Clarence Walworth's Incontrovertible Baptism

In June of 1843, Clarence Walworth waded into the salty waters of the bay around New York City to be baptized for the second time. The Episcopalian minister who baptized him immersed Walworth three times while pronouncing the baptismal formula “in the Name of the FATHER and of the SON and of the HOLY GHOST.” Afterwards the minister put his hand to an certificate of baptism in the hand of the young Walworth, “heavily done in imitation of Old English lettering, ornamentally shaded with red.” The Episcopal church had not enjoined Walworth to be re-baptized, nor did it prescribe the “mode of ‘trine immersion’” in its prayer book. Why then did Walworth take pains to be baptized in an unusual way, and what did it mean?1

When he was a child Walworth had been baptized as a Presbyterian, the faith of his family. He began attending an Episcopal church while practicing law, because his “fellow lodger” was the church organist. Bishop Onderdonk confirmed Walworth in the Episcopal church in 1839, but Walworth claimed that “No questions had been put to me as to what I believed or did not believe.” His theological opinions were unschooled but broadly Protestant, save for a distaste for the doctrine of justification by faith alone. “With these convictions,” Walworth thought, “I could without scruple have become a Presbyterian or Methodist as readily as an Episcopalian.”

His theology became better defined when he gave up his law practice in 1842 to become a student at the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church. The first shock came from James McMaster, an intelligent but impetuous student, who introduced Walworth to the doctrine of baptismal regeneration in a debate in their rooms, though he never managed to locate his proof text from the New Testament. Another student, the kindly Arthur Carey, later identified the text in Acts and explained that baptism washed away sins and regenerated the soul. Walworth was persuaded very slowly, for he thought that “the idea of grace conveyed to the soul by means of a sacramental ceremony is something utterly inconsistent with the ordinary training of a Protestant mind.” But once persuaded, this new doctrine was “the entering wedge of a new faith, far broader and deeper than any I then conceived of as possible.”2

Baptism was a recurring topic of debate in the seminary, and Walworth thought about it often. Professors were split between high church, low church, and evangelical factions, and they doubted that dissenting clergymen were truly ordained. At stake was the claim of Episcopalians and Anglicans that their church had maintained apostolic succession, and thus was part of the “one true catholic apostolic church.” At a student discussion Walworth was dismayed to hear this idea taken one step further. Some of the seminarians maintained that dissenting clergymen were actually laymen, and because baptism by laymen was invalid, that such Protestants were not in fact Christians. Walworth could only exclaim that he “was the child of Presbyterians parents,” as were some of his classmates, and that the “opinions expressed there so strongly and freely would sound very strangely at the firesides from which they had come.” Carey, presiding over the meeting, defined those Protestants as “Christians” but not part of the “Church.”3

In time Walworth was persuaded that his previous baptism was invalid, and asked Rector Caleb Clapp to rectify the deficiency with the waters of the Hudson River and Atlantic Ocean. At stake was his membership in the true church and the forgiveness of his sins. In later years Walworth, after he and McMaster had converted to Catholicism as a concerned aunt and a fellow seminarian had predicted he would, he learned what the better-read McMaster and Carey likely already knew: the Roman Catholic Church recognized his Presbyterian baptism as perfectly valid. The Council of Trent held that even baptism by heretics was valid, provided that it was done “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, with the intention of doing what the Church does.”4 That theology, however, was Walworth’s reflection in 1895, after five decades in the Roman Catholic church. In 1843, Walworth sought catholicity but had not yet found it in communion with the Bishop of Rome.5

The twenty-three-year-old confused catholicity with a kind of Christian pluralism, which he thought his baptismal rite and certificate guaranteed. The rite was designed to appeal to every possible Christian opinion of baptism. Catholics could not gainsay the baptism “on the ground of a want of intention on the part of the minister, since Mr. Clapp was a firm believer in the necessity of baptism, and would not administer it thoughtlessly.” Episcopalians could not object to Clapp’s credentials, since he was in holy orders from the Episcopal Church and not a layman. Baptists had could not object that Walworth was “an infant and so incapable” of receiving baptism. Baptists and the Greek orthodox church had to admit that the mode of baptism was valid, “since the method of trine immersion was carefully used.” 6

In terms of theology, Walworth’s second baptism was incontrovertible. Yet it was controversy rather than any coherent theology that motivated the curious rite. In seeking his salvation and membership in the true church, Walworth thought he had to please his Presbyterian parents, his Protestant aunt who brought him on trips to the American Bible Society, his skeptical and scoffing uncle, his Tractarian-leaning fellow seminarians, the judicious divines of his Episcopal church, the charge of excommunication from the papacy, and even the rites of the “schismatic Greeks” whom he likely knew only from his books. As he moved from Protestant indifferentism to the hothouse of the General Theological Seminary caught up in the Oxford Movement and eventually to Rome, Walworth was an example of a broader trend of people caught up in growing religious pluralism: sometimes the need to change one’s religion, but always the need to justify one’s religion to oneself and to family, friends, and the world.


  1. Clarence Walworth, The Oxford Movement in America; or, Glimpses of Life in an Anglican Seminary (New York: Catholic Book Exchange, 1895), 31. Most Christian denominations recoil from re-baptism. If there is any question about someone’s baptism, Episcopalians and Catholics perform a conditional baptism. Though trine baptism was an ancient practice, it was unusual in the modern church. The rubrics of the 1789 American Book of Common Prayer, as revised in 1841, state, “Then shall the minister take each person to be baptized by the right hand; and placing him conveniently by the Font, according to his discretion, … then shall dip him in the water, or pour water upon him.” The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church: According to the Use of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America (New York: H. & S. Raynor, 1842), 166. The first prayer book of Edward VI prescribed trine baptism, but the requirement was left out of all subsequent prayer books. The American prayer book did contain rubrics for conditional baptism.

  2. Walworth, 9.

  3. Walworth, 10.

  4. Canons of the Council of Trent, seventh sessions, canons on baptism, canon 4. The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, trans. H. J. Schroeder (Charlotte: TAN Books, 1971), 53. McMaster converted to Catholicism at nearly the same time as Walworth, and Walworth, McMaster, and in 1845 Isaac Hecker all traveled to Belgium together to undertake novitiates as Redemptorists. Before he was ordained Arthur Carey was tried for his Romanist testimonies, but was acquited. But in 1844 he died prematurely at the age of 21 as a deacon of the Episcopal Church.

  5. Walworth, 33. “Episcopalians in this country, and Anglicans in England, are essentially Protestant, and their antics are remarkable when they try to be Catholic.”

  6. Walworth, 31. See also New York Times, September 20, 1900; Ellen H. Walworth, Life Sketches of Father Walworth: With Notes and Letters (Albany: J. B. Lyon, 1907); Walter Elliott, “Falther Walworth: A Character Sketch,” Catholic World 73 (June 1901): 320–337.