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The Search for the French Baptismal Liturgy

For you, little child,
Jesus Christ has come, he has fought, he has suffered.
For you he entered the shadow of Gethsemane and the horror of Calvary.
For you he uttered the cry, “It is finished!”
For you he rose from the dead
and ascended into heaven
and there he intercedes —
for you, little child, even though you do not know it.
But in this way the word of the Gospel becomes true.
“We love him, because he first loved us.”

 

These words have begun appearing with more frequency among North American Reformed and Evangelical churches and publications over the past thirty years. They have appeared on blogs, in church bulletins, and even works of academic theology.  Some of us have even used them ourselves as a part of our congregation’s baptismal rite.

But there’s has always been a rather conspicuous problem. No one cites the source.

Amazingly, this beloved poem is passed around with the only identifier being “from the French Reformed baptismal liturgy.” Sometimes the liturgy is said to be “old,” but without any actual date. We are not told if it is a classic piece of French heritage or if it simply happens to come from a Reformed denomination in France. It would seem that everyone loves the “French Reformed baptismal liturgy,” but no one knows where it actually comes from.

A cursory google search reveals one common source, the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s “Office of Theology and Worship.” The PCUSA in turn lists its source as James’ Torrance’s Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace, a 1997 publication. Obviously neither of these are very attractive to conservative or confessional Reformed believers, and so the citation is simply left as the vague “French Reformed.” But could it be that this “French Reformed liturgy” is actually the work of a modern renewal movement?

Reformation Baptismal Liturgies

When we look to the Swiss and French liturgies of the Protestant Reformation, we see immediately that the “For you, little child” proclamation is nowhere to be found. More than this, we see how modern it sounds in contrast to the typical style of 16th and 17th century religious writing. For example, the Reformed Church of Strasbourg offered this prayer at the administration of infant baptism:

Almighty eternal God, merciful Father, seeing that the righteous shall live by faith alone and seeing that it is impossible to be pleasing to you except by faith, so we pray you would grant the gift of faith to this child, who is of your creation. Seal and confirm him by the presence of the Holy Spirit in his heart, according to the promise of your Son, in order that there might be that inward renewal and rebirth of the spirit through this our outward baptism of water, seeing that this is indeed its true meaning; and that as he is baptized into the death of Christ Jesus, buried with him, and through him awakened form the dead so grant that he walk in a new life, to the praise of God’s glory, and to the profit of his neighbor. Amen. (quoted in Hughes Oliphant Old’s The Shaping of the Reformed Baptismal Rite in the Sixteenth Century, (Eeerdmans, 1992) pg. 234)

For his part, John Calvin’s Genevan Psalter of 1542 has this prayer of baptismal invocation:

Lord, God, Eternal and Almighty father, who by your infinite mercy and good pleasure have promised to be not only our God but the God of our children as well, be pleased then, we pray you, to confirm that grace to this child before us, being born of a mother and father whom you have called into your Church; and as he is presented to you and set apart by us, grant that he be received into your holy protection, declaring yourself to be his God and Savior, remitting in him that original sin of which the whole lineage of Adam is guilty, then sanctifying him by your Spirit to the end that when reaching the age of understanding, he might know and worship you as his only God, glorifying you in all his life, that always he receive from you the remission of his sins. And that he might receive from you all such graces, be pleased to incorporate him into the communion of our Lord Jesus that he share all his good as one of the members of his body. Hear us, Father of mercy, to the end that the baptism which we administer according to your command might produce its fruit and its virtue as it is declared to us by the Gospel: Our Father…”(Old, pg. 240)

These are prayers of course and thus not exactly parallel to the exhortation spoken to the child. Still, the difference in style is clear. There is a much more theologically didactic intent, emphasizing the action of God in baptism.

Hughes Oliphant Old outlines the full Genevan baptismal rite, noting the following contents: a rubric explaining the times or occasion when baptism may be celebrated, a brief invocation to God, a question to the parents– “Do you present this child to be baptized?”, an exhortation about baptism and its meaning and effects, a second prayer of invocation like the one printed above, the giving of the name to the child being baptized, the baptism itself in the name of the Trinity, and then concluding words about the history of the development of tradition in liturgies–that they are human traditions– and the need to allow for freedom and preserve simplicity (Old, pg. 174-176).

We can see what’s there, and we can see what’s missing. “For you, little child” is not a part of Calvin’s baptismal rite.

Later French Developments

Obviously, the “French Reformed” tradition does not end with Calvin. It underwent several key developments over the years. After the wars of religion and revocation of the Edict of Nantes, the Huguenot Church was forced into exile, but it did live on. We even have an English version of their liturgy, thanks to the Charleston congregation. There is a liturgy for infant baptism. It exhibits a basic continuity with Calvin’s baptismal rite, though it has some modifications as well. It was published in English in 1737 and then revised in 1772. It does not have “For you, little child.”

