More than Just Furniture

What place does the baptismal font have in our churches?

Usually when we think about or discuss baptism, we focus on biblical exegesis, theology, or the implications of the sacrament for Christian living. But another important aspect of baptism lies in its symbolism—symbolism that is carried partly by the baptismal font.

Because the font is a central symbol in our worship, it's important that we consider some questions about its size, place, and meaning in our sanctuaries. How should a font be constructed? How big should it be? Where should it be located? What is its relationship to the pulpit and table?

In his book Christ and Architecture, Donald Bruggink summarizes some basic biblical teachings about baptism and explains the architectural implications of those teachings. An excerpt from that book is printed on these pages along with Bruggink's photographs and descriptions of special fonts and their placement in two churches. Pictured below is Salem Baptist Church of Orland Park, Illinois; on the facing page, St. Andrews Presbyterian Church of Newport Beach California.

It the members of a congregation would prefer not to be reminded that they are in Christ, then it undoubtedly would be good strategy to hide the baptismal font somewhere behind a row of pews. In such a position its presence is not likely to be felt, nor are people likely to be reminded of their relationship to Christ as members baptized into him. If the pulpit is obvious, and nothing else, then perhaps we might get the feeling that we may listen to the lecture but do as we wish with it. But add the font and we are told by it that we are not our own to say yes and no as we wish, but we belong to our Lord Jesus Christ into whom we have been baptized.

The majority of fonts used in America [are inadequate]. While their size might be adequate for a small church, most of them are placed on the floor in the front of the church, well off to the side, usually just peeping above the tops of the pews (when the church is without its congregation—at which times even the slight symbolism of an inch or two is wasted). Even when visible, the font is usually of considerable less visual importance than the hymn boards, let alone the piano or the flags. The font speaks to us of our baptism into Christ and our continued dependence upon his redeeming work; therefore let us at least elevate the baptismal font to a level where it can be seen!

Once elevated to the place where it can be seen, the size of the font and its quality become more important. To achieve the proper quality and size it will be necessary to have fonts designed by architects and artists, rather than the usual marble birdbaths or wooden "Gothic" creations from religious supply houses. It will also mean that the font will have to bear a real visual relationship to the pulpit and the table. The architect will have to decide either to work with such forms, sizes and materials as to suggest by comparison their relatively equal importance, or else to work with different forms and materials and thus avoid the necessity of any similarity of size. Either solution is acceptable. It is only the hesitant compromise that is unacceptable, for then the usual result is to leave the font with a suggested relationship to the table (whether by similarity of material or form) but of such lesser magnitude as visually to cast into question the importance of baptism. Because baptism is a once-for-all event in which we are given the sign and seal that we participate in the atoning work of Christ which is completely adequate for our salvation, the baptismal font should stand visible before God's people in a dignified way, for it speaks of their redemption in Christ which is life.

Basic Principles
  1. As the sign and seal of being baptized into Christ, baptism is to be performed in the face of the congregation, where the body of Christ may both see and hear.
  2. Baptism involves continuing participation in the atoning work of Christ; therefore the font should stand emphatically before the congregation as a continuing reminder of this redemptive relationship to Christ.
  3. Baptism constitutes continuing participation in the resurrected Christ; therefore the font should stand emphatically before the congregation as a continuing reminder that they have been raised to newness of life in Christ.

Excerpted from Donald ]. Bruggink and Carl H. Droppers, Christ and Architecture: Building Presbyterian/Reformed Churches (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1965), p.168-181. Used by permission.

Donald J. Bruggink is professor of historical theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.


Reformed Worship 14 © December 1989, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.