Baptism without Fire

by Ruth Hammond Barrus

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"Ma says it's as important as being born," whispered tense, eight-year-old Retta to her half-brother, Alvin. Almost hypnotically, they gazed at the rough cement font which was slowly being filled with ice-cold water from the adjacent flowing well. The small, frame building, which enclosed the font, failed to keep out the sounds of angry February winds and stinging snow which peppered the windows. The children drew their large woolen blankets closer about them.

"Pa says our sins will be washed away," added blonde, blue-eyed Alvin, whose eighth birthday it was that day.

"Pa's baptized or re-baptized everybody in Grantsville, I guess," continued Alvin. "President Young told him to, so's all the records would be complete. He's baptized fifteen hundred people, Ma told me this morning."

Pictures of different people in Grantsville being baptized in the font momentarily blotted out the stiffening cold for Retta. She almost giggled at the thought of big, Bennie Barrus in the water. I'll bet, she thought, they had a hard time getting him clear under. She started at the wickedness of such a thought, and quickly looked over at her mother, who was sitting on a bench by Aunt Nellie, talking. Mother had told her this morning she must be very humble and prayerful, as the spirit of the Holy Ghost could be her constant companion after baptism, if she were worthy of it. She pictured in her mind the beautiful story her mother had read of the baptism of the Savior by John, and of the spirit, like a dove, descending upon him. I wonder, she thought, if I will feel the Holy Ghost when it comes to me.

Thoughts were broken by older brother Ernest's sudden movement to stop the flow of water. The time had come. She thought how different cold water looked -- hard, like a crystal mirror. She hoped she could be as brave as the early pioneers who, her mother said, had been baptized in rivers whose iced topping had to be chopped through and you were dipped through the hole into the cold water below.

Father was removing his big, black over coat now. One moment he stood, his lean, medium-statured figure arrayed in white. His black, grey-streaked beard reached his chest, and his eyes seemed bright with the vision of the present and future.

Retta's and Alvin's eyes absorbed the picture of their father unflinchingly descending into the icy water. Feeling the penetration of their gaze, he looked at his twins, as he called them, for their birthdays were only three months apart; and he smiled -- a smile that transferred uncomplaining strength and courage to the shivering youngsters.

Alvin was first. He winked at his sister, and, with exaggerated nonchalance, walked toward the steps of the font, decked in white flannel under-drawers and white shirt. It didn't take long, Retta thought, as she saw Aunt Nellie wrapping Alvin in warm blankets.

Tall brother Ernest was taking the blanket from around her now. She nervously felt to see if the safety pins still held her full, white nightgown to her white stockings at the ankles. She had a vision of the nightgown billowing over her head as she went under the water.

Her father's reassuringly firm smile, and his strong hands took away some of the sting of the cold water. With his left hand he gripped her left hand, and she tightly fastened her right hand on his wrist. Raising his right arm to the square, he solemnly repeated the sacred words of baptism; then, lowering his arm to support her shoulders, he completely submerged her in the water.

Quickly she was taken from the water, folded in blankets, and rushed, behind ringing sleigh bells, the short distance to her home. There, Katie and Grace sat her on the warm oven door, and took her wet clothes from her. Mother Hale brought her and Alvin a cup of hot ginger tea, the family's remedial medicine for any ache or pain below the chin. The tea gave a tingling inner warmth that matched the warmth of the big black kitchen range. Retta eyed, with anticipation, the huge platter of fluffy popcorn balls on the table, and the rich mounds of freshly pulled molasses candy. She smelled hungrily the large pot of savory vegetable stew simmering on the back of the stove. From the front rooms came the sounds of the rich bass voices of her older brothers, and Aunt Nellie's boys; there were the higher voices of her sisters; there were the sweet childish voices of Viola and Aunt Nellie's Zina. What glorious music is laughter when it harmoniously blends the voices of the people you love! Retta wiggled with the joy of it all. Now warmly dressed, she eagerly became a participant in the festivities of the large Hale family.

The large center table was extended its full capacity, and around it knelt the family of Alma Hale. Only his deceased wife's children were missing from the circle. They were married and breaking new lands in distant settlements. Ernest and Albert were soon to leave with their brides -- Ernest to Gentile Valley, and Albert to their newly opened country at Goosecreek (Oakley, Idaho). In the spring Alma was to take Nellie and her family to Gentile Valley. In a soft, sincere voice, Alma was thanking the Lord for his many blessings -- for his family, the food that abounded on the table (he still had a vivid memory of other winters when sego roots were all that kept starvation away), for shelter, for the mission of Joseph Smith -- on and on he gratefully prayed; and the intensity of his voice thrilled them all. All? Well, the very smallest ones were rocking back and forth on their tired knees, and rolling eyes were peaking through spread fingers at the tempting food on the table. But all felt, when they arose to their feet, that they had received a special father's blessing; and they knew that keeping the faith was one of the most important things in life.

Too soon the evening came, and Aunt Nellie and her family had to leave. Retta looked happily over the front room, which was littered not only with popcorn and misplaced chairs, but with memories of a beautiful day. She saw her mother bring the family record book to the table.

"I guess being baptized is about the most wonderful thing that can happen to anyone," Retta said as she watched her mother write in the book:

"Aroetta Louisa Hale, baptized by her father, Alma H. Hale, in Grantsville, February 19, 1887."

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