Storytelling & Community: Baptism Stories

I enjoyed Kathleen’s June post on geneology miracle stories as a genre of Mormon storytelling. I think it’s valuable to reflect on the types of stories which matter to us orally as we look for meaning in the stories writers didn’t think were strong enough to survive passage from mouth to mouth and therefore felt compelled to write down instead.;)

Last month, our bishop told a story in sacrament meeting about a recent baptism. It sounded like this baptism was particularly important to the family–maybe they weren’t all members or active and that everyone could attend was a big deal; maybe there’d been some complication in getting permission from someone for the baptism to take place and so there was special reason to rejoice. All I can really remember was that the bishop was unusually distraught when he arrived just prior to the service to find the font empty.

Fonts, of course, can take several hours to fill, so this was bad news. Because of whatever the family situation was, the bishop didn’t want to reschedule so he began thinking through every possible way to make the baptism happen on time. Could volunteers be quickly called and marshalled to fill the font with buckets filled at every nearby water source? Could the size of the font somehow be artificially decreased to make it fill faster? No, too complicated.

The bishop then consulted with the primary president, who suggested calling around the ward to find an available swimming pool. One a house or two away was available and so it was that the girl was baptized in the sunlight of a neighbor’s backyard in the last days of a long and beautiful summer.The family was happy, the bishop felt blessed to have had everything come together after being at the brink of a minor disaster, and a family in the ward found themselves unexpectedly drawn in a small but important way into a young girl’s life.

It’s a lovely story, and apparently also contagious. Another sister rose and told the story from her and her husband’s mission in Troms, Norway, a city some 300 km north of the Arctic Circle. A young man had gone with some friends to a region-wide youth conference in the south and came back with a desire to be baptized, the first convert baptism in the area in some time. Because the distance from the island where Troms is to the nearest LDS fonts in the south is considerable, it was decided that a suitable spot for a baptism needed to be found in the area. Plans would also have to be made, of course, for how to make a fall baptism in the Artic safe and healthy for the baptist and baptized alike.

The sister actually looked different as she told the story of the baptism itself. She had the look of real memory: eyes almost seeing things which were there rather than hear, body hesitating a little as if it isn’t quite sure what world it’s in. And from the warmth of an ordinary chapel pew, I got to imagine the spot in the cove they find where it was deep enough to baptize just a few yards away from where it fropped off and became too deep to stand at all. Got to imagine what it might have looked like when two bodies emerged from the water burning with the spriti but literally freezing cold, how all the blankets got thrown on the young man at the center of attention at first while the aging baptizer shrugged off his own shivers.

And so it is that imaginations begin to run away and the contagion of the first sotiry spreads. I can’t remember everything else that was said at that testimony meeting nearly so well as I can remember remembering the other baptism stories I’ve heard and felt conntected to: how the font hadn’t been filled for a respected, elderly man in my grandfather’s mission in India. My grandfather was so embarrassed at the missionaries’ forgetfullness, but the man solved the problem by asking what exactly was required and then suggesting that after the words of the baptism he lie down and immerse himself before accepting a hand up from the elder who performed the ordinance.

I remember another story, from my mission in the former East Germany, about the old branch president’s son, baptized at the height of state suppression of the church. How they drove him out in the dark of night, flashed on the headlights to baptize him in a river then turned them off again and drove oh-so-carefully in the darkness until they were home.

This genre of stories–the tale of the unusual baptism–is an important thread into the tapestry of our oral tradition. What can we discover, when we follow the thread, about the ways in which we approach the complications the universe presents us with? What can we learn about the ways we approach faith?

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11 Responses to Storytelling & Community: Baptism Stories

  1. Katya says:

    Now you’ve reminded me of a story of a man who was baptized by a fellow soldier in the overturned cover of an tank, while both were on deployment. (I can’t for the life of me remember where I heard the story, but I think it was from a fairly "official" source—does it ring a bell for anyone?)

    Anyway, one thing that’s unique about Mormon baptisms, as opposed to temple ordinances, is that they can be performed anywhere, so you do get some touching stories of baptisms performed in humble or unusual circumstances.

  2. Eric Samuelsen says:

    I actually served in Tromso Norway, and I also baptized a man in the ocean. It was an unforgettable experience, and what I remember most fondly was the way the entire branch stepped up to help. It was cold, sure–we baptized our guy in February. But we had hot cocoa afterwards, and shared a real moment of fellowship.

