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Outdoor Baptisms Dwindling

LAKE PROVIDENCE, La. - The Rev. Michael Owens says nothing compares with dunking someone toward salvation.

Owens, the pastor at New Hope Baptist Church in this small, church-crowded hamlet in northeast Louisiana, recently joined a dozen other pastors in leading outdoor baptisms in Lake Providence. They baptized 40 white-robed children, ages 4 to 15, plus three adults who waded in unannounced.

"Spirit's in that water," Owens said after the ceremony, his white robe still drenched from the waist down.

Outdoor baptisms are rapidly disappearing in America. Once prevalent in the rivers and deltas of the South, the ritual has been nearly extinguished by indoor pools, megachurches and modernization, researchers and ministers say.

Only a handful of churches keep it alive.

"It's a feature of American Protestantism that is vanishing," says David Daniels, professor of church history at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago.

No one keeps statistics on outdoor baptisms, which are performed predominately by Baptists and Pentecostals. But officials at the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest grouping of Baptist churches in the USA, say of the 342,000 baptisms performed last year by its member churches, the vast majority were done indoors.

"Most churches, even small ones, have indoor baptisteries," says Rob Phillips, a spokesman for LifeWay Christian Resources, the SBC's publishing and research arm. "That's culturally the way folks do it these days."

The tradition of submerging someone in a river to wash away their sins began in Europe, came to America in the 18th century and spread across the South by Baptist ministers, Daniels says. The Christian tradition replicates Jesus' baptism in the Jordan River by John the Baptist 2,000 years ago.

African slaves on plantation churches in the South quickly adopted the tradition, says Shayne Lee, an assistant professor of Sociology and African Diaspora Studies at Tulane University. The slave who walked down to the river for his baptism was publicly embracing Christianity while shedding his African religious beliefs, Lee says.

"For slaves in particular, it was not only a statement of faith, but a political statement," he says. "It was a statement to the world: 'I am now connected to Christianity.'"

In the 1950s, churches modernized to draw more parishioners and began constructing indoor pools for baptisms, Lee says. Later, as thousand-seat mega-churches began replacing smaller, rural churches, outdoor baptisms further dwindled, he says.

"We now have a whole generation of churchgoers who grew up in megachurches, where indoor baptisms are the norm," Lee says. "Outdoor baptisms just don't resonate anymore."

A few decades back, weekend outdoor baptisms were as common in northeast Louisiana as Sunday school - at Galilee Baptist Church in Madison Parish, at Pine Hill Baptist Church in Rayville, at St. Joe's out on Highway 15, says Annie Staten, a retired librarian in Monroe, La., who documents and studies outdoor baptisms.

Staten says she vividly remembers her own baptism in the Boeuf River near Monroe on a clear Sunday morning 54 years ago. She remembers how the other children on the riverbank were scared but she wasn't, because her father was the minister. She remembers how her father pinched her nose to keep the water out before pushing her under. She remembers the sound of women singing, "Take Me to the Water," when she was brought back up.

"It's something you never forget," says Staten, now 60.

Pine Hill and St. Joe's stopped performing their river baptisms years ago, she says. Galilee was on a plantation which sold, closing down the church. Dozens of others ceased performing the ritual.

"It's a very sacred tradition in the Baptist church," Staten says. "Our children are hurting because they don't have that tradition anymore."

Once every summer, Progressive Baptist Church in Lake Providence joins with other churches to lead a two-week revival, where parishioners sing, pray and decide whether they're ready for salvation, says Glenn Dixon, a church deacon. On the revival's last day, they march to the lake for the baptisms.

At exactly 8:30 a.m. Sunday, under a gray, cottony sky, 15 pastors and deacons, garbed in white ceremonial robes, joined hands and waded waist-deep into the lake's murky water. On the banks, more than 100 bystanders - aunts, grandmothers, cousins, random passersby - watched and sang hymns as the children and adults were escorted into the water, four at a time. The mayor showed up to watch. The police chief was among those saved.

After a quick sermon, each candidate was pushed backward underwater. The little ones cried. Relatives cheered and snapped pictures with their mobile phones as, one by one, the children were returned to a tangle of outstretched hands, kisses and The Lion King-emblazoned towels.

"I was so nervous, I thought I was going to cry," says Valerie Thompson, 9, still wrapped in a towel. "But I didn't. I just felt happy."

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