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Baptism — Southern Baptist-Style

baptism by immersion

A guest post by ObstacleChick

One of the important things about growing up Southern Baptist is the concept of “believer Baptism.” This means that unlike other Christian sects which practice infant baptism, members of the Baptist faith choose their own timing for Baptism, based on when they feel they are ready. Many of my peers did this when they were around the ages of 8-14 (I was 12), often after a youth retreat or some other special service directed toward youth. There was no small amount of peer pressure and/or family pressure involved. The family pressure existed because (a) parents want to make sure their kids “get saved” so that they can enjoy eternity in heaven not go to hell and (b) parents often viewed it as a personal failure if their kid didn’t make a profession of faith; no one needed their Christian parental skills to be judged by the Smiths and Joneses in the congregation. Peer pressure played a role because (a) it was easier to make a profession of faith en masse with other youth rather than being the center of attention and going it alone, and (b) kids didn’t want to be gossiped about any more than usual by their peers as being “lost” or “unsaved” or “worldly.” There were some who may have chosen baptism as adults, particularly people who did not grow up in a church or who never had experienced baptism, or perhaps someone who had been baptized as an infant but wanted to have his or her own believer baptism experience. A lot of Baptist churches don’t consider baptism in other churches to be “Real Baptism.”

As children in the Baptist church, we would attend Sunday school on Sunday mornings, followed by the church service. Wealthier churches that could afford staff or could recruit volunteers would have a separate Children’s Church for the under-12 crowd. There was a time when our church had a Children’s Church, and I much preferred that to being in Big Church with the adults. Big Church was really boring. I liked the music, but once the sermon started, I was bored out of my mind and had to find ways to occupy myself while the preacher was giving his sermon. I was supposed to look interested or at least to behave and not fidget, but it was really hard. I would occupy myself by counting the chandeliers, counting the windows, counting window panes, counting the number of boards on the ceiling, or counting pews. Sometimes I would count how many people were wearing a certain color, then move on to the next color. Sometimes I’d try to read the words of the songs in the hymnal or less often would try to read the Bible, but the language of King James’ English was cumbersome. Big Church was just torture.

At the end of each service, there would always be the Altar Call. A mood-setting song was sung by the choir and congregation (often “Just As I Am”), and the preacher would stand at congregation level in front of the altar so that any who felt called could go down front and profess their faith in front of the entire congregation. Occasionally someone would go, but there were far more people who “rededicated their lives to Christ” or went to pray to confess some sin. Those who went forward to “get saved” or to rededicate their lives to Christ would shake the preacher’s hand, and then one of the deacons would take the person aside to ask questions and fill out a card with their information. The questions were generally about whether the person recognized that they were a sinner in need of God’s saving grace, and did they accept that Jesus died on the cross and rose again for their sins. Then when the song was over, the preacher would pray and thank God that a new believer had come forward, and after the prayer everyone would file forward to shake the hand of the new believer. Then we would all go home. At a later service, there would be a Baptism. The church usually tried to schedule several people together because performing the Baptism took a lot of work.

Because my grandfather worked afternoons and evenings, he had mornings free to do other things. When I wasn’t in school, he’d take me along with him on whatever errands he was doing. A lot of times we would go to the church so he could work on the air conditioning or refrigeration equipment that needed tending. He did this pro bono as a member of the church. He was a deacon and for a while was on the Buildings and Grounds Committee, so he took responsibility for making sure the church was taken care of in whatever way he could.

Going along with Grandpa meant that I got to explore the church on my own. Sometimes I’d hide items or notes around the church so I could find them later or to see if other people found them. One Monday morning we went to the church while Mr. Hall, the janitor, was cleaning out the baptistry. For those unfamiliar with the term, a baptistry in our church was a special “room” behind the choir loft in the Baptist church. Ours had a tall window with a short panel of glass, and the tall window reached to the top of the peaked ceiling. Long red velvet curtains were closed when the baptistry was not in use, but when it was in use the curtains were pulled back to expose the huge backlit cross, lights were turned on, and one could see the water sloshing along the surface of the glass. When Mr. Hall cleaned the baptistry, he emptied the water through the drain in the floor, and he had hoses and a bucket of soapy water so he could scrub the surface. He showed me how he mopped the floor and walls and rinsed the area with a hose, and the water went down the drain. There were concrete steps leading down into the baptistry from the women’s changing room on the left and the men’s changing room on the right. He let me look at the white robes hanging in the women’s changing room. They had special weights sewn into the hem so the robes wouldn’t float up in the water. When men were baptized they usually wore their pants and a white t-shirt. Mr. Hall showed me the white robe and fishing waders that the preacher wore. The robe was just like the choir robes except white instead of red, and it also had weights sewn into the hem. I was surprised that the preacher wore fishing waders – that’s how he was always able to be finished so quickly after the baptism, because he never got wet! Mr. Hall told me that one time someone accidentally filled the baptistry with too much water which spilled into the fishing waders, wetting the preacher’s pants, and the preacher had to send his wife home to get him a pair of pants so they could conclude the service.