  3. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Nice post, James. I’ve always wished I had been baptized someplace cooler than a Mormon church (oh, or the Catholic church. They had me first.) The ocean would be great, but I grew up in So. Cal., not Norway.

    You ask what we can uncover about our faith and learn about the ways we handle obstacles by looking at oral tradition like our baptism stories. Its an interesting question. I admit that I’ve heard some whoppers at the pulpit and other places that I didn’t really believe, but the majority of these testimonial stories (stories of private miracles) I accept and am often quite moved by. In that acceptance I think we may find the root of Mormon society because that acceptance represents two things: 1) the trust we place in one another, and 2) our collective recognition that each of us is valued by a Supreme Being.

  4. Melinda W. says:

    I think the tales of the unusual baptisms are a way for us to affirm that there are many unique ways to come to the same covenants. Mormons get accused of lockstep sameness frequently. And these unusual baptism stories are a way to smile and affirm that there are a lot of different ways to accomplish the same covenants. Appearances really don’t matter that much after all.

    My favorite baptism story came from my mission, when we taught a mother and son. The 8-year-old son never told us he was afraid of the water. We discovered the problem when he wouldn’t let go of the young man in the branch who was baptizing him. His arm didn’t get baptized on the first two tries because he wouldn’t let go. We were at a swimming pool, and all the Melchizedek Priesthood holders in the branch were on their knees in their suits, advising this young man (who had only been baptized 5 months earlier himself) on how to baptize a scared little boy who really really really wanted to be baptized.

    Eventually, someone suggested an Alma-and-Helam approach, and the young man immersed himself along with the little boy. That’s the only baptism I’ve ever attended that was spontaneously applauded.

  5. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    Thanks for sharing that Melinda W. That’s a wonderful story.

  6. Scott Parkin says:

    I have to admit that I have a bit of a doublethink attitude on this one. Which is to say that I’m not sure either what I think, or what I ought to think.

    I love the idea that people overcome challenges and limitations to perform righteous ordinances. I love the commitment of immersing yourself in super-cooled, fast-running waters to express your faith. I love the uniqueness of individual experience and the specific details that make that experience fresh and vibrant in our own minds. I love the community of sharing stories of our specific devotions with those for whom those devotions are meaningful.

    But I also worry about the potential for diminishing the experiences of others because the circumstances of their devotions were not exotic or colorful. I was baptized in an ordinary LDS font in Buffalo, Wyoming–unremarkable and uninteresting. Cool (but not cold) water and a tiny group of attendees (I lived in Virginia; we were visiting Grandpa Parkin in Wyoming, so no locals knew me). One grandfather baptized me, and the other confirmed me (my father was inactive; I was baptized long after my birthday). A distinctly bland celebration, but a deeply meaningful personal experience.

    My most memorable experience doing a baptism was on my mission in Germany. Indoor font in a normal LDS ward. I was baptizing a professional boxer (welterweight). He was a black Brit in a heartland German town, so I suppose that was mildly exotic. When I laid him back in the water he went stiff as a board, his feet came out straight, and he sank straight to the bottom of the font and just laid there. I ended up going fully under water myself to get my hand under his shoulder and pull him back upright. He smiled the whole time.

    Memorable for me, though also a bit sad because he went inactive soon thereafter and I lost track of him. But not really interesting unless you were there.

    I also worry a bit about cultural one-upsmanship and taking the focus off of the saving ordinance to celebrate the setting. While not a baptism story, I do recall a conversation among missionaries at the MTC where someone mentioned that he has shaken hands with this general authority, which led to that person who had spoken with a higher general authority, which led to me mentioning the time my family drove President and Sister Kimball around Nauvoo for the dedication of the women’s monument, which led to another missionary smugly proclaiming that a prophet had actually slept in his house and spoke a special blessing on it. It was all just fun and harmless bragging until that last, where it became spiritual one-upsmanship and a fun collegial moment ended in awkward silence.

    I don’t mean to come off as a troll on this, because I love those stories when the focus is on overcoming obstacles and doing what’s right despite adverse conditions or challenges. But I’ve also heard such stories told with prideful emphasis on the teller’s personal superiority as a means of separation from the rabble rather than shared community among celebrants. Mine is better than yours.

