Against Baptism By Pouring
An Epistle of Archbishop Nikiphor of Slovania and Kherson, 1754
Editor's Note: This epistle, although written two hundred years ago, has not
lost significance for our own parishes today. Besides its clarity and well-grounded
explanation of baptism by immersion, it also briefly cites a whole list of canonical and
historical proofs of the importance and necessity of this type of baptism.
Because of my rank I am obligated to watch everything and see that everything be
preserved fully and is not altered. Firstly, I draw your attention to Holy Baptism, which
is the door to all the mysteries, the beginning of our salvation, the absolution of sins
and reconciliation with God. It is the gift of adoption since in baptism we become the
sons of God and the heirs of Christ, putting on Christ our Lord, by the word of Holy
Apostle Paul: "As many of you that have been baptized into Christ, have put on
Christ." Without this, salvation is not possible. "Verily, verily, I say unto
thee, except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of
Discussing the holy mystery, I must point out that:
1) The very word or name of this mystery, in the language initially used by the
enlightened apostles to communicate the good news of the Gospel to us, actually means
immersion, not pouring or sprinkling.
2) The first institutor of baptismthe Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, entered the
River Jordan, and, having immersed Himself, was baptized.
3) Apostle Philip went down to the water with the eunuch, in order to baptize him.
"...and they went down both into the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he
baptized him" (Acts 8,38).
4) The Orthodox Church, according to apostolic tradition, has always baptized through
immersion. This is seen in the 7th canon of the 2nd Ecumenical Council, which speaks of
immersion; in the second homily concerning the performance of mysteries by St. Cyril of
Jerusalem, it clearly states: "Ye have confessed the salvific confession, and having
immersed yourselves thrice in water, came forth out of it," and in the words of St.
Basil the Great: "Through three immersions and the same number of invocations is the
great mystery of Baptism performed."
5) The immersion into water, and specifically a triple immersion, and also a triple
coming out of the water was not instituted arbitrarily or accidentally, but as the image
of the Resurrection of Christ on the third day. "The water," says blessed Basil,
"has the symbolic meaning of death, and accepts the body as into a coffin." How
then, do we liken ourselves to the One Who descended into hell, imitating His burial
through baptism? The bodies of those who are baptized in water are buried, in a certain
sense. Consequently, baptism mystically represents the laying aside of bodily cares, by
the word of the apostle: "In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made
without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of
Christ" (Col. 2: 11)." St. Cyril, in his commentary on the above words, says:
"Thus, with the help of these signs you have represented the three-day burial of
Christ because, as our Saviour was in the heart of the earth three days and three nights,
so in the first coming up from the water you symbolized the first day of His sojourn under
the earth, and through your immersion, you symbolized the night. For, as one who walks in
the night sees nothing, and he who walks during the day does so in light, so you, having
immersed yourself in water saw nothing, as if you saw nothing in the night, and having
come forth from the water, you see everything as in daylight. You were both dead and then
born. So the salvific water was for you both a coffin and a mother. Although we neither
actually die, nor get buried, nor are we nailed to the cross, but only simulate this
symbolically, we, however, do indeed achieve salvation. Christ was truly crucified, truly
buried, and truly resurrected. He granted all this to us, so that we, in imitating His
passions, would become partakers of them and indeed would achieve salvation.
6) The Orthodox Church the world over to the present time baptizes through three-fold
immersion and bringing-forth out of the water. The Greek, Arabic, Bulgarian, and Serbian
churches all baptize in this way. Thus it is done in the Russian Church. Each one of these
churches has a vessel in which it immersed unclothed infants with the invocation of the
name of the Holy Trinity. There is no doubt that this practice of baptizing infants was
the same in all of Little Russia. Holy Prince Vladimir, who lived and reigned in Kiev,
accepted the faith and all its church ritual from the Greeks, who, both then and now,
baptize through immersion. Does it not seem strange that those who had Greeks as their
teachers, and those who were baptized by the Greeks, now do not baptize through immersion?
