2010-07-22 / Church News

Outdoor PA Baptisms Immerse Faithful In Community

By Melissa Nann Burke

EAST BERLIN, Pa. (AP) – With her church family lining the banks behind her, Miranda Zerbe wobbled slightly as she stepped into the muddy Bermudian Creek.

She waded out and kneeled on the creekbed at the foot of her pastor. With water lapping at her shoulders, the Rev. Larry Dentler placed a palm on Zerbe’s forehead and another on the back of her neck, then dipped her face-first into the creek three times.

“I baptize you in the name of the Father,’’ (dunk) “in the name of the Son,’’ (dunk) “and in the name of the Holy Spirit,’’ (dunk).

The 19-year-old smiled widely as her face emerged, water dripping from her curly dark hair.

As she left the water, family members wrapped her in a towel, and congregants caught her in hugs as she walked up the bank – the last of 12 baptized on a recent Sunday behind Bermudian Church of the Brethren in Washington Township.

For generations, the Brethren insisted on baptism in running water for new believers, although many congregations have moved the ritual indoors for convenience or safety reasons. As they moved west, water became scarcer and, in some urban settings, Brethren groups lacked easy access to creeks and lakes.

Bermudian is among several Brethren congregations in the midstate that continue to baptize outdoors, the running water symbolizing the washing away of sins. The Black Rock Church of the Brethren near Hanover uses a stream down a hill from its property, and Pleasant Hill Church of the Brethren in Jackson Township uses a pond on a church member’s farm, for example.

“More churches have a(n indoor) baptistry than not, now,’’ said Dentler, whose 252-year-old congregation takes its name from the creek. “But there’s a sense of the history and the beauty of it back there.’’

Zerbe grew up playing in the creek and watching others initiated in its waters. She always looked forward to taking part in the ceremony, she said.

“It’s being in the creek, being in nature and having your church family watching down on you,’’ she said. “You feel the water and his hands on you and the people cheering you on. I was thinking of all my troubles, all my sins and letting them go with the water.’’

Early Brethren practiced immersion because they wanted to emulate the practice of the church in apostolic times.

Unlike other Christian traditions that use immersion, most Brethren bodies dip believers three times forward, rather than once backward as Baptists do. Bowing into the water represents the death of Jesus, and rising out of it is the Resurrection, Dentler said.

The Brethren settled in Pennsylvania in 1729 after fleeing persecution in Germany. They were known as “Dunkers,’’ a term derived from the German tunken, “to dip or immerse,’’ that identified the group’s distinct method of baptism.

The first Brethren baptism in the Americas took place on Christmas 1723 when candidates for membership broke through ice on the Wissahickon Creek near Germantown, Philadelphia.

Like other Anabaptists, the Brethren don’t baptize infants, believing that candi- dates should be old enough to profess faith in Jesus and be accountable to the commitment.

“Brethren and other Anabaptists have insisted that the washing away and forgiveness of sins is not the only meaning here, but becoming part of the body of Christ is also meaningful,’’ said Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, associate professor of preaching and worship at the denomination’s Bethany Theological Seminary in Richmond, Ind., which is affiliated with the largest Brethren denomination, the Church of the Brethren.

“When we’re immersed in this water, we’re joining this ongoing stream of saints and sinners. We’re part of this body of water and part of this moving stream of people moving together in faith.’’

No one tracks how many congregations practice outdoor baptism. Ottoni-Wilhelm’s hunch is that many churches today employ an indoor baptistry – a trend that dates to the mid-20th century’s church-building boom.

“Many of these churches created indoor baptistries at great expense, and (these) were considered state of the art,’’ she said.

Today, congregations from Baptists to Pente- costals use all modes of containers to perform immersion, including swimming pools, Jacuzzis, portable baptistries, even wellscrubbed horse troughs. An evangelical church in Washington, D.C., makes an annual pilgrimage to the shore of the Chesapeake Bay for Baptism by the Bay. Some local Baptists baptize in the Susquehanna River.

Others prefer the convenience and controlled environment of an indoor tank, where weather isn’t a factor and people can’t twist an ankle wading in a murky current.

The Rev. Mark L. Hopkins of New Freedom Baptist Church used to baptize in a local pond 40 years ago, but the church has since installed an 850-gallon baptistry.

“It’s a little safer,’’ he said. “Out in an open pond sometimes, some of them were a little scared. It could be dangerous.’’

As for the Brethren, scholars say they’ve noticed renewed interest in the outdoors in recent generations, although folks still appreciate having a backup for stormy days or people with disabilities.

“I think Brethren have been reassessing their roots and remembering ... what outdoor baptisms symbolized,’’ said Jeffrey Bach, director of the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College.

“They’ve been willing to reconsider that.’’

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