Exhibit wades into the water of river baptisms
Chris Herlinger, Religion News Service
April 20, 2011

Exhibit wades into the water of river baptisms

Exhibit wades into the water of river baptisms
Chris Herlinger, Religion News Service
April 20, 2011

NEW YORK — Religious rituals once shrouded in mystery are becoming

less private — more open to photography, video, even tweets from the pulpit.

An exhibit at New York’s International Center of Photography

(ICP) reveals a similar “opening up” a century ago as photographs of river

baptisms began appearing on mass-distributed photo postcards.

“Take Me to the Water: Photographs of River Baptisms,” drawn

from an archive of photographs of river baptisms donated by collectors Janna Rosenkranz

and Jim Linderman, is a revealing exhibit both about the rituals themselves and

how they were portrayed.

The photographs — all but one on postcards — chronicle an

era of rapid transformation. While city growth and waves of immigrants changed the

face of industrialized urban America, economic depression and religious

revivalism marked life in the predominately Protestant South and rural Midwest.

Immersion baptisms became public events — practiced by a

number of denominations but most often associated with Baptists who, while

mocked as “dunkers or dippers,” were effective proselytizers, ICP curator Erin Barnett

writes in her introductory text.

As part of this revivalism, rural pastors encouraged “outdoor

communal rites” that became public displays of Christian faith, often witnessed

by dozens, even hundreds, of people.

“Media-savvy preachers promoted mass revivals and encouraged

a dialogue about religion in popular culture and media,” Barnett writes. While

the postcards predate Facebook or Twitter, they share a similar strain of

publicizing events and rituals in the public sphere, she said in an interview.

The need to promote “the Word” was no more obvious than in

Liberal, Mo., a community founded in 1880 as a “town free of churches.” Though town

fathers tried their best to keep Christian influence at bay, baptisms on land

near the town were photographed and placed on postcards as evidence of

Christian success.

Photo courtesy International Center of Photography

A postcard circa 1910 depicting a “Negro baptizing scene” in Greenville, Miss., is part of the “Take Me to the Water: Photographs of River Baptisms” exhibit at the International Center of Photography in New York.

The rites shown in the exhibit were “presented as an

important, dignified, and solemn occasion, a traditional and visually stunning ritual

in a changing world,” Barnett writes.

“These postcards were mementos of participation in or

observation of an event of personal significance, and served as touchstones for

stories about the believer’s life-altering experience.”

The fact that baptisms were preserved on postcards is also revealing.

Photographs of baptisms were taken by professional and

amateur photographers alike, but the advent of home photography and postcard-making

resulted in a boom of millions of postcards throughout the U.S. in the early


As the exhibit of about 50 works shows, there was also an

underside. Some of the postcards were intended for northerners visiting the

South and display a view of African-Americans that was often racist, using typical

racial epithets of the time.

One of the milder comments on one of the cards entitled “A

Typical Negro Baptizing,” said: “You would think they would at least change to bathing

suits, wouldn’t you?”

Barnett said the exhibit makes no attempt to sanitize the impact

of the postcards, or what she called the “horrifying” racist messages that accompanied


The exhibit is divided between photographs showing

predominately white and African-American baptisms. The largest single image —

and one that’s not on a postcard — depicts a baptism preformed in August 1919

in Indianapolis by Alexander Willbanks.

Barnett noted that in that image, as well as others, whites

can be seen gawking at the African-American baptisms — a reminder of America’s racial

divide, even (or especially) in religious matters.

“You have one faith tradition, and those in the photographs

are celebrating the same thing — a religious ritual of great importance,” she

said. “But there’s absolutely no integration. I find that both amazing and disturbing.”

“Take Me to the Water: Photographs of River Baptisms” is on

display at the International Center of Photography

in New York through May 8.

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