The following article by David Strange was originally published on 18 Sep 2016.
I was watching a movie not long ago, in which Jesus was being baptized. As he walked down into the waist-deep water of the Jordan River, greeted by John the Baptist, I thought, "OK! This is it. At least THIS movie will show someone being fully plunged into the water." But then John the Baptist reached down, scooped up a little water in his hand, and sprinkled it on Jesus' head.
I was thunderstruck, and let me explain why, while recording a bit of history that is fading from the popular mind.
There are many methods of baptism, of course, some of which date back before Christianity. All of which have spiritual importance to those who practice them. Various doctrines might include simply touching a few drops of water on a person's forehead, sprinkling water from a specially blessed bottle, or maybe immersing in a pool of water, depending on a particular religion's interpretation. I am not here to promote any particular method; only to remember my own experiences, to perhaps bring memories back to you, and to at least record one style of "country" baptizing that seems to be fading from modern-day activity.
Some churches, such as those in which I grew up, believes that "dipping is the only mode," and they go farther in believing that baptism should be in "living" or natural water such as a river or stream, outdoors.
The exact purpose of water baptism varies from religion to religion. In mine, baptizing is seen as a ceremony which publicly affirms a change that has already taken place. It symbolizes having died, been buried, and born again to a new life. Rising out of the water symbolizes rising from the grave, from a previously "dead" state to a new. In this belief, the water is not viewed as cleansing in itself, though I have heard believers joke at a certain baptizing place upstream from a bourbon distillery that they were washing their sins down into the distillery's bottles.
Such a rising from the grave belief lends itself easily to a closeness with Nature. As such, and when all goes well, a baptizing service held outdoors can be one of the most beautiful ceremonies in religion. Some of the best I have seen have been in springtime on a mild partly-cloudy day with all of Heaven watching down. A slight breeze rustling the leaves in its own natural musical celebration accompanied by the rippling waters of the stream. Flowers celebrating on the dogwood and redbud trees. Holy hymns being sung by the faithful gathered along the water's edge.
A service usually begins with a song or two such as "Shall We Gather at the River," while the people gather by the stream. An opening prayer is prayed, with everyone bowing as best they can on the grass and gravel shore. Perhaps an impromptu testimony or two will be said. Then the preachers walk down into the water, sometimes carrying a tall stick, often called a "baptizing stick" or "Moses stick" but usually just some convenient branch found along the stream. The stick is used for steadiness on the sometimes rough and slippery creek bottom, and to check the depth as one walks. Leading the "candidates" to be baptized, the ministers and candidates create a line as they walk down into the water hand in hand, while another good old spiritual song is sung by the crowd.
Then the time comes, and one by one the minister (by now standing waist-deep in the water) places his left hand on the candidate's back, raises his right hand to God and declares, "I now baptize this my Sister (or Brother) in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost." The minister gently assists the candidate with his right hand to hold a handkerchief over the candidate's nose and mouth, and leans the candidate back fully into the water, then lifting back up again into the daylight, often accompanied by shouts of praise by both crowd and candidate. I will always remember the phrase, "Glory! Glory!"
Then another and another come the candidates each in turn, as songs and shouts continue while they all gather back up on the water's edge, a welcoming towel wrapped on each water-drenched soul, followed by everyone shaking hands with one another, and especially with those who had been baptized, again accompanied by everyone joining in a good gospel song.
Finally, after a few spontaneous testimonies, the service is closed with a standing prayer.
Now let me say here that the outdoor baptism services that I know have become somewhat more "citified" than they once were. When I was young, such services might be held anytime of the year; I clearly remember people breaking the ice off of the surface of a creek for the baptizing. Talk about shouting halleluiah!! In those cases, as the candidate leapt up out of the water after being "dipped," it was never quite clear whether it was caused by the Spirit or by the icy water! These days, most baptizings are planned for warmer weather.
Once upon a time, many protestant churches baptized in streams and rivers. It just seemed the natural thing to do. But increasingly, mostly due to polluted streams and other concerns, more and more churches moved to modern indoor-pool facilities. Numerous locations in the area were once used for baptisms since pioneer times. Places included the Ohio River, Brooks Run, Long Lick Creek, Floyds Fork, Rolling Fork, the Salt River, and really any place that had enough flowing water for the work. I have even heard of farm ponds being pressed into service in a pinch. Sadly, most places have become just too polluted to use anymore. So, changes in fulfilling church ordinances are understandable. But a few churches still maintain the practice as they believe are described in the Bible about going down to the river to be baptized.
There are many styles, methods, and beliefs about baptisms; all with deep spiritual and emotional meaning. My purpose here is certainly not to diminish those beliefs. I only offer this particular one for the record, and to say one more time, "Glory!."
Copyright 2016 by David Strange, Shepherdsville KY. All rights are reserved. No part of the content of this page may be included in any format in any place without the written permission of the copyright holder.