When you are baptized in the Baptist church, the practice is full immersion. Before your baptism service, there is a rehearsal with the preacher. You practice walking down into the dry baptistry, turning to face a certain direction, and the preacher shows you how to hold your nose. He will put one hand on your neck or back and one hand over your nose, and after he says “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” you have to be ready to hold your breath and to bend backward while he lowers you into the water. The pastor is well versed in bringing people back up really quickly so they don’t have to be scared of drowning. Then you walk up the steps into the changing room where your mom or another lady in the church is waiting to help you out of the wet robes, dry off with towels, and get dressed again. Some ladies use a hair dryer (the sound of which can be faintly heard in the sanctuary) to dry their hair while others just towel-dry it. At the end of the service, you go back out so that the church members can file by and shake your hand to congratulate you. After your baptism, you are presented with a certificate signed by the preacher and the chairman of the deacons, and you get some other religious gift as well such as a Bible or a devotional book. After your profession of faith and baptism, you are considered a full member of the church and can take part in communion with the other members. You can be gossiped about and judged, but you can’t lose your salvation because, once saved always saved!


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    Brunetto Latini

    I was baptized “so many times, the fish knew my social security number”, as a staff pastor at Bellevue Baptist used to quip. When I was 12, I wanted to join the church. When I was in college, I was realized because I hadn’t understood the gospel at 12 and got rebaptized. And several years after that, I worked myself into a spiritual crisis, wondering if my faith were genuine, so I rededicated myself and got baptized again. After that, I decided that no matter what happened with assurance in the future, I would not make myself more of an idiot by walking the aisle again or being baptized a 4th time. I grew to resent preachers and evangelists whose specialty was to induce church members to walk the aisle. I could name some names that I remember.

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    Melissa A Montana

    This brought back a lot of memories. My church was Disciple’s of Christ, not Baptist, but the ritual was the same, down to the waders. I never gave into the pressure to be baptized because the kids who did it turned into real jerks afterwards. There is nothing like being baptized to turn a person into a self-righteous, nagging pain in the ass.

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    Brunetto, that made me laugh! I don’t think I ever knew anyone who was dunked as many times as you were! Twice seemed to be common- once as a kid, later as an adult because you thought you didn’t know what you were doing as a kid. I only got baptized once – I left evangelicalism as a young adult and refused to be part of a church that considered the method of the symbolic ritual of cleansing to be important enough to warrant repeating. Just, no.

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    try this on for size, how about Baptist churches who do not recognize any baptism not performed by them. every new member had to be rebaptized to join this church. they even said that members of other Baptist churches could not take communion because they were not under control of this particular church. they called this closed communion. never saw so much foolishness or hypocrisy in my life. keep shining the light on this so people can see what all this really is.

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    Mary, our church practiced closed communion as well! One literally had to be a member of our actual congregation in order to take communion. As for baptism, one had to show proof of baptism from an approved church (basically) or else they would have to be baptized in our church. New members could join by “moving their letter” which means someone asking to join our church had to get a letter from the old church saying they were a baptized member in good standing. That let the old church k ow this person is leaving and it allowed the new church to determine if the new applicant needed to get rebaptized and if not was a symbol that they were the Right Kind of Christian. My stepdad had to be rebaptized in our Southern Baptist church because the church didn’t recognize his infant Lutheran baptism as valid. Lol.

    Bruce, did IFB churches practice “moving the letter” for prospective new members?

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      obstacle chick,
      I totally forgot about the approval letter you mentioned. our church did this too, and used it as a way to keep people from leaving or at least control where they went when finding a new church. my late father in law was the church boss so to speak and used these letters or threat of not issuing a letter to keep people from leaving. we eventually left when we moved out of state. he had a fit. but it was the only way to break his constant control and hold he had over our family. so sad that his religion kept him from being close w/his kids and grandkids. he was so unreasonable that we were all relieved to see him pass. his ridiculousness is what led us to start thinking outside the box and away from fundamentalism.

