Signing of the cross in baptism

Signing the forehead of an infant with the cross, using oil, was a fundamental part of the ritual of baptism in the medieval church. The 1549 Book of Common Prayer retained signing of the forehead, along with unction and exorcism. The 1552 version removed unction and exorcism, but retained signing with the cross. Such rituals caused controversy for a century and more. A proposal at Convocation in 1563, to remove signing with the cross as ‘tending to superstition’, was lost by one vote. In the lead-up to the Civil Wars in the 1640s, Puritans hated this oppression above any other. ‘It is the mark of the beast’, an Essex man declared; several incidents in that county record the child being snatched from the priest’s hands, or the face being covered with a cloth, or even the curate’s hand being twisted behind his back, to prevent the ritual taking place. Parents, however, sometimes saw it as the crucial bodily sign that their child had been properly baptised. For the 1662 restoration of the Book of Common Prayer, William Juxon, the new Archbishop of Canterbury, regarded it as one of the two defining points of uniformity in the church. Here in Histon, a Visitation on St Bartholomew’s Day, 1662, the deadline for conformity to the new book, declares that ‘The sacrament of Baptisme is duly administred according to the forme prescrib’d, & the signe of the Crosse euery time used. The surplice is not yet prouided’. A manicule (hand-drawn hand) marks the significance of the question. It is added that ‘4. Baptism hath bin denyed to none’, and ‘7. No popish ore separatist recusants children have bin babtized to our knowledge’ (i.e. the church wardens). In the section on Holy Communion, it is said ‘9. All deuoutly kneele, that come to communicate.’ BC

Ely Diocesan Records: Visitations (1662) in Histon, Cambridgeshire.

CUL: EDR B/9/1

Further Reading

David Cressy, Birth, Marriage and Death: Ritual, Religion and the Life-Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England (Oxford, 1997).

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