Let’s go down to the (Jordan) river …

Baptism iconWe need some kind of special award here at GetReligion to salute really fine news stories about religion that still fall one or two facts short of being, you know, just right. It’s frustrating, you know. The story is really enjoyable and then — bzzzzzzz.

Take, for example, the USA Today story entitled “Outdoor baptisms dwindling.” It’s a great subject to write about, in the age of modern sanctuaries and declining rural churches. Thus, we read:

Outdoor baptisms are rapidly disappearing in America. Once prevalent in the rivers and deltas of the South, the ritual has been nearly extinguished by indoor pools, mega-churches and modernization, researchers and ministers say. Only a handful of churches keep it alive.

“It’s a feature of American Protestantism that is vanishing,” says David Daniels, professor of church history at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago.

No one keeps statistics on outdoor baptisms, which are performed predominately by Baptists and Pentecostals. But officials at the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest grouping of Baptist churches in the USA, say of the 342,000 baptisms performed last year by its member churches, the vast majority were done indoors.

Now I have to admit that I twitched when I saw that the voice of authority in this piece was from a oldline Protestant seminary in Chicago. This is not where I usually look for deep insights into Bible Belt culture.

But that was not my main problem with the background material in this piece. Pay close attention to this part:

The tradition of submerging someone in a river to wash away their sins began in Europe, came to America in the 18th century and spread across the South by Baptist ministers, Daniels says. The Christian tradition replicates Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River by John the Baptist 2,000 years ago.

African slaves on plantation churches in the South quickly adopted the tradition, says Shayne Lee, an assistant professor of Sociology and African Diaspora Studies at Tulane University. The slave who walked down to the river for his baptism was publicly embracing Christianity while shedding his African religious beliefs, Lee says.

Excellent link to the African-American tradition, of course. But you have to ask yourself this question: Did Christians ever stop baptizing new believers in the River Jordan? Is it accurate to say that this tradition — note the definitive reference — “began in Europe”?

This would come as interesting news to Christians in the Holy Land and in other settings where baptisms by immersion — which are the norm in Eastern Orthodoxy — are held near lakes, rivers or even oceans. I am not saying that outdoor baptisms are the norm. Quite the opposite. I am saying that they have, on occasion, been done for centuries and that this sacramental act continues to take place from time to time in large bodies of blessed water.

Take the River Jordan, for example. If that particular river was nearby, wouldn’t you want to baptize some people in it every now and then?

So, a fine story — with one historical reference that is a bit off. Perhaps the Protestant tradition of outdoor Baptisms began in Europe, where Protestantism itself began, after all. But did the tradition begin there, PERIOD? I think not.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://vagantepriest.blogspot.com/ FrGregACCA



    At it happens, a young man was baptized just last Sunday in Lake Wateree, South Carolina. I doubt that he will be the last.

    There’s this Southern Baptist Church, you see, right on the lake and since this child “accepted the Lord” at Vacation Bible School, he, as his younger sister put it, “got to take a bath at church”.

    (There’s also a Presbyterian Church down the road a bit, also on the water, but I suspect they do their baptizing indoors.)

  • James

    I can think of an Ethiopian eunuch who might take deference with concept that Africans got the idea of baptizing in rivers/pools/oases in the Southern US. Read about him once in some dusty ol’ book at a motel, I believe. If I recall correctly, it was quite a while the backside of Columbus, even.

  • http://myburg.blogspot.com/ Sandy

    Thank you for your excellent articles and research!