Sorry I’m late with this post!
Baptism is a huge, ginormous deal to Jehovah’s Witnesses. Without that ritual dunking you won’t survive Armageddon, and you won’t get the title “Brother” or “Sister.” In fact, at one congregation I visited the Watchtower Study conductor made a point of calling on children and unbaptized people as “Mr.” or “Miss” rather than simply using their first names as most other congregations do.
In my case, Dad dragged us into the cult in the early 1970s at a time when JWs were trumpeting from the housetops that Armageddon would come in 1975 (or possibly earlier than that – we don’t know Jehovah’s timetable after all). My brother and I were 10 and 12 respectively when Dad started studying, and a year older when he and Mom got baptized. That’s when the pressure started.
There was an understanding that a child who had reached the “age of reason” no longer fell under the parental umbrella of safety from Jehovah’s judgment. Since little brother and I were fairly sharp kids Dad felt that we had reached that age and needed to be baptized post-haste. The trouble with that idea was that our “Bible study” had not kept pace with the folks, so we were not knowledgeable enough to correctly answer the pre-baptism questions.
We kids still had to finish studying our first book, “The Truth That Leads to Eternal Life” and then study the second book, “True Peace and Security – From What Source?” Dad undertook the job of teaching us ( at our weekly family study) what he and Mom had only just learned themselves. He also started quizzing us on the questions for baptism and reviewing the answers at the dinner table. These questions and their answers were printed in a book that only baptized JWs and those preparing for baptism could own. At the time there were 80 questions, and you had to know the scriptures that supported the answers.
Over the next year we received the parental indoctrination and even studied together at other times so that by the end of 1973 we could parrot the answers. Then the two of us had to individually approach one of the elders and request baptism. I was completely terrified of most men, and especially of the elders, but I managed to gather my courage and squeak out my request.
The elders arranged to divide up the ordeal into three sessions, one conducted by each of the three elders, and little brother and I were allowed to do the questions together instead of separately. The elder I feared the most happened to come on a week when I had a nasty case of laryngitis and took every opportunity to poke fun at my croaking answers. I was a shy, sensitive kid who took herself extremely seriously. It was all I could do to choke down the tears.
We passed, thank goodness. The reviews of those questions ranks right up there with my driver’s test as one of the most terrifying events of my life. There was a circuit assembly coming up in January, so that’s when we’d get dunked.
The day arrived. It happened that the circuit assembly was taking place at my high school, so it was a little bit surreal to see the place crowded with JWs instead of my classmates. Usually, at a circuit assembly there are around 5 to 10 people baptized, tops. That year, however, was 1974. At that assembly there were 119 people baptized, most of them teenaged children of parents frantic to get their kids protected from the wrath of God by a quick splash in a pool.
We sat through the baptism talk, and at the end we had to stand up as a group and answer two questions:
Have you recognized yourself before Jehovah God as a sinner who needs salvation, and have you acknowledged to him that this salvation proceeds from him the Father through his Son Jesus Christ?
On the basis of this faith in God and in his provision for salvation, have you dedicated yourself unreservedly to God to do his will henceforth as he reveals it to you through Jesus Christ and through the Bible under the enlightenment of the holy spirit?”
In unison we shouted, “Yes!” to each question. Interestingly, I hadn’t actually dedicated myself to Jehovah in prayer. For some reason nobody had told me I needed to do that.
After a prayer a song was sung as the baptismal candidates marched out of the auditorium. The song wasn’t long enough for all of us to make it out of the auditorium, so they had to punt and announce a second song. That never happened again at any assembly I attended.
Since the high school did not have a pool, we had to go to the local Boys’ Club for our dunking. We went down to the locker rooms which for some reason were flooded with a half inch of ice cold water. It was a challenge to get my pantyhose and undies off without getting them wet. I changed into my “modest” bathing suit, grabbed a towel, and got into line with everyone else. The males managed to change more quickly and were being dunked first. The pool had been squeezed into a small space, so there was just a narrow ledge around the edge for us to walk on. I was afraid I’d slip in, so I hugged the wall.
As I got closer and closer I could see that there was no ladder leading into the pool, so a couple of burly brothers were grabbing each candidate by the arms and lowering them into the pool. A couple more were on the other side hauling everyone out.
Once in the water and therefore center stage (an uncomfortable place for me) I made my way toward one of the three brothers in the pool. I was so flustered that I didn’t even notice that my father was one of the baptizers that day until he called my name.
I went over to him and followed his directions for how to hold my arms and my nose at the same time. Then he tipped me backwards and under I went. He wanted a hug, but all I could think of was getting the heck out of that pool and out of the spotlight. He pulled me in anyway and then I made my way over to the burly brothers who hoisted my chubby body out quite easily. The ledge on that side of the pool was even narrower, and with water pouring into my eyes from my wet hair I barely made it back to the locker room without incident.
Putting the pantyhose back on while standing in the water was my next challenge. I spent the afternoon with wet feet as well as wet hair.
Once I got back to the lobby of the Boys’ Club I was surrounded by a group of elderly sisters from our congregation who were all crying and exclaiming, “By your own father!” Honestly, I didn’t think it was such a big deal. It was just a ritual I’d had to get through and now it was over. Come to think of it, I experienced the same detachment on my wedding day. Hmmm.
Little brother had been dunked by Dad as well, and met the same weeping contingent upon his arrival at the lobby. Then Dad and Mom showed up, along with the newly dunked single guy we’d driven over to the baptism site. He sat in the front seat and sobbed quietly all the way back to the high school. I didn’t understand why everyone was so emotional.
It’s common nowadays for JWs to throw a party to celebrate baptism, but back then nobody did that. We went back to the high school and ate the institutional food being served. At home that evening there wasn’t even a congratulatory pat on the back from the parents, cake, or even a special meal. Just a normal day.
That night I got down on my knees and dedicated myself to Jehovah in prayer, but I always felt funny about the fact that I wasn’t actually dedicated when I got baptized.