Dr. Frank Page baptizes Stephen Allmond in 2008 at Paris Mountain State Park near Greenville, S.C. Photo courtesy Dr. Frank Page

Baptism rates slide despite high-profile boosts

"Catholic Church Marriages and Baptisms as a Share of All U.S. Marriages and Live Births, 1970-2011" graphic courtesy CARA

"Catholic Church Marriages and Baptisms as a Share of All U.S. Marriages and Live Births, 1970-2011" graphic courtesy CARA

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

(RNS) The rite of baptism got big press as Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby christened Prince George, a future king of England onWednesday (Oct. 23).

Welby made it a teachable moment for a country where only one in six are baptized. In a YouTube video, he explains that by bringing their son forward for baptism, Prince William and Duchess Catherine are “bringing God into the middle of it all.”

Last month, Pope Francis gave the sacrament a boost when he called a pregnant, unmarried woman to encourage her faith and offered to baptize her baby. While his main message was anti-abortion,  his call also reminded Catholics that children of unmarried parents are welcome in the church.

Yet, it seems unlikely that even these leading voices in Christendom will reverse the nose-diving rates of baptism in the United States, where fewer people seem to think it's essential to have “God in the middle.”

Experts point to:

A rise in secularism

Set aside that one in five Americans today say they have no religious identity. Even among those who do claim a denominational label, “there is a de-emphasis on practicing faith,” said the Rev. Frank Page, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Executive Committee.

Dr. Frank Page baptizes Stephen Allmond in 2008 at Paris Mountain State Park near Greenville, S.C. Photo courtesy Dr. Frank Page

The Rev. Frank Page baptizes Stephen Allmond in 2008 at Paris Mountain State Park near Greenville, S.C. Photo courtesy Rev. Frank Page

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

"People want God but they're not happy with churches," he said, so rites such as baptism are victims of an “anti-denominational, anti-institutional, even anti-church era."

The SBC, which considers baptism a key marker of Christian faith and also denominational vitality, tallied 314,959 baptisms in 2012 -- a low not seen since 1948.

“It’s a sad situation," said Thom Rainer, president of LifeWay Christian Resources. "In 1948 we had 6 million members of the SBC but today we have (nearly) 16 million members."

Yet, Rainer called himself an “obnoxious optimist." Although his research on the nation's 80 million "millennials" (born between 1980 and 2000) shows that only 15 percent call themselves Christian, Rainer said those youth are “on fire” for faith.

"So it all might turn around," he said. "I’m standing on prayerful hope.”

More interfaith marriages

One in four U.S. households were multifaith in 2006, up from 15 percent in 1988, says Naomi Schaefer Riley in her book, "'Til Faith Do Us Part." Such couples often compromise by ditching specific faith rituals such as baptism to avoid contention.

Even so, divorce is three times more prevalent in interfaith families with children than in same-faith households, often leaving the children of those broken marriages confused or indifferent about God, sacraments or the path to salvation.

Fewer marriages officiated by clergy

When a couple opts not to get married in a church, it's an early sign that a couple may view the blessings of faith as optional for their family, said Mark Gray, senior research associate at Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.

Gray tied the sliding baptism rate to the decline in marriages officiated by a priest. The Catholic Church regards marriage as a sacrament to be celebrated in the sacred space of a church.

There's a disconnect at the get-go “if you are getting married at a country club or the beach," said Gray. "If you haven’t been married in a church, you may be less likely to present your child for baptism."

In 1970, there were 426,000 marriages in U.S. Catholic churches -- a full 20 percent of all U.S. marriages that year. By contrast, in 2011, there were 164,000 such weddings -- only 8 percent of all marriages. But in both years, Catholics were 23 percent of the national population.

Catholic baptism rates fell at a parallel pace -- from just more than 1 million baptisms in 1970 down to 793,103 baptisms in 2011.


Father James Martin, SJ, baptizes Carson Beddis at Blessed Teresa of Calcutta Church in Schwenksville, Pa. on July 14, 2013. Photo courtesy Rose Beddis

The Rev. James Martin baptizes Carson Beddis at Blessed Teresa of Calcutta Church in Schwenksville, Pa., on July 14, 2013. Photo courtesy Rose Beddis

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Gray said the rising number of out-of-wedlock births may contribute to the decline in baptisms. “Single parents may be less apt to bring a child for baptism because of a misapprehension that they won’t be welcome.” But as the pope’s call to the Italian woman shows, “The church is not going to turn you away,” Gray said.

The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest, author and editor at large at “America" magazine, worried that many parents don’t understand the theology of baptism, “the most familiar but misunderstood sacrament."

“It’s become a rite of passage for the family rather than what it really means -- an incorporation into the Christian community. So some parents don’t realize why it takes place during a Mass or why godparents should be Catholics. They are surprised that preparation is involved."

Still, said Martin, “It’s my favorite sacrament, much more than weddings. Everyone is happy at a baptism. No one is worried about the flowers or the reception or what the baby is wearing. It’s a great teachable moment about the church, God and love.”



  1. Schools. We don’t always strongly support Catholic Schools. We have closed so many and not encouraged their use.

    Strong schools are important to the kind of faith formation that gives you a sense of community. The education you receive practicing your faith at school creates wiser adults whose faith is part of their every day lives and identity.

    Support and use the schools, you’ll make a stronger church.

  2. This is a very positive trend indeed. I can only hope that parochial school participation drops until they have to shutter their doors. Brain washing children is bad for society.

