The Rev. David Lee had a request this summer from a girl finishing confirmation class. She wanted to be baptized by immersion.
Mr. Lee, in his second clergy appointment, had never done a baptism that way. And the church, Covenant UMC in Charlotte, N.C., had no place to immerse anyone.
But a woman helping with the class offered her swimming pool. So on Sept. 9, a group of informally dressed church members, from kids to seniors, gathered there for a cookout and a baptism.
Mr. Lee read Scripture, and spoke about the significance of what was about to happen. Then he got down to it.
“I said, ‘Hey, let’s get wet,’” he recalled. “I dunked her three times, in the name of the father, son and holy ghost. We all hugged. We all ate. A bunch of people swam. I did a few cannonballs.”
The United Methodist Church is known for infant baptism by sprinkling, and for sprinkling or (rarer) pouring water over youths or adults who ask to be baptized.
But immersion is a church-approved option, and getting all wet in a UM context is more common than many people think. It may be on the upswing.
PortableBaptistry.com, in Everett, Wash., reports selling 50 portable baptismal pools to UM churches in the last 10 years.
“More and more, we’re getting calls from United Methodists. It’s definitely a trend,” said company president Ron Tosh.
Asbury UMC in Tulsa, Okla., had enough requests for immersions that leaders decided to include a permanent baptismal pool in the sanctuary that opened in 2004.
The pool is above the choir loft, framed by stained glass windows.
“We actually see them immersed—laid back and dunked under,” said Victoria Williamson, executive assistant to the church’s pastor, the Rev. Tom Harrison. “It’s beautiful.”
She said immersion has become an increasingly popular option, particularly among confirmation class youths who weren’t baptized as infants.
“Probably half of those kids want to be immersed,” Ms. Williamson said.
A couple of years ago Lovers Lane UMC in Dallas added a heated baptismal pool to its Shepherd’s Garden, just outside the sanctuary, and now does immersions every third Sunday. The Rev. Stan Copeland, senior pastor, dunks people in the direction of the church’s columbarium, to emphasize the inevitability of death, and brings them back up toward a statue of the empty tomb, a symbol of resurrection.
The church had 33 immersion baptisms in the last calendar year—one more than the number of non-infant sprinklings.
“Most of our new members have been adult professions of faith,” Dr. Copeland said. “This is a lot higher than it’s ever been. And we have to attribute that to our theology of baptism.”
The congregation of Cuthand UMC, a growing rural church in the North Texas Conference, chose to include a baptismal pool in the worship center it built a couple of years ago.
The pool is right by the pulpit.
“When people come in and they see it, especially an un-churched family, they see this church values baptism,” said John Purviance, licensed local pastor at Cuthand UMC. “It’s not that churches that don’t have a baptistry don’t, but it’s very obvious here.”
At Cuthand UMC, where attendance outpaces membership, about 80 percent of non-infant baptisms are by immersion.
“For the person who’s being baptized, I believe it’s a stronger illustration of what God’s doing in their life,” Mr. Purviance said.
The odds of finding a baptismal pool in a United Methodist church appear to go up if membership is predominately African-American or Hispanic.
St. Mark UMC in Wichita, Kan., is a large African-American church with a baptismal pool and frequent immersions, as is St. Luke “Community” UMC in Dallas.
The Rev. Henry Masters, senior pastor at St. Luke, believes there’s a longstanding but also growing interest in immersions among African-American United Methodists, owing to their familiarity with the practice from other African-American churches.
“We did four immersions last Sunday—four young men who united with our church during a youth revival,” said Dr. Masters in a mid-September interview.
The Rev. Oscar Carrasco said Hispanic UM congregations forming in the Northern Illinois Conference, where he is a district superintendent, prefer a building with a baptismal pool.
“Many of our Latino community who come from rural areas in Latin America have gone to the river or to the creeks or to the lakes [for baptism],” he said. “So there is a connection to the past.”
At Victory Memorial UMC in Guymon, Okla., the Rev. Gary Holdeman recently used the church’s baptismal pool to immerse 18 people from the church’s Spanish language congregation.
“It took us a while,” he said, “but it was very powerful.”
Finding a way
The large majority of UM churches have no baptismal pool, which causes a scramble when someone asks for an immersion baptism.
A swimming pool can work well—if the weather cooperates. It didn’t a couple of years ago for the Rev. Clayton Oliphint of First UMC in Richardson, Texas, who had figured that spring in North Texas would provide reasonably warm water for baptizing a confirmation class graduate.
“We had one of those April cold fronts blow in, and they told me the pool temperature was 47 degrees,” he said. “They were running out an assembly line of boiling water, trying to heat the pool, but to no avail. I told the young lady, I said, ‘There’s only one way to do this.’ And I jumped in, and she jumped in.”
First Sallisaw UMC in eastern Oklahoma waits till summer, but has an annual “Lake Sunday” that includes immersion baptisms in nearby Brushy Lake. The Rev. Trevor Smith, senior pastor, did 11 such baptisms this time.
Other UM churches have done river baptisms. Holman UMC in Los Angeles has done them in the Pacific Ocean, at Santa Monica Beach.
Earlier this year at Gibsonville UMC in Gibsonville, N.C., the Rev. Jonathan Marlowe had a request from a boy who wanted to be baptized by immersion.
