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Let's go down to Jurdan,

Let's go down to Jurdan,

Let's go down to Jurdan,

Religion's so sweet.

SO RUNS the processional hymn of rural Negro baptizings all over the South. The River “Jurdan” marks the dividing line between physical life in this world and heavenly life beyond:

On Jurdan's stormy banks I stand—(they line it off)

And cast a wishful eye

To Can(y)aan's fair and happy land

Where my possessions lie.

Just so immersion in the river's waters symbolizes death to the sins of this world and resurrection to life in Christ. I don't have the statistics, but there is no doubt that most Southern Negroes “belong” to either the Methodist or the Baptist church, with the majority leaning to the Baptist, perhaps because of the very symbolism and drama of its ritual of baptism. And Negro preachers of Baptist faith can cite you scholarly proof of the correctness of their adopted form of baptism.

One Sunday evening Colonel Richard Kimball heard a group of Negroes gathering on the river bank, at the base of Lookout Mountain, just below his Chattanooga home. All sounds indicated a baptismal service in preparation. As Colonel Kimball's daughter had never seen a Negro baptizing, father and daughter joined the group on the river bank. White friends are always welcome guests at any Negro service. When the Kimballs arrived, the deacons had already escorted the line of candidates to their places in the water and the preacher was beginning his prayer:

Dear Heavenly Father, we have gathered here this evenin’ to give the holy service of baptism to these friends who have repented of their sins. By being baptized they wish to tell the world that they have buried their lives of sin and will rise up from this watery grave in newness of life with all their sins washed away.

And, oh, our Heavenly Father, we thank Thee that us Baptists know the true way of baptism; because, Oh Lord, we know that the word baptize comes from the Greek word bapto, which means “Stick ’em under.”

So simple and sincere was the preacher's explanation to the Lord, and through the Lord to his congregation, that only after the Kimballs had turned away from the service a half hour later did the vivid, if incongruous, phrase, “Stick ’em under” strike them with full force and send them into peals of laughter.

Sometimes the Negro himself, with no tinge of irreverence, finds a bit of comedy in this most solemn ceremony of baptism:

Methodists, Methodists, (he chants), you is dead

’Caze you pour water on de baby's head;

Babtists, Babtists, you is right,

Caze you puts dem candidates out-a sight.

Who of us when he was a child hasn't had his risibles roused almost to the point of exploding at some most solemn moment in a church service? The following verse may easily have had its inspiration in a real and perhaps fatal accident during a solemn baptizing:

Went to de river to be baptized,

Stepped on a root and got capsized;

De river was deep an’ de preacher was weak,

So de nigger went to Heaven from de bottom of de creek.

The principal baptizing of the year in most Negro communities is held the last Sunday of the annual “protracted meetin’”, which lasts ten days or two weeks in the summer or in the early fall after crops are put by. And the baptizing is a solemn and impressive service.

In the summer of 1940 I was traveling with my husband, John A. Lomax, as he searched for folk songs in Mississippi. We were told in Natchez that Clara Musique had between three and four hundred Negro families living on her plantation and we should probably find preaching services, that being the third Sunday, where we could hear some good spirituals and perhaps locate singers of work songs. Clara Musique is the widow of a well known and wealthy Negro physician, from whom she inherited the plantation. When we stopped about ten miles out from Natchez to get explicit directions, we learned that the crowds of Negroes we saw on foot, in wagons, buggies, automobiles and trucks were bound for a baptizing. We followed the trail of dust through the fields as far as we thought safe to take our car. (Unluckily we parked our car in a baggasse bog, but Negro men, even at risk of soiling their Sunday best, cheerfully pushed us out to solid ground.) After introducing ourselves to the preacher we joined the crowd for a half mile walk to the banks of the river where the baptizing pool had been staked out earlier in the day. About three hundred Negro witnesses assembled. As we went along we gathered that there were nine candidates for baptism. (St. Peter's had had a baptizing that morning two hours before, but “St. Peter's is ’Piscopal and don't ’quire immersion like us Baptists.” But this one candidate, it seems, asked to be “put clean under like Jesus,” and so for her they had a “real baptizing” this time.) And now the Baptists were coming with their nine new converts.

