Editor’s Note: Clergy Project member and previous Rational Doubt poster Mason Lane recounts his full-emersion baptism and the unexpected, unwelcomed vision he saw that day. Excerpted from his book, Justifiable Homicide? Growing up a Baptist Fundamentalist.
Behind the choir in most Baptist churches there is a large baptismal tank with a thick glass side facing the audience. Poorer or more outdoorsy Baptists go to a river or lake, or even the YMCA swimming pool to perform baptisms. Evidently chlorine doesn’t invalidate the sacrament.
Baptists require a public baptism with complete immersion under water. Baptists do not consider sprinkling a few drops of water on someone to be a valid baptism. All the way under water is the only acceptable method of baptism for the true believers. I’m sure the emphasis on complete immersion has prevented people with aqua phobia from joining a Baptist church.
When I was standing in line to get baptized there was a nearly hysterical woman who was being consoled by a man and woman who were assisting the Pastor in getting the sheep into the tank. We’d received instructions fifteen minutes earlier by our Pastor. We had all watched baptisms before and thought we had a fairly good idea of how things would proceed. Mimeographed on a piece of typing paper were basic instructions:
Wear a white shirt or blouse, black or dark blue trousers or dress. Bring one clean handkerchief and wear no shoes in the tank.
Now Pastor Irwin was giving final instructions:
“Walk into the water holding your handkerchief in both your hands with your hands crossed over your chest. Be careful to keep the handkerchief dry. I will help you come over to me in the water. The water is heated so it will be comfortable. (Pastor actually was wearing chest high fishing waders, under his black robe, so he didn’t need to get his clothes wet and could return quickly to the service.) I will ease you back into the water after you put the handkerchief over your mouth and nose.”
He walked into the tank and prepared to seal our salvation with water. There were twelve of us, a fairly large group for one of our church baptisms. Twelve is a very significant biblical number: the twelve disciples and now our group of twelve children and adults being baptized that day. I thought that was a real fine omen.
Children under six or seven were rarely baptized as they weren’t considered old enough to understand what they were doing, and from some of the short adults I personally saw get dunked, there was a danger of drowning.
Unlike Catholic kids, who are baptized soon after birth, Baptist kids live in a hazardous no man’s land – a strange twilight zone – for a number of years. It is a vacuous doctrine where it’s impossible for a mere mortal to know at what age a child becomes a bona fide sinner. At what moment does a child become in danger of hellfire if they should die being unsaved and unbaptized? At what moment does the child pass beyond the border of childhood innocence? Children who die young are a Baptist parent’s worst nightmare. The burden of knowing if they need to be saved, incredibly, rests upon the child! Presumably, one day God would see a child’s lie or temper tantrum as the conduct of an innocent. The next day God could classify the same behavior as sin and damn the child to the fiery pit.
As for facing the practical issues of Baptism, I already knew how to swim, so getting in the tank was no big deal. But the woman in front of me was terrified. Assistants on both sides supported her, as she trembled and complained about once getting water up her nose as a child and nearly drowning in a bathtub. She pleaded,
“I can’t swim, I can’t swim! I’ve never even put my head under water!”
She turned from side to side, and once turned around to look at me. Her eyes were like a horse trapped in a barn fire. Again she pleaded,
“I don’t think I can do this. Oh Lord please help me do this!”
Maybe I was about to see my first valid miracle! If she makes it through this alive and the Pastor and the tank survive intact, that would truly be a miracle!
She was now being eased into the water. She was a portly woman with a pretty, round face, hazel eyes, and medium length curly blond hair. When I’d seen her other times in church, her countenance was calm and pleasant. But that was when she wasn’t horrified at the possibility of drowning.
For her baptism, she wore a plain white blouse and a fully cut long dark blue skirt, but the material was light, so when she entered the water her skirt billowed way up. Thus I was presented with a posterior view of nylons, Playtex girdle garter straps and wet blooming underwear – a sight no young Baptist boy should have to endure. Still, the call was strong and I remained a good Baptist for many years afterwards.
When I finally left the faith, I tried to forget the lost hours I spent in the pews and the pulpit.
But I’ll never forget that time in the tank.
Bio: Clergy Project member Mason Lane was born Dean Aughinbaugh and changed his name for the music business, from which he is retired. He was general manager of WHME-FM Radio (Christian programming) and pastor of Christian Faith Church in South Bend, Ind., then dean of students and soccer coach at DeVry University in Phoenix. Justifiable Homicide is the story of his journey to atheism. Google “reverbnation” and “mason lane” to sample his music online.