- Dickens and Godparenting
Dickens’s parents were Anglican, but, as Robert Newsom has remarked, were apparently uninterested in the dogmas of the Church of England and probably not very regular in their worship (492). Nevertheless, each of their eight children was received into the Church and christened at a baptismal ceremony carried out in the parish in which the family was staying at the time. The promptness with which all but one of these ceremonies followed the respective birth suggests that the family regarded the procedure as significant. The christening of an eighth child – Harriet Ellen – was delayed under circumstances discussed elsewhere (Long).
Dickens’s own children were also all baptized into the Church of England. The arrangements for these ceremonies were determined by factors that included family circumstances, Dickens’s concurrent activities, the availability of particular invited participants and, on one occasion, a perception that the ceremony should be performed as quickly as possible. Almost always, celebratory gatherings of friends of the family accompanied the ceremony.
As Dickens’s circle of acquaintance widened, he was occasionally invited to attend the christenings of the offspring of friends (for example Letters 6: 768–69; 7: 25–6). And, on occasions that extended through his adult life, he acted as a godparent. In this essay we gather together for the first time Dickens’s ten known or supposed godchildren (Appendix), and we consider, in the context of the christening of his own children, his attitude towards the activity of godparenting.
For many nineteenth-century families, baptism of the newly-born constituted an important rite of passage. In addition to marking, usually publicly, a child’s entry into the community of the Church, it represented an opportunity for secular celebration and, before the advent of the public registration of births, it was, through its christening component, the sole process by which a child was formally named. The Anglican Book of Common Prayer’s declaration that “IT is certain by God’s Word, that Children which are baptized, dying before they commit actual sin, are undoubtedly saved” [End Page 101] (149), and a perception that the converse might apply, may, for some, have contributed to a sense of the ceremony’s importance.
The function of the godparent at the Anglican baptismal ceremony was and is to stand as a representative or sponsor of the child. He or she is required to respond positively to the questions:
DOST thou, in the name of this Child, renounce the devil and all his works, the vain pomp and glory of the world, with all covetous desires of the same, and the carnal desires of the flesh, so that thou wilt not follow, nor be led by them? […]
DOST thou believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth? And in Jesus Christ his only-begotten Son our Lord? And that he was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary; that he suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried; that he went down into hell, and also did rise again the third day; that he ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; and from thence shall come again at the end of the world, to judge the quick and the dead?
And dost thou believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy Catholick Church; the Communion of Saints; the Remission of sins; the Resurrection of the flesh; and everlasting life after death? […]
Godparents are further reminded:
[…] that it is your parts and duties to see that [the] Infant be taught, so soon as he shall be able to learn, what a solemn vow, promise, and profession, he hath here made by you. And that he may know these things the better, ye shall call upon him to hear Sermons; and chiefly ye shall provide, that he may learn the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments, in the vulgar tongue […](Book of Common Prayer 147, 149)
Guidelines operating in the nineteenth-century indicated that normally there should be at least three godparents, of whom at least two should be of the same sex as the...