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At an early period of the Church, certain persons were required to be present at the baptism of its members, to serve as witnesses of the due performance of the rite, and to become sureties for the fulfilment of the engagements and promises then made. There is no mention of sponsors in the New Test., though there is mention of the "questioning" (ἐπερώτημα ). The mention of them first occurs in Tertullian for infants in the De Baptismo (c. 18); for adults, as is supposed, in the De Corona. Militis (c. 3: "Inde suscepti lactis et mellis concordiam praegustamus." See Suicer, s.v. ἀναδέχομαι ). In the Jewish baptism of proselytes, two or three sponsors or witnesses were required to be present (see Lightfoot, On Matthew 3, 6). It is so improbable that the Jews should have borrowed such a custom from the Christians that the coincidence can hardly have arisen but from the Christians continuing the usages of the Jews.

I. Their Appellations. These persons were called at first sponsores, sponsors, especially when they responded for an infant. They were called also fidejussores, sureties (Augustine, Serm. 116, De Temp.). The title is borrowed from the Roman law. The Greek term ἀνάδοχοι corresponds to the Latin offerentes and susceptores, and refers to the assistance rendered to the baptized immediately before and after the ceremony. The appellation μάρτυρες, testes, witnesses, which became a favorite in later times, was unknown to the ancient Church. The more modern terms compatres, etc., godfathers and godmothers, are derived from the practice of early times, in which the parents, or in their absence the nearest relatives, took the child out of the baptismal water.

II. Origin of the Office. This has been traced by some writers to the institutions of Judaism, and by others to those of the Roman civil law. Neither the Old nor the New Test. contains any allusion to the presence of witnesses at circumcision, nor is there any trace of sponsors or witnesses to be found in any of the narratives of baptism recorded in the New Test. It is, however, easy to account for the presence of sponsors at baptism, if we refer to the customs of the Roman law. Baptism was early regarded in the light of a stipulation; covenant, or contract, and on all such matters the Roman jurisprudence was very exact and careful in its institutions. The leaders of the early Church, many of whom were conversant with Roman law, would doubtless endeavor to give solemnity and security to the sacred covenant in a way corresponding to that which they had been accustomed to observe in civil transactions. Perhaps the custom arose naturally from the practice of infant baptism, in order that the interrogatories of the Church might not be without some answer. Tradition says that the office was appointed by Hyginus, or Iginus, a Roman bishop, about the year 154. It was, however, in full operation in the fourth and fifth centuries.

III. Duties of Sponsor. According to Bingham, there were three sorts of sponsors made use of in the primitive Church:

(1.) For children who could not renounce or profess or answer for themselves.

(2.) For such adult persons as, by reason of sickness or infirmity, were in the same condition with children incapacitated to answer for themselves.

(3.) For all adult persons in general. In times of persecution it was proper to have witnesses of the fact, in order to prevent apostasy.

1. Two things were anciently required of sponsors as their proper duty in the case of children: first, to answer, in the names of their charge, to all interrogatories of baptism; secondly, to be guardians of their spiritual life for the future, and to take care, by good admonition and instruction, that they performed their part of the covenant in which they were engaged (Augustine, Serm. 116, De Temp.). Bingham thinks that they were not obliged to give them their maintenance, this devolving, naturally, upon the parents; and if orphans, or destitute, upon the Church.

Sponsors are required in the baptismal service of the Church of England. They promise, on behalf and in the name of those baptized (to quote the words of the Catechism), "1. To renounce the devil and all his works, the pomps and vanities of this wicked world, and all the sinful lusts of the flesh; 2. To believe all the articles of the Christian faith; 3. To keep God's holy will and commandments all the days of their life."

2. Another sort of sponsors were those that were appointed to make answers for such persons as, by reason of some infirmity, could not answer for themselves; e.g. such adult persons as were suddenly struck speechless, or seized with frenzy by the violence of a distemper. If the party happened to recover after such a baptism, it was the sponsor's duty not only to acquaint him as a witness with what was done for him, but also, as a guardian of his behavior, to induce him to make good the promises which he, in his name, had made for him.

3. The third sort of sponsors were for such adult persons as were able to answer for themselves; for these also had their sponsors, and no person anciently was baptized without them. Their duty was not to answer in the names of the baptized, but only to admonish and instruct them before and after baptism.

IV. Qualification, Number, Marriage, and Restriction.

1. It was a general rule that every sponsor must be himself a baptized person and in full communion with the Church. This excluded all heathen, all mere catechumens, reputed heretics, excommunicated persons, and penitents.

2. Every sponsor was required to be of full age. No minors were admitted to this office, even though they had been baptized and confirmed.

3. Every sponsor was supposed to be acquainted with the fundamental truths of Christianity, and to know the Creed, the Lord's Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the leading outlines of Christian doctrine and morality.

4. Monks and nuns were in early times eligible as sponsors, and were frequently chosen to act in that capacity; but in the 6th century this practice was prohibited.

5. At first there was no law respecting the number of sponsors at baptism, although one sponsor was considered sufficient. In later times it became customary to have two sponsors one male and one female.

6. By the Council of Trent it was ordered that not only the names of the baptized, but also the names of the sponsors, should be registered in the books of the Church. The object was that men might know what persons were forbidden to marry by this spiritual relation. But anciently it had a much better use: that the Church might know who were sponsors, and that they might be put in mind of their duty by being entered upon record, which was a standing memorial of their obligations.

7. A law of Justinian (Cod. lib. 5, tit. 4. De Nuptiis, leg. 26) forbids any man to marry a woman, whether she be slave or free, for whom he had been godfather in baptism when she was a child. The Council of Trullo (can. 53) forbids the godfather not only to marry the infant; but the mother of the infant, for whom he answers; and orders them that have done so first to be separated, then to do the penance of fornicators. This prohibition was extended to more degrees in the following ages, and grew so extravagant that the Council of Trent thought it a matter worthy of their reformation. By their rules, however, this spiritual relation was extended to more degrees, forbidding marriage not only between the sponsors and their children, but also between the sponsors. themselves; nor may the baptizer marry the baptized, nor the father or mother of the baptized, because of the spiritual relation that is contracted between them.

8. The twenty-ninth canon of the Anglican Church makes it necessary for every child to have a godfather and godmother; and, in order to secure this benefit to all the infantine members of the Church, it prohibits the parents assuming this office. The canon appears to argue in this way: No father or mother is a real godfather or godmother: it is quite true that they may stand at the font and take upon themselves the nominal office, but the real godfather and the real godmother are the creations of time, custom, and: natural feeling working within the precincts of the Church. They are, essentially, persons outside of the home circle, whose interest is engaged in the rising young Christian by assuming this relation to him. The parents themselves are already sponsors by the simple fact of being parents; so that, if you give the child only his parents for his sponsors, you give him nothing at all, because he has them already. The reason of having a godfather and godmother is that they are persons from without, who add friendly interest and attention to the parental one. According to Gilpin, "the Church demands the security of sponsors, who are intended, if the infant should be left an orphan or neglected by its parents, to see it properly instructed in the advantages promised and the conditions required" (Serm. 23, vol. 3, p. 259)

See Bingham, Christ. Antiq. bk. 11, ch. 9; Riddle, Christ. Antiq.; and the monographs cited by Volbeding, Index Program. p. 142. See BAPTISM.


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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Sponsors'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/tce/s/sponsors.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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