A Dissertation on the Nature and Administration of the Ordinance of Baptism

William Sommerville, Paisley–Alex Gardner, 1866, 319 pages

William Sommerville was born in the townland of Aughnavalog near Ballyroney in Co Down, N. Ireland on 1st July 1800 and grew up as a member of Rathfriland Reformed Presbyterian Church.  He studied classics and at Glasgow University, graduating in 1820. He then went on to train for the gospel ministry at the Theological Hall, Paisley, Scotland, receiving most of his training under the renowned RP professor, Dr Andrew Symington.  

In 1831 he was Called and Commissioned by the Irish RP Church to mission work in New Brunswick, Canada.  He served there and in Nova Scotia until his death on 28th September 1878.

The context in which William Sommerville wrote this volume was the influence of the Baptist movement in Nova Scotia, which had the potential of unsettling some of his membership.  It is clear from the many references to Alexander Carson (1776-1844) that his writings were having considerable influence among Presbyterians in the Maritime Provinces.  

Prof W D Killen, Presbyterian historian described Carson as “a minister of great ability and a distinguished controversial writer; but not withstanding his new views made little progress in the countryside.” His books and pamphlets obviously made their way to the Maritime Provinces and Sommerville in this outstanding volume exposes the flaws in Carson’s arguments. With biblical insight and with great clarity, he sets forth the nature and administration of the Sacrament of Baptism.

The book is written in two parts.  The first part considers the Mode of Baptism.  Carson and those who adhere to his teaching on Baptism are labelled by Sommerville as ‘antipaedobaptists’.

In the first part of the book, over the course of 94 pages, Sommerville makes a case for pouring or sprinkling, as the Biblical mode for the Sacrament of Baptism, on solid exegetical grounds.  An example of how Sommerville argues his case:

“Complete purification is ascribed to sprinkling.   By sprinkling the purifying element upon them, men are washed.  David says, – “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me and I shall be whiter than the snow.”  The thing for which he prays is complete cleansing, – a thorough washing.  The symbol of that washing is the sprinkling of “the water of separation.”  To this agrees the divine prediction or promise, – “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness and from all your idols will I cleanse you.  A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you. – And I will put my Spirit within you.”  (Ezek. 36:25-27) Here is, in fact, a prediction, only fulfilled in the New Testament use of Baptism.  This is to “sanctify and cleanse with the washing of water by the word.”

Page 77

Sommerville is no less persuasive when he argues the case that infants of believing parents are to be baptised as well as adults coming to faith who have not been previously baptised.  For example, Sommerville directs his readers to Isaiah 65:23

“They shall not labour in vain, nor bring forth for trouble; for they are the seed of the blessed of the Lord, and their offspring with them.”

On this verse he comments:

“The language is used to designate the covenant people of God, and, eminently, Abraham whom God called alone, and blessed and increased, and Isaac, and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise.  The people that should arise, after God had created a new thing in the earth, should still be the seed of the blessed of the Lord, and their offspring, not merely after them, according to a necessary law, but with them.  In this is recognized the permanent interest of the children in the covenant privileges and blessings of their fathers.”

With this and numerous other arguments in the compass of 173 pages, our distinguished Reformed Presbyterian author argues persuasively for the inclusion of believers children within the covenant and as a consequence their right to receive the sign of the covenant, i.e. baptism.

The final section of the book is a set of notes further explaining and amplifying points made in the first two parts of this stimulating and encouraging volume.

Although this book has been out of print for many decades second-hand copies do occasionally become available.  I highly recommend this volume to anyone with an interest in the family and the children of believers being given their place in the church as warranted by Scripture.

An excerpt from this book, consisting of 50 pages, entitled: “A Dissertation on the Nature and Administration of the Ordinance of Baptism” was published in 2017 by ‘Forgotten Books’ in the ‘Classic Reprint Series’. ISBN 978-0282549541

Robert L W McCollum,

Robert just retired as minister of the Lisburn Congregation in Northern Ireland. He serves as a Professor at the RP Theological College in Belfast and on the Advisory Committee of the RP Global Alliance.

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