If you grow up in a family of preachers, you hear lots of preacher stories, and the funniest ones are about baptisms gone bad, when the ridiculous collides with the sublime.
My dad once had to be pulled out of a pond at night by the Iowa farm wife he had just baptized by the light of car headlights aimed at the water. The bottom of the pond was so soft that when he lifted her up from the water, the force drove both his feet down in the mud. She sloshed out unassisted, but he was stuck fast. She sloshed back in and heaved with all her might. He was delivered but left one of his shoes in the muck.
Some of the hazards of pond baptisms were mitigated when churches built indoor baptisteries. Sometimes, especially in the 1940s and 1950s, the baptistery would be adorned with a realistic painting of a river flowing down into the pool. Sometimes the painting would be done by a local artist. Blanche Perry, however, made it her life’s work to donate paintings to churches who asked for one. She painted about three hundred between 1938 and 1955.
Perry began painting in a tuberculosis sanitarium in the Denver area. As she regained her health, she soaked up the beauty of the mountains as a message about the saving power and goodness of God. She wanted to give that message to the churches she loved, so she began offering to paint baptistery paintings. Her first painting was in the Sherman Street Church of Christ in Denver, her home church. A portion of that painting is the banner photo for this blog.
Soon requests began rolling in, so she would paint large canvases and ship them, keeping detailed notes of the themes and dimensions as she went along. She made black and white snapshots of completed paintings to send to churches who had inquired about getting a painting for their building. She pored over gospel newspapers to see which churches were in a building program and wrote them.
Perry sent with each painting an “interpretation,” or an explanation of the allegorical elements in the paintings, each element correlated with a scripture. In this way she mediated her aesthetic vision to an architecturally plain and text-focused community. At the dedication of the painting, the preacher would read her interpretation to the congregation. Perry asked each church to send her photos of the installed painting, the building, the preacher and his family, and of the congregation. She kept these in carefully labeled scrapbooks.
ACU English professor Jack Welch (1941-1996), who photographed hundreds of baptistery paintings in Appalachia and Texas, persuaded Blanche’s family to send her journals, letters, and scrapbooks to the Center for Restoration Studies at ACU. In 2006, digitizing images from Welch’s photos and Perry’s archive was my first digital project at ACU. The American Theological Library provided the funding and student worker Rob O’Conner scanned the photos for ATLA’s Collaborative Digital Resources Initiative.
Read more about Blanche Perry and see photographs in Rod Hadfield’s “Down to the River to Pray”: http://issuu.com/abilenechristian/docs/acu_today_spring-summer_2013/58
See selected Welch and Perry images at https://www2.atla.com/digitalresources/#abilenefour
See one of Perry’s journals at http://wtda.alc.org/handle/123456789/52019
Send baptistery photographs, with details of artist and location, to [email protected]
Carisse Mickey Berryhill, PhD, is Associate Dean for Archives and Collections at Abilene Christian University’s Brown Library. Berryhill holds advanced degrees in English, library science, and church history. She does research in rhetoric in the Stone-Campbell religious reform movement of the 19th Century and its 18th Century Scottish roots. At ACU she directs the university archives and leads the acquisition of print, archival, and digital collections related to the Stone-Campbell movement. She currently serves as chair of the Corporation Board of Restoration Quarterly.