Confirmation can be traced back to Tertullian, AD 198, and Hippolytus, AD 215, both of whom refer to a post-baptismal ceremony carried out by a bishop.
Originally, no distinction was made between infants and adults in the use of this ceremony. Moreover, it only became separated from baptism itself when the Roman and African churches insisted that the anointing and imposition of hands in confirmation must be carried out by a bishop. This separation came to be regarded as normal practice, so that it became assumed that baptism was for infants and confirmation was for those who were somewhat older.
During the Middle Ages, it was variously held that confirmation originated in the action of Jesus in laying hands on children, Mk 10:16, or in breathing on the apostles, Jn 20:22, or to his post-resurrection teaching on things pertaining to the kingdom of God, Acts 1:3. Alternatively, confirmation was thought to be exemplified, if not actually instituted, by the apostles when they laid hands on those who were already baptised and they received the Holy Spirit, Acts 8:15; 19:6. It is highly doubtful, however, whether any of these actions could be considered as normative for later practice.
The practice of infant confirmation did not disappear until the end of the Middle Ages. Various reasons, however, led to the situation where confirmation came to be reserved to the ‘years of discretion’. It was Archbishop Peckham who in the 13th century laid down that no one should be admitted to holy communion until he had been confirmed. The normal age for confirmation came to be established as seven or more. The Council of Trent laid down seven to twelve years as the appropriate age for confirmation, with a preference for the latter age. The Roman Catholic Church has tended to admit children to communion well before their confirmation. Since 1971, however, that church has made it clear that the normal order should be baptism, confirmation, and then eucharist.
In the Church of England in the 18th century, confirmation was often dealt with in a perfunctory manner. By the middle of the 19th century, however, a number of bishops – especially evangelical bishops, began to take confirmation more seriously by annual confirmations at larger numbers of centres (in place of infrequent tours), and greater insistence on preparation of candidates.
In 1890 A.J. Mason published The Relation of Baptism to Confirmation, which attempted to construct a two-stage theory of initiation by relating the biblical material on the Holy Spirit to confirmation.
The Church of England regards the suitable age for confirmation as a matter for debate. If confirmation is seen as a source of sacramental grace, then this might argue for a younger age. If, however, confirmation is seen as an affirmation of baptismal vows, then it would be approrpiate to defer it to an age where the candidate can speak from thoughtful conviction.
The reformers regarded confirmation with suspicion, finding no warrant for it in Scripture. Nevertheless, they realised the value of an opportunity for a child who had been baptised in infancy to make a public profession of faith. Therefore, within the Reformed churches there developed a form of confirmation in which the principal element was a public examination and declaration of the candidate’s Christian commitment, followed by a blessing from the pastor.
Many churches which formerly had no rite of confirmation have now introduced one, and this is often associated with admission to holy communion. For example, the Methodist Church as a service of ‘Public Reception into Full Membership, or Confirmation’.
In the Anglican rite of confirmation, there is the renewal of baptismal vows, the bishop then extending his hands over all the candidates while he says the prayer for the sevenfold gifts of the Spirit. Then the bishop lays his hand on the head of each one it turn saying, ‘Confirm, O Lord, your servant N with your Holy Spirit’. Finally, the congregation joins in saying the form, ‘Defend, O Lord, your servant…’
See E.C. Whitacker, A New Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship, 186-190.