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10. Of Sponsors – Witnesses and Sureties

Antiquities of the Christian Church
XIV. Of Baptism

10. Of Sponsors – Witnesses and Sureties

Certain persons were required to be present at the baptism both of children and adults, as witnesses to the transaction, and as sureties for the fulfilment of the promises and engagements then made by those who received baptism.

  1. Their names or appellations. These persons were first knows by the name of sponsors. Tertullian uses this term; but he uses it only with reference to infant baptism, and supposes it to refer both to the reply, responsum, which they gave in behalf of the subject who was unable to speak for himself; and to a promise and obligation, on their part, which they assumed in behalf of the baptized for his fulfilment of the duties implied in this ordinance. Augustine seems to limit the duty of sponsors to the response or answer. They were called fidejussores, fidedictores, sureties; names found in Augustine and borrowed from Roman law. *, corresponding to the Latin offerentes and susceptores, so called with reference to the assistance rendered to the candidates at their baptism. This service is described by Dionysius the Areopagite. Chrysostom uses the word in the sense of sureties, which is authorized by classical authority. 

    * testes, witnesses, a term unknown to the ancients, but familiar in later times.

    * compatres, commatres, propatres, promatres, patrini, matrini, godfathers, and godmothers; patres spirituales, or lustrici, spiritual fathers, etc.

  2. Origin of this office. It has no foundation either in example or precept drawn from the Scriptures. No mention is made of the presence of any as witnesses in performing the rite of circumcision, nor in administering household baptism. Neither do the sacred writers ever draw a parallel between circumcision and baptism.

    It was probably derived from the customs of Roman law, by which a covenant or contract was witnessed and ratified with great care. Many of the early Christians previous to their conversion had been conversant with Roman jurisprudence; and it may, very naturally, be supposed that, in ratifying the solemn covenant of baptism, they would require witnesses; and adopt, as far as practicable, the same formalities with which they had been conversant in civil transactions.

    The common tradition is that sponsors were first appointed by Hyginus or Iginus,a Roman bishop, about the year 154. The office was in full operation in the fourth and fifth centuries. A time of oppression and persecution is likely to have given rise to an institution the design of which was to give additional security and attestation to the profession of the christian religion. Men who made their baptismal vows in the presence of witnesses would not be so likely to deny their relations to the church as they would if no proof of their profession could be adduced. On the other hand, such sponsors might be equally useful in preventing the introduction of unworthy members into the church, when the profession of religion began to be desired as the means of preferment and emolument.

    Another probable supposition is, that the office in question took its rise from the necessity of having some one to respond in the behalf of infants, the sick, the deaf, and all who were incapable of replying to the interrogatories which were made at baptism. Slaves were not received to baptism without the consent of their masters, who in such cases became their sponsors or godfathers.

    Two or three of these witnesses were probably required, and their names, as we learn from Dionysius, were entered in the baptismal register with that of the baptized person. 

  3. Duties of the Sponsors. Their duties were, to serve as witnesses of the transaction, and to act as sureties for the baptized persons by exercising a religious supervision over them. The precise nature and extent of this supervision is involved in much uncertainty, and appears to have varied at different times. Augustine requires the godfathers and godmothers to hold in remembrance their spiritual children, and affectionately to watch over them; to preserve their morals uncorrupted; to guard them from licentiousness; to restrain them from profane and wanton speech, from pride, envy and hatred, and from indulging in any magical arts; to preserve them from adopting heretical opinions; to secure their habitual attendance upon religious worship, and a profitable hearing of the word; to accustom them to acts of hospitality, to live peaceably with all men, and to render due honor to their parents, and to the priesthood. 

    The sponsors did not become chargeable with the maintenance and education of such persons, by assuming this guardianship of their christian character.

  4. Persons who are allowed to act as sponsors. On this head a diversity of opinion prevails; but it will be sufficient for the present purpose to mention the principal rules and customs which prevailed in the church in relation to this subject.
  1. The sponsor must himself be a baptised person in regular communion with the church.
  2. He must be of adult age, and of sound mind.
  3. He must be acquainted with the fundamental truths of Christianity. He must know the creed, the ten commandments, the Lord's prayer, and the leading doctrines of faith and practice, and must duly qualify himself for his duties. 
  4. Monks and nuns were, in the early periods of the church, thought to be peculiarly qualified, by their sanctity of character, for this office; but they were excluded from it in the sixth century. 
  5. Parents were disqualified for the office of sponsor to their own children in the ninth century; but this order has never been generally enforced.

The number of sponsors was at first one. This number was afterwards increased to two, three and four; and then again, diminished to one, or two at the most They were usually required to be of the same sex as those whose guardianship they assumed. If there were three sponsors, two were of the same sex as their spiritual ward, and one of the other. And this is the prevailing custom at the present day.

De Bapt. c. 8.

Ep. 23. ad Bonif.: De Peccator. merit. lib. i. c. 34: Serm. 116: De temp. 163: De Temp, de Bapt. lib.iv. c. 24.

Augustin. Serm. 116: De Tem. torn. x. p. 304: Epist. 23 ad Bonif.

De Hier. Eccl. c. 2.

Horn, in Ps.

Hen. Cyrop. lib. i. c. 6: Theophrast. Ethic, c. 12.

De Hierarch. Eccl.

Serm. 163. De Temp.: Comp. 116. De Temp.: De Bapt. lib. iv. c. 24: Ep. ad Bonif. De Peccator. merit. lib. i. c. 34.

Bingham, bk. xi. c. 8.
(No tag #9 appears in Rev. Lyman Coleman's translation.)

Augustin. 116. De Temp. torn. x. p. 852.
(No tag #10 appears in Rev. Lyman Coleman's translation.)

Dionys. Areop. Hierarch. eccl. c. 2.

Augustin. Ep. ad Bonif.23: Vit. Epiph.c.8: Opp.tom. ii. p. 324.

Cone. Antissidor. c. 25.

Cone. Moguni. c. 55.

(* denotes Greek text in Rev. Lyman Coleman's translation.)

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