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July 04, 2022

At the Reference Desk: Baptism

By Kellie Gillespie

I had a good day at work the other day. Good days are when lots of funny, intelligent people ask interesting questions AND I can find the answers. A REALLY good day is when someone asks a question about a subject that I have an interest in, like recipes or parenting teens or good books to read.

A person asked me about baptism. She didn't have a specific question, like how do Mormons practice baptism or at what age do Mennonites baptize their children. No, she wanted an overview of the concept of baptism, which meant I could really dig into the topic. Since I dabble in theology but seldom go to church, I felt I had enough background knowledge on the topic to wing it, with the help of Mircea Eliade, of course. Armed with the second volume of the Encyclopedia of Religion, I gave the patron a condensed version of the history of the sacrament, including a brief treatise on the Anabaptist tradition and "believer's baptism." She was very appreciative and thanked me for my trouble.

It was strange to talk about baptism in this objective way. As a former pastor's wife I used to talk about baptism a lot, but always in the context of bible studies, Sunday school and Easter services. When my fourth child was baptized, his father did it up right. He took off all the baby's clothes and wrapped him in a white altar cloth. He anointed him with oil. And he fed him a bit of milk and honey after dunking him in the washtub. A little unorthodox for the conservative Lutheran church he was serving at the time, but the drama was appreciated all the same. Of course, Jonah added to the excitement by wailing theatrically through the whole production. I still have it on video if anyone wants to borrow it.

I wonder if many people today know that the Christian rite of baptism actually got its start in the pre-Christian era. Actually, almost every Christian tradition we practice today has evolved from pagan rites. Greeks, Babylonians, Egyptians, and Jews all practiced some form of baptism, whether it was baptizing newborn children to purify them of blemishes they acquired in the womb, as the ancient Egyptians did, or using water in a liturgical way to cleanse the body before entering sacred areas, as the Jews did. Then, toward the beginning of the Christian era, Judaism adopted the custom of baptizing prosalytites seven days after circumcision by immersing them naked in a pool of flowing water, thereby emphasizing their rebirth into the Jewish community.

John the Baptist took this practice one step further by baptizing people in the Jordan River. By immersing people in a river, John changed the symbolism of baptism. By "dying" in the river and then being "born again," John told believers that their sins were forgiven. In this way, baptism assumed a new meaning: as a sign of divine pardon. Jesus' apostles in turn interpreted this symbolism to mean that an inner conversion needed to occur before any baptism could take place. At first, this meant that only adults were to be baptized, since only adults were thought capable of achieving the heartfelt conversion necessary before baptism could take place. During the 10th and 11th centuries, however, it became popular to baptize children, and then in the 14th century, spiritual infusion (using a baptismal font) replaced immersion.

Baptizing children soon became a hot topic. Some Christians started wondering how meaningful baptism could be if babies were receiving it. Surely, they said, babies couldn't understand the concept of forgiveness of sin at such a young age. This led to the doctrine of individual justification by faith alone. People who agree with this doctrine believe that the rite of entry into the community of believers had to be restricted to adults who wanted salvation through Christ and had requested baptism. They denied the validity of children's baptism and required adults to be rebaptized as believers. Hence the concept of "Believer's Baptism" and the start of the Anabaptist Movement, from which came Baptists, Mennonites and Church of the Brethren denominations.

I was never baptized as an infant. Since my mother was raised Catholic and my father was raised Lutheran, I have often wondered what had happened to their religious life by the time I came into the world, since both traditions practice infant baptism and I never received it. When I was young, I asked my mother why we didn't go to church and she said, "I just got tired of it, I guess." Fair enough. But it would have made my life so much easier if she had just had me baptized before she wearied of church life. If I had been baptized as a baby, then I never would have to make a decision about it my own self. I wouldn't have had to agonize for months over whether I was "worthy" of being baptized, whether I was "ready" to be baptized, or even whether I wanted to be baptized. I would have been a member of the Body of Christ already. I would have been included into the fold by God's grace, not by my own actions. And trying to decide your own worthiness, or lack thereof, is a very hard decision to make.

