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Our History: Baptism in Tasmania

Baptists, and Our Once-Defining Form of Baptism

By Laurie Rowston

Up to the 1860s in Tasmania, the Baptists were set apart up by their defining mode of baptism.

The first Baptist minister, the Rev. Henry Dowling, arrived in the middle 1830s and it was not until the 1860s that the English Brethren, who also practised baptism by immersion, arrived. The American Church of Christ too, baptised by immersion, but didn't arrive in Tasmania until 1870.

The first Baptist baptism in the colony took place on January 26, 1836, in the mill pond of Walker's Mill at the corner of Collins and Barrack Streets, Hobart Town. Baptist baptisms were often conducted in the open air. In Launceston at least one was conducted in a clay pond. At Constitution Hill, Dysart, they were conducted in both a lagoon and a sheep wash!

Oh, you naughty boys!

Because this form of baptism was unusual, its enactment would draw many spectators. Stories which spoke of Baptist baptism stayed in circulation for decades. One such story was still in circulation in 1898, recorded in the Launceston Examiner at the time:

"Speaking the other day to an old resident about the recent water-race action in the Supreme Court, he told me of an incident in connection with the mill that occurred towards the close of the forties.

"Mr. Yates, a Quaker, was the occupier of the mill at the time, and he had been exposed to a great deal of loss and annoyance by boys rolling down rocks and walking upon the shutes to their favourite fishing and bathing places. He had done all in his power to put a stop to the nuisance, but without avail.

"One Sunday afternoon my informant was taking a stroll on the hill at the back of the mill, and when somewhere about where the present bridge is, a troop of boys came running along on the shutes, daring and boisterous. In a moment all was changed! Concealed behind a rock the injured Quaker waited for his tormentors, and, springing out unexpectedly, he seized one of the defiant group. The rest beat a hasty retreat, but when they had reached a respectful distance they paused to watch developments, which went on rather rapidly.

"Dragging his struggling and howling quarry to a place at which he could conveniently carry on operations, Mr. Yates took the boy by the collar of his coat and the seat of his pants and plunged him into the shutes, soucing him up and down several times until remonstrance was inaudible; then liberating him he said, 'Now go home and tell your mother that I have baptised you as well as Daddy Dowling could have done it.'"

Now go home and tell your mother that I have baptised you as well as Daddy Dowling* could have done it!

*Pictured above, "Daddy Dowling" was the Rev. Henry Dowling.

Anabaptist immersion during a storm

Baptism is key to Baptists

Baptist James W. McClendon, Associate Professor of Theology at the University of San Francisco sees baptism as a performative sign, that is "a conventional human act which although verbal has the quality not of describing but of doing something." He sees baptism as the empirical key to Baptist experience.

But the days of public debate on baptism have passed. Back in the 1890s it was a reason for coming out in the evenings in such places as Latrobe as, in the local community hall, Baptist debated with Congregationalist.

At left: Anabaptist immersion during a storm

When we Baptists in Tasmania began again in the 1870s, baptism was one of the hallmarks of who we were.

Publicly, and privately in the churches, it was asked whether the appropriate candidate could only be a confessing believer, what the proper mode was and who could administer the baptism, an individual Christian, or ordained minister. In all this the purpose of baptism was discussed.

Times change - Baptism continues

Obviously, there are ceasefire lines today as denominationalism has fallen away, and we have good reason to be at one with our fellow Christians in other denominations. But when we Baptists in Tasmania began again in the 1870s, baptism was one of the hallmarks of who we were.

Looking at the paucity of numbers of those being baptised in our churches today, should we ask whether we need to recover something of who we once were? In our churches, baptism should continue to be a passionate "Amen" spoken by the those undergoing entry into the Christian community.

Laurie Rowston
Tasmanian Baptists' Historian

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