Photo courtesy of WCU Special Collections
Baptism ceremony in rural Jackson County, N.C., about 1940, possibly taken at Blackwood Lumber Company’s operations in East LaPorte.
George Frizzell has more than just a professional interest in the photographs of river baptisms that are part of the assortment of historic artifacts he oversees as curator of Special Collections at Western Carolina University’s Hunter Library.
That’s because Frizzell himself was immersed in the cold waters of the Tuckaseegee River as a young boy growing up in Jackson County in the 1960s, and he has written about the subject of baptism as an adult for a historical record of Little Savannah Baptist Church that he authored in 1994 for the church’s 80th anniversary.
“I was baptized in the Tuckaseegee River near Rolling Green community where the Ashe Bridge, which is now gone, crossed the river from the old two-lane Highway 107 to Old Settlement Road,” Frizzell recounted. “For some reason I recall wearing a white shirt. Never having learned to swim, it was a startling experience to suddenly be submerged. My most vivid memories are of being totally under water while being held by the pastor and another church member and the bright light of the sun coming through the river water and my closed eyelids.”
Frizzell would have been 12 or 13 years old (he cannot remember if it occurred before or after his birthday that summer) at the time of his baptism in 1967. That was the same year that the Beatles released their groundbreaking record Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, an album whose track “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” with its imagery of rivers and dazzling lights, incidentally has nothing to do with baptism, unlike the lyrics of country music star Kenny Chesney’s song “Baptism.
Baptisms in outdoor bodies of water once were commonplace. In fact, they were the only game in town in the earliest days of the Christian faith, long before the development of such modern trappings as large church buildings with often-ornate baptismal pools, not to mention prior to the onset of indoor plumbing. Outdoor baptisms have remained fairly common in the American South, in part because of the slower rate at which those modernizations came to the region, and in part because of a more traditional mentality when it comes to religious beliefs and practices. And, outdoor baptisms seem to be making somewhat of a comeback in popularity—especially in the Smoky Mountain region, where the wide varieties of rivers, creeks, lakes and ponds combined with the spirituality that can be found in natural surroundings of the mountains readily lend themselves to baptisms in the great outdoors.
In the Christian faith, baptism is a sacred rite in which water is used to symbolize the religious purification or consecration of an individual and to represent that person’s admission as a member of the church. Traditions and beliefs about baptism vary greatly, depending upon the denomination. The act of baptism washes away sin, according to some denominations, while others treat baptism almost like an exorcism that casts off evil spirits. Some denominations believe that the act of baptism alone does not wash away sin or eradicate evil spirits, but that it is an important public profession of one’s personal faith and salvation. Baptisms come in several varieties, including by submersion in a large body of water as the candidate is totally immersed—or “dunked”—beneath the surface, by partial immersion as the candidate kneels or stands in water while water is poured over his or her head, or by the sprinkling of water on the candidate’s forehead.
Scholars believe the Christian tradition traces its roots back to the baptism of the prophet John the Baptist, whose own baptism is recorded in all four gospels of the Bible, said Jeffrey Vickery, instructor of religion at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, N.C. John most likely was influenced by the practices of ascetic Jewish communities such as the Essenes at Qumran, who practiced ritual immersion in water as an act of religious cleansing as early as the second century B.C. Most scholars agree that John baptized Jesus in the Jordan River, and all four Christian gospels record Jesus’ baptism as the initial event of his public ministry. “For Christians, baptism then became—and still is—an act of obedient imitation of Jesus’ baptism,” said Vickery, who also serves as co-pastor at Cullowhee Baptist Church along with his wife, Tonya Vickery. “It gives affirmation publicly that the one being baptized is beginning a life of following God’s new way of living through the teachings of Jesus.”
Because John’s baptisms were carried out in the deep waters of the Jordan, scholars believe he was practicing “immersion baptism.” In fact, scholars say the New Testament refers to no other mode of baptism beyond immersion. Different methods of the rite began to develop and, by the second and third centuries, various church manuals contained guidance on baptism that includes instructions for baptism by “pouring.” Immersion baptism, however, has remained the preferred method of baptism for the Baptist denomination, Vickery said. Denominations such as the Disciples of Christ and various Anabaptist traditions—Society of Friends, Mennonites and Moravians, among them—also practice immersion baptism, which often is referred to as “believer’s baptism,” he said.
Over time, the practice of conducting baptism outdoors in natural bodies of water has become less commonplace, and today the rite is performed predominantly indoors. The historical movement away from outdoor baptism likely occurred in conjunction with the construction of the first buildings as “churches,” the earliest of which is traced to A.D. 250, said Vickery, who typically performs river baptisms only when requested by the person being baptized. “As the grand cathedrals of Christendom took center aisle in most cities, the practice of baptism moved into these centers of worship,” he said. “Architecture, then, made it a natural movement and perhaps inevitable, although its practice may have been confined to urban Christian settings. By practice, as infant baptism by sprinkling became the normative mode of baptism by the late fourth century, less water was necessary for baptism and this aided in bringing the sacrament indoors.” Some “fancy” urban churches even have heated and chlorinated water in their baptismal pools, as well as changing rooms for those being baptized.
