Friday, June 10, 2011

Folklife Friday: Baptizing in the Creek

My friend, Shellie Rushing Tomlinson, the Belle of All Things Southern, had a cute story about river baptizing in her "All Things Southern" newsletter this week (

It got me to thinking about some baptisms that I witnessed in my long-gone and wasted youth.

We were not a church-going family on a regular basis, but we did go occasionally for strictly social purposes. I was a pure heathen; church to me was a totally fun event that was temporarily interrupted by a sermon. Most of this church going took place in the summer, when annual revival meetings where held. This summer-time holiness tradition began before the days of cars and pickup trucks, when people walked or rode wagons to church. It had to be after the crops were laid by. In the little church we randomly attended, you didn't mess with tradition.

Some years, a large tent would be erected in a pasture nearby for those who wouldn't be caught dead near a church house. A visiting evangelist would proclaim the good news while tired farmers stood just outside the light created by a bare bulb on an extension cord, smoking and listening. Sometimes, they listened well.

A community wide baptism service was held the Sunday afternoon following the revival services for the new converts. We lived in the Appalachian foothills near the Tennessee River. It seemed that between every ridge there was a hollow with a creek making its way to the ocean via the river. Horse Creek, Second Creek, White's Creek, and branches off them provided good swimming holes, which could be easily turned into a baptistry by simply removing the beer cans and spraying for insects. I was baptized in White's Creek in a dry year when the preacher struggled to immerse a healthy 5'9" woman in water that barely covered her knees. The rain-blessed years were different; then people could find a shoulder deep spot where the dunking was easy.

My dad had a niece who attended one of those churches where they jumped and ran, shouting the whole time, and it was rumored they handled snakes, although I never witnessed this personally. We never went there because my mom thought it was a little too traumatic for small children. The niece and her husband were on the list to be baptized one Sunday afternoon, so it behooved us to go, inasmuch that kin was respected regardless of their choices. The service was held in a spring-fed bend of Horse Creek, which was a lot bigger and a lot deeper than White's Creek.

The minute it started, my ten-year old brain surmised that something different was taking place here. There was lots of music, including guitars and french harps, unlike the one out-of-tune piano at the other place. There was several candidates for baptism lined up on the bank, waiting. The men removed their wallets from their pants and rolled the legs up to their knees. The women pinned the front and back of their skirts between their legs, an effort to prevent them from flashing the crowd while they were in the water. When the singing stopped, they dutifully filed in and waited their turn.

Did I mention it was a hot, HOT summer day? The kind of day where the humidity sucks sweat and energy out your pores as a special treat for the mosquitoes. The crowd pressing on the usually quiet creek bank was steaming, some babies crying, mothers slapping at bugs and keeping an eye out for water moccasins. The service seemed to go on and on, and my skinny legs were tired of standing still. Just when I thought I couldn't possibly stand there one more minute, the action picked up considerably.

When my cousin was prayed over and came up out of that cold water, well, she just went crazy. She began frantically splashing the water, going under and up again, falling back in the water like she was doing a back flip off a diving board. When her head was above the water, she would give a good shout before going back under. The crowd just went wild.

Someone, possibly her mother, yelled, "Get her, she is going to drown!"

Others said she was "in the spirit" and began praising the Lord for it, extra loud to make sure He could hear it through the mayhem.

My dad leaned over to my mom and whispered, "Somebody better get her out of there!"

About the same time, someone standing behind us proclaimed that she could not drown if she was in the spirit. They were certain.

My lil' ole sister looked up at me with her big brown eyes like she expected ME to do something!

After a few more minutes of hysterical wetness, she gathered some dignity and walked out, her long skirt billowing in the water like a jellyfish. The red-faced preacher reached for the next person waiting in line.

I thought it was just fascinating. Up until then, I was ignorant of the fact that you could legally have fun while you were in a church service. It looked to me like she just saw a hot-day opportunity too good to pass up and took full advantage of it. If it happened today, I might just jump in there with her.

Unfortunately, I didn't have my trusty digital camera fifty years ago. The photos are from Foxfire 7, a whole book in the Foxfire series dedicated to religious heritage traditions. I highly recommend it.