  3. Nothing in the article defines Baptism….what is it and what is its importance?
    Firstly Baptism does not Save a person.
    It identifies the person with the death and Resurection of Christ Jesus, their hope just as Jesus raised from the dead. they too will be resurrected.
    One does not have to be baptised to be saved but once a person who has come to Faith, they often desire to be batptised.
    Johns Baptism was a baptism of water for Repentence of dead works.
    Jesus was not baptised for Repentence but to fullfil the Jewish law to be a High Priest before giving Himself as a sacrifice as only a High Priest could give a sacrifice for the people and the nation.
    Psalms 110 was the prophecy and the bood of Hebrews chapter 7 explain this,
    There are many Baptisms mentioned in the Bible,,,
    Faith is an expectant hope based upon whom you choose to believe,
    Biblical faith is believeing in the promises of God apart from self works.

  4. Depressing. Whichever way you cut the cake, organized religion is going down. Organized religion provides the buildings and ceremonies–without it we just have less good stuff. Organized religion can’t force you to do anything–to believe or behave in any way. It just provides goodies–buildings and rituals. What’s the problem?

  5. I believe that what we need at this time is a strong free religious education program funded by parishioners. Let the government pay for their education, we take care of the religious aspect of life. Until parishioners understand that education is one of their mission (to fund schools from their sacrificial offerings), more schools will close down. Indifference/apathy from the faithful is the biggest problem of the church right bow.

  6. 1 Peter 3:21 and Titus 3:4-8 contradict your declaration that Baptism does not save…Perhaps you would benefit by talking with a brother or sister in Christ who holds a different view of Baptism than yours!

  7. We must ask if we have the right to discriminate, at least in our hearts, against a baby on religious grounds. After all faith is not certainty. Do you have the right to hurt over belief?

    Talk about a mere ceremony incorporating a baby into Christianity which claims to be the religion revealed by God definitely implies that the ceremony matters more than religious faith. It implies that babies not baptised are deprived or inferior. Welby’s attitude to baptism like the Catholic attitude needs to be seen for the nastiness it is. Catholicism holds that a baby is estranged from God and therefore evil until baptism.

  8. Joseph Prince is coming to America in November, sold out in Dallas. He teaches the Gospel of Grace to the world and has a 20,000 plus member church in Singapore.

    People are leaving traditional church because we’ve realized how they’ve twisted the Gospel to build serfdoms for themselves by mixing works with faith, just like the Catholic church.

    The Gospel is pure Faith, Grace and Freedom. No works, no law, no rituals, no costumes, no pretending.

  9. Bottom photo is NOT a baptism.
    GOD’s word defines baptism.
    Either GOD’s word is true or everyone who calls himself a Christian is a fool.
    And anyone who thinks they can “tweak” GOD’s word to fit their own belief is going to be very sorry when they are called on to explain it.

  10. Mr. Gormley, your logic doesn’t hold up. You have said that baptism means more than faith; the Church has not said that. You say that unbaptized babies are estranged from God and therefore evil. The Church does not say that. Where did you get your ideas about sacramental theology and Church teaching? Certainly not from the Church itself.

  11. Mr. Gormley, the Church does not teach that baptism is more important than faith, nor does it teach that unbaptized babies are “evil.” How had you come to this misunderstanding?

  12. Webmaster, when my first comment to Mr. Gormley did not post, I wrote a different, shorter reply. Then I made the mistake of hitting the “Report Abuse” button. I apologize and prefer that the first of my replies to Mr. Gormley be removed in the interest of brevity.

    Sincerely, Duane Lamers

  13. So, are you arguing that brainwashing does not occur in public schools? And exactly to what type of inculcating / brainwashing do you refer? Most studies show that students from parochial schools do far better on testing in math, science and other core areas than public school students… so, not following your point.

  14. Baptism does not save? So much for Matthew 28:19; Mark 16:16; Titus 3:5-8; 1 Peter 3:21 and particularly Romans 6:4!

  15. Plummeting baby baptisms, at least, can easily be explained. It’s because many more people are becoming wise to vile Augustinian lie that says babies that are unbaptized will somehow go straight to eternal torment if they die. The doctrine – shared by Catholics and neo-Catholic Protestants alike – is repugnant and defies Reason as well as Scripture.

  16. Charles, do you not see the irony in condemning “serfdoms” (and I believe you meant “fiefdoms”) in the same sentence as praising a megachurch-owning, fundamentalist, “Rockstar” TV minister?

    And our Master Christ Jesus commands us to perform Good Works and says we will be judged based solely on our deeds, not based on our mere ecstatic utterances (“Lord, Lord!”) and tearful, wordy prayers or expecting God’s “grace” to do the works FOR us without us living a finger. Your faith is the “Other Gospel” Mr. Prince and other modern hucksters are preaching. Christendom has been subverted and warped by these hirelings.

  17. My daughter (who went to Catholic schools for all but one year) did not have her daughter baptized, because she didn’t want her “indoctrinated.” I did not have a problem with that, because I figured if God wanted this child to be a Catholic, God would reel her in the way God reeled me in: at the age of ten, with no Catholic upbringing at all. (Not exactly infant baptism, and not exactly RCIA either.) My ex-husband, however, apparently didn’t trust God enough to do anything, and baptized the child in the kitchen sink while her parents were out. That to my mind had nothing to do with faith, and was purely the result of superstition and a bizarre concept of God as a mugger, not to mention a complete disregard for the parents’ wishes.

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