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    ObstacleChick, I used to play hymnal games during the boring sermon like looking up all the songs with the same meter or looking up all the songs by Charles Wesley or Fannie Crosby. Sometimes I’d mentally sing songs mentally to another tune of that meter. Other times, I’d scribble on the bulletin. I never read the Bible during sermons though. I was fortunate at least to long to a church where it was OK read something other than the KJV. I don’t know if my other siblings were listening or not although I suppose my sister was. She went up about as high as you could in the GAs. I think maybe she had one”step” left. I made it maybe to Princess or maybe even stopped at Lady-in-Waiting.

    I never understood why Baptists made such a fuss about something they considered symbolic either. Then there is my nephew (my sister’s son) who preached at his Presbyterian pastor about why infant baptism or sprinkling was so wrong. Why did you join a Presbyterian church if you had problems wither their beliefs?

    My dad didn’t believe that immersion was the only valid form of Baptism. He pointed out that Paul baptized people in prison. Did they have pools to baptize folks in Roman prisons? Of course, he and my mom joined a Methodist church when they got older and their Baptist church turned fundie. It had been fairly progressive for a southern Baptist church.

    While we’re on baptism: how is baptizing a four year old kid different from infant baptism?

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    Brian Vanderlip

    Holy smoke, the memories! How very similar ObstacleChick’s church protocol was to ours in the Fellowship Baptist Church. My dad had the waders for baptism and I guess he left them at the church somewhere because I never found them around home when we wanted them for netting fish in Lake Ontario. I remember the garden hose being run into the baptismal and how we would drive away with it running because it took forever to fill the big tank. I seem to recall it being all day before it was nearly full. Dad liked to do it well ahead of time so the water could warm up to room temperature before the dunking! Otherwise, those entering the frigid tank in their bare feet might balk and climb back to the devil’s (warmer) ways! I was not baptized by my father but by a squat bully of a beast for Jesus whose gay son played the organ at the church. I always felt sorry for the son even back then when I did not know he was homosexual, just that he was very different in odd ways. When I was wet-down for the Lord, I recall wondering why I felt just like I always did only wetter. The whole charade is put together to bind us up inside and confirm that we are shit on legs and don’t deserve the saviour’s free love. But we play along as best we can and learn the speech, prey for and upon ourselves as is the rule in the club.
    Brunetto’s repetition of the dunk really struck home! That is exactly what true Christianity is, a circular path of pain and momentary relief all created to keep the ass on the pew where the offering plate travels regularly. Belief comes to us often as a huge relief but we learn it is really a hang-nail that bothers and bugs us all the day long, so we pick at it and make it worse until we finally tear it off and are baptized again.

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    Karen the rock whisperer

    Catholics have only one type of service for everyone, so all kids get to endure the Big Church. I remember hours upon hours of being bored out of my mind while people read passages from the Bible and then the priest droned on. Even worse, my mother was convinced that one simply had to sit through the service and take communion to meet the weekly Mass requirement; it wasn’t actually necessary to engage with the process. She was quite happy to sit in the pew and worry about all the details of life. Thus, I was often dragged to the Spanish-language service because the time was convenient, though we didn’t speak a word of Spanish. Sitting through an hour of people talking in a foreign language while staying quiet and not wiggling is a real challenge for a kid. It got marginally better when I hit high school and started taking Spanish, since I could entertain myself by trying to puzzle out the hymn lyrics.

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    Carolk, good point regarding baptizing an infant vs baptizing a 4 year old, which is what fundy churches do now so they can boost their baptism numbers (because you’ll probably get them back for a rededication baptism at some point). When I was a kid in the 70s and 80s they wouldn’t baptize anyone under 10 because they didn’t think kids that young had the capacity to understand salvation. I hear that’s definitely changed!

    Brian, I never thought about how long it must have taken to fill up that baptistry, nor did I consider water temperature. It was warm when I went into it, so there must have been a designated water heater.

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    Appalachian Agnostic

    When my oldest child was about four or five a little girl around the same age got baptised in the church we attended. My daughter, for some reason, thought that this little girl would now have to go live with a different family as a result of her decision to be baptised. I was on my way out of Christianity at the time. I was feeling a lot mixed up and conflicting emotions. On one hand, it disturbed me that such a young child was considered capable of such a major decision. On the other hand, it was kind of funny that my own child was so confused about it. Later I found out that my daughter had seen an episode of The Simpsons that gave her the idea that kids who got baptised went to live with different families. I remember feeling such tension while we attended that church, trying to understand why this other little girl was so much more “spiritually advanced” than my own.