    It’s a hazard of any told story, but it seems somehow more troublesome when done in conjunction with a saving ordinance than when done with more mundane events. As a result, I’ve tended to shy away so as to avoid potential misunderstanding, or mistreating sacred things.

    Maybe that’s a mistake. Maybe it’s hiding your light under a bushel or depriving others of an opportunity to feel the spirit. Maybe it reveals my own tiny and proud heart and an inability to find peace with my own mundane experiences.

    At this point I just don’t know. But I would very much like to be educated if anyone has clarifying insight.

  7. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Scott, yes, even the sword of righteousness has two sides and I’m glad you mentioned this potential problem. I don’t know that the risk of mistreating the sacred is enough to entirely eliminate or disparage the at-the-pulpit rendition of a baptism story or any other sacred story. And certainly you haven’t suggested that. Revealing the personal sacred is a huge risk that can backfire on the speaker. Notice how I admitted there are times I classify some oral stories as whoppers rather than divine? Its a risk.

    I know this. I don’t want someone to try and catalog the oral baptism stories. Let oral traditions stay oral. Once we write something like this down in collection form (which of course no one is or has suggested) then I don’t see how we can avoid the spirit of one-up-manship.

  8. Scott Parkin says:

    I stewed over posting that thought since the day James posted the essay. I’m honestly not trying to be a troll or to in any way suggest we not happily seek or share our stories.

    It’s human nature to be interested in the unusual, and as a religious culture it’s also in our nature to crave stories of the exceptional spiritual or cultural heroism. We love miracles and we want to hear of them, especially in otherwise ordinary circumstances. We seek the transcendent, which is good and right and worthy.

    But at you suggest, Lisa, the downside is that we also facilitate the Rameumptom. My only real comment there is that it’s worth the effort to monitor our own motivations and remember that the ordinance itself is sacred regardless of any other details about the circumstances of its performance.

  9. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Its interesting to me that you "stewed." I felt the same after reading the post. Something about the post set something askew inside me. I found it difficult to put my finger on it, but I do think you’ve given voice well to the concern about keeping the sacred sacred. My own baptism at 17 is something I very, very rarely speak about because, for me, it was over-the-top amazing and spiritual. As sacred as the temple. But it is true that we have a freedom of discussion regarding baptism that we don’t have over sacred temple rites and I’m grateful for that. I may not speak of my baptism, but I wonder if my former Ward mission leader does–if he recalls how the back row was taken up by classmates who came in obviously, completely wasted. Potheads. Not a common sight in a Mormon church.

  10. Katya says:

    "But I also worry about the potential for diminishing the experiences of others because the circumstances of their devotions were not exotic or colorful."

    Thanks for making this comment, Scott. Religious elitism really rubs me the wrong way, although I know it’s largely due to a chip on my own shoulder. These baptism stories don’t bother me because they’re not elitist (quite the contrary), but it’s good to be aware of exalting exoticism, in general.

  11. Margaret says:

    Lovely, James.
    My favorite baptisms took place at Temple Beach in Laie, Hawaii at dawn. Just as the sun shot its first rays into the day, the baptismal candidate and baptizer would walk into the ocean until they were at a depth where immersion was possible. We on the beach would watch, not hearing the words, but witnessing the ordinance. Beautiful.
    As for me–I was the first person baptized in the yet unfinished church in Bloomington, Indiana in 1963. (We had been meeting in a large house before the church was built.) And I was baptized in my slip. My mother was convinced that if we just removed the black bow, nobody would know it was a slip. Of course, afterwards, my friends asked why I had been baptized in my slip.
    And in England, I could not find a dress for my daughter’s baptism, and I looked everywhere. (They did not have rental jumpsuits there.) I went to many stores asking for "First Communion" dresses–but it was November and not the right season. Finally, I found a white prom dress at a thrift shop. It was a small size, and fit my daughter fine in the waist. Lace draped the bodice. My husband and I pinned the hem up while our daughter stood on the bed.
    My three other children wore rented baptismal clothes. We who went under in slips or prom dresses definitely have better tales for our posterity.
    In seriousness, that daughter will turn 22 on the 29th of this month. Through some very difficult times, her baptism has been a touchstone in her memory, bringing her back to ideals she has sometimes felt were too distant to reclaim.

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