The Conscience of a Baptist

          I was raised in Wisconsin. I was raised a Baptist. To many these would seem incompatible statements. They think of Baptists in Georgia or Alabama or Texas. They think of Southern Baptists, but there are many varieties of Baptists in this country.

My childhood church was part of the American Baptist Convention, which now has the name American Baptist Churches. (Earlier it was Northern Baptists.) Our affiliation came from the mother’s side of the family, which had roots in upstate New York. If you drive through New York State or New England, you can see hundreds of little frame buildings, invariably white, neat, and small, at crossroads or byways that are American Baptist churches. These northeastern churches always remind me of the First Baptist Church in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, which was also small and white. Our church building did not have to be spacious because the congregation was not large. I doubt that the pews ever held anywhere near 100 people at a time.

I have not paid enough attention to the New York churches to know whether they invariably have a belfry, but to me our building seemed especially like a church because hanging in those upper reaches was a real bell. When a boy in this First Baptist church got to be twelve, he would be put on the roster to ring the bell at the beginning of the services. (Back then, I never wondered why girls were not bell ringers.) 

I loved ringing the bell. At the appointed time, I would walk upstairs at the rear of the church to the balcony, which was always free of parishioners. A ladder went from the balcony through a small opening to the belfry. A rope hung from the bell to the floor. We had been instructed on how to ring the bell. The first strike must not be tentative; it had to sound as full-throated as any of the other rings. This meant grabbing the rope as high as possible. I would get on my tiptoes and pull as hard as humanly possible to the floor so that the bell would swing as far is it could and the clapper would hit the bell firmly.

To me it was always a thrilling sound to hear that first strike correctly executed. And just as that first strike had to be full on, the last strike had to be as firm as any other and then silence. We were not to allow any ding, ding, ding trailing off. This required halting the bell’s swinging by getting an extra firm grip on the rope and then holding the rope at the floor as the last striking occurred. And thus the first prayer of the day: “Don’t let the rope slip out of my hand. Don’t let the bell pull me off the floor. Don’t let the bell pull my shoulders out of joint. Don’t let my feet slip.”

With the bell successfully stopped, it had to be carefully returned, through good rope management, to its neutral position where it stayed for another week. Job done. Having felt as if I had called the service to order, I descended the ladder and the stairs to take a seat in a pew. Sometimes as I got to a seat, an adult, almost always a man, would give me a nod, which I took to mean, “Well done.”

That ringing bell was the most flamboyant part of the service. Think about all those jokes you might have heard about the taciturnity of a New England farmer. Our church descended from those roots.  We had a simple service with little ceremony or pomp. Yes, there was hymn singing, a responsive reading, readings from the Bible, and a sermon. I wouldn’t say that it was joyless, but it was staid. I was surprised when I went to church with a high school girlfriend. (Ok, not the hottest date of my life.) The Methodist minister said something that was meant to be amusing during his sermon (it was mildly amusing at best in any other context than a sermon), and some congregants sort of laughed. I realized that in my church, I had never heard a chuckle during the service, much less a laugh.

          What most people know about Baptists is that they practice adult, not infantile (ok, infant), baptism, and baptism not by merely sprinkling of water but by full immersion of the believer into water. The definition of an adult for baptism, it turns out, may be a bit loose. I was baptized when I was twelve or fourteen. But apparently old enough to profess that I was willing to accept Jesus as my savior.

          Our church, as with many if not all Baptist churches, had a place near the pulpit for the baptisms, but it was different from what others may consider a baptismal. It had to hold enough water to dunk a six-footer. Ours was about the size of a hot tub, but without the heaters or the air of decadence. It, of course, was plumbed so it could be filled with water and then drained. Those of us being baptized changed out of our Sunday finery into something that could survive being soaked. When my time came, I got into the water that came up to my waist. I was surprised by the minister, who was wearing fishing waders that were not visible to the congregation. He supported my back and head. I leaned backwards until I was under the water, and then he lifted my sputtering body upright and said that this symbolized death and resurrection and a new life in God. And, so, at least for those moments, I was saved.

(continued June 24)