For much of Baptist history, many Baptist denominations commonly practiced the ritual of laying on of hands for the purpose of ordaining a minister. In the 1700s and 1800s, disputes arose among the various Baptist sects over the significance and proper use of laying on of hands. Most groups were comfortable, to some extent at least, with the laying on of hands to bless and recognize one who is called into ministry by the church. But some factions, such as the Six-Principle Baptists, believed that the rite has more widespread application and meaning. The use of this tradition still varies today among the churches that associate with the many different Baptist denominations.
What is Laying on of Hands?
Simply put, the laying on of hands is a symbolic act in which religious leaders place their hands on a person in order to confer some type of spiritual blessing. A typical scenario involves the clergy, elders and deacons placing their hands on a person's head, arm, shoulders or back while praying a blessing or benediction over him. There has been historical dispute over whether this is strictly necessary or actually imparts any power or blessing or merely symbolizes the church's recognition of what God is already doing in this person's life.
When a minister, deacon, elder or missionary is commissioned for the work to which he is called by the church, it is common to pray for him with the laying on of hands during an ordination ceremony or service. William Loyd Allen, professor of church history and spiritual formation at Mercer University's McAfee School of Theology, explains, "The laying on of hands with prayer invokes God’s blessing upon the one ordained and signifies that he or she is set apart as a servant to the servants of God." But Baptist belief in the equality of every baptized member holds that their ministers are ordained as servant leaders, not granted a higher spiritual status than the common congregation through the blessing of laying on of hands.
In the 1600s, many Baptist congregations would lay hands on new members directly after their water baptism, either to confirm and signify their acceptance into the church body or to pray for the initiate to also receive the baptism or infilling of the Holy Spirit after the Apostle Paul's example in Acts 19:5-6. This, however, was a much more controversial application of the rite, sparking much debate over whether the church or its leaders actually bestowed any power or benefit through the practice. Some went as far as to forbid contact with believers who had not been received by the laying on of hands. Others found nothing wrong with the ritual itself but were uncomfortable making it a mandatory matter of church doctrine, preferring to leave it up to individual conscience. Six-Principle Baptists assert that adherence to the practice of laying on of hands is a matter of scriptural mandate outlined in the doctrine of Christ that the Apostle Paul writes about in Hebrews 6:1-2.
Although it receives much less attention in the controversy, ministers will sometimes pray for the healing of the sick with the laying on of hands. Acts 28 records an instance where Publius' father was healed of fever and dysentery when the Apostle Paul laid his hands on him and prayed for healing. In keeping with this example, Ernest Payne, longtime leader in the British Baptist Union and former president of the World Council of Churches, reports, "at various times and places the leaders of local churches have laid hands on the sick."
- Bible Gateway: Hebrews 6 (New King James Version)
- General Association of Six-Principle Baptists: Six-Principle Baptists: Our Denomination and Its Distinguishing Traits
- The Baptist Quarterly: Baptists and the Laying on of Hands; Ernest A. Payne
- Reformed Reader: The Philadelphia Confession, 1742
- Reformed Reader: Church Polity: Ordination
- Reformed Reader: Baptists in the Colonies: H.C. Vedder
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