Baptized in the Charles

Tichnor Brothers, Charles River, approaching Harvard University (Boston Public Library Tichnor Brothers collection / Wikimedia Commons)

The day before my college graduation, I was baptized in the Charles River. Cambridge felt constant: spires in grey sky, brick, swampy air, latent gravitas and muggy discomfort. I stood on the bank in yoga pants, and wondered who else had gone under, how many had stayed the course.

By the time I arrived at Harvard, the school was secular, yet haunted by faith. I lived in a dorm named for an old minister, drank coffee on Church Street, and sat through a prayer before Convocation. My choir sang passions and requiems. The school’s early motto, Veritas Christo et Ecclesiae, was now Veritas. The philosophy building was etched with a quotation: WHAT IS MAN THAT THOU ART MINDFUL OF HIM.

Empty churches formed a sacramental landscape. First Baptist. First Parish. Progenitors, all. First Church Cambridge was founded by Reverend Thomas Shepard in 1636, the same year Harvard (a seminary) opened across the street. All were founded by Puritans. Those black-hatted killjoys! They lived in a line of Harvard’s anthem, a verse since discarded and replaced: Be the herald of light and the bearer of love / Till the stock of the Puritans die!

Before they could join a church, Puritans had to give testimony. First, depravity or despair. Then, a climactic moment of conversion, often occasioned by an encounter with Scripture. The story ended with continued devotion. This narrative was faith’s proof, the only evidence required. If elders voted yes, the storyteller was baptized and granted membership. At First Church, Reverend Shepard kept inky records: fifty-one confessions, 1637–1645.

The testimonies contend with salt and ships. Historian Patricia Caldwell writes that “the American version of deliverance is imaginatively meditated…by a real geographical place”—rocky Massachusetts shores. Mr. Andrews, the shipmaster, describes a miracle: his ship was split and all drowned but a few, four of my men, myself naked upon the main topsail in very cold weather…. And glad I was that I lost my ship and so lost my sin.

One of the testimonies is from Katherine, a woman described as “Mrs. Russel’s maid.” She makes the decision to move to America: And thought here the Lord might be found, and doubtful whether I had a call to come because I was to leave my friends.

The small crowd on the bank took in the ceremony. I’d been a practicing Christian for years, but had never been baptized.

At eighteen, I had stuffed my suitcases and crossed the country to seek another kind of blessing. And it had come. Books in stacks, money to travel, freedom to dissent. I made breakthroughs at a scuffed-up desk, and sensed I was living in history. My faith became more resilient, honed by basement Bible studies; I joined a church filled with scientists and scholars. In the world and not of it, both salt and light.

Barbary Cutter stood before her neighbors, swished her skirts, and spoke: "Many miseries and stumbling blocks at last removed and sad passages by sea. And after I came hither I saw my condition more miserable than ever. I knew not what to do."

Harvard taught lessons in jealousy, greed, self-reproach. I felt utter vincibility, even near commencement, an apex of mortarboards and Latin, American elms, bells, and addresses. There was doubt, all around: not of God, but of achievement, which had made me whiny, and insufferable. Narratives conflicted: the “citizen-leaders” and the “least of these,” accruing and tithing, college and the real world—and the real world to come. Uneasy, I was starting to suspect that the standards of one place might inevitably contradict those of the other.

I waded into the water. Mud squished. The current wasn’t cold, as I’d imagined. The small crowd on the bank took in the ceremony. I’d been a practicing Christian for years, but had never been baptized. There were always excuses: general busyness; a desire for my parents to be present; doubt about what the sacrament meant. I felt pretty faithful without it—and yet quietly craved obedient entrance into the people of God.

Two campus ministers held me by the forearms. They prayed, and tipped me back. Those who watched say my motion was graceful, a last-minute upward swoop of my hand to pinch my open nose. I think it was jerky, a sudden reflex. For seconds, eyes closed, I was under murky water. My feet lifted from the river bottom—freefall, float, trust entire. Then I came up, pulling in a breath. Applause. I had done it. Well, God had done it. There was no tingling spine. No enchantment. I didn’t feel different. Someone took pictures. I worried about cans on the river bottom, scrap metal tinged with tetanus. Back on shore, my boyfriend strummed hymns on a guitar. My roommate handed me a towel.

A piece of moss clung to my bare foot, followed me home and into the shower I had to take before that day’s ceremonies. It was Class Day: there would be speeches in the heat, and a wine and cheese reception (of course). I longed for them after the morning’s self-death, the weird ritual that didn’t translate into status. It wasn’t an achievement, but an initiation—a beginning I’d been given rather than an end I deserved. What I had earned felt more monumental. But that wasn’t true. Standing in the hot water, I prayed inchoate prayers, far less lucid than testimony. 

Published in the June 1, 2019 issue: 

Katherine Lucky is the Managing Editor of Commonweal. Follow her on Twitter @katherinejlucky.

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