water & art, water culture

Water Baptisms in Early 20th Century America

2 Comments 28 February 2011

Water Baptisms in Early 20th Century America

  In “Take Me to the Water: Photographs of River Baptisms”, an exhibit at the International Center of Photography in New York City, a collection of postcards and photographs documents outdoor baptismal ceremonies performed from 1880 through 1930 in the United States.

This collection of water baptism photographs captures a time period in American history that is seldom written about in history books or presented in lectures. The significance of water to many religious groups is rooted in faith practices dating back centuries.

This unique collection offers viewers a glimpse back to a time when religious fervor and ritual created public events of great significance to religious communities in the South and the West. River baptisms, a ceremony performed by Protestant sects of Christianity, were particularly important for African-American communities at the time.

The socio-economic crisis that followed the period of Reconstruction, segregation, and the economic downturn of the early Twentieth Century sparked a revivalist movement in the rural South and the Western United States.

Photographs included in the exhibition show water baptism ceremonies and the droves of community members who gathered to witness these events. It was believed that living, flowing water was the only way to baptize a person. Therefore, most of the ceremonies were typically organized in the warmer months of the year.

The development of penny photography in 1905 and the Rural Free Delivery system offered a new way to share the images of these important events with loved ones in different states. However, some of the postcards of the river baptisms were used to mock and oppress the already beleaguered African-American community.

Post cards sent by white onlookers to family members in other states were scrawled with comments, ridiculing the ceremonies and the charismatic preaching that accompanied them. The Protestant sects of Christianity, who practice full body immersion in baptism, were mocked as “Dunkers” or “Dippers” by those who did not follow the same faith tradition.

Take Me to the Water: Photographs of River Baptisms”  depicts these rites  and the evidence of how they sparked a new sort of racial discrimination, one that did not involve direct threat or verbal assault. Oddly, the unique use of water in a sectarian rite separated and oppressed an already marginalized community.

The evolution of water baptisms and the use of water in religious ceremonies is shifting in socio-cultural practices in present day society. The use and meaning of water, whether public or private, changes throughout the centuries. And with these changes, an opportunity exists to either join or separate otherwise equal groups of people.  

Photo Credit: International Center of Photography

11 Unidentified Photographer

[River Baptism, Lexington, Missouri] 1906

Gelatin Silver Print Postcard

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