There was plenty of time for “howdys” and exchange of news before we heard the chanted song that called our attention to the procession in white. First came the preacher, followed by the deacons and other assistants, and then came the nine candidates, one or two more women than men, as I recall. All were dressed in white, at least from the waist up, and all had white head coverings. The preacher had on a white silk long coat and cap, but the deacons and the candidates, not frequently having need of such equipment, had used great ingenuity in assembling their costumes of white. For the head there were maid's caps, bakers’ and chefs’ caps, boudoir caps and painters’, with somewhat less variety in jackets and robes.

“Let's go down to the Jurdan” was the burden of the processional chant. On the sandy beach of the river the group halted and the throng of witnesses crowded around them. The preacher read sentences from a little book; some were scripture quotations, some were long involved doctrinal declarations whose big words he found difficult to master. Now and then a word in a quotation would give him a new text for a fresh ten minutes’ discourse. As if to allow the preacher opportunity to catch his breath, a brother would interrupt with a prayer or a hymn; one lined off the hymn, “Heaven Is My Home,” another raised “I'm On My Way to the City,” with similar “turnings” to “I Started for the Kingdom and I Can't Turn Back”; another brother interrupted with “When I Gets on my Dying Bed” and “His Name is on my Tongue.” Perhaps these hymns and prayers and ejaculations (one sister kept insisting, “Take yo’ time and TELL hit!”) were rather interweavings than interruptions, for, without design, they were timed perfectly to build the crowd up to the desired state of exaltation.

I can remember only disconnected fragments of the hour's sermon at the river's side:

“Too many preachers got de clo'se on but de man ain't in ’em.”

“Heap of us waits to pray ’till we's swoll wid de asthmy [”Right here!” cried a sister] or whupped down by de fever.” [”Dat's me,” claimed another.]

“When de court sets, ev'ybody gits pitiful.”

“God has no respectable person.”

The preacher used the not unusual pronunciation “mi-cles” for miracles. His most surprising phrase he repeated several times during the services: “Borned of de Holy Speariment.”

At last the preacher moved forward into the water and took his position between the two upright stakes.

Wade in de water—[one sister raised the tune]

Wade in de water, chillun,

Wade in de water,

God goin’ trouble de water.

The deacons formed a lane from the preacher to the beach, and the candidates came forward. Each candidate was assisted to his position beside the preacher. In most cases the ceremony for the men and boys was simple enough; a statement by the preacher, a simple yes or a nod from the candidate, the immersing, and then the candidate was guided back to the dry beach where a friend threw a coat about him. When the women candidates came to the water's edge, I noticed that they all had cords wrapped around from the knees down. At first I thought that this was contrived to keep the dress from floating, to save embarrassment. But I learned that it served another purpose; for every woman came up out of the water either writhing or helplessly inert, and the wrapping of her limbs made her body easier to carry and to control. To members of the female candidate's family, especially to mothers and sisters, “holders” were assigned to prevent them from falling or doing harm to themselves when they became overjoyed at sight of their kin “being resurrected from the death of sin.” All of this took place with the accompaniment of crescendos of moanings and singing, punctuated by shouts of rejoicing from the sympathizing throng of witnesses.

The preacher delayed long over three candidates—one who “had wandered far,” another whose “father died in his sins and is already in Hell,” the third, an elderly woman, over whom the church members evidently had prayed long; her case merited a fifteen minute talk. All that time she stood in water so cold that it must have chilled her through and through. Holders assigned to the family and special friends of this hard-won new child of God, were clearing space and otherwise preparing for a great demonstration.

We left the crowd at this point. As we walked away the preacher was immersing this last candidate “two feet under: we digs de mortal grave six feet deep; four feet for de box and two feet to kivver. So I buries de candidates two feet under de water to show dey is dead to sin.”

Later from Clara Musique's front porch we saw the crowd walking singly and in groups along the path to the church house two miles away, where the deacons would start the services with singing and the first money offering, while the preacher and the newly baptized members found dry clothes in nearby homes. Two women had ridden with us to the crossroad. It was past noontime and they had nothing with them to eat that we could see, but Clara Musique said there would be plenty of food for all. The afternoon services would close in time for members to get home and do their evening chores before dark. The inspiration and exaltation from the day's baptismal and devotional services would buoy them up for the mundane tasks of the week ahead.

