The name Bethesda – popular for many chapels, especially in Wales – recalls the Pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem. A pre-Christian site of ritual healing, the precise location and origins of the Pool are today not clear. But the desert mystic we call John the Baptist was well-known for performing rituals in the Jordan river when he baptised Christ. John was probably part of a long Jewish tradition of Mikveh, or religious ritual bathing, symbolising cleansing, renewal and initiation.
From its earliest days Christianity adopted the practice of baptism. At first, when the church grew chiefly through the winning of converts, adult baptism was the norm. So, the first permanent provision for the rite was in the form of a sunken stone baptistery, large enough for adult baptism ceremonies. During the middle ages, when whole populations were nominally Christian, infant baptism became usual. For this, raised fonts were naturally more convenient. Tub-shaped fonts of stone or metal, large enough for the immersion of infants, were in use by the eleventh century, and later a rich variety of stone pedestal-fonts served the same purpose. In general these medieval fonts were placed near the entrance to a church, and many examples can still be admired in old parish churches.
During the Reformation several major changes occurred. Calvin moved the baptismal ceremony to the heart of the church building, and saw no reason to insist on immersion. As a consequence, the Reformed churches commonly used a bowl, which might be placed on the communion table when required or in a bracket on the pulpit. English baptismal bowls were made in a variety of materials (including silver, pewter, marble and pottery) and range in date from the seventeenth century until at least the late nineteenth. They were used by almost all of the Nonconformist denominations who baptised infants. HCT’s Bethesda (Methodist New Connexion) chapel, Hanley, for instance, had a stone-coloured ceramic bowl which latterly stood on a small table below the pulpit. In the 1840s some chapels began to use miniature pottery versions of medieval-style fonts in lieu of bowls.
A quite different Protestant tradition argued that infant Baptism was unscriptural, and returned to the New Testament practice of baptising only adults. The first Baptist churches accordingly tended to baptise (mostly by immersion) out of doors, often in streams or rivers. The congregation at HCT’s Grittleton Strict Baptist Chapel used the village mill pond. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, outdoor baptisteries were created for some chapels.
Over time, however, indoor baptism became usual. The Baptist chapels at Cote and Wainsgate provide good examples: floorboards in the centre of each chapel can be lifted to reveal a baptismal pool.
That at HCT’s Wainsgate Chapel is lead-lined and large enough for use by adults, the considerable volume of water being introduced by a hand pump from a well under the building.
Later, where the space could be afforded, it was thought better to make a permanent display of this important feature rather than conceal it under floorboards. Umberslade Baptist Church, Hockley Heath, near Solihull is characteristic, its marble-lined baptismal pool with matching balustrade sits in full view before the pulpit.
A third strand of Protestantism, represented from the seventeenth century by the Quakers and later the Salvation Army, sees no need for such external rites as baptism and communion. For this reason there are no fonts or communion tables in Quaker meeting houses or Salvation Army citadels.
In England attitudes to baptism began to change in the early nineteenth century. Many Anglican and Roman Catholic clergy were using baptismal bowls, and there was a reaction in favour of fonts – preferably of stone, and placed at the west end of a church. Characteristically, Pugin created a full-blown medieval arrangement in his Catholic church at Cheadle: an octagonal alabaster font with a spire-like cover, standing in its own baptistery chapel. At about the same time, freestanding fonts of wood or stone began to appear in the chapels of some Nonconformist denominations (including Wesleyans, Congregationalists and Unitarians).
Orthodox churches maintained the practice of baptising infants by total immersion, as is shown by the splendid metal font at the Greek church of St Nicholas, Liverpool.
The liturgical movement of the twentieth century considered the rite of baptism afresh, and by the 1950s it was common for fonts in new churches and chapels to be given greater prominence. This tendency has continued, affected also by the increasing need for the baptism of adult converts. William Pye’s recent font in Salisbury cathedral, for instance, shows that even Anglicans are now commissioning pieces large enough to cater for adult immersion.
~ Christopher Wakeling
Dr Christopher Wakeling is a Trustee of Historic Chapels Trust. His book English Chapels was published by Historic England in 2017 and he is revising the Staffordshire ‘Pevsner’.