Baptizing in the Creek: Making a Public Profession in the Mountains

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Photo: Members of the Primitive Baptist Church in Morehead, Kentucky, attending a creek baptizing by submersion, 1940. Courtesy, Farm Security Administration photograph by Marion Post Wolcott.
Photo: Members of the Primitive Baptist Church in Morehead, Kentucky, attending a creek baptizing by submersion, 1940. Courtesy, Farm Security Administration photograph by Marion Post Wolcott.

The summer breeze, made ripples on the pond,
Rattled through the rings and the willow trees beyond,
Daddy in his good hat, mama in her Sunday dress,
Watched in pride, as I stood there in the water up to my chest,
And as the preacher spoke about the cleansing blood,
I sank my toes into that East Tennessee mud,

And it was down with the old man, up with the new,
Raised to walk in the way of light and truth,
I didn’t see no angels, just a few saints on the shore,
But I felt like a newborn baby, cradled up in the arms of the Lord,

These are the opening words to a Randy Travis / Kenny Chesney country song which recounts the story of a child of the mountains being publicly baptized outside at a popular watering hole; however, for many of us who grew up in yesteryear, these words are more than a hit song, they represent an actual life event which holds as much significance as /one’s wedding day or graduation ceremony.

Unlike in the Northeast and Deep South, Catholicism and Episcopalianism never found a strong foothold in the Appalachian Mountains, thus the practice of infant and sprinkle baptism was never popular in the hills of places such as East Tennessee of West Virginia.  On the other hand, the hardy mountaineers were very receptive to raucous camp meeting circuit riders who vividly painted pictures of a burning hell, as well as of a Jesus who would “save any man.”  These preachers taught that all people were sinners by nature and needed to be “born again”, a Biblical command issued by Jesus recorded in John 3.3.

The circuit riding preachers and the evangelists who followed in their wake held great revival meetings and crusades through the mountains, preaching to moonshiners and prostitutes as well as honorable farmers and lawmen alike.  Regardless of their audience, the message was unchanged: “For all have sinned and come short of the glory God…”  “the Lord… [is] not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance…” and “Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved”.

These preachers lacked formal educations and often even ordination papers, but what they lacked in formalities, the compensated in their faith; a faith which appealed to even the most base of the mountain communities.

After these weeks long meetings concluded, the evangelists would then implore all new believers who had been “born again” to make their decisions to live for Christ public, by being baptized by immersion at the local watering hole — a Christian practice which dates back to the days of John the Baptist.

Unlike baptisms in modern day America, which more often than not take place inside church buildings, baptisms were historically done outside as a means to serve as a public witness, not just to church people, but also to the unchurched, of that person’s intention to begin their life anew for Christ.

Like articles like this? Then you would love Appalachian Magazine’s Mountain Voice: A Collection of Memories, Histories, and Tall Tales of Appalachia!  Click here to check out the book on Amazon!

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