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In Mrs Henry Wood's Within the Maze (1872) the trusted servant brings the baby to an Anglican church and the following conversation takes place between her and the clerk:

"Have you brought this infant to be christened?"

"To be baptised," replied Ann Hopley. "Not christened."

The clerk paused. "It's not usual with us to baptise children unless they are so delicate as to render it necessary," said he. "We prefer to christen at once."

"But this child is delicate," she answered. "My mistress,who is herself still very ill, has got nervous about it and wishes it to be done. The christening must be left until she is better." [279]

This conversation may be puzzling to many modern readers, who use the words “baptism” and “christening” interchangeably. Actually, so did the Victorians, for the most part. The differentiation was introduced when, as it happens in Wood’s novel, the child was sickly and had to be baptized in a hurry, either in a private ceremony at home, or as in the novel, in church, but without the usual family celebrations. A popular practical advice book for law, titled rather peremptorily Things You Ought to Know, Clearly Explained by “One Who Knows” (1877), says:

Christening: Though christening always accompanies the public baptism of infants, it is not provided for in the form for private baptism prescribed by the Church of England, and it is illegal, as well as contrary to Church teaching to baptise a person already baptised. For these reasons it is provided that where an infant has been privately baptised, the ceremony of christening may afterwards be performed in church, according to the form prescribed in anticipation of such cases; but such after-ceremony is not essential to the validity of the previous baptism, and its omission or observance makes no legal difference. [252]

Christening in such cases was an official ceremony of introducing the child to the extended family and the parish community if the child was baptized previously in a quiet private ceremony. That being said, many other texts published around this time use "baptism" and "christening" as we do, interchangeably. For instance, The Illustrated London News, Sep 16 1865, used the word “christening” for what was apparently a private baptism ceremony: "In the afternoon the ceremony of christening the infant son of the Hon. and Very Rev. the Dean of Windsor and Mrs Wellesley took place in the private chapel of the castle." [258]

The Victorians themselves sometimes became rather confused about the difference. Harvey Goodwin (who later became Bishop of Carlisle) in his Lectures upon the Church Catechism (1854) tries to explain the confusion, and his explanation suggests that people commonly used “baptism” and “christening” the opposite of the way Wood did, that is, “christening” was a private affair and “baptism” public. Goodwin begins by pointing to

an error continually made by ignorant persons, and sometimes persons from whom one would not expect it; I mean the error concerning the meaning of baptising, christening, and naming. ... frequently we hear it said that a child has been christened but not baptized; meaning I conceive that the child has been baptized privately but not yet brought to the Church: and there is a still worse and more common form of this error, which considers in saying of children privately baptized, that they have been named, but not baptised. Now to mention these errors is quite enough; baptism is the only recognized name of the initiatory sacrament of Christ’s Church; christening is a popular and not an unpleasing term expressing the same thing as baptism; but naming is no religious ceremony at all and the use of the term ought by all means to be discouraged. [27-28]

On a side note, baptism was often accompanied by another ceremony of “churching”, in which the mother thanked God for preserving her “in the great danger of child-birth” ( 305). Some etiquette writers from this period say baptism and churching usually took place on the same day (“Letters on Politeness...” 372). Others say “the churching … may take place on the same day as christening, but it often precedes it” (The Hand-Book of Etiquette 63). The former text uses “baptism” and “christening” interchangeably, the latter only “christening”, but again, it seems to be more a matter of personal preference.


The Annotated Book of Common Prayer. Ed. John Henry Blunt. London: Rivingrons, 1866.

“The Court”. The Illustrated London News. Sep 16, 1865: 258-59.

Goodwin, Harvey. Lectures upon the Church Catechism. Cambridge: John Deighton, 1854.

The Hand-Book of Etiquette. London: Cassell, Petter, and Galpin, 1860. “Letters on Politeness and Etiquette”.

Beeton’s Young Englishwoman. London: Ward, Lock, and Tyler, 1875. 372-73.

Things You Ought to Know, Clearly Explained, by One Who Knows. London: James Blackwood and Co., 1877.

Wood, Ellen (Mrs. Henry Wood). Within the Maze. London: Richard Bentley, 1873.

Goodwin, Harvey. Lectures on the Catechism. 1854.

Last modified 3 October 2002