Confirmation did not exist in the Early Church, but we can trace its beginnings to Christian baptism in the first centuries of the Church. Baptism has its roots in Jewish tradition, along with the practice of anointing and blessing by the laying on of hands. Households were baptized together, including slaves and children, in the name of the Father, the Messiah, and the Holy Spirit. The liturgy involved questions of renunciation and commitment, and if children could not answer for themselves, others answered for them.
The newly baptized emerged from the water and (in many parts of the Church) were anointed, usually over the entire body. Being marked with the sign of the cross with oil (the consignation), the newly baptized were then re-clothed (some in white garments).
For centuries, it was a bishop who presided over these services and at the end of the rite, he laid a hand on each of the candidates, in a dismissal prayer (missa), leading to the breaking of the bread and admission to the Eucharistic community.  Baptism was seen as a water moment of the washing from sin and a cleansing act of forgiveness. The anointing, a representation of the rich, flowing life of the Spirit, was a sealing of the gift of the Holy Spirit, being marked as Christ’s own forever.
During the fourth century, the Church increased in numbers and many of its members lived in remote rural areas: the presence of a bishop was not always possible; baptisms were a more frequent occurrence in an expanding church; most were largely illiterate; preparation took place through worship, preaching, and hearing scripture read in worship; presbyters and deacons began to perform baptisms.
Catechumens continued to go through a lengthy period of instruction in the faith, often during the season of Lent in preparation for baptism at the Great Vigil of Easter. Around 450, Bishop Faustus of Riez gave a Pentecost sermon that serves as a benchmark for the classic Western theology of confirmation: baptism is a “washing” and the acts immediately after the water ritual as a “confirmation” to “arm and supply” those for “the struggles and battles of this world.”
From the eighth to the twelfth centuries, the rite of initiation consisted of baptism, confirmation, and first communion being three parts of one whole, not always experienced at the same moment, with each additional rite adding new “strength” to the individual. These became separated as the doctrine of “real presence” arose in the eleventh century, so the “age of discretion” (typically 7 years old) became the key to a child’s admittance to communion. However, many never returned to be seen by the bishop to “complete” the baptism.
The English Reformation (1534–1662) left the Church of England with a clear and definite process of Christian initiation. Baptism was a rite of infancy, followed by Catechism and Confirmation, normally at 14 to 16 years old, followed by First Communion. Admission to communion was seen as the response to a communicant making a public profession of faith—not an integral part of sacramental initiation.
As Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer authored the 1540 Book of Common Prayer, with Confirmation a rite reserved exclusively to the bishop; its theological emphasis was on the gift of the Holy Spirit, for strength and constancy. In the Book of Common Prayer of 1549, the anointing with oil is omitted for the first time since apostolic times in the rite of Baptism, and the final rubric states, “And there shall none be admitted to the Holy Communion until such time as he be Confirmed.” Cranmer’s prayer books therefore made baptism the first stage of a two-part initiatory process.
In Colonial America, the Catechism adopted as part of the American Book of Common Prayer followed closely the prayer book of the Church of England. Confirmation was to be administered to baptized persons of competent age when they could say the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments, and repeat answers from the Catechism with some understanding of meaning.
Those new to the Episcopal Church and those who had not been confirmed had to come for an episcopal blessing. Confirmation emerged as a sign of membership in the Episcopal Church, because the United States had a variety of Protestant religious values, historically and geographically, and people were easily associated in communities by the church they attended.
Finding itself in the midst of a culture of Protestant denominations that had rejected the practice of confirmation, the Episcopal Church relied on biblical foundations to explain the office. From the 1892 through 1928 versions of the Book of Common Prayer, the Episcopal Church followed this model of Christian initiation: baptism in infancy, clergy-led education using the Offices of Instruction, the laying on of hands by a bishop, then being welcomed as an adult member to receive Holy Communion for the first time.