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    Appalachian Agnostic, the Simpsons had so many great lessons regarding social issues and religion. My husband’s family weren’t very religious when he was a kid, but his mom forbade him and his brothers from watching the show. So we and our kids have watched the show repeatedly. In addition, we watch everything with Seth McFarland (MacFarlane in case I spell it wrong). His show “The Orville” is particularly brilliant – reminiscent of Star Trek but modern and with humor. These shows illustrate the ridiculousness of fundamentalist religion.

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    Karen the rock whisperer

    I was baptized as a Catholic baby, as soon as the social worker in charge of finalizing my adoption gave the okay. That meant I had to go a whole six months in danger for my very soul! Of course, Catholics have other rituals (First Communion and Confirmation) that mark points in a child’s life where they’re ready to connect with the religion with more understanding. Confirmation happens around eighth grade, if I remember right, but it’s been awhile (I’m almost 60). One is considered to have an officially adult understanding of the religion that your soul can be in real jeopardy if/when you sin and don’t repent. However, infant baptism and reasonable religious training mean children are considered “saved” and the intense fear that Evangelical parents might have for their young children–and the subsequent pressure on the children–really isn’t there.

    I never had nightmares about hell or demons or Satan, and the monsters under the bed were kept in check by a nightlight on my bedside table that featured Jesus. How could monsters do bad things to me with Jesus watching? It sounds silly, but it wan’t silly when I was a young child. When I occasionally had night terrors, my parents were also quick to comfort me. So, my heart aches when I read some of the stories of children raised as Evangelicals. But I digress.

    As a young adult, on my way out of Christianity, I dipped my toes into Evangelicalism for a couple of years. I decided to get baptized again, not because I wasn’t certain of the first one, but because I wanted the heavy layers of Catholic dogma washed away. It was immersion baptism, I was extremely uncomfortable with the attention from others (the actual process was just a few minutes of physical discomfort–a water heater would have helped–and emotional/psychological discomfort was far stronger to my depression-addled brain). It didn’t take, and I stopped attending church about a year later. It wasn’t until a few months *after* my baptism that I discovered the other church members believed in a literally inerrant Bible! REALLY? From that point I was on a slide out of there. I guess this Catholic woman couldn’t ditch her Catholicism after all, only the entire Christian religion.

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    My BIL got saved in a nutty pentecostal church in a british coastal town. Wanting his baptism to be A Great Witness, he asked if it could take place in the sea, on a normally busy public beach. The elders were delighted by this desire of his. Unfortunately, no one had the sense (common sense always seemed sadly lacking in that church) to check the tide or the weather. So, the baptismal party turned up…it was very windy, the tide was way out and sand was blowing everywhere in a mini sandstorm.. He left his wife with baby in a buggy and he and the pastor+elders made a mad dash for the distant waves. She valiantly put her head down and pushed the buggy over the soft sand with difficulty. About halfway to the shoreline, she met her shivering hubby and crew….belting back, the deed done and so cold that none of them offered to help her struggle back to base with the buggy….she was never as committed to the church ever again….and BIL deconverted too about 8yrs later!

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    I too was raised in a Southern Baptist Church. I was baptized in 1971 when I was 10. One detail I will add is many of the churches had a mural painted on the wall in baptistry to make it look like you were being baptized in the River Jordan.

    Our preacher did not use waders. The normal practice was to do baptisms at the end of the Sunday night service. Then the preacher and baptized just changed clothes and dried off and went home.

    When I was 15 I landed the job as the church janitor, and got to explore the bowels of the church. Yes, there was a separate water heater, but if it wasn’t working for whatever reason, so sad.

    I never saw the membership by letter as something to be held over anyone’s head. It seemed like it was just for convenience. Almost like changing your address on a magazine subscription rather than cancelling and then re-subscribing.

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    I was 7 and my family was in the US on a short break from the mission field when I was baptized. No run-through at all—had to tell my story in front of a big congregation, and then the dunking came out of nowhere. Overall, a terrifying experience.

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      Brian Vanderlip

      @Jen, AAAArrrgggh! It is heartbreaking to hear things like your experience being baptized at 7! This is yet another example of why I say Christianity is designed to harm. To those who claim that this in not so and that you just had a bad version, I say bunk. I’m sorry that happened to you. Children do not deserve abuse like you experienced, told that they are born into sin! It just makes me sick that people buy into it.

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    Jen, that’s awful. It’s horrifying to know that some evangelical adults think it’s ok to scare a small child to ensure their eternal soul escapes eternal torture from a deity.

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    Ah, yes. These were one of the most fond memories I had: the smell of old people and mold in the church. Everyone was so friendly and honest. I would have been content only had the Bible could be intellectually validated. I guess some things are too good to be true.

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