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The sprinkling-style baptism of a Dayton, Ohio, infant—a scene heartwarming and commonplace for Catholics and mainline Protestants—is touching off accusations of doctrinal heresy in the evangelical world.

In April, an influential American Baptist Churches USA pastor performed the rite, which most Baptists believe is reserved for Christians who are able to make a mature confession of faith. Although there are dozens of Baptist denominations in the U.S., the news made instant waves among those who know and understand Baptist teachings.

Before long, a Southern Baptist seminary president compared the notion of Baptists baptizing infants to vegetarians eating steak.

But while denominations squabble about doctrine, the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, routinely immerses children age 5 and younger. A task force report based on 2012 figures said that age group was the only one seeing growth in numbers of baptisms, although a top researcher in the denomination said that’s no longer the case. In light of new survey data showing a decline in the number of self-professing Christians, some have wondered whether denominational heads are urging younger baptisms as a way to provide a membership boost.

Others discounted that theory.

“There’s pressure to go downward in age because parents are kind of convinced that their kids are understanding it earlier, and it’s easier to baptize kids,” said Ed Stetzer, executive director of LifeWay Research. “I don’t think it is a preservationist instinct,” he said. “It’s more of a precociousness instinct.”

Baptists believe the practice [of adult baptism] is rooted in Jesus’ own baptism story, said Yolanda Smith, a Yale Divinity School research scholar who specializes in Baptist theology and the black church.

In the biblical account, Jesus was baptized as an adult, and his immersion symbolizes dying to sin and being reborn—a foreshadowing of his death and resurrection, Smith said. For Baptists, making that choice also symbolizes full integration into the church.

Rev. Rodney Kennedy, the First Baptist Church of Dayton pastor who baptized the 7-month-old boy, said the fact that his church accepts members who were baptized as infants without immersing them as adults influenced his decision. He said the backlash doesn’t surprise him.

“The Christian community needs to have a conversation about baptism,” said Kennedy, a seminary professor who has served terms as president of the Dayton Area Baptist Association. “Our nation is becoming progressively pagan, and we’re going to sit here and argue about when we need to baptize people? . . . I am no longer interested whether confession of faith comes before or after baptism.”

He said he performed the baptism with the support of his church’s executive council and faced no repercussions from his denomination and no loss of membership.

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