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Infant Baptism in Reformation Geneva: The Shaping of a Community, 1536-1564.

Karen E. Spierling, Infant Baptism in Reformation Geneva: The Shaping of a Community, 1536-1564.

St. Andrews Studies in Reformation History. Aldershot and Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2004. xviii + 253 pp. index. illus. map. bibl. $79.95. ISBN: 0-7546-3490-6.

Karen Spierling's book explores the many-sided significance of the practice of baptizing infants in mid-sixteenth-century Geneva. Though Spierling understands and articulates well Calvin's theological statements regarding the sacrament of baptism--as seen in the Reformed baptismal liturgy, the Ecclesiastical Ordinances, and the Institutes--it is the actual practice of infant baptism that gets sustained attention. More precisely, Spierling attends to the often creative and improvisational implementation of the practice in Reformed Geneva in an effort to make clear the tension between theological pronouncements about baptism and the lived reality of the ritual.

Spierling's reasons for focusing on the practice of infant baptism are twofold. First, she suggests that the lion's share of scholarly attention given to the shaping of community in early modern Europe has focused on the "first sacrament," the Eucharist, or Lord's Supper. Surely Spierling is right that the socially, politically, and religiously significant ritual of baptizing infants is at least as important as the Lord's Supper for understanding how communal identities were shaped and sustained in the sixteenth century. Second, Spierling attends to infant baptism because it provides a window through which to view the overlapping and sometimes contentious efforts of parents, ministers, and city leaders to shape the community of Geneva. She makes a convincing case that infant baptism in early modern Europe was one of the central identity-conferring rituals for both Catholics and Protestants in the medieval and early modern period. Thus, attending to the ways that newly Reformed Geneva implemented and improvised upon the practice of baptizing its young allows a look at how the interests of parental, ecclesial, and civic authorities converged in this powerful ritual.

Spierling is at her best when she shows the many ways that infant baptisms could go wrong in Reformed Geneva. Working with archival sources like the registers of the city Council and of the Consistory, Spierling provides copious examples of Genevans going about things in ways that subverted the stated goals of church and city officials. Persons were called before Council and Consistory for not baptizing their children at all, for baptizing them in Catholic territory, for lying about children born out of wedlock, for not showing up for their child's baptismal service, for giving their children idolatrous or Catholic-sounding names, for not making their children attend catechism classes on Sundays, and for a host of other things. Obviously, Reformed communities emerged in various places in Western Europe during the mid to late sixteenth century, so there was some measure of success or effectiveness in the ways civil and church authorities baptized their infants, educated their children, and defined their communities. But the historical reality on the ground always complicates our generalizations, and Spierling does an excellent job of showing the complex negotiations that went on between ordinary Genevan parents, ministers, and civil authorities.

Spierling's argument about the significance of infant baptism in Geneva takes her in interesting directions. She spends a chapter exploring why and how godparents, prominent in Catholic practice, were allowed a truncated role in reformed baptismal liturgies that emphasized the role of the parents in educating the child in the faith. She addresses the issue of baptizing illegitimate children, which medieval Catholics did and Reformed Genevans continued to do. But Spierling is right to point out that Calvin's doctrine of God's covenant with the children of faithful parents provides little rationale for baptizing the children born of adulterous relations, or children bereft of any parents whatsoever. And she concludes the book with a look at child rearing practices in Geneva, considering how the parental promises to raise their children in the Reformed faith were actually carried out.

This study of infant baptism is modest in its scope and aims, and successful precisely for that reason. Spierling focuses on one ritual--baptism--as a community defining practice. And she limits herself to one community--Geneva--over the course of just a few decades. She is judicious about her findings, and helpfully identifies points of intersection with similar studies of other reformed communities throughout Europe. The work will be of use to those interested in the social and political significance of baptism in early modern Europe, and also to those working on the history of family and child rearing.


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Author:Witt, Jared L.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2006
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