Adoniram Judson on Christian Baptism: A Review
By Daniel Pentimone
Four and a half stars
Adoniram Judson on Christian Baptism, Audubon Press, copyright 2000. ISBN 0-9652883-6-6
The story of Adoniram Judson certainly glows as one of the brightest in the famed ‘annals of missionary history.’ Leaving his homeland of America in 1812 for southeast Asia, he became one of America’s first Protestant overseas missionaries. Judson grew up in a pious congregational home, where paedobaptism (infant baptism) was believed and practiced. He was sent out by a paedobaptist mission organization. Yet, while in transit from Salem, Massachusetts to Calcutta, India, he studied the Bible intensively and came to the Baptist viewpoint.
As he personally expressed, it was only with great turmoil that he came to this position, recognizing the fearful price that it would cost him. Once he landed in India and received believer’s baptism (‘credobaptism’) with his wife, Ann, he preached a message, ‘Christian Baptism,’ that was then put into print and turned into a small book. This book is available for modern readers as ‘A Sermon on Christian Baptism.’
Judson’s original sermon consisted of two parts. In the first part he examines the question of ‘What is Baptism.’ Specifically, he argues that baptism is an ordinance of the church that should, and throughout much of church history has been, administered by immersion. The second part of his book answers the question ‘To Whom is Baptism to Be Administered?’ Judson argues that nowhere in the New Testament can paedobaptism be defended. Examining the argument that baptism is the new covenant equivalent of circumcision, he shows how the Abrahamic covenant of circumcision is not a covenant that believers are under. Rather, he posits, the New Testament reveals baptism as an ordinance for those who have personally believed on Jesus Christ.
In addition to all of Judson’s original ‘Christian Baptism’ sermon, this book includes other valuable writings from Judson on the topic of baptism, including his A Letter to the Third Church in Plymouth, Mass. and An Address on the Mode of Baptizing.
I grew up in a Baptist home myself, and while I had heard the arguments against paedobaptism, I did not actually understand the paedobaptist system until I had read from John Calvin’s Institutes. That venerable tome helped me to understand the views of my Presbyterian and Congregationalist friends. Further, it was the preeminent apologetic against the Baptist viewpoint. Calvin clearly defends his views and has an answer for every Baptist argument. After I read that, I then turned to Judson’s book to see why he would leave the Congregationalist viewpoint.
Judson’s answer is both satisfying and challenging. No matter how many similarities there may be between the old covenant symbol of circumcision and the new covenant symbol of baptism, they are nowhere said to be the same, and arguing that Christians are under the Abrahamic covenant is fraught with difficulty, as he shows. Against the force of this argument, all of Calvin’s analysis is overcome.
I believe that this is an important book for every Christian to read. Judson refers extensively to church history and quotes it to prove his point, which is useful for Baptists to see that they are not disconnected from the historic church. Paedobaptists would also profit extensively. Whether or not their end analysis is the same as Judson’s, a consideration of the Baptist point of view and supporting evidence would cause them to wrestle through their own beliefs and hopefully come to a more grounded belief, regardless of what they decide.