Benjamin Franklin on Rebaptism

In the years prior to the Firm Foundation (begun in 1884) there was practical unanimity on the question of whether one who had been previously immersed to obey God but without the knowledge of its saving import should be rebaptized. The answer was an unequivocal “No.” The only significant part of the Stone-Campbell Movement that answered “Yes” were the Virginians who followed John Thomas in the mid-1830s.  Alexander Campbell opposed their understanding of the rebaptism and regarded it as rank sectarianism.  Anyone immersed upon a confession of faith in Jesus as the Christ, thought Campbell, was legitimately baptized and needed no further “re-d0” when they later learned that baptism was for the remission of sins.

Benjamin Franklin (1812-1878), a northern right-wing leader within the Stone-Campbell Movement in the mid-19th century, agreed with Campbell and the vast majority of “his brethren.”  A correspondent to his American Christian Review asked that since “some twenty years ago [he] was immersed and united with the  Baptist Church,” whether it was now “requisite for [him] to be immersed again, in understanding more fully  what is meant by immersion and what it is for?” He recognized that the Baptists believe baptism to be “the door into the church,” while “we hold it as being a positive command and for the remission of sins.”

Franklin’s response counsels against rebaptism (ACR 2 [1860] 26):

We do not think you ought to be immersed again. While it is certainly desirable to understand as far as we can any appointment we submit to, the want of a full understanding does not invalidate the ordinance….You believed in the Lord, loved him and aimed to obey and understood sufficiently to do what he commanded. As a matter of course, in reading and practicing for many years, you will understand more clearly and fully. We presume this is the case generally; but this does not prove, the necessity of taking incipient steps again that have long since been honestly taken.

Later northern conservatives followed Franklin’s lead on this point. Daniel Sommer, for example, regard the Firm Foundation’s  rebaptism agenda as a divisive and sectarian hobby. Nevertheless, despite the support of David Lipscomb and James A. Harding in the south as well as other luminaries from the Gospel Advocate, the Firm Foundation perspective ultimately became the majority view within Churches of Christ by the 1940s.

30 Responses to “Benjamin Franklin on Rebaptism”

  1.   Johnny D. Hinton Says:

    While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”

    They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”

    So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?”

    “John’s baptism,” they replied.

    Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. There were about twelve men in all. (Acts 19:1ff)

    How can one be taught wrong on the plan of salvation, act on misinformation, and still expect the correct result?

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      I imagine we all had some misinformation about baptism and the nature of salvation when when we were immersed. “Trust and obey”–that is sufficient. According to Franklin, trusting in Jesus and obeying the command to be immersed is sufficient. God gives what is promised to those who trust and obey.

      The story of Acts 19, which Franklin knew as well as anyone, is not analogous since the baptism they received (John’s baptism) was not even valid when they received it (as he would argue).

  2.   Bobby Valentine Says:

    What is most interesting about about the context of that passage is most frequently overlooked. Luke states point blank that Apollos himself “knew only the baptism of John” (18.25). But no where does Luke indicate that either Priscilla or Aquila “rebaptized” him.

    •   Clark Coleman Says:

      I am not sure what your point is. Paul rebaptized those in Ephesus who are mentioned in Acts 19:1-5, so rebaptism when the first baptism was not Christian baptism is Biblical. Maybe Apollos was rebaptized and it was not mentioned explicitly, or maybe not, but it does not really call into question this sort of rebaptism.

      •   hebrewdaylight Says:

        Those in Acts 19 had been immersed into John’s immersion, not Jesus’. And they had not yet received the holy spirit. As John Mark points out above, this is not analogous to someone who has already been immersed into Jesus’ immersion. I agree with this article, myself. I don’t see Peter saying in Acts 2:38 that the reason you’re immersed must be “to have your sins forgiven,” and that this must be stated as a formula, but that if you have been immersed on the name of Jesus the Messiah, you have been forgiven, period. That is how I read it.

      •   Clark Coleman Says:

        I already understand and agree about the difference between John’s baptism and Christian baptism, hence my use of the phrase “Christian baptism” in my post. My question was: What point is Bobby Valentine trying to make?

