Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Harriette Arnow, April, 1976. Interview G-0006. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Total immersion baptism in the Cumberland River

In this excerpt, Arnow describes her total immersion baptism in the Cumberland River in Kentucky. Although Burnside community members were predominantly Protestant, there were divisions regarding baptismal practices according to denomination. Arnow recalls the experience as one defined by dignity which she contrasts to more exuberant religious practices in "the hills." Her comments offer a unique lens through which southern religious practices can be viewed.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Harriette Arnow, April, 1976. Interview G-0006. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

MIMI CONWAY:
Did they bring you down to the river?
HARRIETTE ARROW:
Yes, we were baptized in the Cumberland River. Of course, the Methodists and the Presbyterians didn't go for total immersion. Then later-that was after I was gone from Burnside-the Baptists enlarged their church and had a baptistry which could be covered over very nicely and used for other things. And it was said that some of the Church of God people and perhaps the hard-shell Baptists. . . . I don't know. There are many varieties of the Protestant religion, many denominations, but members of some denominations were scandalized. They said you couldn't get to Heaven being baptized in a little bit of water in a house; you had to be baptized in a river as Christ was baptized in the River Jordan. And of course by that time all city churches had baptistries, but a few Burnsiders didn't know it. We were all Protestants, but the feelings of a Baptist with a daughter who married a Methodist, or vice versa, made a bigger gap than today if a Protestant were to marry a Catholic.
MIMI CONWAY:
That day that you were baptized. Were you excited about it? Was it a big celebration, or were you proud, or what?
HARRIETTE ARROW:
I don't know. I remember feeling solemn. I remember there was something about singing down by the water. I remember their singing "Shall We Gather at the River?" And there a whole line of us to be baptized, I think some other children. And I had seen it done before, and I knew other people who'd been baptized. I wasn't all that excited about it, I don't think. The big excitement was making up my mind by myself-I didn't ask anybody-and then, as the minister always did when he'd call, ask if anyone would like to join the church, I went up. That was the excitement. But our church always believed in dignity, dignity, dignity. There was never any shouting, like the churches in the hills, you know. The elders, if they liked what a preacher said, they had to keep it to themselves. I've been in quite modern churches in the hills where somebody would say, "Amen, Brother So-and-So," and "Amen," but we couldn't do that.
MIMI CONWAY:
Oh, that's interesting.
HARRIETTE ARROW:
Even baptism didn't always keep church from being a bore. I remember this minister would read the text. Then he would say, "Now, in the Latin, it said so-and-so, but in the Greek this word meant so-and-so, but, when you get back to the original Hebrew," and on and on and on.
MIMI CONWAY:
[laughter]
HARRIETTE ARROW:
And I didn't even know Latin then. I never learned Greek or Hebrew.
MIMI CONWAY:
In your own home with your mother and father, what was the religious training like?
HARRIETTE ARROW:
Our religious training at home. . . . As I told you, I had to memorize certain passages from the Bible. Then we were encouraged to read the Bible, the whole Bible. And when I was at home I read it twice, although parts of it, like when So-and-so begat So-and-so, it goes on for. . . . Other times it was exciting, the wars and so forth. Other times I couldn't figure out God.