Shall we gather at the river,
where bright angel feet have trod,
with its crystal tide forever
flowing by the throne of God?
It’s not exactly a baptismal hymn, but it’s the one that has been coming to mind in the past few weeks as the staff of Richmond’s First Baptist Church planned and promoted a “river baptism.” We spent some time worrying about where we would do it, and some more time worrying about what the weather would be like, but in the end we found the perfect place and the weather was the kind that inspires baptism–so hot that people who had never considered full immersion were beginning to see the advantages.
Bill and Beverley Hundley let us use their front lawn, which slopes down to the James River beautifully. It’s a grassy, park-like place, with mature trees and plenty of shade on a hot day. We were glad about that. The temperature when I arrived at 4:00 was right at 99, and some people were already sitting in the shade fanning themselves with straw hats. But that didn’t stop others from coming. By 5:00, when it was time to begin, there must have been 200 people there, with nearly two dozen of us dressed in white robes, ready to get into the water.
I welcomed the crowd, Fred and Julie James sang “Amazing Grace,” I offered a prayer, and then One Accord sang “Down to the River to Pray” as Buzz Ingalls made his way to the water. Buzz was stricken with polio as a child, and while many of his friends were making professions of faith and being baptized Buzz was at home, battling his disease. As a result he wasn’t baptized then, but when he came down the aisle last year he told me that he very much wanted to be baptized now. We had to think about how to do that. He couldn’t get into the baptistry at the church, not with those crutches. But when we began to talk about a river baptism Buzz thought he might be able to manage that. So, while One Accord sang, he came, making his way slowly, carefully, to the river.
But once he got in the water everything changed. He was buoyant in body and soul. And when it came time to profess his faith he said, “Jesus is Lord!” in a voice loud enough to be heard on the riverbank. I dipped him down under the water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and he came up grateful in a way I have rarely witnessed, having waited for that moment for decades.
I baptized several children after that, and then had the privilege of baptizing Reinaldo Vega—a member of the church maintenance staff— just after his son Anthony had been immersed. Reid and Millie Flinn—husband and wife—came into the water together and stood there side by side as I talked about their desire to make a fresh commitment to Christ. Some who had been baptized and confirmed in other denominations were glad to profess their faith in this peculiarly Baptist way. Some who had been previously immersed wanted to seize this opportunity to renew old promises. By the time we were finished 21 people had been dipped down under the water, and after each one the crowd on the riverbank applauded.
There was no formal benediction or organ postlude; just the sounds of people shifting their lawn chairs and opening picnic baskets as they settled into a time of fellowship that lasted for the next two hours, with members of the First Baptist family eating, talking, and laughing as the sun sank lower in the sky and filtered through the leaves on the trees, turning everything gold and green. Near the end children were swimming in the river and romping on the lawn as their parents carried on conversation with each other, as old friends shared stories they had been waiting a long time to tell No one seemed to be in a hurry to leave. We didn’t want the evening to be over. And so the last voices heard on the lawn were voices promising that we would do it again next year, that First Baptist Church’s “river baptism” would become an annual event.
Yes, we’ll gather at the river,
the beautiful, the beautiful river;
gather with the saints at the river
that flows by the throne of God.
BONUS: See pictures and a video clip HERE.