  3.   preacherofgrace Says:

    Baptism is God’s work not ours. Our faith is not in baptism but God. So as long as God knew what he was doing you’re good.

  4.   Paul Smith Says:

    I might also suggest, although tentatively, that the context of the passage indicates Luke was interested in the bestowal of the Holy Spirit, not salvation. It is obvious from the early chapters of the gospels that John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Never lose sight of that fact.

    •   hebrewdaylight Says:

      True, but recall that forgiveness of sins was had long before Jesus immersed anyone, as well. E.g. Leviticus 4:31, 35; 5:6, 10, 13; et al.

    •   Clark Coleman Says:

      John’s baptism was for forgiveness of sins via repentance. However, there is no evidence that anyone of John’s era or earlier thought that baptism was necessary for forgiveness of sins, unlike Christian baptism.

      •   Paul Smith Says:

        Clark, I’m not sure what your point is, either. Both Mark 1 and Luke 3 state that John’s baptism was “for the forgiveness of sins.” The complete “theology” is never stated, as it is with baptism into the death of Jesus, but to differentiate between two different types of forgiveness of sins appears to me to be a little legalistic. I agree with the point made above – it is never recorded that Apollos was re-baptized. Luke’s emphasis in this section is on the bestowal of the Holy Spirit – just as in Acts 2 and in Acts 10. Salvation is not in the context, and we should not read it into the context.

      •   Clark Coleman Says:

        I guess you did not communicate your original point very well, so we are going around in circles. Maybe you should try again. Use more words if necessary.

      •   Paul Smith Says:

        Um, I thought I had. There is no distinction between “pre-christian” baptism and “Christian” baptism in the New Testament. There is a distinction between John’s and the baptism in Jesus’ name – but that distinction is one of receiving the Holy Spirit, not forgiveness of sins. I would appreciate John Mark chiming in again here, especially if I am wrong. I have no issues with being corrected, but I want to be corrected with biblical texts, not personal opinions. I have studied this passage and can not use it to justify “re-baptism” of someone who honestly feels they have obeyed Jesus to the fullest extent of their knowledge – yet have not had “for the forgiveness of sins” uttered as a magical incantation over their baptism. At what point do we become Pharisees with evil intent in our hearts, trying to make entry into the kingdom more difficult than God has made it, and refusing to help those who are coming to Jesus? Claiming that one must understand baptism as a legalistic act understood only by the Church of Christ is, to me, one of the most profoundly denominational actions we can make. Anyway, neither Alexander Campbell nor Barton W. Stone viewed baptism that way, and I think it is a dangerous leap of theology to speak where God has not clearly spoken.

      •   Clark Coleman Says:

        I agree that much of the rebaptism practice of today has nothing to do with these texts in Acts 18-19. However, there is certainly a difference between pre-Christian baptism and Christian baptism. Romans 6 reveals a two-fold significance to Christian baptism. We are being buried in the water and resurrected from it. This confesses our faith in Christ’s burial and resurrection (via re-enactment) and also appeals to God for a burial of the old man and a resurrection to new life. Pre-Christian baptism cannot possibly have any relationship to the burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Thus, in Acts 19, those who had a pre-Christian baptism were rebaptized, and there could certainly be a salvation reason for their rebaptism. But the practice in Churches of Christ of people being baptized three or four times in their lives because they get worried about their mental state at their earlier baptisms is not justified by Acts 18-19.

      •   Paul Smith Says:

        Clark, what you say makes sense – and I agree. And thanks to John Mark for his comments as well! My pastoral concern has been that many “fear” their earlier baptism was not “legitimate” due to a lack of intellectual understanding. When we make salvation a matter of human knowledge instead of faith, we go beyond Scripture. Thanks to all for the conversation.

      •   John Mark Hicks Says:

        Paul, I agree. I think the focal point in the “rebaptism controversy” is trust rather than cognition. It seems to me that trusting in Christ is sufficient cognition.

