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Postcard showing African-American church members gathered for a baptism in Florida, about 1910  ID.G5525


February 2005

African American Baptizing Scene Postcards

Spirituality, religious faith and the institution of the church have had influential roles in the experience of blacks in America. Enslaved Africans shipped to the colonies brought their religious traditions, including Yoruba and Islam, with them. Over the course of three centuries, African Americans blended these traditions with Anglo-European religions. These postcards from the early 20th century document baptism by immersion, a significant event in the religious life of many African-American churches.


MORE: African American Baptizing Scene Postcards

A baptism in Greenville, Mississippi, about 1925  ID.G5526

Baptism is one of the fundamental rituals of Christianity.  Baptism represents cleansing away the sins of an individual and welcoming him or her into a religious community.  Some religions practice infant baptism, while others only baptize individuals old enough to renounce sin and choose to join the community.

Many African Americans, in fact, were drawn to the Baptist and Methodist faiths, probably because of their emotional evangelicalism (enthusiastic preaching of the Gospel), their lack of hierarchy (independent local churches with little centralized authority), and their reliance on the traditional, immersive baptism which suggested a connection to the West African river spirits.  A minister’s explanation of baptism through total immersion as symbolic death and rebirth would make perfect sense to anyone familiar with the common West African perspective that a river’s water represents a symbolic border between the spirit world and the physical world, between the sacred and the secular.

Slave owners had various responses to the religious activities of their slaves.  Some encouraged conversion to the Christian faith as a way of reinforcing themes of obedience, humility and hard work.  Others feared that baptism would make enslaved individuals “proud and undutiful,” as one 18th-century South Carolina minister put it.  Time after time, ministers had to declare to both slaves and their masters that baptism did not imply any kind of earthly liberation.  African Americans found communal ways to believe what gave them strength, regardless of what they were told.

Candidates for baptism often donned white robes with sashes at the waist over a set of old clothes.  Church deacons waded into the water and placed stakes to mark an area where the depth was right and the bottom was not too muddy or treacherous.  Sometimes three stakes were used and were said to symbolize the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.  The minister would read scripture, lead the congregation assembled on the river bank in prayer and song, and the initiates would be immersed in the water.  A community gathering filled with food and fellowship would follow.

Although not common, rural churches, both black and white, predominately in the South, continue to practice this tradition on occasion.  So important is this tradition in the black community that river baptisms are the subject of numerous works of art, including well-known pieces by prominent African-American artists like Romare Bearden (1911-1988) and Jonathan Green (born 1955).

William S. Pretzer
Curator of Political History

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