Photography in Turn-of-the-Century River Baptisms

ID_PI_GOLBE_BAPTI_AP_003Stefany Anne Golberg in The Smart Set:

The public nature of the river baptism is what sets it apart from so many other religious rituals (especially in America, a country of believers with, paradoxically, few shared rituals). A river baptism doesn’t have to be in a river; it can be in a creek, the sea, an old bathtub in the yard. One “Take Me to the Water” photograph shows a 1920 baptism being performed in a square, above-ground, wooden swimming pool that is part stage and stands in the middle of a barren Kansas prairie.

The river baptism doesn’t need a river but it does need an audience. Baptism itself doesn’t make you a believer, nor does it make you holy. It is a public testimony of faith, a covenantal act. The ritual of immersion baptism mirrors the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ by giving the initiate a spiritual death, burial/resurrection, and renewal. These three stages follow what anthropologist Arnold Van Gennep, in The Rites of Passage, classified as “separation,” “transition,” and “incorporation.” In the first stage, separation, the initiate is singled out from the community and led into the river. In the second stage, transition, the initiate is “buried” in the river along with her old life, and then “resurrected” as she is pulled from the watery grave. Finally, the initiate is brought officially into the community of worshippers, incorporated into her new life. Even though the baptism is performed individually, the ritual is one of communal bonding. With each baptism, the group of faithful also is reborn, refreshed.

The river baptism’s audience isn’t just made up of believers. Because they are meant to take place in ordinary, open settings, the rituals would often be joined by the curious, passersby, or, as we now know, a photographer. As the photos at ICP show, the witnesses to the baptisms are as much a part of the story as those being baptized.