      •   John Mark Hicks Says:

        Paul and Clark,

        I agree that Acts 19 has little relation to the rebaptism discussion within the Stone-Campbell Movement. It only functioned to articulate the idea that there was such a thing as an invalid immersion. Why is one immersion invalid and another valid became the crux of the discussion.

        I think you are both correct. The Holy Spirit is the central concern in Acts 19 and the key difference between John’s baptism and the baptism the church practiced, according to the texts in the Gospels and Acts. And there are further differences to illuminate this distinction when we think about baptism as an re-enactment of the gospel (death and resurrection), as per Pauline discussions.

        Within Luke-Acts, it seems to me that the emphasis is on the continuity of forgiveness of sins (even to the point that those who refused John’s baptism were regarded as rejecting God) and the discontinuity of the presence of the Spirit. So, I would surmise that the 120 were not “rebaptized” because they had received John’s baptism, but the Spirit was poured out on them. Thus, they had both remission of sins and the gift of the Spirit. And this is what is promised to all believers in Acts 2:38–remission of sins and the gift of the Spirit.

  5.   Clark Coleman Says:

    One point that I think is important concerning rebaptism. We all seem to be in agreement that someone should not feel compelled to undergo rebaptism because they now have a better understanding of baptism. I believe that Alexander Campbell, among others, made the point that we should always be deepening our understanding, but that does not mean we should be rebaptized every year! However, those in the 19th century who were on Campbell’s side in this matter did not oppose all rebaptism. The dividing line was stated in the opening sentences of the blog entry: If you were baptized to obey God. Campbell et al. recognized that some are baptized because they are told that it is required in order to join some denomination, while others are baptized because they want to make their grandparents happy, etc. These reasons would be classified as obeying men, not obeying God. Thus, while a lot of rebaptism in Churches of Christ has been questionable, we should not engage in a blanket condemnation of rebaptism.

    Also, while some might have rejected the teachings of John the Baptist and refused his baptism, drawing condemnation from Luke, there were others who simply never went out to hear his teaching. My point here was that such people were not considered unforgiven. They were subject to the covenant of the Mosaic law, which had no requirement for baptism in order to be forgiven. If they truly placed their trust in God under that covenant, they could be forgiven. If they lived on the Mediterranean coast, never went anywhere near the Jordan, and never heard of John, or heard only rumors from a distance, so what? If they repented of their sins and trusted God under the Mosaic covenant, they could be forgiven. The fact that John baptized “a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins” does not imply that all who lived in Palestine at the time must receive such baptism, while ALL Christians are expected to be baptized, another major difference between the baptisms.

    I trust that we are all in agreement on those points, but some of the comments were unclear, so I thought I would make these ideas explicit.

    •   Randall Says:

      How about a Baptist in a church that teaches it is to join the Baptist church but also to obey God. A young person (or a person young in their theology) may not have understood the finer points of Baptist theology in recent times. What the Baptists teach today may not be the same as what the Baptists taught 150 years ago any more than what the CofC teaches today is the same as what was taught 100 or 150 years ago.

      When I was baptized in the Church of Christ I understood it was to obey God and also the magic moment at which my sins were washed away, at least those committed up to the point of my baptism. I no longer hold to that part of CofC theology. Would it be any more incumbent on me to be re-baptized than a Baptist that was no longer in agreement with the Landmark Baptist position? How about a person that was baptized by sprinkling or pouring but believes they have been obedient to the command to be baptized?

      I think we are in agreement that no one has to pass a theology exam in order to have had a valid baptism.

  6.   eirenetheou Says:

    A point of clarfication that may may bear somewhat on the main issue to hand:

    John Mark, you write that Brother Franklin is “a northern right-wing leader within the Stone-Campbell Movement in the mid-19th century.” i don’t think that we find “right-wing” in the Bible; it is a pejorative label borrowed from the human political order. What exactly does it mean in this context?

    God’s Peace to you.


