Debate Magazine

Remembering My Botched Baptism?

Posted on the 24 November 2017 by Alanbean @FOJ_TX

Remembering my Botched Baptism?

“Remember your baptism!” If you are a Methodist or a Presbyterian or a member in good standing of a liturgical church, you are likely familiar with this charge.  After baptizing a baby, the pastor or priest scoops a little water from the baptismal font, scatters it over the congregation and cries, “Remember your baptism.”

When Martin Luther felt the cold hand of doubt settling on his shoulder he would shout, “I am baptized!”

I too am baptized.  I was twenty years old when the deed was done, but by all rights it should have happened at ten.

But Ray Price botched it.

When I told my mother I wanted to be baptized, she made an appointment with the pastor.  That’s how things were handled in the Baptist churches of my youth.  We didn’t do altar calls.  The deacons needed to evaluate the sincerity of your profession before you got dunked, and a chat with the pastor was a prelude to a meeting with the deacons.

“How can I help you?” Ray Price asked.

“I want to be baptized,” I said.

“And why do you want to be baptized?”

“So I won’t go to hell,” I answered truthfully.

“So, you think that getting baptized will save you from hell, is that it?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“Well,” the pastor said with a mischievous grin and a sly wink, “I wouldn’t worry about it too much if I were you.”

“Okay,” I said.

And that was that.

I have often wondered why Ray Price didn’t accede to my request.  Back in 1963, Canadian Baptists didn’t obsess over baptismal statistics like the Southern Baptists did, but it was commonly observed that the sign of a dying church is cobwebs in the baptistery.

And I was the son of Gordon and Muriel Bean, the quintessential Baptists.  Gordon and Muriel might not be the first people in the door on Sunday morning, but they were almost always the last to leave.  And if their boy wanted to get baptized it was a slam dunk.  It was almost inevitable that the son of Gordon and Muriel would want to be baptized.

Ray Price had been pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Yellowknife for about a year when we had our little chat.  He was raised and educated as a British Baptist and had come to Yellowknife, a town in the Northwest Territories 1,000 miles north of Edmonton, because he was an ardent outdoorsman.

Before Ray left Yellowknife he would write a history of the community and a second book, commissioned by the government, called “the Howling Arctic.” Reverend Price scandalized some church members, my father once told me, by recording verbatim the salty comments of the grizzled prospectors who lived in “Old Town”.

Ray eventually died of hypothermia a few decades later when his canoe capsized west of Calgary.

British Baptists were even less inclined to baptize children than were Canadian Baptists.  No one could pinpoint the “age of accountability” with precision, but it was widely assumed that a capacity for abstract thought was a minimal requirement.

If a kid believed that getting baptized would save him from hell, he wasn’t ready.  Baptists don’t believe in baptismal regeneration–the idea that the rite itself has saving power–and it was pretty clear to Ray Price that I did.

There was no use talking me out of my heresy.  My problem was developmental.  By the time I was old enough to make adult decisions like voting, choosing a marriage partner and selecting a career path, I would be ready to “follow Christ in the waters of baptism” and the rigors of church membership.

If I had been run over by a truck before I reached the age of accountability, it was widely believed that God made allowances.  Trying to scare the kids into getting saved was therefore unnecessary, tacky and possibly counterproductive.

I don’t remember the preachers of my childhood talking much about hell.

Bill Davidson, the Wycliffe translator who preceded Ray Price in the pulpit at Calvary, had graduated from a fundamentalist Bible School, but he had been rethinking things for years before he graced our pulpit and it showed.

Ray Price was probably a theological liberal.  He may have believed in a half-assed, C.S. Lewis type of hell where the door is bolted from the inside, but eternal damnation didn’t figure in his preaching at all.

During Vacation Bible School, Price told us kids that he was the reincarnation of a racehorse named “Prince”.  Real conservatives don’t joke about reincarnation.

But somehow I got the idea that if I died in my sleep I would wake up in hell and that baptism would ensure it didn’t come to that.

The summer before my conversation with Ray Price I had driven over 800 miles to attend a Baptist camp in Moberly Lake British Columbia. Bill Davidson did the driving, as I recall, and his son Mark, me and two Indian boys (that’s what we called them in those benighted times) were along for the ride.

