Cleanliness Not Always Next to Godliness : Evangelicals: The Bible says Christ was baptized in the flowing waters of the Jordan River. But polluted creeks can pose a dilemma for modern ministers seeking to uphold tradition.

From Associated Press

When it came time for Christine Murphy to be baptized, the eastern Kentucky woman went to the creek like her ancestors did.

“You just feel like you’re more closer to God in the creek than you would inside” a church, said the 21-year-old Pike County woman, who was dunked last month in the waters of Johns Creek. “It’s just like being in a bathtub in the other place.”

But if cleanliness is truly next to godliness, a lot of pastors say the creek is not the place to go anymore.


“There’s none of them fit to baptize a dog in, to be honest with you,” said the Rev. James Kelly Caudill, pastor of Tom’s Creek Free Will Baptist Church at Nippa in nearby Johnson County. “It’s sad to say, but it’s true.”

Evangelical churches have been slowly switching from outdoor baptisms to indoor ceremonies during the last few decades, mostly for convenience’s sake. But open dumping and raw sewage from remote households seem to have speeded up the changeover in some areas, pastors say.

“My reasoning was if you walk into a river or stream and you’ve got dead animals, you’ve got open sewers and all other types of debris,” said Pastor Dick VanHoose of the Salyersville Free Will Baptist Church, who has been moderator of the Kentucky State Assn. of Free Will Baptists for six years.

“That just in my opinion makes it unsafe to take someone for water baptism.”

About 29% of the nation’s stream miles were at least partially unfit for swimming because of pollution, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Water Quality Inventory, released in March. The report said another 3% would be threatened if no pollution control actions were taken.

But the Bible says Jesus Christ was baptized in the flowing waters of the Jordan River. And there are some denominations for whom water quality is not an issue.

“Don’t mind the stuff that’s in it,” said Elder Joe Evans at the Church of Jesus Christ of Old Regular Baptists Called Sardis in Delbarton, W. Va. “It’s not what baptism is all about--to clean your body. . . . Jesus has nothing to do with pollution.”


“I believe God makes it pure when one of his goes in,” said Elder John Thacker of the Philadelphia Old Regular Baptist Church at Pompey in Pike County, near the Kentucky-Virginia border.

Evans said stream pollution is “a part of life” in Appalachia.

“You’ve got everybody up and down this creek running their sewers in it,” he said. “What are you going to do? They’ve got no place else to put it. It’s a vast problem.”

But the problem is not so widespread that it has caught the attention of national church leaders.

“That’s the first I’ve heard of it,” said Jack Williams, convention coordinator of the National Assn. of Free Will Baptists in Antioch, Tenn. Others question whether it is a problem at all.


“The act of baptism is so quick that there’s not much exposure to it whatever you do,” said Mark Coppenger, vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention in Nashville, which has 15 million members nationwide.

“You lay them back into the water and lift them up,” he said. “It’s not as though you’re immersed for a long period of time and can soak in whatever is there.”


Even if the situation were recognized as a problem by the church hierarchy, ordering congregations to cease creek baptisms would have no effect, Williams said.

The Rev. Mike Baker, spokesman for the Church of God in Cleveland, Tenn., said the move away from the creek banks is more a natural progression than a public health matter.

“I would liken it with air conditioning,” said Baker, who was baptized in flowing waters. “It just is much more convenient for year-round climate, of course for sanitary reasons. And it’s also in a worship environment.”


But VanHoose said his decision to install a baptistery at his church followed an experience he had several years ago.

VanHoose said he had pulled up to a creek and found a place that appeared deep enough for the ceremony. He waded in to make sure.

“I felt some debris under my feet and I started trying to move it out of the way and in the process, without knowing it, I was moving debris out of a sewer line that was coming straight from a house,” he said. “That’ll cause you to think.”


VanHoose realizes that creek baptism is deeply rooted in the traditions of his mountain home. “But when it gets to that point,” he said of his sewage run-in, “we need to have a change of heart and see what’s going on.”

Caudill, of the Tom’s Creek church, is more blunt.

“They say they want to be baptized like the Lord was,” he said of some parishioners. “And I say, ‘Get you a plane ticket and go to the Jordan River.’ ”