    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      “Conservative” is probably better than “right-wing.” I did not intend it in a pejorative sense but merely descriptive. Franklin’s theology is generally to the “right” (that is, more conservative) of others within the Stone-Campbell Movement. But, then again, conservative is no more a biblical term than “right-wing,” and has parallels in the political order. At bottom, generally, Franklin is interested in preserving the status quo of the Restoration Movement as he inherited it and led it in the 1850s-1860s.

      •   eirenetheou Says:

        “Conservative” and “right-wing” are not found in the Bible. Let us “speak where the Bible speaks” and eschew political epithets. Although some folk would have us believe that “conservative” = “Christian,” that manner of speaking is “the language of Ashdod.”

        God’s Peace to you.


      •   Paul Smith Says:

        And the supreme irony is – “let us speak where the Bible speaks” is not found in the Bible! And what, pray tell, does the language of a forgotten Ancient Near Eastern culture have to do with a modern historian/theologian who is merely trying to help us understand a little bit of our own past history? Sometimes a cigar is simply a cigar – no sinister meanings need attach.

      •   eirenetheou Says:

        Indeed, it was Thomas Campbell who encouraged his nineteenth-century readers to “speak where the Bible speaks,” and our brother Benjamin Franklin tried to apply that maxim in his own work — that is some of the “past history” we are now trying to understand, with JMH’s valuable help. i am only trying, in my fumbling way, to help JMH help us. i hope he doesn’t mind.

        Many early twentieth-century leaders among Churches of Christ applied the biblical phrase “the language of Ashdod” to language that was not biblical. The historically useless epithets, “conservative” and “right-wing,” certainly fit in that category. Let us say what we mean and mean what we say.

        God’s Peace to you.


      •   John Mark Hicks Says:

        I am always pleased to hear from you, Don. Your comments always deserve careful consideration. Thanks for reading

      •   hebrewdaylight Says:

        I agree with Randall that extra-biblical words help clarify communication and make it simpler. May I humbly point out that the word “Bible” is found nowhere in the Bible?

        Other words and phrases like “Christian,” “language of Ashdod,” and “peace” are also not there. In reality, none of the words in the English language are Bible words since they are neither Hebrew, Aramaic, nor Greek. Following this advice, are we then not to speak of biblically-related concepts in English at all, but only in these three languages—and only words and forms from these languages that appear in the scriptures?

        Side note: Speaking in the biblical dialects is actually an invaluable exercise for Bible students, teachers, and preachers (and others, e.g. elders) who want to build fluency in reading the scriptures in their original languages, but I don’t believe it is realistic or necessary for all forms of communication.


  7.   Randy Gore Says:

    I find a big key to this particular issue to be the simple teaching in Acts 2:38 – one of the same places we take a person who wants to be saved. The “forgiveness of sins” is the result of being “baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.” It is not as if some full knowledge of what God does in baptism is required to make the baptism “count.” However, the person’s submission to the name (authority) of Christ is what the baptism is all about. So, a baptism that is based on submission to Christ would automatically make it valid, resulting in God forgiving the person. Probably my biggest pet peeve in church is when I hear a preacher state “be baptized for the forgiveness of sins” without including the phrase “in the name of Jesus Christ.”

  8.   Randall Says:

    Conservative and right wing or progressive and left wing may not be biblical terms but neither is the Trinity. And in discussion of the nature of Christ homoousians, homoiousians and heteroousians may not be biblical either but they help to define the issue. Sometimes extra biblical words make communication simpler.
    Hesed, Randall

    •   Clark Coleman Says:

      Words such as right wing, left wing, etc., bring a lot of associations into the discussion that can be more confusing than helpful. The examples you gave (Trinitarian and Christological terms) are not analogous, because they are likely to be used only as technical terms in a religious discussion and nowhere else.

  9.   Johnny Robertson Says:

    Campbell didn’t start anything. No doubt that Campbell landed on the continent, head full of Sandersonism, but the ideology he later ” began to champion ” was alive and well.
    See Primitive Baptist Library ” The Tomb” Elon, NC.
    The library in Elon contains original documents dating into 1700s that predate Campbell. The plea for which Campbell is said to have originated is well established in great minds before he was born.


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