I remember being kicked in the shins by a colt.

I remember being thrown into the lake fully clothed and Bill Davidson thought it was funny (I didn’t).

I remember a horse running off into the mountains with one of the Indian boys as a reluctant passenger (he was eventually returned safely to camp).

I remember Doug Spinney, the pastor at the church in Peace River, telling us about his amateur boxing career (it was a preamble to his personal testimony, but I only remember the boxing part).

And I remember a young man singing “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” as campfire entertainment (he was really good).

But I don’t remember any hard-sell evangelism.  I think we were encouraged to place a log in the fire if we wanted to follow Jesus, and I likely obeyed since it would have seemed shabby not to.  But the h-word was never uttered so far as I can recall.

I might have picked up the hell idea from Ray Born, a fundamentalist transplant from Bemidji Minnesota who didn’t let his kids go to movies–even 101 Dalmatians.  Ray was our Sunday school teacher that year and he was extremely serious about almost everything.

And I might have absorbed the idea of eternal damnation listening to Billy Graham on the radio while my dad polished the family’s shoes on Saturday evening so we’d all look our best on Sunday.  Billy didn’t dwell on the details of eternal conscious torment, but his theology revolved around the idea.  Being saved meant going to heaven instead of hell.  Everybody knew that.

The preachers of my childhood never mentioned eternal damnation, but everybody in the pews (with the possible exception of the two women who traveled to Washington DC for the March on Washington that summer) never questioned the concept.

I have never been comfortable with hell.  If Ray Price had baptized me at the tender age of ten I might have made my peace with the concept, but Ray told me not to worry about it.  And I didn’t, until I reached the age of accountability and started thinking for myself.  By the age of 15 I was pretty sure hell either didn’t exist or it was reserved for really, really bad people like Adolf Hitler.

If you came of age in a place like Texas or Alabama you may be surprised to learn that most Baptists in Canada and Great Britain refrained from aggressive evangelistic outreach to young children.  In most Southern Baptist churches circa 1963, eternal damnation was the evangelists best friend and children six and up (sometimes younger) were fair game.

Twelve years after not getting baptized in 1963 I was sitting in the chapel at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary listening to the summer missionaries report on their activities.  “I spent the summer at a Baptist camp,” one young preacher boy boasted.  This summer we had 680 campers and 620 first-time decisions for Christ.”

You get stats like that by focusing on kids at an impressionable age, using the power of mass psychology to full advantage and, most importantly, scaring the hell out of the poor blighters.

The message is simple: if you die without getting saved you will spend eternity in hell and the only antidote was accepting Jesus as your personal Savior.

I never heard the phrase “Once saved, always saved” until I got to Seminary.  I didn’t hear it from the professors, but the students used it all the time.  If you are “saving” kids of five, six and seven, you want to believe it will stick.  The age of accountability be damned: if the kid repeated the sinners prayer they’re saved and there ain’t a thing God or the devil can do about it.  Even if they immediately lose interest they’re in.  Once saved, always saved.

Psychological manipulation of this sort drives Richard Dawkins, the king of the New Atheists, to distraction.  It’s bad enough that the parents believe all this rubbish, Dawkins says, but using the fear of hell to pass on your warped worldview to the next generation is tantamount to child abuse.

Dawkins and I agree on little, but his child abuse argument has merit.  Jesus wants the children to come to him, not because they are afraid but because children gravitate to those who love them.  And Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world, very, very much.

In fact, Jesus says we can’t enter the kingdom of God unless we become like little children.

Frightening children into religious conformity is only loving if God is determined to damn the little sinners for eternity if they don’t repeat the sinner’s prayer.

Here’s the good news our children need to hear: in spite of all the terrible things we do to one another, God loves us with a passion that beggars comprehension.  God wants us to repent and believe the good news of the kingdom so we will stop hurting one another.  It’s the hell we create down here that concerns the Almighty.

So thanks, Ray.  Thanks for telling me not to worry about hell.  I didn’t, and I still don’t.

In the fullness of time I was baptized.  That’s the subject of my next post.

Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog