Norway: Baptism (Døpte)
In the Middle Ages baptism was one of the seven sacraments which were necessary for salvation and ecclesiastical rights. With baptism the Holy Ghost and remission of sins were obtained. Also the right of inheriting was dependent upon baptism. Legislation established the necessity by enforcing a fine on the responsible party who did not comply. It was unlawful for un-baptized persons to live in the country. And neither un-baptized adults, nor children who died without baptism were allowed to be buried in the church yard.
Baptism was normally performed by the Priest before the meeting. The baptism ritual was extensive and included a succession of exercises, anointing, and acknowledging of the faith. Originally baptism was usually done by full immersion in the baptismal font, but at the end of the middle ages the practice had changed to pouring water over the child’s head three times.
In the Middle Ages and through the 1500’s it was usual to have the baptism between 5 and 8 days after the birth.
At the time of the reformation the church insisted that baptism was necessary for salvation and that the baptism created a covenant between God and the person who would live a life of penance and faith. It was still the duty of the responsible party to see that the child was baptized, but the law allowed that an un-baptized child could be buried in the church yard although without ceremony.
The baptism ceremony was much simpler than the Roman Catholic version. Martin Luther’s version was used with minor changes up to 1914. The Lutheran tradition also recognized emergency baptism, but really emphasized that emergency baptisms and home baptisms should be confirmed officially in the church.
In critical times when it appeared the child might not survive, emergency baptism was allowed. It was supposed to be performed by the priest, but lay men and women (even the child’s mother if she were alone with the child) could perform a valid christening. The formula for emergency baptism was learned as part of the catechism teachings. However, the priest was to ascertain that the emergency baptism had been performed correctly and when this was in doubt he could conduct a conditional rebaptism.
There were many regulations regarding the space of time allowed from the birth of a child until it was to be baptized. It was decided 23 May 1646 that the space of time was to be 4 days after birth in the towns and up to 8 days in the country if church services were held. The 8-day rule was repeated again in the law of 1687.
The law of 17 July 1771 allowed that the parents could use their own judgment—as the old time requirements were no longer adhered to by everyone. In 1814 the space of time allowed was changed to 9 months but this too was ruled as invalid but no new time requirement was made. The baptism was still supposed to take place at the service. In the early years baptisms were performed by the priest before or during the service but before the sermon. Later it became usual to christen legitimate children after the sermon. However, the practice of home baptism in the higher social circles continued to increase from the 1500’s. Also the tendency to have the baptism take place in the church outside of the regular Sunday services especially in the towns resulted in the privatization of baptism. This tendency prevailed until the 1800’s.
In popular folklore it was thought that until a child was baptized it could be taken by the trolls of the underworld who replaced the child with one of their own. The un-baptized child was protected by not taking the child outdoors or allowing the child to be left alone or lie in the dark. Also their clothes and bath water were not to be outside the door.
Children born out of wedlock
The church ordinance required that a child born out of wedlock must be baptized after the sermon and not with the legitimate children. The church ordinance of 1685 changed this so that an illegitimate child born in the towns would be baptized after the service. As a rule this was also true for rural areas, but there the child eventually would be baptized after there was an offering made at the altar for legitimate children. However, no offering was to be made for illegitimate children. Later, in 1771, the practice was changed and there was to be no difference in the baptism ordinance for legitimate versus illegitimate children. However, the old rules were practiced in many places for many years and it wasn’t until 1797 that the regulations were tightened.
1. ”Norsk Historisk Leksikon: Kulture og samfunn ca. 1500-ca. 1800”, 2nd ed., by Steinar Imsen and Harald Winge, Cappelen Akademisk Forlag, as, Oslo 1999. FHL Book Nr. Ref 948.1 H26i.