God is asked to “make his baptism effectual to him,” which is to say, bring the child to a place of confirmation, where he actively professes the faith and affirms the covenant vows which he could not personally make in infancy. This divine grace will allow the child to then “prevail against the devil, the world, and the flesh” and obtain final victory and salvation.


The Directory’s baptism liturgy is quite straightforward. We see a place of teaching about the sacrament, a prayer for efficacy before the baptism, the baptismal act itself, and then a prayer of thanksgiving and a prayer for confirmation after the baptism. While this document never “took” in the life of the English church, the text of its prayers is nevertheless instructive for understanding the Westminsterian theology of baptism as it would have been liturgically enacted. The Directory gives us a view of baptism in the active devotional and doxological life of the church.


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