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Most people I talk to are baffled when they learn that some congregations in the Christian Reformed Church refused to baptize adopted children as recently as the 1980s. Debates over this matter began in the early 1900s. The adoptees at issue were “foundlings,” orphaned or abandoned children of unknown parentage. Some congregations baptized them; others would not. There was no denominational policy.

Our bewilderment over this debate is a reminder that the past can be a distant place. We easily rush to judgment. Historical thinking begins when we get curious, set aside our expectations, and explore why something strange or outrageous to us made sense to people in the past.

The Debate

The concern for opponents of baptizing foundlings was that congregations did not know whether the birth parents were part of the covenant of grace. The history of this debate suggests that because adoption was a new, unfamiliar social practice in the early 1900s, it raised theological questions for many Dutch Reformed folk. We think differently about adoption, baptism, and covenant theology today because CRC folk eventually became familiar with adoption.

With birth children, congregations knew whether the parents were faithful churchgoers. If a congregation did not know, critics said, as with foundlings, it should not baptize them. Children not born into the covenant should enter the church through the “great commission,” being taught the faith, deciding to follow Christ, and then being baptized.

Defenders of baptizing adopted foundlings responded that a “blood relationship as such does not bring one into the Covenant.” Moreover, households, even slaves, were part of the covenant in the Bible. And, in the New Testament dispensation, the “Covenant is offered to all people” and the church thus should “judge liberally” who is received into it (Acts of Synod 1910).

The CRC remained divided. Synod did not define a uniform policy in 1910. In 1930 it decided that adopted foundling children “may” be baptized. This was a decision to agree to disagree and allow a local option. (The liturgy says children of believers “ought” to be baptized.)

Baptism Rules

Part of the context for the adoption dispute was the CRC becoming more scrupulous about baptism generally. In the late 1800s Synod debated baptizing the children of parents who were baptized but not full, confessing church members. Not being confessing members might have been laziness, but often was a matter of scruples. People might not seek full membership if not confident in their faith or unsure if God had chosen and saved them.

For centuries Dutch Reformed churches had baptized the children of such parents. The New England Puritans did the same in the 1600s. This practice often is called the “halfway” covenant. Among the Dutch it was the doopledenstelsel (baptized members system). God had promised to keep “his gracious covenant loyalty for a thousand thousand generations” (Deut. 7:9). Surely the promise applied to children whose parents had been baptized (but not fully confessed their faith).

Some Reformed Christians in the Netherlands all along had rejected the doopledenstelsel. In the United States, CRC congregations varied in their practices. In 1902, after decades of debate, Synod decided to require that at least one parent be a confessing church member. But if adopting parents were church members, why the concern about baptizing a foundling?

Part of the answer lies in the “thousand thousand generations” promise. Those who opposed baptizing foundlings argued that the promise referred to only birth children—“blood” or “seed”—not adopted children. The covenant had a hereditary quality.

Birth was a divine act through which God providentially blessed parents with children, opponents argued. Adoption was a human choice. They “could not accept” that God “would place his blessing on such an arbitrary action of man.” There were no “tenable grounds” for baptizing adopted foundlings (Acts of Synod, 1910). Such children were grafted (not born) into the covenant.

Synod began to rethink how covenant theology applied to baptism after World War II. A hint of change came in 1949 when Synod decided that foundlings should not be baptized until adoptions were finalized. Ironically, this restrictive amendment pointed in a new direction, one that eventually provided the opening for adopted children. Perhaps the issue was less the covenant status of the child, known only by God, than the promise made by parents in the baptismal liturgy. In 1968, Synod allowed congregations to decide whether to wait until an adoption was certain.

In 1982, Synod decided that the point indeed was the promise that parents made at baptism to raise a child in the faith (a response to God’s covenant of grace). Not baptizing adopted children was unscriptural. They too “come into a home through divine providence.” Treating adopted and birth children differently was an “injustice.”

A History of Adoption

Social change also helps explain this theological debate and its resolution. In 1910 adoption was new and strange, and not just to Dutch Reformed folk. By 1982, adoption was a familiar part of life.

Family life and “adoption” in the past were different from modern practices. Kin and local families taking orphaned and abandoned children into their households is an age-old practice, of course. They typically did not consider these children “family” in the same way as their own “seed,” however. Parents sometimes placed out their own children to give them opportunities (for example, as apprentices) or because they were too poor to feed them. Households included not just parents and children but extended family members and perhaps servants, slaves, or apprentices. In the Ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman worlds of the Bible, men without children sometimes adopted a boy (or an adult male) as their heir.

In Medieval Europe, this “trade” in children continued. Monasteries also took in foundlings. Laws either did not recognize adoption or restricted it. This stance was meant to limit inheritance to “blood” kin. The church discouraged adoption, too, arguing that God disapproved. Jewish and Muslim law, similarly, focused on care of foundlings, not adoption. Since family was defined by “blood,” adopted children could never really belong to a new family. We should think of children being placed into households, not our understanding of adoption into families. Customs and laws for adoption as we understand it did not exist.

Social changes on an unprecedented scale in the 1800s led to modern adoption: People migrating from agricultural communities to industrial cities. Immigration from one country to another, even across oceans to settler societies like the United States and Canada. Millions on the move. Family life also changed. In premodern households, children were a source of labor. In modern families, especially among the well off, they were no longer a source of labor. Parents had them out of desire and affection.

New concern for the wellbeing of children—including foundlings—emerged in this context. Solutions included more orphanages and fostering in families. Adoption by parents who desired a child as part of their family was a new option, becoming common in the 20th century. The first adoption laws in the United States date to the 1850s; in Canada, Britain, and Europe they date to the 1920s, 1940s, and 1950s.

The two world wars ended with millions of refugees and hundreds of thousands of orphans and children separated from family. Circumstances outweighed long-held practices and ideas about family and “blood.” Conflicts associated with the Cold War, decolonization, ethnic and religious wars, and poverty similarly produced large numbers of refugees, orphans, and children separated from family. Adoption became an international phenomenon.

The Racial Component

The final piece in this story is race relations. Ideas about family and “blood” did not inevitably lead to drawing the covenant along racial lines, although the potential was there (such as in the Dutch East Indies and South Africa). The status of a foundling Dutch child in theory was no different than one of Irish or African American descent. In the 1910s, children adopted into CRC families likely were white. By the 1960s, however, transracial adoption was common in the CRC and in North America and Europe more widely—whether African American or Native American children, or children from Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

The baptism question took on a racial cast, as Banner stories revealed in the 1980s. Discrimination against adopted children became discrimination against non-white children. The very language of “blood” had become suspect in the post-Holocaust and Civil Rights era. This context further undermined arguments against baptizing adopted children.

The CRC’s debate over baptizing adopted children thus was part of an era when social relations and family life were changing. Adoption was unfamiliar in the early 1900s, especially for European immigrants. Familiarity with adoption eventually led the CRC to stop treating adopted children as a separate category and to views of family less defined by “blood” kinship.

These changes did not require new theology. Rather, the church rethought how it applied covenant theology to baptism. Its concern was no longer discerning whether a child was born into the covenant, but the promises made by parents in response to God’s grace.

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