Interestingly, the Charleston liturgy claims to be an adaptation from the liturgy used in Neuchatel and Vallangin. As it turns out, those liturgies were themselves a significant new development. Bryan Spinks records that it was Jean Frederick Ostervald who wrote the liturgy for Neuchatel and Vallangin (see Spinks’ Reformation and Modern Rituals and Theologies of Baptism, Ashgate 2006, pg. 55). Dr. Spinks points out that Ostervald drew heavily from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England, so the “French Liturgy” of 1772 is something of a combination of Geneva and Canterbury.

Another important development in the French Reformed liturgy was the work of Eugene Bersier, who published a new liturgy in 1874. Like Ostervald, Bersier was also deeply influenced by the Anglican tradition, but it is worth noting that his revised liturgy enjoyed a very favorable reception from TW Chambers in the Presbyterian and Reformed Review. Could Bersier be the source we are looking for?

Alas, no, the general synod of the Reformed churches of France published a new Liturgie in 1897, citing the previous work of both Ostervald and Bersier, and yet the “For you, little child” section is still nowhere to be found. Wherever our “French Reformed Baptismal Rite” comes from, it doesn’t seem to be anything before to the 20th century.

1955?!

While searching for other versions of the Liturgie, a complete citation of the nearly mythical “For you, little child” liturgy did turn up. Dr. Charles Hardwick, on pg. 8 of his paper “Divine and Human Action in Preaching and the Sacraments,” quotes the “French baptismal liturgy” and actually gives a proper source– “the Église Réformée de France, Liturgie (Paris: Editions Berger-Levrault, 1955), p. 202.” But could it be true that this lately popular liturgical form is contemporary with the television?

The 1955 Liturgie is, as would be expected, a revision of the 1897 work of the same name. Thanks to some research assistance from Dr. Kyle Williams, I was finally able to read “For you, little child” in context. It does indeed appear in the 1955 liturgy, immediately following the baptism of the child in the Triune name.

Interestingly, there are actually three poetic statements after the baptism. The first says, “Do not be afraid, said the Lord, for I have redeemed you, I have called you by name, you are mine.” The second says, “When the mountains collapse, when the hills stagger, says the Lord, my goodness for you will not falter and my alliance of peace will not be shaken.” Then, following these, we finally see, “Petit enfant, pour toi Jesus-Christ est venu sur la terre…”

My edition of the Liturgie is dated 1963 but has a prefatory note explaining its history. It notes that it is a new work, drawing from earlier traditions but not simply repeating them. It says that in 1946 a national council called for the publication of a new liturgy. This work, it says, was first offered in 1950, following the national synod of Grenoble, and then revised with only minor corrections in 1955 (the Église Réformée de France, Liturgie, Paris: Berger-Levrault, 1963, pg. 5; the “Little child” text is found on pg. 216 of this edition).

Thus we can conclusively identify the “French Reformed Baptismal Rite.” It is a new contribution of the National Council of the French Reformed Church in 1955.

A final observation is worth noting here. The name “French Reformed” also carries a bit of ambiguity. North American readers tend to assume that it simply means the Reformed or Calvinistic church in France. But there is no singular “French Reformed Church” today, and as it turns out, the Église Reformée de France was a very specific denomination. It was formed in 1938, as a merger of several disparate groups. It did contain a large number of continuing orthodox evangelicals, but it also contained liberals and broad-church evangelicals from pietistic traditions. In 2013, this body joined with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of France to form the United Protestant Church of France and it now bears a decidedly liberal disposition. This need not invalidate the baptismal liturgy under consideration here, but it should be noted that the liturgy is more akin to mid-century PC (US) liturgical renewal projects than to a legacy from Calvin and the Huguenots.

Conclusion

This historical survey should not be construed as a criticism of the “French Reformed Baptismal Liturgy.” The exhortation’s content is made up entirely of New Testament references, and it actually does not make any controversial claim regarding sacramental efficacy. The 16th cent. material from Calvin is much more relevant to any doctrinal points, as it contains language about remission of sin and the virtue of baptism being produced. The French liturgy is simply a personalized declaration of the gospel to the child.

Still, it is important to know where our sacred tradition comes from and how it is made. The history of the church is full of invented tradition, and the case of “For you, little child” shows us that such invention (always fraught with danger) did not end at the Middle Ages. It really does look like the liturgical poem was enthusiastically accepted by conservatives who perhaps did not want to cite James Torrance or the Presbyterian Church (USA), or were simply unaware of its recent mainline origins, and therefore hoped that it had deeper historical roots. Unable to locate any hard evidence, they took a leap of faith.

If churches, ministers, and congregations truly do appreciate and enjoy “For you, little child,” then they should feel free to use it. As Calvin has told us at the end of his baptismal liturgy, these things are human tradition and have changed over the years. They can be helpful and pious. But they are not de jure divino.The measure is expediency and edification. But we should be aware of the origins of our usages and not succumb to the temptation to augment the dignity of our liturgical forms by imagining them to be of greater antiquity than they are. Further,  if we really do think that public knowledge of the actual history of a usage might be scandalous, then we ought to err on the side of caution, simply for pastoral reasons. In any case, this investigation should encourage us to to be more aware of what we do, why we do it, and how we came to do it, so that we don’t risk being surprised down the road.  

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.

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