I married young. After my first son was born, my husband and I started attending a Church of the Brethren congregation. This denomination had special significance for my husband. He went to school with a Brethren boy who had been very vocal against the Vietnam War at a time when everyone in his conservative community supported it. Because he was outspoken about his beliefs, this boy endured much abuse and taunting by the other boys, but he always refused to fight back. He was a pacifist, he told them, opposed to fighting of any kind. Of course, this kind of talk proved to be too challenging to the other kids and resulted in physical attacks specifically designed to provoke some kind of reaction. My husband said he thought often of this boy and admired him for sticking to his convictions. He said his one regret in life was not helping him out, but he was always too scared the kids would start to pick on him next. So, when we went looking for religious meaning in our lives, he remembered this boy, the church he belonged to, and we became members.

Well, it didn't happen quite like that. What really happened was that my husband became a member. I couldn't. He had had good parents who had baptized him when he was an infant. I had bad parents who wanted me to be free to make my own religious decisions. So I was told that I could join the church as soon as I was baptized properly. Being from the Anabaptist tradition, the Church of the Brethren is known for full immersion baptism. This meant that not only did I have to make the decision about getting baptized, I had to make a decision regarding standing in a tank of water and have the pastor dunk me under three times. Needless to say, this type of baptism did not appeal to me. I also found out that no one else could determine my own state of readiness for the ceremony. There were no forms to fill out, no test to take. I had to decide all by myself whether I was "ready" to be baptized. It had to be my decision and no one else's.

How can I describe the months of heart-wrenching indecision I endured? I met with the pastor several times for counseling, I talked with my husband, I prayed and thought about it constantly. How could I know if I was ready? What kind of criteria should I be examining? Was my heart pure enough, my mind open enough, my knowledge good enough? Surely, if it depended on my state of grace, I could never know if I was a proper enough vessel for the grace of God to enter. Finally, my husband told me that it didn't matter what I thought about the whole thing; God was the one doing the work here. He was the one who would make me good enough to receive the sacrament. It wasn't up to me; it was up to Him. Oh. Why didn't the pastor explain that part to me? With that new information, I felt confident I was ready. Let the dunking begin.

I was baptized on a hot spring day. I remember how hot it was because I had to wear a heavy white robe over my underclothes, and sweat was dripping down my back. My son, who was about a year old, screamed when my husband took him away from me. After they went into the church for the service, I waited in the kitchen to be summoned. When the pastor opened the door and beckoned, I walked through the open door and into the sanctuary. The big baptismal tank had been filled with water. He helped me up the stairs into the tank, and then he helped me go down the stairs into its cold depths. I had to move slowly because the heavy robes dragged me down so much. I felt like I was in a dream. The small congregation was silent as they watched and I could hear my son call for me softly, as though from a great distance. The pastor put his hand over my face and with his other arm behind my back, tilted me backwards so that my head was submerged in the water. "In the name of the Father," he said, and he dunked me backwards. "In the name of the Son," he said, dunking me again. "In the name of the Holy Ghost," he said, and this time I was already moving my head back before he could push me. Then I was done and dragging my heavy robe back up the stairs and into the kitchen, where a nice woman was ready with some towels and a comb. When the whole congregation met me later, I received lots of hugs and a big piece of cake. I was just glad it was over.

I've always wondered if I should have felt different after being baptized. Does it mean anything that I never felt a lightening bolt hit me, or even experienced a skip of the heart during the ceremony? I never felt all warm inside or anything like what I hear happens to other people. Maybe that meant that I wasn't ready yet. Maybe it meant that the tank of water was so cold that all body parts were numb from a lack of circulation. I'll never know the answer to that, but I do know one thing: if God's grace comes to us through baptism, then I believe that we should never have to decide on our own if we are worthy of it. Because truthfully, none of us are until we have that promise of baptism already grasped in our tight little fists. That's why I made sure to have my children baptized as early as possible. I made the choice, not them. I know how hard it can be to determine one's worthiness and I wanted to give that to them. Isn't that what grace is? It's a gift that comes freely given, through no effort of our own, because someone loves us and cares for us. My children never really know how great a gift this was, but that's okay. I know that God and I worked together to make it happen and that's all that's important.

Now if God could just give me a hand with my next question, I would be eternally thankful. An elderly patron wants to know how to get an email account and he doesn't know how to use a mouse. He keeps pointing it at the computer monitor like it's a television remote. He's also very hard of hearing and thinks I'm saying "have you," instead of "yahoo." Now I get to show him how to pick a user name and password using a free email provider.

God help me.

Article © Kellie Gillespie. All rights reserved.
Published on 2004-05-22
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