The last days of innocence: Baptism and religion

by | November 2, 2019 5:00 am

Last Updated: October 30, 2019 at 11:13 am

The summer before my sophomore year of high school, Tom and I went to West Virginia to spend the month, and it turned out to be an eventful visit. I had my first major crush on a little country girl named Martha. She made me make a fool out myself every time I was around her, and all she did was say hello. We really didn’t get to go anywhere, and the most time we spent together was at church. Tom and I joined B.Y.F. (Baptist Youth Fellowship) and we went to church three times a week. On Wednesday nights, the youth group met, and even though we did do a Bible study, it was more like an open discussion about our lives in general. We also traveled to different churches and met with their B.Y.F groups and we also went to revivals.
Our Uncle Harold was a deacon in the church, and he was an active Christian, to say the least. He talked to Tom and I about getting saved and stressed the importance of God in our lives. He wasn’t overbearing, but he was persistent. Finally, one Sunday morning Tom and I went to the alter during alter call and confessed our sins and ask for God’s forgiveness. We had become saved souls. Harold was proud as a newborn father. As was custom, we stood by the door after the service, and each the members congratulated us and gave us hug. They were really sincere with their feelings, and you could see it in their eyes. The minister also announced we would be baptized in two weeks.
This was an old-fashioned Baptist church, from its hymns to its popcorn testimony meetings. On Wednesday night every couple of months, a “popcorn testimony” service took place. It got its name from the format of the meeting. The minister would pick the first person and that person would stand up and testify about loving the Lord and things they were grateful for. When that person sat down, it was a signal for another person at random to stand up and testify. People were popping up and sitting down all around the church, hence the expression “popcorn.” Tithing was expected and everyone did his or her best when offering time came around.
The other old-fashioned tradition was the method of baptism. They still went down by the river and used the complete submersion form of baptism. There was not a baptismal pool in the church.
The church did not have a lot of rules that were silly like some churches. No dancing was an example. Our church not only permitted it, but the young people had a dance at the church. They permitted make-up, but talked about restraint, especially in church. The minister said they wanted their church to a house of joy and love as well as a house of the Lord, and he could not find scripture that told him otherwise.
On the Sunday we were to be baptized, the church was packed. Family members and friends wanted to be there to share the day with their loved ones. When we drove up to the clearing by the river, the road was lined on both sides with cars for several hundred yards in both directions. The congregation was standing along the river bank two or three deep. The minister spoke for a few minutes and then walked out into the water until it was almost waist-high. He motioned for the first person to walk out to him.
I was the third in line. The two of in front me were adults. When it was my turn, I began to walk out toward the pastor, but I had a problem. I was a short child. As I got close, the water was halfway up my chest and, since it was cold, I was losing my breath a little bit. My feet seemed to float from the bottom and I found myself bouncing up and down. The preacher finally saw my predicament and walked toward me three or four steps so I could regain my footing. He repeated the usual scripture, placed one hand on my chest and one behind my neck and leaned me backwards into the water. I couldn’t swim, so water frightened me a little.
I did not know what to expect, so I kept my eyes open. I saw the treetops, then the sky, and finally circles of water swirling over my face. Water went up my nose and when I foolishly opened my mouth to tell the preacher, I got a big gulp of water. I was scared. He pulled me back up and said something and dunked me again and then, before I could react, he did it for the third time. When I was finally upright again, my nose was running a river of snot, my eyes were burning and I was coughing my fool head off. I heard some of the onlookers laughing as I tried to walk upright without stumbling as I made my way to shore. Someone wrapped a blanket around me and I just kept walking past the first two to be baptized, past the crowd and climbed into the backseat of Earl’s car. Now, on top of everything else, I was freezing. As I curled up in the seat, the sun was shining through the rear window and gave me additional heat, for which I was grateful.
When we got back to Granny’s, I changed clothes and came down for lunch. I was expecting to hear a bunch of jokes, but not one thing was said about my river experience. After lunch, we were sitting around the living room and Harold asked me did I feel any different after being baptized. I responded honestly, “I am just grateful that I didn’t drown.” Everybody laughed, and the conversation changed to a whole different matter. I didn’t know if what happened to me was common so no one talked about it or if I embarrassed myself too badly to joke about it, but I knew one thing for sure, I wasn’t going to ask.

(This is part two of several series about Ison’s memories of his friends and their adventures, growing up in the 1950s.)

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