I was present at a baptism according, as they say, to the doctrine of Saint John, in Rhode Island. The day was one of the severest in the month of January, and in that part of the world it is many degrees colder than in England. The thermometer was, at the time, 10 below 0.
A concourse of people near the water-side attracted my attention. I joined the crowd, and found that it was assembled to witness a baptism by immersion. The ice, which was about a foot thick, had been cut through to the distance of twenty or thirty yards, but so intense was the frost, that some of the elect were obliged, with poles and staves, to keep the hallowed water from freezing. A few minutes would have cemented the whole again. In order to turn the hearts of unbelievers, and to reclaim such as have gone astray, the baptists on these occasions are particularly prolix. They assert that the spirit enures them to this rigid penance, making to them the day mild, and the water of the summer’s temperature. I had waited for the end of the minister’s exhortation, after which he was to lead his flock to the water, until my limbs ached with cold. At length the penitents appeared. They consisted of the members of the meeting, two and two; then followed the devotees, about twelve in number, of both sexes, in long gowns, resembling a robe de chambre. At the head of the noviciates was the priest, alternately praying and singing, in honor of Saint John the baptist: and thus without slackening his pace, or altering his dress, he plunged into the freezing stream, till he was nearly breast-high in the water. His disciples, with wonderful resolution, hand in hand, followed; while the members who had already been purified by immersion, ranged themselves along the margin of the deep. The pastor then turned round, and began a solemn exhortation on baptism, which continued a few minutes; a dreadful interval in his situation! He then seized the nearest devotee, and with great dexterity immersed him entirely in the water. Another short prayer succeeded, then another immersion; and this was repeated till the whole had thus received the holy sacrament. They returned, giving thanks to God, after suffering the severity of the freezing water, at such a season, about ten minutes.
During this unnatural ceremony, I was no less entertained with the remarks of the spectators. On[e] of them observed that, severe as the discipline was, they seldom took cold, or suffered subsequent bodily pains; adding, that their enthusiasm was so great, and their minds were wrought up to such a degree of religious phrenzy, that no room was left for reflection, or sense of danger. Another related a story of a public baptism of this nature in Connecticut, which was attended with a fatal circumstance. “It was about the same time of year,” continued the narrator, (for the severer the weather the greater their faith) “when I was present at one of these duckings, (as he termed it.) It was performed in a small but rapid river, then covered with ice, except a place cut for the purpose. The minister, with his followers, advanced to the proper distance into the water: after the usual introductory prayer, being in the act of immersing the first, he accidentally lost his hold of the unfortunate person, who was in an instant carried down the stream, still running under the ice, and irrecoverably lost. The good man finding his subject gone, with a happy serenity of mind exclaimed, “The Lord hath given, the Lord hath taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord:—come another of you, my children.” The remainder, astonished and confounded, lost their faith, and fled.
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