John B. Jones, a former Texas A. and M. student from Houston, who was very helpful to John Lomax in the early days of his folk song hunting, has described a Negro baptizing which he came upon one day in Alabama:

The scene was set in a rocky gorge, the banks of which were festooned with overhanging cedars; the sparkling pool of clear water was surrounded by a shelving bank, so that the place formed a natural amphitheatre. In this spot was assembled a large group of Negroes, the women and children dressed in bright colors. The gorge rang with their merry laughter and light-hearted chatter until the minister, a solemn-faced, deep-voiced, white-haired old man, lifted his hand for silence. Then the crowd sang, as only Negroes can sing, a spiritual in which the terrors of death and hell are described in a way to startle the imagination. Next, a visiting preacher prayed, the audience joining in with vocal approval, from time to time repeating the words that impressed them most. As the candidates for baptism, ten or twelve in number, approached the water-side, they were led out, one by one, by two deacons to the preacher standing in the middle of the pool, while the crowd sang:

Let's go down to Jurdan, let's go down to Jurdan,

De clear river Jurdan is mighty deep;

Let's go down to Jurdan,

De old river Jurdan is mighty deep,

But ’ligion is so sweet.

Then, beginning with the smallest girl, each candidate was baptized. Just before one was immersed the congregation would sing:

Missionary Baptist is my name, Missionary Baptist is my name,

Missionary Baptist is my name, ’ligion is so sweet.

De Lord said baptism it must be, for ’ligion is so sweet;

De Lord said baptism it must be, we are goin’ to ’bey His will.

De Lord said baptism it must be, for ’ligion is so sweet.

What kind o’ man is He? All things they obey His will.

What kind o’ man is He? He spoke to de sea and de sea was still.

De Lord said baptism it must be, de li'l’ Babe in de manger;

What kind o’ manner o’ man is He? He walk on de land an’ He walk on de sea

An’ all things here obey His will; He speaks to de sea an’ de sea is still,

An’ ’ligion is so sweet.

Each candidate as he came up out of the water was seized with a queer sort of physical convulsion, which my yardman, Sam, afterwards explained to me as “the working of the Holy Spirit.” The final outbreak of the candidate when he was on terra firma was to stretch out his arms and wave them in a vain effort to fly. A large, fleshy woman was “seized with the Spirit” just before her baptism and had to be taken out of the water until she became calm. She was then baptized and again underwent a weird seizure. The last man baptized was a muscular ditch-digger who required four strong men to get him out of the pool. I heard the minister, who was being pushed out towards the deep water, mutter to his helpers: “Get him out-a here before he drowns us all.” As each candidate was led out of the water the congregation sang with splendid effect:

New bawn, new b-a-w-n,

New-bawn child, new-bawn child;

Like a li'l’ Babe in a manger.

De ole River Jurdan was mighty deep.

But ’ligion was so sweet.

By the time the service was over the sun's rays no longer reached the bottom of the gorge. The quiet of evening fell, a breeze came up and stirred the branches of the fragrant cedars. The crowd seemed awed by the influence of a most sacred and solemn ceremony, the effect of which had been intensified, now and then, by the shrill voices of the women in shouts of religious ecstasy. The baptized persons stood around with the crowd grouped about them, as the old minister with hands outstretched to heaven invoked a benediction. And then again they sang, in a minor key, wonderfully sweet and touching:

De old River Jurdan was so deep,

An’ now our brother in Christ we greet;

De old River Jurdan was so deep,

But ’ligion was so sweet.

He said baptism it must be

If He from sin'll set us free,

An’ all things here obey His will,

Spoke to de sea an’ de sea was still,

For ’ligion was so sweet.

Slowly the shadows darkened while with occasional shouts of joy the crowd trooped away, and the baptizing was over. Yet not quite, for from down the gorge came floating back to me the song:

When my blood runs chilly an’ cold, I'se got to go,

’Way beyond the Sun.

Ef you can't bear no crosses, you can't wear no crown,

’Way beyond the Sun.

I'se got a mother in the Beulah Land, she's callin’ me,

’Way beyond the Sun.

Do, Lord, do, Lord, do remember me,

Oh, do, Lord, do, Lord, do remember me,

Oh, do, Lord, do, Lord, do remember me,

Oh, do, Lord, remember me.

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