The role of godparents has changed considerably in the history of Christianity. Originally, the role was performed by one person, known as the "sponsor." In the early Roman Empire, the sponsor confirmed the integrity of an adult who wanted to be baptized and helped the person through the process. The role changed somewhat when Christianity was recognized in the Roman Empire, and it changed again when infant baptism was introduced in the Middle Ages.

Early Roman Empire

When Christianity was a new religion, in the early period of the Roman Empire, the role of godparent was much different than it is now. The role was called "sponsor," which is still the official term used in the Catholic Church and some other churches. Since Christianity was a persecuted faith at this time, one important function of the sponsor was to confirm the integrity and sincerity of the adult seeking to be baptized -- and prevent infiltration of the community of believers by persecutors.

Late Roman Empire

When the Christian religion was officially recognized within the Roman Empire, it became less important for the sponsor to vouch for the individual seeking baptism. Another function remained important: leading the person through the process of preparation for baptism. Because the individual seeking baptism was an adult and a pagan -- someone who grew up in a non-Christian culture -- the preparation for baptism was a complete course in Christian beliefs and practices. The sponsor was the individual's main guide in learning about Christian life.

Early Middle Ages

After the end of the Roman Empire, more and more people in Europe converted to Christianity. In the early Middle Ages, adult pagan baptism became rare. At the same time, infant baptism became a dominant trend, as Christian parents wanted to have their young children baptized. Also, the practice developed of having two sponsors -- one male and one female -- now called godparents, the godfather and the godmother.

Late Middle Ages

Prior to the Reformation -- when the new Protestant churches began to experiment with baptism -- the role and function of the godparents had stabilized and was specified in Church law. They were chosen by the parents of the infant to be baptized, and they spoke for the infant during the ceremony. They were expected to help provide a Christian upbringing to the child, especially if the parents were absent or neglected their obligations.