Baptisms in a creek or river were once the rule rather than the exception for Appalachian Christians. Even if they hadn’t believed immersion in an outside body of water was appropriate, it was some time before indoor plumbing would have made a baptistery inside a church a possibility.
Most Baptists disapproved of “sprinkling,” which was practiced by some Methodists, Presbyterians, or other denominations. Insisting on “dunking,” they pointed to the example set when John the Baptist baptized Jesus in the River Jordan. They likened the newly baptized individual emerging from the water to a believer rising to a new life.
Some churches had candidates for baptism dress in a white shirt or dress to symbolize purity; it looks as though some of those in the photo may have done so. Family and friends gathered on the creek or river bank for this important event, standing by as witnesses and having towels and dry clothes at the ready.
Those convicted of their sins and saved by the Grace of God might not want to wait for the warmer months of the year for their baptism experience, and often cold water, cold air, and even the breaking of ice are part of the stories told of baptisms past.
Outdoor baptisms remain popular in some churches across the region. A photograph (page 57) in Voices of the Valley, Elizabeth Hunter’s fine history of Mitchell County’s first 150 years, portrays a group baptism in the Toe River at Spruce Pine’s Riverside Park in 2011.