This church, Old South Church, was born 345 years ago. But here’s the thing: it was born in a storm. It was born in an argument, a dispute over water. It was born in a storm of controversy over baptism . . . the waters of baptism.
It is hard for us to imagine, but here in Boston in the 1600’s people argued about baptism. They argued about baptism over beers in the pubs. They argued about baptism at suppertime in their kitchens. They argued about baptism at the mercantile while examining bolts of cloth,
Baptism was the topic of the day … a topic over which our forebears were greatly exercised and sharply divided.
The majority view was that the waters of baptism should be guarded … and access to baptism limited. That baptism was for the few, the pure, those whose righteousness and uprightness and piety were without dispute.
The founders of this church held a minority view. The founders of Old South Church were of the opinion, nay, they were of the conviction that the waters of baptism should be poured out generously – not recklessly, not indiscriminately – but generously, liberally.1
For holding this view—this decidedly minority view—they were called names: heretics and schismatics … they were called satanic.
What was so important about baptism? What was at stake in this baptism controversy? Why endure the condemnation of others over a few drops of water?
I am so glad you asked.
I will try to answer your questions, with a story . . . a true story. A story about a day in the life of George Washington Carver. When the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was asked who he most admired, he had a short list. George Washington Carver was at the head of the list.
The year is 1921. George Washington Carver is summed to Washington DC to appear before the House Ways and Means Committee. George Washington Carver— scientist, botanist, educator and inventor—summoned to Washington D.C. to explain his work on the peanut … on its enormous commercial potential.2
As the only African American called to testify, Carver is placed last, dead last, on a long list of speakers. In fact, he is made to wait three days for his turn to speak. Throughout those days he feels the hostility of others toward him. He feels by turns uneasy and terrified.
At last his turn comes. He is called forward. He rises and begins the long walk up the aisle to the front of the hall. As he walks he is met with derisive and bigoted comments. One of the committee members yells out a crude and cutting remark. It hurts, but Carver continues.
Another committee member leans back in his chair, places his feet up on the table and puts his hat over his face as if to go to sleep. When the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee instructs the member to take off his hat, he responds with a loud, ugly racial slur.
At this point, Carver is ready to turn around and go home. He is afraid of the powerful men in the room. He is made uneasy by their hostility and hate. All his instincts urge him to flee the room, to flee to safety.
But he doesn’t. Instead, he reminds himself of his baptism. “Whatever they say of me … whatever they think of me … I know who I am. I know whose I am: I am a child of God.”
Baptism: it is an identity to give one courage.
Carver finally reaches the podium. He is told that he has ten minutes to speak. He opens his display case and launches into his talk. Well, so engaging is his presentation that those ten minutes fly by. The Chairman rises and asks for an extension of time. No one objects. Carver is granted four additional extensions of time. In the end, he speaks for nearly two hours to a rapt audience.
At the conclusion of his presentation, the members of the House Ways and Means Committee stand and to a man, they give George Washington Carver – born into slavery but now scientist, inventor, professor, economist – a long round of applause.
By our baptisms we know who we are and to whom we belong. At baptism we are dipped in grace and wrapped in eternity. It is an identity to give one courage.
Today we baptized life two children: Matthew and Jaxson. We baptized these children to help prepare them for a perilous world. To prepare them in the face of meanness or cruelty. To prepare them in the face of life: its inevitable disappointments and unfairness, its times of misery and despair and terror.
Mike and Liz, Jenn and Chris, I know that this is the last thing you want to think about on this shining day. But you also know that as hard as you try—as desperately as you want to—you cannot protect these beautiful children from life: its hardships and vicissitudes, from suffering or death.
You cannot protect them. You can prepare them.
Today is a part of that preparation: dipping your sons in God’s grace, wrapping them in the mantle of eternity, welcoming them into the family of faith.
If we do it right—you and their Godparents and this church—if we do it right from this day forward, Matthew and Jaxson will live lives of courage and kindness, of grace and grit, because they will always know who they are: children of God, beloved and precious.
They will not be immune to the bigotry or stupidity of others. They will not be immune to pain or grief or old age or death. But if we do it right—if we fulfill the vows we made today—these children will have what they need, everything they need, to live with courage.
The next time someone asks you: Can it be true that your church was born in an argument of baptism? The next time someone asks: Why all the fuss over baptism? Tell them the story of George Washington Carver. Tell them your story. Then, tell them about Matthew Michael Volpe and Jaxson Jennings Rogers. Tell them about the day we dipped them in God’s grace and wrapped them in eternity.
And, finally, tell them this: tell them that the single most racially integrated institution in Boston in the 1700 and 1800s was the church. Tell them that among the churches in Boston in that period, the most integrated was the one born in a storm over baptism.3
Tell them this: baptism is an identity to give one courage.
1At the Synod of 1662 which took up this matter of baptism, the statement which resulted from the Synod declared that we do not baptize “in a lax and licentious way as if to dress men in livery, without truly clothing them in Christ.” See Hamilton Hill’s two volume History of Old South Church, volume 1, page 9.
2Bausch, William, More Compelling Stories, p. 55f
3“African American and Indian Church Affiliation: Old South Church Boston and Evangelical Congregational Church Grafton” by Richard J. Boles, The George Washington University (Dissertation draft 3, July 2012)