“Shall we gather at the river where bright angel feet have trod?” How many times have we sung that old hymn as we prepare to baptize someone? I know, I know—some of you never have because these days hardly anybody goes to the river to baptize. But there are some—not just the angels—who still tread the old paths down to the river.
Just this past Sunday, our church held a baptism at a private access point on the Dan River. We parked our cars up on the road and walked about a football field’s length to the riverside. There were about 55 of us—quite a crowd meandering through the grassy field.
As we walked and talked together, I felt transported backwards through time. Modern life’s in-church baptistries, fancy preacher robes and formal ceremonies seemed far removed from the wide sky, rustling leaves and a preacher in simple clothes.
(I have nothing against an indoor baptistry, having been baptized in one or two of those myself; there’s even one locally with a backdrop in memory of my grandmother. Still, there is something special about going back to the old ways.)
After everyone wandered on through the meadow to the tree cover, we stood there in the serenity of a September Sunday afternoon—the lazy Dan gently rolling by, friends and family greeting each other with smiles and hugs, singing “Amazing Grace” a cappella. Later as we baptized folks where we could find the deepest spot in a currently rather shallow river, those who had just been baptized lingered nearby, not wanting to leave the water just yet—despite the abnormal coolness of the late summer day.
We rejoiced as each one emerged from the immersion; there was joyous laughter amidst the joyful tears, with my hubster singing “Wade in the Water” as we finally made our way back to the bank. I couldn’t help thinking how special a river baptism is—perhaps because that is how it was done Biblically AND because it took me back to a simpler time.
I remember many a baptism in Belews Lake because Forest Chapel Methodist—my Bray family’s church—didn’t have a baptistry for those who wanted full immersion rather than sprinkling. Before the lake was built, I faintly remember my daddy being baptized in an old pond behind June Neal’s store in Belews Creek. My Grandpa Bray and his oldest son Donald were baptized in John Sain’s little pond off Highway 65 between Belews Creek and Walnut Cove.
In Walnut Cove, there were a few different places of baptism before indoor church baptistries were standard—Town Fork Creek, for one. My friends at Rising Star Baptist in the London Community told me that their church originally baptized in another nearby creek.
Many First Baptist folks were baptized in an area behind the Primitive Baptist Church on Summit Street. In 1913, FBC cemented an area for creek water to pool up and then allowed other churches also to use it as a baptistry. Before that, they went elsewhere for baptisms, such as Brown Church Revival. If you’ve ever heard of that, please let me know. In about 1953, my mother was the first person baptized indoors at FBC once the church was rebuilt after the previous building had been destroyed by fire.
My friend Kathy Grubbs Marshall grew up on Lakeside Drive which was named after a little “lake” behind the old Burger Barn off Hwy. 311. She says that at least three times a year, a Holiness church would hold baptisms there. Fascinated, she and her sisters would hide in “Mama Booth’s” shrubbery to watch.
Kathy remembers the preacher wearing a white robe while the folks being baptized wore white as well. They always sang a hymn called “Down by the Riverside.” Afterwards, they would have a picnic lunch under the apple trees around the lake. Indeed many churches on the old paths held “dinner on the ground” on baptism days.
My friend Susan Cox Covington says her mother-in-law, a teacher at Francisco years ago, was baptized at Moore’s Springs. I figure that was a popular baptism spot back in the day. My buddy Mike Marshall up in King (not our Sheriff) says that some churches baptize in the Little Yadkin River even now.
I’ve heard of more and more churches—even those with indoor baptistries—going to the Dan River to baptize. I love this trend! Having been baptized both indoors and out, I by far prefer the outdoor scenario.
Moving water was considered the only vehicle for baptism back in the day. The running water symbolized the washing away of sins, as opposed to the still water of a lake or pond. My daddy was joking today about the Dan River rising a foot or two downstream after we baptized those folks on Sunday—so many sins washed away!
The original baptism model was not what you might think—John the Baptist baptizing in the Jordan River at the time of Jesus. Even before that, the ancient Jews ritually purified themselves in a traditional “mikveh.” That water could be in an indoor pool but must be connected to a source of running or naturally-occurring water. Some sins were considered more
serious than others and required constantly-running water called “living water.”
You might be interested to know that in some early Catholic baptisms, the baptismal candidates were naked, as it was believed that nothing of the world should be taken into the water. Deaconesses assisted with the baptism of women for the sake of modesty.
Yikes! I’m sure glad THAT tradition of man was discontinued.
(I should clarify that nude baptism was the rare exception, not the rule, and totally unsupported by Scripture. Neither does the Bible mandate the wearing of fancy baptismal robes, although I assume there’s nothing wrong with that.)
The “wearing of white” tradition is ongoing today in many denominations. Although that is simply a matter of personal preference, I, for one, tell our baptismal candidates NOT to wear white which can be see-through when wet.
If you’ve never been to a river baptism, I hope you get to go to one someday. This is one of those old paths traditions that just might be making a comeback. “Take me to the water…and let’s go down by the river…”
Leslie Bray Brewer can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her blog is at http://timesofrefreshingontheoldpaths.wordpress.com.