All in all, I think there is basis to the assumption that the practice of baptizing
through pouring on of water began in Kiev, and then spread throughout Little Russia. Such
departure came from the time when the Uniates gained power over the Kievan metropolia. In
the Roman Church, up to the 12th century, or better said, to the end of the 13th century,
baptism through immersion was practiced. But then they began to baptize not only by
pouring, but also by sprinkling. As a result, the Little Russians are the only Orthodox
people who set aside immersion in favor of pouring. This has given schismatics reason to
accuse us of neglecting apostolic tradition, which is preserved without change in the
whole of the Orthodox Church. They accuse us of following the example of the papists who,
along with various incorrect deletions, had the audacity to change Holy Baptism as well.
The divine apostle Paul praised the Corinthians highly for their preservation of tradition
with the following words: "Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all
things, and keep the Ordinances, as I delivered them to you" (I Cor. 11:2). He
entreats the Thessalonians to hold fast to traditions: "Therefore, brethren, stand
fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our
epistle" (2 Thess. 2:15).
The method of baptism by triple immersion is indeed apostolic tradition, which the
Orthodox Church firmly and unswervingly adheres to from apostolic times to this day. St.
Basil rather clearly points out the danger which lies in excluding anything that has been
passed down to us from the mystery of Holy Baptism: "There is tribulation when
someone dies without baptism, or when something in the mystery of baptism as it has been
handed down to us is omitted."
Why is it that we make omissions in something of such great importance? Why do we not
keep this holy and apostolic tradition (i.e. baptism through immersion), as it is kept by
the entire Orthodox Church? What reason, what excuse can we give to explain why this
mystery is performed differently by us? Why is it not performed the way it was handed down
by the holy apostles, the way the holy fathers taught, the way the whole Orthodox Church
always performed it and performs it even now? Perhaps someone will say that it is
dangerous to immerse infants in water? But this excuse can be likened to one of which the
royal prophet prayed about thus: "Do not incline my heart into words of evil, to make
excuse for excuses in sins." The lives of His Imperial Highness, the Emperor and
Great Prince Paul Petrovich and his royal children are very precious. They, however,
without any hesitation and by the grace of God, were baptized by triple immersion in quite
a deep vessel, which I saw with my own eyes in the imperial church. If such an example is
not enough, then the example of the countless infants around the whole world, which the
Church baptizes every day, or better said, every hour, by triple immersion with no danger
to their lives, should suffice. Finally, if someone would say that cold water in the
winter time could be dangerous for an infant's health, he must know that there is no law
which states that the water used in baptism must be cold or near freezing. It is possible
to use water at room temperature, which is not as cold as that which is found outside.
Enough has been said, my beloved children in Christ, and honorable priests. Enough has
been said for you not to baptize through pouring, but through immersion. Thus you will be
among the first in Little Russia to set a holy example, and to achieve glory by preserving
apostolic tradition. Likewise, by serving and keeping ancient traditions of the Church,
you will be deserving of a reward from God. Having said all this, so that no one ignores
this edict under the pretext that there were no concise directives, by our archpastoral
authority we decree that all those under our spiritual rule:
1) Strive that in every church there be a silver or copper vessel (or one made out of
some other appropriate metal) which would have the shape of a bell or tub: narrow at the
bottom, and as deep as it is wide, practical for use.
2) Instruct priests everywhere that over the said vessel containing water the
appropriate prayers be pronounced, and that infants be baptized in this holy water through
triple immersion with the invocation of one of the Persons of the Holy Trinity with each
immersion. In a wordthat all be done in the same manner as the baptisms which take
place in Great Russia.
3) Strictly insist that the holy water after baptism not be disposed of in some unclean
place, but poured out carefully, with due respect, into the basin where the priest washes
his hands. The baptismal vessel should not be used for any other purpose, and should be
kept in the church among the holy vessels.
Besides this we decree that in every church there should be two smaller vessels made of
silver, copper, or brassone to hold holy chrism, which must always be stored in the
church in an appropriate place, and another to hold holy oil, which is used during
baptism. This vessel, along with a pair of scissors must be kept in a clean box, which
must be decorated appropriately, so that those who are outside the faith would not have
cause to accuse.
For those who are obedient and are willing to comply with this edict, we promise God's
blessings, eternal glory and our pastoral blessing.
Translated by Maria Naumendco from Church Life, No. 1-2, 1959. Reprinted from Orthodox
Life, Jan-Feb, 1990, pp. 16-19.