Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California

Baptism, Community, and Critique: A Cross-Cultural Study of Unorthodox Religion in Europe and England, 1100-1700

  • Author(s): Kenagy, Eric Russell
  • Advisor(s): Head, Randolph
  • et al.

Europe’s history is marked by consistent tension between orthodox institutions and non-conformist communities, radical groups seeking to create new autonomous religious movements. What make the heresies I am studying significant are their shared objections, and the extent to which leaders expressed themselves through attacks on established Church doctrines. This dissertation is a comparative, cross-cultural study of ritual baptism, which seeks to find commonalities among four groups: the Cathars, Anabaptists, Quakers and Baptists. I argue that dissident critiques of prevailing institutions, doctrines, and ways of life were very similar and consistent. Moreover, as the institutional Churches gained in wealth and power, the radical leadership began to attack them through meticulous Scriptural analysis and Biblical interpretation.

I have determined that four key components link these cultures. First and foremost, the dissenters collectively rejected the orthodox Roman, Magisterial Protestant and Anglican Church practices of infant baptism. The communities’ leadership found no Biblical precedent for pedobaptism. The Cathar “elect” conducted a laying of hands; the Anabaptists and Baptists initiated only willing believers—adults; the Quakers did not baptize with water at all. Secondly, a strict asceticism is common among all of these groups, particularly the Anabaptists who dressed plainly and practiced their religion in austere homes. All four dissident groups had shared experiences of persecution that came often in waves of surveillance, fines, imprisonments, and executions. Finally, corruption and decadence angered the leaders above all and consequently persuasive attacks became most apparent in their writings.

Ritual baptism allows us to better comprehend other subjects of contention such as community, eschatology, authority, free will, pacifism, and the separation of church and state. I suggest that struggles between orthodox and heterodox religions are not specific to the European continent in the pre-modern era. We see the same peripheral radicalism today in Western pastoral Christianity and right-wing Fundamentalist Islam, in Hasidic Judaism and Tibetan Buddhism. And all too often, the dominant religion of a certain region alienates the outlying unorthodox faiths. Radicalism exists ultimately as an antithesis to mainstream religious practice. It seeks to check, challenge, and recast conventional orthodoxy.

Main Content
Current View