Music

Baptizings in Southern Appalachia

Pastor Hoyt Brown with arm raised in prayer; Pastor Aud Brown with head bowed;
small child in white Tipper Pressley; Pastor Buddy Pittman to the left –
Church Baptizing 1970s held at the Maple Hole just across the Georgia line.

I’ve had Baptizings on my mind recently, not in a profound or deep manner, more along the lines of the history of Baptizings in Southern Appalachia.

A few weeks ago I came across an article about cold weather written by John Parris. In the article Parris describes what real cold weather is like in western NC by quoting from the Old Man. I believe the Old Man Parris quoted in many of his articles was his Grandfather.

I’ll share some of the Parris article with you in the coming days, but the part that got me to thinking about baptizings was the Old Man’s claim of the weather being much colder when he was a youngster and the people being much tougher as well…tough enough to hold baptizings when they had to physically bust the ice before anyone could be submerged. In my book I’m not sure if that constitutes toughness or downright silliness. Much of Parris’s writing was done with a sort of tongue in cheek slant so the Old Man may have only been teasing about the ice breaking.

Back in 2013 I shared the hymn I Am Bound For The Promised Land as one of my Pickin’ and Grinnin’ in the Kitchen Spots. The song was sung at practically ever baptizing I’ve ever attended. The hymn was written by Samuel Stennett (1727-1795), who was a Baptist Minister in England. Stennett’s father and grandfather were also ministers. Stennett’s grandfather, Joseph Stennett, was also a hymn writer.

The hymn that we know today doesn’t sound exactly like the one that Stennett wrote. Over the years the hymn was changed into the catchy song most of us are most familiar with today.

In an article published on The United Methodist Reporter, Michael Hawn offers the following details about the history of the song Stennett penned over 200 years ago:

“John Rippon, an English Baptist pastor, published in 1787 an influential collection, A Selection of Hymns from the Best Authors. Thirty-eight of Stennett’s hymns appeared in this popular collection. Among those was a hymn under the heading of “Heaven Anticipated” with the title of “The Promised Land” in eight four-line stanzas.

The hymn as it appeared in America looked and sounded much different. William Walker’s The Southern Harmony (1835) was the first to include “The Promised Land.” This was one of the most popular of the 19th-century, oblong-tune books with shaped notes.

The tune PROMISED LAND was paired with the text. The Southern Harmony attributes the tune to “Miss M. Durham” but we know nothing else about the composer. The tune has many of the characteristics the traditional folk melodies of the time.

Originally written in a minor mode, Rigdon M. McIntosh, a Southern musician, altered the tune to the major mode, and as was customary among American evangelicals in the 19th century added a refrain beginning with “I am bound for the promised land.” This version was published in 1895 in H. R. Christie’s Gospel Light and has become the standard version for many hymnals since that time.

From the start, the four stanzas focus on heaven. The singer stands on the banks of the Jordan River looking across to the “fair and happy land” of Canaan—a metaphoric mixture of images from the books of Exodus and Revelation. Our true “possessions” lie in Canaan (Heaven) and not on the earthly side of Jordan.

In stanza two we find that Canaan is a land of “wide extended plains” where “the eternal day” is always shining. In this land Jesus (“God the Son”) reigns. Furthermore, stanza three tells us that Canaan is a spiritually healthful place to live: “No chilling winds or poisonous breath can reach that healthful shore.” Therefore, “sickness and sorrow, pain and death” do not exist in Canaan.

In the final stanza, the singer obviously cannot wait to get there. Upon arrival in the Promised Land, we will “see [our] Father’s face, and in his bosom rest.” The refrain gives the hymn a sense of marching forward to eternal life.

Carlton R. Young, editor of The UM Hymnal, places this hymn within the context 19th-century American expansion: “The British poet composed these apocalyptic lines with an ear towards Exodus and Revelation in another setting. USA evangelicals and their song transformed the text into earthly and vital metaphors of the vision, vigor, enthusiasm, and optimism of frontier life moving on to the promised land of Kentucky or Missouri.”

The article makes me wonder what Stennett’s original version sounded like. Hard to say for sure-since I never heard the original version, but I would wager Miss M. Durham’s and Mr. McIntosh’s changes are part of the reason it is still a popular song choice for churches in my area of Appalachia and beyond.

