Time Marches

Take Me To The River …

I was down home for Easter with my family. We went to our church, New Hope. As I sat listening to a special music program it was hard not to stare at the church’s baptismal pool looming over the choir. As hard as I try to accept that pool as part of the church’s interior I cannot. While staring at it my thoughts turned to four pivotal days in a church we can never forget: the day we accept Christ, the day we’re baptized, the day we get married, and the day we lay a loved one to rest. That first day, accepting Christ, leads to the second, the sacrament that washes away our sins.

Let’s accept a fact. No matter what people do today you can be sure they want to do it as conveniently and comfortably as possible. When I say everything I mean everything. I present to you a modern-day convenience that killed the picturesque days of baptizing souls in a creek in the woods: the baptismal pool conveniently located inside the church.

These ultra-clean fiberglass pools are charming. Through their clear walls you see the Holy water we’ll call it. Above the pool an idyllic scene from the Holy Land greets you. How can you argue against these newfangled baptismal pools and their advantages?

You don’t have to wade to some creek through tangled undergrowth to reach them. You don’t have to worry about frogs and snakes, and you can make the water as warm as bathwater. The water doesn’t flow like a creek does so you don’t have to worry about pollutants though surely the water in a fiberglass pools is treated with chlorine to keep algae away. Moreover you can save folks’ souls any season now because cold weather is no big deal. But it wasn’t that way when I was a 12-year-old boy ready to join the church. Not at all.

As best I can remember here’s how my baptism went. I believe it was the August Revival of 1961 when I walked to the front of the church to accept Christ. Several of us boys went down together. I recall that Robert Williams and Robert Steed and I all felt the pull the same day.

Apparently back then they would plan a baptism ceremony only when a minimum number of people had accepted the Lord as their savior. When enough good people had professed their desire to wash their sins away, a baptizing ceremony went on the calendar. When that day arrived we people at New Hope would wear our Sunday clothes (and bring a change of clothes). We’d walk across Highway 220 to a field and downhill to a bit of woods where a pretty good creek ran. Straddling that creek was a wooden building fronted by a small concrete pool fed by the creek. At the pool’s other end were steps. The preacher and his soon-to-be new members would descend these steps into the pool at the right moment.

I seem to recall that a sheet with a hole cut into it made a cape that we donned over a T-shirt and slacks. We sat in the little cabin-like structure and waited our turn to be dipped.

Give Me That Old Time ReligionI was baptized in the dead of winter. Upstream of the pool men were heating 55-gallon drums of water over a fire. When the water got really hot they’d dump it into the stream. A deacon would test the water and signal to the preacher when the warm water was arriving. The minister would then wade into the baptismal pool. I waded in behind the Reverend Edwin Dacus who slipped me beneath the icy water. It was a cold introduction to the Lord.

This Sunday I went back to the pool. What better time to visit the spot where you were baptized than Easter Sunday. For the first time in fifty-two years I visited that place so important to my personal history. It had changed beyond belief. The creek was dried up and the little house where we sat waiting our turn to be baptized was falling down. The little concrete block-lined pool was intact and filled with water. I had to think hard to recall the place when it was free of briars, bushes, and tangled undergrowth. Slowly my memories returned and I remembered a place that was nowhere as sterile as the perfect baptismal pool inside New Hope. That old creek-fed pool had character. It was part of nature. Very real and appropriate.

Somehow the image of John the Baptist dipping Jesus in a super-clean baptismal pool just doesn’t hold up to classic paintings of John taking Jesus beneath the Jordan River. But, hey that’s the old school way. Now we have yet another modern way to replace time-honored traditions–the fiberglass, chlorinated baptismal pool.

Selling these modern baptismal pools relies on getting the word out to churches and their leaders. Consider this marketing message for fiberglass baptismal pools.

“Having a baptistry as a permanent fixture of a church adds beauty, character, as well as convenience, allowing your church the privilege of being able to baptize all throughout the year. The presence of one of our baptistries makes the busy life of a minister a lot easier, wasting no time wondering where the next baptism will take place.

Our baptistries are built using fiberglass replication molds, which result in sturdy one-piece seamless products. With safety in mind, all interior corners are rounded and all floors and steps are textured for slip resistance. Baptistries come in blue, white, or bone and a variety of shapes and sizes.”

And here’s another bit of copywriting word wizardry. Check out the super special spelling of this product’s name. “The BaptEZ is an easy and affordable portable baptism pool. Designed to be easy to assemble, durable under use, and very compact when disassembled. The BaptEZ baptism pool is ideal for any baptistery and starts at only $799. For about $350 more you can add an immersion heater.” Something about that advertising message seems phony. And nothing’s worse than fraudulent sentiment. Nothing phony, however, attended my old baptismal pool, which alas is a dying thing.

As you can see from the photograph, the place where I was baptized is succumbing to time, gravity, and the elements. Even the creek has narrowed to not much more than a rivulet. Erosion, sedimentation, and plant succession are filling it in. That’s a shame. A lot of souls were saved there.

As for old time baptisms we can say what’s often said when a truly unforgettable fellow passes on. “We won’t see the likes of him again.” I talked to Mickey Norman about the history of the old baptismal at New Hope but she no longer has the church history records. We deduced however that the old baptismal pool in the woods has sat unused for maybe fifty years now. No we won’t see the likes of it again.

I don’t know if our intrusive government has passed some law forbidding baptismal rites in honest-to-goodness creeks, rivers, or lakes but it wouldn’t surprise me. We’re all about protecting people from every conceivable calamity these days. God forbid some child gets a leech stuck to his ear at the precise moment his sins are washing downstream.

As for me I prefer the old time baptism in a creek. It was good enough for generations; it was good enough for me, and I’d love to see a ceremony again in that tiny stream downhill from Highway 220. Someday when you have free time, check it out. When you are down at the creek look back uphill at New Hope Church and its cemetery to the left. I wager you’ll wonder how many folks resting eternally had their heads beneath the little creek that’s about to be choked off by silt and vegetation even as the bathhouse we’ll call it crumbles into the earth.

Time marches on whether we like it or not. Now it’s about to rob us of another memorable place and time: the colorful country rite of baptizing souls as Jesus was baptized. As for ceremonies in a fiberglass pool? They all look unremarkably the same and in fact are devoid of color and character.

Images: the photos used with this story were taken by the author, Tom Poland.

Tom Poland

Tom Poland, A Southern Writer – Tom Poland is the author of twelve books and more than 1,000 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. Tom grew up in Lincoln County, Georgia, where four wonderful English teachers gave him a love for language. People first came to know Tom’s work in South Carolina Wildlife magazine, where he wrote features and served as managing editor.Tom’s written over 1,000 columns and features and seven traditionally published books. Among his recent books are Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia, Georgialina, A Southland, As We Knew It, and his and Robert Clark’s latest volume of Reflections of South Carolina. Swamp Gravy, Georgia’s Official Folk Life Drama, staged his play, Solid Ground in 2011 and 2012.He writes a weekly column for newspapers and journals in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks often to groups across South Carolina and Georgia.Tom earned a BA in Journalism and a Masters in Media at the University of Georgia. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina where he writes about Georgialina—his name for eastern Georgia and South Carolina. Visit my website at www.tompoland.net Email me at [email protected]