“Tell me again why we baptize babies?”
That was the message my husband and I received from our oldest son several years ago, when he was stationed in Japan.
It was an honest question. Simply put, he had witnessed several other Marines getting baptized in the Pacific Ocean and was thinking about whether he should, as well. He had previously been baptized at age four, soon after our family had joined a church that practiced what’s commonly known as infant baptism.
I got to thinking about this just recently and began to contemplate my own baptisms. I’ve actually been baptized three times, and that seems a little out of the ordinary to me. If multiple baptisms are a common occurrence, I’m not aware of it. But then again, baptism isn’t something that comes up in everyday conversation, even among Christians, so I really have no idea.
The question of “whether to baptize” has never been a question in the Christian church—the answer is yes—but “when and how to baptize” have been valid, and often contentious, issues for hundreds of years. Since thoughtful, entirely sincere Christians have disagreed on the answers to “when and how” for centuries, and since I’m neither a theologian nor a church historian, this article won’t go there. Suffice it to say that I’ve been on both sides of this issue, I have Christian friends who are on both sides of this issue, and I believe with all my heart that God does not look upon either group with more favor than the other.
In so many areas of life, I find myself in the middle, able to see both sides of something, and baptism is no different. Maybe it’s because I’ve personally partaken in every common version of Christian baptism: infant baptism, believer’s baptism in childhood, and adult baptism. Some weren’t exactly my decision, and some I can’t actually remember. Here’s how and why they came about:
My first baptism – the “Family Culture Baptism”
As an infant, I was baptized in a Methodist church, the same church where my great-grandmother, years before I was born, had taught Sunday school. A small, white, historic church, very respectable, very proper. Very much the right thing to do when one had a new baby.
My family didn’t actually go to this church (we didn’t go to any church). My biological father was an atheist, so he may not have even been present. A godparent was appointed for me, a relative whom I rarely saw as I grew up and who never spoke to me about religion or spiritual matters (is that what a godparent is supposed to do? I’m not sure).
In the years to come, I quickly discovered that religion, God, Jesus, etc., were absolutely not discussed in my family, and that wasn’t going to change just because I had been baptized. So it’s hard for me to place much religious significance on my first baptism; I’ve come to view it as more of a culturally expected aspect of my family’s practices at the time.
My second baptism – the “Altar Call Baptism”
When I was eight years old, my mother and I moved to Muskogee, Oklahoma to live with my uncle for a few months. Before we moved, I had been secretly reading Bible storybooks that I had found in my grandparents’ bookcase, and in my heart, I believed in God, I believed in Jesus, and I wanted to be a Christian. I didn’t say this to anyone, of course (see “family silence on religion,” above). But when we got to Muskogee, my next-door neighbor, a little girl named Valerie, did two special things: she gave me a kitten—a tuxedo cat I named Pickles—and she invited me to church. I was allowed to keep the cat and to go to her church, and after a few weeks of witnessing the “altar call” (a.k.a., the invitation) during every service, I bravely walked the aisle and declared that I wanted to be baptized.
I don’t remember much about this baptism. In fact, I had completely forgotten about it until many years later when I found a little tri-folded church bulletin in my grandparents’ basement. It was from the Muskogee church, and inside were pictures of three kids, all about eight to ten years old: a young boy, Valerie, and me, “Becky.” We were all baptized on the same day—full immersion, of course. I don’t think any member of my family was present, and I don’t remember telling anyone that I was baptized, although I might have told my mom. But the church bulletin was physical proof that in the early 1970s, I had answered the invitation and publicly accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior.
My third baptism – the “Re-Baptism Due to Lack of Proof Baptism”
Sadly, not long after that second baptism, family difficulties happened and my life began to go rapidly downhill. I spent the next 20 or so years entirely separate from God, with no acknowledgment of my previous profession of faith or personal Bible study as a child. Then when I was 30, my husband and I spent over a year transporting my grandfather to and from his church after he’d had a stroke. We became Christians during this time, and after he died, we began to look for our own church, one that was closer to our home. We soon found a Baptist church nearby and agreed that it seemed like a good fit for our family.
The pastor was happy to hear that we wanted to be members of the church. But he told us, with some measure of embarrassment, that unless we could prove that we had already been baptized (believer’s baptism only, not infant baptism), we would have to be baptized again in order to join the church. My husband had been raised Catholic and had been baptized only as an infant. I had been baptized twice, but the first one didn’t count in the eyes of our new church, and I had no proof at the time of the second one, so I would also have to be re-baptized.
It was quite an event that a husband and wife were to be baptized on the same day. We had a full immersion baptism in an elevated baptismal pool at the front of the church, during the crowded morning service. Our two-year-old son was brought in from the nursery to watch from the front row. As I entered the water in a white robe, blind as a bat without my glasses, I clearly heard him exclaim, “Mommy!” and a few moments later, “Daddy got wet!”—and the congregation laughed with joy.
I had asked my mother to attend our baptism and she did. Afterward, she pulled me aside and said, without preamble or further comment, “God bless you.” I’ll never forget that moment.
A couple of years after my third baptism, our family changed denominations to one that practiced infant baptism. Before we made this commitment, my husband and I read pretty extensively and studied it together before coming to the same conclusion: we were ready to change churches and denominations. Our own children were baptized according to our new beliefs.
Which brings me back to my son’s message from Japan, asking about his own baptism in early childhood. He had been raised as a “covenant child,” the whole nine yards: Sunday school, family devotions, frequent prayer, in church whenever the doors were open, and exposed to Christianity as a key element of his parents’ everyday lives. He had been taught about different kinds of baptism—when, why, and how—at great length in his high school Sunday school class (I know this because his dad and I were the teachers).
But did my son remember any of those carefully planned, and, dare I say, winsomely taught Sunday school lessons? Apparently he did not.
Still, I was thrilled to see that message from him, asking about his own baptism and why we had done it. My unspoken reaction was simply, “Oh thank the Lord! He’s beginning to own his faith.” I was incredibly happy that he was questioning and wondering and coming back to his parents to get our point of view.
So what did he decide? Well, he talked more with us about it and eventually decided not to get baptized again. But his ultimate decision didn’t matter a bit to me. One baptism or more than one baptism, his faith was becoming his own, just as mine did, finally, between baptisms two and three.
Photo by Ryan Loughlin on Unsplash
4 thoughts on “My Three Baptisms”
It was with great interest I read your personal baptism story. It, of course, made me think of my own. I was born into a believing family on mother’s side which is how I came to be named Elizabeth. My grandfather was some stripe of Presbyterian minister. We attended a Baptist church. My father was away at war and when it ended so did my relationship with him and his family. Mother remarried a self avowed atheist who would not allow us to attend church. I have no idea if I was baptized as the Baptist church we attended burned and all its records. Then when I was 12 we moved near a little nondenominational church where I was saved but do not remember being baptized. So I could have been: once , twice or never. Then when my daughter was grown, married and pregnant with my first grandson she wanted to be baptized and asked me to be baptized with her at their church. Full immersion in white robe. It was somewhat of a showy thing but meaningful to me because of what it meant to our family. Our church believes in infant baptism., not as a means of salvation but more of a dedication to raise the child as a Christian. I love singing the Lorica and take seriously the vows we make. It is a ritual that helps us remember who we are
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Thank you for sharing your story! I love that you and your daughter were baptized together – your feelings about it were very similar to ours. (Also, I miss the Lorica! Sometimes I listen to PRPC singing it on YouTube – it’s so beautiful.)
What a beautiful post!
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