Almost all of the Blind Pig Gang is in this video. You can see Pap, Mark, and Paul in the video-while Ben and I are hitting a few licks off camera as well.

Hope you enjoyed the history-and the song. Paul and Pap’s version most certainly make you want to tap your toes and sing along.

One of my favorite photos in the entire world was taken on the same day as the one of my Baptism at the top of this post. The photo is of Pap, Granny, Paul, and Steve. Obviously I was there somewhere, maybe I was already in line for the march to the creek. Although I’m not included in the family photo, its always been one of my favorites. Even when I was a little girl I could see clearly that Pap and Paul’s expressions matched and that Granny and Steve’s also matched. And that all of their faces were filled with love for me, not just on my special day, but forever.

Tipper

*Source: Hawn, C. Michael. ” The United Methodist Portal.”  The United Methodist Portal. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Sept. 2013. <http://www.umportal.org/article.asp?id=4353>.

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19 Comments

  • Reply
    Susie Swanson
    August 21, 2016 at 5:52 pm

    Wow, this brings back memories. I was baptized in what we call the Tadpole hole at Nottley Dam. Love the singing and they do an awesome job as usual.

  • Reply
    Rev. Rose Marie "RB" Redmond
    January 24, 2016 at 10:31 pm

    How wonderful to still have a picture of one’s own baptism.
    The first time I was baptized, it was as a baby in a Catholic church, our Mother’s faith. Many years later, in fact only a few years ago, I got baptized again in a farm pond at a gathering of my Sister’s church in PA. It was a very touching moment because it was one I thought was unnecessary because I KNEW beyond the shadow of any doubt that I was born again – until God told me that it was…that being baptized as an adult is an act of acknowledgement equal to act of the man who held out his withered hand for healing. Had he not done that, he would not have been healed, and so it is with baptism, one must perform an act to accomplish it – the act of baptism.
    God bless.
    RB
    <><

  • Reply
    Peggy Lambert
    January 24, 2016 at 10:12 pm

    Tipper, I found your posts for today in my Spam section. Good posts for today as always . Maybe Google and me will get it back where they belong.
    Peggy L.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    January 24, 2016 at 8:24 pm

    Forgot to say that Nona Stephens, a Hall Co. artist, asked permission of our church to take pictures at one of our baptizings in the creek about three years ago. We were agreeable and she took a lot of pictures and later presented the church with a big framed canvas of that day.
    If anyone is interested, she is easy to find online using “Nona Stephens artist”. However, she does not display the baptising picture.
    Our daughter and son were baptized in that spot, though not that day. Sadly, it looks much as if we will soon lose access to it because the land is for sale.

  • Reply
    Chuck Taylor
    January 24, 2016 at 7:08 pm

    Reading this brought back many memories of my own baptism. It was in a creek much like that lil creek in the picture and many family members around me.

  • Reply
    Ken Roper
    January 24, 2016 at 7:04 pm

    Tipper,
    I listen to Aud Brown (Pastor of the Little Brasstown Baptist Church) about every day at 11:30 on WKRK. I love to hear him Pray, he covers just about everything. He also sings and plays the guitar every day and he sings the old timey Gospel Songs that folks around our area really like…Ken

  • Reply
    Shirley B
    January 24, 2016 at 5:18 pm

    Hi,Tipper, I love the picture!How fortunate you are to have a photo of this very special time in your life!I went back and looked at it several times.Your family was there standing by you and loving you.And then you touched on something else dear to me..old hymns.I just love listening to them,and singing along with them.I even have a small collection of old hymnals.It is so much fun going through them and trying to play on the keyboard the ones I’ve never heard before.The ones about heaven ,as so many of them are,are especially beautiful.Thanks for some great reading and some pretty singing from the gang on this cold Sunday afternoon!