Howard Hanger, pastor of Jubilee Church in Asheville (which caters mostly to people who do not particularly enjoy traditional organized religion), has performed only one river baptism in his years as a minister. “At Jubilee, we see baptism as a welcoming into the world and into our lives. We do not see it as a cleansing of original sin or anything that gets you into heaven. We see it as a blessing for the child and an encouragement to live as he or she is created to live,” Hanger said. “We always tell the story of when Jesus was baptized and when he came up out of the water, saw the heavens opened and heard a voice that said, ‘This is my beloved child in whom I am well pleased.’ In our baptisms, we express the hope that the child will hear that the rest of their lives.”
In some quarters, however, outdoor baptism has remained an active practice, sometimes out of necessity because the relatively smaller size of rural churches left little room for indoor baptistries, sometimes out of the “believer’s baptism” preference for moving water. In fact, for some merely being outdoors was not sufficient.
In his history of Little Savannah Baptist Church, Frizzell quotes from Annie Hoyle’s “Historical Highlights” of Little Savannah Baptist Church, which described the church’s baptismal pool: “The ‘pool’ referred to a number of instances in the minutes was the concrete baptismal pool built near the creek where it could be filled with water flowing from the stream when it was needed for baptismal services…It is said that some who were baptized in the pool had some misgivings about the complete fulfillment of all the Biblical requirements since Jesus was baptized in the flowing waters of the Jordan River and the pool did not measure up to this requirement. However, their faith was so strong that they did not let this doubt keep them out of the baptismal waters.” Records from 1918 indicate that the church’s finances included $50 for construction of baptismal pool.
Fast-forward nearly 100 years, and the recently formed Summit Church, a nondenominational church that serves “the spiritual needs of a postmodern generation” (primarily 25 to 39 years old) in Jackson County, N.C., is conducting baptisms the old-fashioned way. The church, founded seven years ago, has a membership of about 200, said Jim Dean, pastor.
“Most of our members have been baptized outside. This is their choice. We meet in the gymnasium at Cullowhee Valley School, so we do not have the facilities needed. Cullowhee Baptist has allowed us to use their indoor baptistry for those wanting to be baptized in calmer or warmer waters,” Dean said. “I think most of our members enjoy the outdoors and like the natural setting of an outdoor baptism. It is beautiful. It is natural. It is more reflective of our young adult population.” Dean has conducted baptisms in a private lake and at several places along the Tuckaseigee River, most often at East LaPorte.
People from outside Western North Carolina are amused and amazed that the church performs outdoor baptisms, Dean said. “Their assumption is that our practice is quaint or outdated. Most churches today have a built-in baptistry in their building, but outdoor baptism is more common in our area. Several churches do outdoor baptisms, so there is a social custom to it. For our church we will probably continue to do them outdoors,” he said. “Our congregation sees it as the desired method and practice. Baptism is a testimony of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection. It also reflects our death to our old self and a resurrection to a new life and new beginning, so we baptize most people by full immersion. Some of this also reflects getting back to the earliest Christian practices of baptism in the early church.”
C’mon in, the water is fine
One of American pop culture’s most enduring images of immersion baptism is found in a pivotal scene from the classic 2000 film “O Brother, Where Art Thou.” Ulysses Everett McGill (played by George Clooney) escapes from prison in the post-Depression Deep South, literally dragging two of his chain-gang with him—Pete (John Turturro) and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson)—to find $1 million that Everett stole and buried on land about to be flooded for a hydroelectric project. On the lam, they stumble across a mass baptism in a Mississippi river. Delmar is moved to join in, pushing his way through the congregation to the front of the line, where the preacher immerses him beneath the water. A sopping-wet Delmar returns to the river’s edge. “Well that’s it, boys. I’ve been redeemed. The preacher’s done warshed away all my sins and transgressions. It’s the straight and narrow from here on out, and heaven everlasting’s my reward,” Delmar says, to which a skeptical Everett retorts, “Delmar, what are you talking about? We’ve got bigger fish to fry.”
“The preacher says all my sins is warshed away, including that Piggly Wiggly I knocked over in Yazoo,” Delmar responds.
“I thought you said you was innocent of those charges?” Everett asks.
“Well I was lyin’,” Delmar says. “And the preacher says that that sin’s been warshed away, too. Neither God nor man’s got nothin’ on me now. C’mon in boys, the water is fine!” And Pete, also wanting his sins absolved, rushes forward into the water. (Later, Everett reminds Delmar and Pete that while the preacher and the congregation might have forgiven them for their transgressions, baptism alone won’t do it in the eyes of the law: “Even if that did put you square with the Lord, the State of Mississippi’s a little more hard-nosed.”)