“We had no baptismal pool, so I actually posted a message on Facebook asking other UM pastors if they had ever done this,” he said. “Pastors had various ideas, but the best was to use a (galvanized metal) horse trough, which we did.”
Borrowing a church is a common approach.
Grace UMC in Dallas arranged to use nearby Bethany Christian Church on Sept. 8 for the immersion baptism of six boys from Burundi. On June 10, Munger Place UMC, also in Dallas, baptized 12 people on its front steps, in a borrowed portable baptismal pool.
“It took us forever to find a baptistry, but Park Cities Baptist Church came through,” said the Rev. Andrew Forrest, Munger Place’s pastor. “Apparently the Baptists were amused that we were doing immersions.”
‘The primary actor’
The question of why immersions haven’t historically been common in Methodism is complicated, and has to do with infant baptism.
Baptists (and various other Christian groups) hold that only those old enough to profess faith should be baptized. But Methodism has its roots in Anglicanism, and stuck with infant baptism after spreading to America.
“John Wesley, the founder sometimes more cited than followed, had clearly taught and practiced infant baptism as normative,” wrote Gayle Carlton Felton in her book This Gift of Water: The Practice and Theology of Baptism Among Methodists in America.
The Rev. F. Belton Joyner, Jr., author of United Methodist Questions, United Methodist Answers and other popular books about Methodism, said in an interview that Wesley found support for infant baptism in the practices of early Christians—practices which paralleled Jewish circumcision rites.
Methodist theology says one need not be of decision-making age to be welcomed, through baptism, into the family of God.
“The key ingredient is, who is the primary actor?” said Dr. Joyner. “Our Methodist understanding would be the primary actor is God. Therefore, it’s an acknowledgement of God’s initiating grace.”
As a young missionary in Georgia, Wesley insisted on immersing infants, and came into conflict with parents who thought the approach unhealthful. Later he would conclude that sprinkling, pouring and immersion were all acceptable for baptism—the position the church holds today.
Methodism not only allows but encourages youths and adults to be baptized. But with so many Methodists having been sprinkled as infants, and sprinkling and pouring being options for non-infant baptism, immersions didn’t get done often enough to merit the building of baptismal pools in Methodist churches.
Then too, there was a certain digging in of the heels by Methodists—allowing, but not emphasizing, the form of baptism insisted on by Baptists.
“There’s always been in Methodism a sense of making sure we distinguish ourselves from those with whom we have difference in theology and practice,” said the Rev. William Lawrence, dean of the Perkins School of Theology and a church historian. “In the 19th century, the primary competition we had was with Baptists.”
One time only
Discussion of Methodists and baptism inevitably moves to the subject of re-baptism. It’s a chargeable offense for clergy under the Book of Discipline, the UMC law book.
“When we baptize, we believe God is making a promise,” said Mark Stamm, professor of Christian worship at Perkins. “God initiates us into the family, into the covenant narrative, and as far as God’s concerned that promise is irrevocable.”
In other words, God got it right the first time, and a re-baptism would suggest otherwise.
The UMC’s Book of Worship does allow for an act called “Reaffirmation of Faith.” There, the pastor says “remember your baptism and be grateful,” and can use water symbolically. But the Book of Worship severely restricts the amount of water, and warns the act is not to be confused with baptism.
Clergy contacted for this article all seemed clear that re-baptism is verboten. But some said they immerse people who come forward for renewal or reaffirmation, though being careful to use the “remember your baptism” language.
The Rev. Ted Campbell, associate professor of church history at Perkins, thinks that’s too loose.
“A renewal would not involve dunking,” he said.
But Dr. Campbell and Dr. Stamm are both strong advocates of by-the-book immersion for Methodists who have not been baptized. Dr. Campbell notes that the Greek word for baptism means “to dip,” and says most historians agree early Christians were baptized by immersion.
He even calls sprinkling “sacrament lite” and wishes more UM churches had a baptismal pool.
“If we’re really going to offer the option, we ought to build churches in such a way that there’s a genuine possibility for immersion baptism,” he said.
The more-water-the-better approach to baptism is definitely subscribed to by the Rev. JoAnne Alexander, co-pastor of Oakland UMC in Charles Town, W.Va.
That church has for many years had a baptismal pool, and the custom is for members to surround it when someone is baptized.
“When people come up out of the baptismal pool, the place erupts in applause, and usually tears are flowing,” she said.
The Rev. Wade Killough, pastor of Rockbridge (UM) Church in Cedar Park, Texas, is another immersion enthusiast. He vividly remembers his first such baptism.
He was serving a rural church, and an old rancher asked to be baptized at home. When Mr. Killough arrived with a small group of church folks, the man took them to a field.
“We came to a scum-covered water trough he used for his cows,” Mr. Killough recalled. “He said, ‘I want to be baptized right here.’ That place had significance for him. That’s where he had his quiet times, his meditations. That’s where he saw God at work.”
Mr. Killough remembers, with a laugh, asking if he had to get in the foul tank too. The old man said no, so Mr. Killough worked from the edge.
“I dunked him down and brought him back up, and that was a holy moment,” Mr. Killough said. “Even though the water was dirty, he was cleansed with the blood of Christ.”