Growing Up Baptist
Updated: Mar 17, 2021
Being good Southern Baptists, we went to church up to three times a week, twice on Sundays and once on Wednesdays just for extra heavenly brownie points. I don’t remember ever missing church on a Sunday and at one point every Wednesday.
Everyone I knew went to church. I don’t believe I knew a single child who didn’t belong to some kind of church. In my small town of Amherst, that is just the way things were. We lived in Jerry Falwell country. We did not go to Thomas Road Baptist but its influence was everywhere.
I believe the most prevalent domination was Baptist, either the white Baptists, like us or the black Baptists. I never realized the difference and how much more I enjoyed the black version of Baptist until years later when I was in a singing group in high school called the Amerechoes. We often performed in black churches and I thought I had signed up for the wrong kind of Baptist and immediately felt at home in the black Baptist church.
A Church by any Other Name
There were a few other denominations, of course, even in our small town. When I was in college, I earned money by playing the organ or directing choirs around town. I found out all churches are not the same. I got first-hand experience of the various town offerings. I played the organ for two different Episcopal services. What I liked best about their service was the sermon was only about ten minutes, which seemed much more palatable than the thirty minutes allotted to the Baptists. Also, unlike the Baptists, they had no problem with having a little nip, and so they were dubbed the Whiskypalians. I recall my mother saying, “I can’t believe the preacher drinks wine at Christmas parties and at Communion, well, that is REAL wine.” We Baptists use sweet grape juice. So faithfully following in the footsteps of Jesus. my family didn’t touch any kind of liquor. I directed the church choir at the Presbyterian church for a while and did a short stint at the Methodist church. The Methodists? Well, they were a rather reasonable bunch, but when you don’t almost drown the kids and the kids don’t fight back when they are being baptized, you gotta figure there must be something lacking in the Methodist way of doing things.
The Big Dunk
Being baptized meant being dunked underwater which was a pretty terrifying test of faith, especially if you didn’t know how to swim. I remember once feeling that I was going drown when a boy baptized me in Smith Mountain Lake near our town. He held my head underwater and I thought I would never see the light of day again.
I never liked deep water after that. I did, to my credit, become a lifeguard, and it was a test of character to have to dive down and pick up a weight at the bottom of a pool or drag a drowning person to shore. I had to muster all the grit within me to get that certificate but I did it. To this day, I am not a great swimmer but if you are drowning, I probably can help you.
What is with the guns?
Of course, drowning is much less likely than getting shot in America. I will never forget the day when the preacher spoke at my niece and nephew’s seventh-grade church school graduation. It was a memorable commencement speech. I say that with confidence because, I have never forgotten it, even after all these years. He said, “If you are free this afternoon, come on down to Billy Jones’ shootin’ range. Billy has kindly offered to give a 50% discount today to our church members. Everyone should know how to shoot a gun.” I looked around to see if anyone was else was shocked but no one even blinked.
I had never been around guns until I spent time in Maine with my friend, Roy. He was a native New Yorker who had bought a lovely place on a lake in Maine. He fixed up the barn and turned it into an antique shop. His name was Lazarus so he put a bell by the door informing potential customers how to get his attention. The sign read “Ring Bell to Raise Lazarus”. Roy kept a loaded rifle in the corner of the living room. It wasn't for intruders but to protect the cows and horses from coyotes. They wouldn't attack a fully grown cow or horse but they sure would go after the young ones. The livestock belonged to his across-the-street neighbor, Buster, but Roy tended to think of them as his. Once a coyote attacked a birthing cow and all that was left was the hooves. It was a sad spring morning and somehow the gun didn't help. I don’t know how Roy learned to shoot but I once saw him pick up the rifle, walk to the doorway, and without going fully outside shoot and kill a chipmunk from about 30 feet away in one shot. He said, “That damn chipmunk has been digging under my barn. I guess he won’t anymore.”
Vacation from Hell
In my college years, I found out more about the Baptists from a fellow music major who had transferred from Liberty (Jerry Falwell’s University). He said it was so strict there that students were not allowed to dance or play cards. I realized my childhood could have been worse. Although some parts of it were pretty bad. For example, some of our more memorable family vacations. The Grow family goes back 12 generations in America. They landed in Ipswich, Massachusetts just a few years after the Mayflower. The family genealogy is rife with Baptist preachers and one of my father’s older brothers also took up this calling.
Uncle Clifford lived in Tallahassee, Florida. On one of our family vacations, we went to visit him. My grandmother was staying there at the time. Although I have fond memories of my Grandfather Grow as kind, gentle, smiling and who adored hearing my sister and I sing "In the Garden". I cannot say I have the same fond memories of my grandmother. She was critical, stern, and just not a lot of fun if you know what I mean. Our visit just happened to coincide with Revival Week. Uncle Clifford had engaged a Hell Fire and Brimstone preacher for a week of unrelenting fury. We got to go to church every night. It was so upsetting that poor grandmother had to take sleeping pills each night after the service. At the end of this fun-packed week, we went to the beach with Uncle Clifford. I was still in grade school but my sister was in junior high. Slathering ourselves with Coppertone Tanning Butter and smelling of coconuts, we finally proceeded to try to enjoy what was left of this once-a-year vacation. We were hoping no one would associate us with our parents or the preacher at the beach, but when any boy would come over to chat, Uncle Clifford would show up to scare them away. I have an indelible memory of him in swim trunks and looking as though he needed a brassiere to hold up his sagging pecs. Sunburnt and disappointed, we got in the car and rode 11 hours back to Virginia and tried unsuccessfully to forget the Baptist version of a vacation.
Then and Now
Now after twenty years of living in Japan, I only go to the Baptist church when I visit my parents. It seems completely unfamiliar. I always enjoyed the hymns but now they have mostly been replaced by “praise music”. Both words of that phrase seem like a misnomer to me. People no longer put on “church clothes” but rather come in shorts, t-shirts and sandals. Congregants and even the preacher have water bottles which they drink during the service. It is a new Baptist world but still a denomination like no other.