The parish register for St. Dogwells, Pembrokeshire has the following entry for 1799:

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There is no burial record in this or an adjacent parish church in Wales for an infant John James between 1799 and 1802 with the correct parents.

In the 10 year period in this parish from 1791 - 1800, 9 out of 53 baptisms were recorded as "privately baptised"; the other 44 were recorded as "publickly baptised" or "baptised". Of the private baptisms, 3 were followed within a few months by public baptisms.

So: what is the meaning of the phrase "private baptism"?

A little family context: Thomas James (circa 1768 - 1851) born Llanfair Nant Y Gof, Pembrokeshire and his wife Anne Scourfield (circa 1778 - 1852) born St. Dogwells were married on 3rd April 1798 in St. Dogwells. I know of at least three children (including this one) but this is the only baptism record I can find for one of the children, which is probably because they were Baptists. There is a supposed 4th -- or rather 1st -- child: Joseph James born 21 June 1798 but I'll raise another question about him!

3 Answers 3


My understanding is that "private baptisms" (also denoted by a "P") were generally carried out in the home because the child was sickly so there was a danger that they might not live. There are variations, no doubt, including the possibility that the parents were posh!

In one instance I recently worked on, the mother died the next day so it may be that the private baptism was carried out at home in front of the mother for her benefit. The fact that these children were Baptists suggests something a little out of the ordinary for this one - presumably the Baptists still used the graveyard of the established church, hence the need to involve the local Church of Wales rector or whatever. Maybe he took it on himself to "help".

Are you concerned that the child survived? (Sounds a dreadful way of putting it!) If so, don't be, what would drive the private baptism would be the risk of death, not its fact.

As for the following baptisms ("3 were followed within a few months by public baptisms") the case of double baptisms pops up frequently in mailing lists, inevitably accompanied by "people should not be baptised twice." Well, I'll accept that but (a) "should happen" and "did happen" are not synonymous; (b) it's likely that some of those follow-ups were acceptance into the Church, which seems to be basically a christening service without the actual anointing - as it's already been done.

OK - big caveat - my knowledge is of the Church of England. Not sure if there's any doctrinal difference from the Church of Wales. If there is, I'm adrift.

Caveat 2 - the above does not apply in Scotland where the Kirk normally baptised children at home - at least, pre-1855. (Note also that weddings were originally regarded as too frivolous to take place in Kirk!)

  • 1
    The parents weren't posh in this instance -- Thomas was a labourer. My interest is to work out what happened to him (he is one of the stray James's of Llanfair Nant Y Gof that I am trying to tie into neat little family bundles :) (Some hope!) This one seems to vanish without trace -- no burial (that I've found) and no record other than this one. For a long time I thought he was my ancestor, until I found proof that "my" John James was the son of another John James. But Thomas James and his wife Ann were at the same farm as my ancestor in the 1841 census as a separate household...
    – user104
    Nov 26, 2012 at 21:28

A little research shows that there are many rules to baptism. Consideration of the times and evidence given shows that this was at least a child not considered at the age of accountability. The rules of the private baptism are listed below followed by a link to see more in depth into the rules of baptism. Hope this helps. : }

The Rites and Ceremonies of Baptism


26. Baptism should be administered solemnly, except in the case provided for in rubric no. 28 below. The local Ordinary may for weighty and plausible reasons permit the ceremonies prescribed for infant baptism to be used in the baptism of adults.

27. Children must be baptized in the rite of the parents. If one parent belongs to the Latin rite, the other to an Oriental rite, the child should be baptized in the rite of the father, unless some special law provides otherwise. If only one parent is Catholic, the child is to be baptized in the rite of the Catholic party.

28. In danger of death private baptism is permissible, and, if the minister is neither priest nor deacon, he does merely what is required for validity. When private baptism is conferred by a priest or by a deacon, if time permits the ceremonies which follow the act of baptizing should be added. Outside the danger of death the local Ordinary may not permit private baptism, except in the case of adult heretics who are to be baptized conditionally. The ceremonies which for any reason were omitted in the administration of baptism should be added later in church as soon as possible, except in the case of adult heretics who have received private baptism conditionally with the permission of the Ordinary, as stated above.

  • Thanks, but that seems to be an extract from a document relating to the Roman Catholic faith, which isn't relevant here.
    – user104
    Dec 4, 2012 at 9:27
  • I understand that it's the Catholic rites but, from the research I did they all seem to correlate. Dec 4, 2012 at 14:28

The Statutes Relating to the Ecclesiastical and Eleemosynary Institutions of England, Wales, Ireland, India and the Colonies: With the Decisions Theron : in Two Volumes, Volume 2 (Google eBook) has two discussions of cases which refer to private baptism. See page 2016 where a manuscript of a proposal at a convocation in 1575 to restrict private baptism to ministers only and not to lay persons; the term appears again on page 2019 and following while discussing a rubric from 1603, again discussing whether or not it should be permissible for layperson to perform baptisms.

For a discussion of private baptism in the context of the genealogical research process when using parish registers, see The Family Tree Detective: A Manual for Analysing and Solving Genealogical Problems in England and Wales, 1538 to the Present Day by Colin Darlington Rogers. In the chapter on Church Baptism he talks about finding baptisms marked as private in registers, on how many children may not have been baptised, and other matters of coverage.

A Google Search for the term 'private baptism' turned up several papers discussing the discrepency between infant mortality statistics and the expected number of parish records, including this one: The relationship between stillbirth and early neonatal mortality: evidence from eighteenth century London.

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