  • Reply
    Ken Roper
    January 24, 2016 at 3:08 pm

    Tipper,
    Your Baptizing Picture reminds me of when I was about 9. Like you, when I came out of the water, about 30 people were there to greet me. I didn’t realize it then, but I saw tears in daddy’s eyes and mama’s eyes, perhaps it was because they witnessed their last son finalizing his commitment to the Lord.
    I showed you, The Deer Hunter, and your girls where I was Baptized, in the beautiful Nantahala, where the Tail Race joins the river, just below the Power House.
    Nice singing by the Blind Pig Gang…Ken

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    January 24, 2016 at 1:04 pm

    Good memories. I was baptized in the creek below my boyhood church 22Mar1966, coming up on 50 years ago. It was a bit cold but I was numb below the waterline. Neither of us knew it but I was baptized by my future father-in-law.
    My wife’s uncle chopped ice in the Ohio River at Cincinnati to baptize. That was in the 1969’s also.
    I have a book about the Oconaluftee Baptist that has a story about a woman being baptized in the Oconaluftee on the 12 th day of December.
    I grew up singing ‘I Am Bound for the Promised Land’ and it is still an old standard. I think its popularity at baptizings is because the event marks the beginning of a lifelong journey …..
    Thanks for sharing….

  • Reply
    Crystal Richmond
    January 24, 2016 at 1:03 pm

    This brought back sweet memories. I read the ” Post” and it was filled with so many memories. I noticed too the expressions. I truly enjoy every thing you post. Thank you!

  • Reply
    Wanda Devers
    January 24, 2016 at 1:03 pm

    Strange as it is, I have never actually seen an outdoor baptism. I have heard people talk about people breaking ice to be baptized but I believe I’d have had to have a cattle trough brought inside!!

  • Reply
    Ed
    January 24, 2016 at 12:31 pm

    I don’t remember “I Am Bound for the Promised Land” being sung as baptizings but it probably was. “Shall We Gather at the River” is stuck in my head. Your picture reminds me of the baptizing hole below the tiling where Hightower Road crosses over Licklog Creek. We always liked to go swimming after the baptizing was over. Our Church didn’t baptize in the winter. We figured God would understand if we put it off til Spring.
    When my friend Rick was studying to be a preacher, I asked him if he believed in baptism by immersion. “Yes”
    “Have you ever baptized anybody?”
    “Not yet.”
    “Well, you need to practice.”
    “On who?”
    “You need to start on something small. Like a cat. When you can baptize a cat barehanded, you don’t need no more practice.”

  • Reply
    John Faircloth
    January 24, 2016 at 12:10 pm

    10 inches of snow cancelled worship this morning in Bowling Green, KY.
    Thank you for sharing the photo and the song. I am reminded of 2 thoughts;
    – Faith is more ‘caught’ than ‘taught.’ your offering this morning teaches love, devotion, commitment and hope. What a rich and sumptuous Sunday Dinner.
    – Every baptism is our own, as is every wedding and funeral. Your image and music provide fertile ground for the soul.
    Thanks

  • Reply
    Cynthia
    January 24, 2016 at 11:39 am

    I am bound for the Promised Land is a hymn from my childhood, and I know the first stanza and refrain by heart, so it was so good to hear it again. My mother said that a black church held baptisms in the creek up the road from where she grew up. The creek is still there, but the neighborhood was torn town over 40 years ago in the name of so-called progress. I understand that before I was ever born, my childhood church held baptisms in the pond of one of the members. I was baptized as an infant, as my mom grew up in the Methodist church, and my dad in the Lutheran church, and they both practice infant baptism.

  • Reply
    TimMc
    January 24, 2016 at 10:23 am

    Enjoyed the song, and the photos.. Pictures to me put things back to the way they are suppose to be, before life sometimes has a way of messing it up.. not always for the bad, sometimes for the good.. just causes you to remember when life seemed simple as a child, no worries, just enjoy being a kid..

  • Reply
    eva nell mull wike, PhD
    January 24, 2016 at 9:57 am

    Tipper: This was one of my Mother’s favorite songs. We sang it in church quiet often! Nice recollections on a cold Sunday morning in the hills of Tennessee! I hope last night was not as bad as our news folks reported!
    Eva Nell

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    January 24, 2016 at 9:09 am

    Here in Florida it is not unusual to see baptisms right at the ocean amid surfers, swimmers and sunbathers.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    January 24, 2016 at 8:36 am

    My Dad loved John Parris, his newspaper articles and his books. He grew up with all the things Parris talked about from the hog killings to the baptizing. It was certainly a different time with very different values.

  • Reply
    Eleanor L.
    January 24, 2016 at 7:42 am

    It was so nice to hear that old Gospel hymn before leaving for Sunday church
    on a cold Ohio morning. Thanks, Tipper!

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