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The Half-Way Covenant: A Unique Solution to One American Problem

During the American colonial period, Europeans came to the New Land for a number of reasons: some to escape religious persecution, some to find work, and some to find adventure. But all these people shared this: they came from Europe. And this one binding tie among the new colonists created a new problem within Christianity. The solution introduced a characteristic into Christianity which would become a mainstay of the Christian faith: the understanding that a person can join a church without their parents being members of the same church.

The European experience had meant this: everyone belonged to a church. Prior to the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s, everyone belonged to the Catholic Church. With the introduction in the 1500s of denominations such as Lutherans, Church of England (aka Episcopalians in America), Anabaptists/Baptists, Presbyterians, etc., people had a choice. But this much remained the same: everyone belonged to a church. Not everyone was a regular attendee, but everyone did belong to a church. (Exceptions did exist, but usually for people who belonged to another religion, such as Jews.) People were baptized as infants and then later, as a teenager or adult, publicly joined a church. (Note: Baptists, who do not practice infant baptism, were very few in those days.)

Colonial Christians believed this system would take hold in the American colonies, but it did not. Many colonists who came over did not join a church. Remember, not everyone came to the colonies for religious reasons. Over time, a large number of colonists had been baptized as infants while in Europe, but once in America had either ceased attending church or chose not to join but still attended.

Then women started having babies. And among those were women who had not joined churches. And many of these non-church-member couples wanted their babies baptized.

In not forcing people to become church members, church leaders had not anticipated offspring. The normal procedure was to baptize children of church members. But what to do when non-church members wanted their child baptized? New situations call for creativity, and the creative response was the Half-Way Covenant.

Under this plan, decided in 1656, non-church member parents could have their children baptized as long as they agreed to raise the children in the church and lead an upstanding, moral life. In return, although the non-church member parents would attend the church and raise their children in a Christian environment, they were not allowed to vote in church matters nor take the Lord’s Supper.

Eventually almost every church in New England adopted the Half-Way Covenant. Even so, some churches split over the use of a new innovation; case in point being the most important churches in the colonies at that time, the First Church of Hartford and the First Church of Boston.

Over time the Half-Way Covenant as a policy faded; one reason is because it did not anticipate the third, fourth, etc. generations. Yet its influence remains today in that people were allowed to be baptized and join a church without having their parents be members.

©2004 Mark Nickens All Rights Reserved