From about 1890 until 1970, a school of thought, popularly known as the “Mason-Dix” line, held the view that confirmation was the second and completing half of the full sacrament of initiation. It made a distinction between baptism of water, which provided cleansing from sin, and baptism of the Spirit, bestowed through the imposition of hands. This view insisted that the Spirit was active not in baptism, but in confirmation; the seal of the Spirit completed Christian initiation.
Dom Gregory Dix in 1946 published The Theology of Confirmation in Relation to Baptism, in which he maintained that confirmation was a rite from the New Testament, consisting of a sealing with chrism—the outward sign of the sealing of the Spirit until the day of redemption. He advocated a revision of the doctrine of confirmation, calling for no interval of time between baptism and confirmation.
In 1951 in The Seal of the Spirit, G. W. Lampe argued that confirmation was a post-apostolic rite for strengthening those baptized in infancy with the Holy Ghost the Comforter. He insisted that since membership in Christ is given by faith in the sacrament of baptism, baptism mediates the indwelling presence of the Spirit that also dwelt within Christ. The blessings of initiation are given at baptism, which is unrepeatable and rooted in the New Testament and early church liturgies. Baptism is itself the “seal.” He felt that confirmation should be administered as close to baptism as possible, with the ratification of baptismal promises.
Various doctrinal commissions and reports over the past 30 years in the Episcopal Church have studied these two schools of thought in regard to confirmation. It has been largely agreed that baptism alone is complete initiation and fully admits a person (child or adult) to communion. Confirmation/laying on of hands has a pastoral role in the renewal of faith among the baptized and should no longer be seen as a requisite for communion.
In 1970, the Liturgical Commission of the Episcopal Church published Prayer Book Studies 18, promoting a unified rite of baptism that appeared in the Services for Trial Use. In this rite, when candidates have been baptized, the bishop or priest, in full sight of the congregation prays, “. . . Sustain them, O Lord, with your Holy Spirit . . .” Then he or she lays a hand on each person’s head and signs their forehead with the cross, using chrism if desired, and says, “N., you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.” With these words and actions, the sealing of the Spirit and the hand-laying are united in baptism. Confirmation was to be eliminated as a separate service, but this proved to be unacceptable because there was no provision for commitment to Christ at the age of discretion.
At the International Anglican Liturgical Consultation held in Boston in July 1985, it was acknowledged that Cranmer had shifted the emphasis of an outward rite to a catechizing event that had lost its sacramentality, and the 1991 International Anglican Liturgical Consultation stated that baptism is complete sacramental initiation, including the gift of the Holy Spirit.
The Episcopal Church struggled with the development of new rites to reflect this understanding. The Introduction to Prayer Book Studies 18 explained, “The basic principle of this proposal is the reunion of Baptism, Confirmation, and Communion into a single, continuous service, as it was in the primitive Church.” Urban T. Holmes, a member of the Drafting Committee (1974 to 1976), argued that the description of confirmation as an adult affirmation of baptism was not consistent with the typical church practice of confirming young people at ages 9 to 12, calling the current practice “modern individualism” and “Pelagianism” because grace was being given in relation to merit and free will.
Controversy continued on sacramental and pastoral grounds. In 1971 the House of Bishops issued the Pocono Statement on the pastoral and catechetical side of confirmation. It stated that in Holy Baptism a person is made fully and completely a Christian and member of the Church. Confirmation was not to be regarded as a procedure of admission to Holy Communion, but a rite of mature affirmation of faith in the presence of the bishop and sealed by the laying on of hands.
Today in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer (within the Rite of Holy Baptism), the entire community is invited to recommit himself or herself to Christ, along with the candidate. A prayer is said for the renewal of what has already happened in baptism: forgiveness of sins, sealing with the Spirit, and binding to God’s service.
The first article appeared in Episcopal Teacher:
Winter 2017, Special Issue – Youth Confirmation, Vol. 29, No. 2, page 4-6