Confirmation and equivalent practices (CEP) developed in relation to the catechumenate of the early church. The catechumenate provided a comprehensive pattern of discipleship formation that tightly integrated instruction, sacramental participation, and church membership. For technical reasons of church order, the second post-baptismal anointing of catechumens (called confirmatio) – that which bestowed the gift of the Holy Spirit upon the newly baptized – could only be administered by a bishop.
The combination of a dramatic shift of the norm from adult participants to small children and infants in the catechetical process during the fifth century and of a chronological rift in the performance of the baptismal rite between the application of water by a presbyter in a local parish and the second post-baptismal anointing by a bishop (either at the cathedral or upon the occasion of a visit by the bishop to a local parish) resulted in major changes in the catechumenate.
By the middle ages, these two changes gave rise to the separation of an integrated baptismal rite into two sacraments: baptism and confirmation. During the medieval period, the baptismal rite was applied almost exclusively to infants and contained every element of the catechumenate of the early church except the second post-baptismal anointing (i.e. confirmation) and direct instruction of the baptized.
During the late 16th century and early 17th century, Protestants of various kinds sought to reform and revitalize the church, in part, through a critical recovery of the ancient catechetical pattern for forming disciples and initiating them into the life and work of the church. Reformers like Luther and Calvin demoted confirmation from sacramental status and cast it instead as the pedagogical gateway located between the sacraments of baptism (for infants) and Eucharist (for believers at or beyond the “age of discretion” – usually in adolescence). In the process of reinventing the catechumenate, Luther and Calvin developed authoritative curriculum pieces set in dialogical form known as “catechisms.” In contrast, to the magisterial reformers, Radical Protestants recovered and critically reappropriated the catechumenate of the early church in a way that was more directly consistent with the earlier pattern. Radical Protestants maintained the pattern of instruction, then baptism, followed by eucharistic participation. No matter the branch, all Protestant traditions sought to reinvigorate the Christianity through critical recoveries of the early church catechumenate that demoted confirmation from sacramental status and emphasized the importance of teaching and learning set bodies of core Christian knowledge and practices.
The diversity of practices related to the relationship between instruction, baptism, and Eucharist was brought to the United States by immigrants from Europe. For example, the English Puritans and some of the earliest German Lutheran immigrants emphasized the child’s personal profession of faith at the time of admission to the Lord’s Supper. The Scots-Irish (Presbyterians) and the later German Lutheran immigrants in the 1820s-30s emphasized the acquisition of theological literacy through catechetical instruction and ultimately young people’s confession of the faith of the church. In some instances, confirmation was dismissed altogether because of its relation to the bishop’s role in the Roman Catholic Church. In other cases, it retained a quasi-sacramental status, occurring only when a Lutheran or Episcopal bishop was present. Radical Protestant traditions did not use the language of confirmation and did not understand baptism and Eucharist to be sacramental in character.
By the latter half of the nineteenth century in the American context two major approaches to forming youth as disciples and church members competed against one another. On the evangelical, free church, and Radical Protestant side of the equation, young people were encouraged – after a period of instruction or exposure to revivalistic preaching – to make “a decision for Christ” which subsequently resulted in baptism and full participation in the life and work of the church. Among mainline Protestants, the “Christian nurture” approach prevailed which called for a continuous process of instruction of baptized children through a relatively well integrated ecology of Christian formation made up on the home, the local church, the school, and the local community. Even into the present day, one can readily discern approaches to CEP that trace their theological and pedagogical foundations to either the crisis conversion or the Christian nurture approaches that arose in the nineteenth century.
During the latter third of the twentieth century, some mainline Protestant denominations revised their standards of admission to the Lord’s Supper, allowing all baptized members to participate in this practice—including children. This meant that the pattern of the Reformation—infant baptism-catechetical instruction-admission to the Lord’s Supper in concert with confirmation—was broken up. Confirmation gradually evolved into a practice giving adolescents the opportunity to claim the faith for themselves, to “confirm” their baptisms. In some cases, confirmation also conferred certain privileges, like the right to vote in congregational meetings and to hold certain offices in the church. Yet still other approaches emphasized that this process had mainly to with “commissioning” youth for vocation and social engagement.
Today, it is not difficult to find a great deal of confusion and frustration about CEP in Protestant congregations across the USA. Most denominations lack internally agreed upon theological and pedagogical approaches to CEP. Even less consensus exists across denomination lines about the theory and practice of CEP. It appears that the one widely shared belief about CEP within and across denominational lines is that traditional approaches to CEP are simply not working anymore. Yet, denominations, congregations, pastors, parents, and youth participants continue to place a high value on CEP and many young people who otherwise maintain marginal status with regard to participation in their congregations, show up in CEP programs. The time has come for a broad-based program of research and reflection about what will make CEP effective for the contemporary era.