I was sitting on a front pew in the rural Standing Rock Creek one-room Methodist Church in Stewart County, Tennessee. I must have been twelve (baptism age), in which case it was 1942. I know it was summer because there is a fresh-cut zinnia blossom in this story. Every Sunday we had Sunday school, but once a month, when the circuit preacher was scheduled, we also had worship service. The preacher would show up and deliver a sermon after Sunday school. Probably no more than twenty-five people were in attendance.
My parents were not in attendance that day. When they did go to church, Daddy would tap his foot to the rhythm of the hymns, then nod off to sleep during the sermon. Mama was not that relaxed. She would be proudly showing off a new dress she had made that week, and observing the other women’s attire. But this day, my parents were not in church. There was no expectation of anything special, and none of my family was all that religious.
The church was an old, faded-white, two-story, wood frame building. It had a bare wood floor, and was furnished with wooden church benches. The congregation was not sophisticated enough to call them pews. We called them “bainches”, with the “e” pronounced more like an “a”. Halfway up the center aisle there was a wood stove, which did a fair job of heating the building in winter, but we never took off our coats.
Beyond the altar to the right, there was a forbidden stairway leading up to an attic door that remained locked. Children were told that the Masons held meetings in that upstairs room and that they kept a goat up there. Children could never, ever go there. It was very mysterious to me. I worried some about the goat being alone up there with no grass.
Hymns were sung, accompanied by neighbor, Lucille Dillon, playing the piano which stood to the left of the altar. Two benches were placed near the piano, perpendicular to all the other benches. These two benches were for the “choir”, though we didn’t really have a choir. A volunteer song leader stood up front leading the singing and marking time with his right arm. Often the song leader was Howard Jobe, who sometimes dated my oldest sister, Dot.
The leader would announce the name of the hymn to be sung and the page number. My child’s mind pondered the titles and lyrics such as “On a Hill Far Away Stood an Old Rugged Cross”, “Who Will Come and Go With Me I am Bound For the Promised Land”, “Rock of Ages Cleft for Me Let Me Hide Myself in Thee”, “Amazing Grace How Sweet the Sound That Saved a Wretch Like Me”, or “Are you Washed in the Blood of the Lamb”. “Are your garments spotless, are they white as snow, are you washed in the blood of the Lamb”. That sounded really messy and unlikely to me.
At the end of Brother Coleman’s droning, yawn-inducing sermon, my two twelve-year-old peers, Bobbie Jean Parker and Neil Moore, left their seats and went and knelt at the altar. I had no idea why they did that. While I sat there watching and wondering, my sister Dot, who would have been age twenty-six, came from a few rows behind me and by poking me and pointing toward Bobbie Jean and Neil, indicated I should go do what they were doing. So I walked to the altar and knelt beside them.
The preacher read some meaningless scripture, then he took a stemmed zinnia blossom from a vase, dipped it in a bowl of water, and dabbed it on each of our three heads while repeating “I baptize thee in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost”. I could feel water dripping from the top of my head, but was otherwise unmoved. Obviously, Neil and Bobbie Jean had been expecting all this and were prepared, but not me. This is another example of growing up wondering what the heck was going on most of the time, and frequently feeling “in the dark” about things.
Activities in that church played a big part in my young life. The people were salt of the earth, honest, decent, hard-working, and community oriented. Many of them were my uncles, aunts, and cousins. There were summer revival meetings, all day singings with dinner on the ground, Christmas programs with a Christmas tree and somebody in a Santa Clause suit, plus Bible School for two weeks in the summer.
Publications from the Methodist headquarters in Nashville were distributed weekly. The Quarterly taught us Christian beliefs. You either believed in Jesus or you were going to hell with all the, adulterers, murderers, gamblers, thieves, and drunks. That’s what I got out of it, but at the same time I did not feel sinful enough to burn in hell. I was not convinced there was a God that would do that to a well-behaved child, like myself, so I did not worry about it.
If it counts that a drippy wet zinnia was placed up-side-down on my pre-teen head by a mumbling preacher, then I have been baptized. According to the rules, that helps me gain entry into the Methodist Promised Land. I have long since moved on to a more Zen and Humanist way of thinking, but I am glad I was baptized. The event has provided a vivid memoir story for my collection. Plus, my baptism by wet zinnia might give comfort to any Christian fundamentalists who have concerns about my afterlife destination.