“Oh Brother, Where Art Thou” to the contrary, outdoor baptisms are not just a “Southern thing,” however. They take place around the world. During his 27 years as a U.S. Air Force chaplain, the late Ray Riddle conducted baptisms in numerous exotic bodies of water, said his son, Weaverville resident Tim Riddle. “He did them off the coast of Iceland near the Arctic Circle, off the coast of Vietnam in the shark-infested China Sea, in the Ganges in India, in the Swift River in Massachusetts, in the Cane and South Toe rivers in Yancey County as a teenaged minister (he first preached at the age of 14), off the coast of South Carolina near Charleston, in the South Pacific near Brisbane, Australia, and in the Pacific Ocean off Guam,” said Riddle the younger. Incidentally, Riddle himself was baptized neither outdoors nor by his father. His baptism occurred at Mountain View Baptist Church in Black Mountain, N.C., with his father as a spectator rather than a participant. “I was 18. I was resistant to the formality, the ‘have-to’ of it all. My true belief is that salvation comes through a spiritual decision between you and God, so I consented to baptism out of the need to confirm my decision to others, not to myself,” he said, adding that he does not regret not being baptized outdoors. “I don’t believe there are any valid issues with natural baptism, except for those who don’t like cold water, mud and all the things that can float around in a natural body of water. Hopefully folks can weigh the natural factors against the spiritual and make the right choice.”
The right choice for the individual is important for baptisms at Foster Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Asheville, said Erin Miller, associate pastor at the church for 15 years who now works as a hospice chaplain. “During my years as a pastor, most of the baptisms I did took place in the baptismal tank in the church,” said Miller, who volunteers at Foster on weekends. “We were very intentional about these being unique and special. Every once in a while someone would want to have their baptism in a certain outdoor place. Foster has always been very flexible about accommodating a person’s preferences for baptism. If someone got baptized outside and would share pictures, they would be shared during the worship service the next week so the whole church family could celebrate with the newly baptized person.”
Feeling closest to God
And it seems that a growing number of people are making the choice to be baptized outdoors, at least in Western North Carolina. “I do think the postmodern generations, who do not like traditions for traditions’ sake, are wanting to get back to the original practice and mode of baptism,” said Dean, of the Summit Church. “Our area is conducive to this because we have easy access to lakes, creeks and streams and most of our folks like the outdoors and natural setting to begin with. Outdoor baptism just more adequately reflects who our congregation is.” The warmer Southern climate also helps accommodate outdoor baptisms, he said. “We have had a few hardy souls who wanted to be baptized immediately after becoming a Christian and we have been in the Tuckaseigee in February and March,” he said. “Others felt like they would wait until the summer and the water was warmer.”
Miller has participated in the baptisms of twin boys who wanted to be baptized on their 12th birthdays at a nearby lake where they spent most of their summers, the recent baptism of a teenage girl at a farm pond in Leicester, and the baptism of her own son, Jake, at age 10, at a small lake where the family hikes frequently. “Jake is 13 now. When I asked him recently why he wanted to get baptized outside, he quickly replied, ‘I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love the outdoors,’” she said. “I think more and more people will choose an outdoor baptism in a place that is special to them. So many of us feel closest to God when we are in beautiful nature, so that makes sense.”
Miller agrees that outdoor baptisms are making a comeback, of sorts. “I think it may be part of the feeling that your baptism is a personal, spiritual choice that needs to reflect who you are, rather than a church or denominational statement,” she said. “Outdoor baptisms are less ‘comfortable,’ there is no heated tank or immediate bathroom available. I think people getting baptized outdoors feel a bit more adventurous, bold or maybe even sacrificial and maybe more memorable.”
To be sure, outdoor baptisms can be memorable. Frizzell’s history of Little Savannah Baptist recounts the story of one baptismal service where the candidates for baptism ventured too close to the edge of the pool and fell in before it was their turn. “The pastor did not let this ‘ducking’ take the place of the regular service; so, they were once again immerced (sic) in the cold water.” Frizzell also described services conducted during weather so cold that church members first had to break open the ice on the impoundment of the manmade outdoor baptismal pool so that the candidate could be immersed.
It’s not just winter weather that can come into play with outdoors baptisms. Vickery, the religion instructor who also is pastor at Cullowhee Baptist, recalls a summer thunderstorm rolling in as he was baptizing a young woman at Standing Indian Campground; she had selected the site because of childhood memories there with her grandfather. Dean said he typically has a deacon assist with the baptisms he conducts, because of the running water and slick rocks beneath the surface of the Tuckaseigee. “One baptism, I slipped on a moss-covered rock while baptizing a young lady and I ended up spinning around and falling down into the water. The assisting gentleman was able to finish the task as I was under water,” he said. “We have also encountered a curious snake.”
Fortunately, the snake swam on by, Dean said.