While the imagery can seem dramatic — a fully clothed body submerged in water, the symbolic death of one’s past life — a Jehovah’s Witness baptism isn’t meant to be an emotional affair.
The baptismal tub is unadorned and, aside from family members standing by and occasionally taking photos, baptisms aren’t considered celebrations and are met with little fanfare.
Donna Baughman has often seen people of her faith eating lunches and watching the baptisms as they’re projected onto a screen. Those waiting to be baptized stand in line near the tub, chatting among themselves.
“It’s just a happy day for them,” the Ballard woman said. “It’s not emotional, it’s based on knowledge.”
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For Witnesses, baptism is a symbol of a believer’s dedication toward Jehovah (God) and his teachings.
“It’s the most important promise you can make in your life,” said Baughman’s husband, Weston, an elder in the faith.
For this reason, he said, Witnesses wanting to be baptized should have a strong, rational basis underlying their wish, rather than just a passing emotion.
“Emotions do not last, emotions come and go,” Weston Baughman said. “Who knows what tomorrow brings, but are you going to keep your promise?”
Baptisms typically are offered three times a year: during biannual meetings of congregations within a small area, known as circuit assemblies, and once at large regional conventions.
Starting Saturday, members from 175 congregations in Western Washington will gather at the Tacoma Dome for the first of three conventions on consecutive weekends.
A total of about 22,000 attendees are expected at this year’s conventions, the 33rd annual gathering at the Dome.
Witness conventions worldwide offer the same talks and focus on the same theme as will the convention in Tacoma, providing a sense of unity within the faith’s community.
“You teach in unity, and conduct is according to the book you stand there representing,” Donna Baughman said.
As an elder — a long-time member of a congregation who acts as a spiritual guide for other believers — Weston Baughman will be responsible for this year’s baptism talk at the convention.
His talk, “Never Abandon Your Loyal Love for Jehovah,” will focus on the promise of loyalty that baptism signifies.
An estimated 70 to 100 baptisms will occur at the convention, echoing its theme, “Remain Loyal to Jehovah!”
The Baughmans grew up in the religion and were baptized when they were 12, the youngest age that a Witness is deemed ready to make a lifelong commitment to Jehovah.
Not all Witnesses are baptized so young.
Henry and Helen Schwerdtfeger of Issaquah were baptized together, an unusual occurrence in the faith, in their late 20s after they were married.
The two had become interested in the religion and studied as Bible students around the same time. Henry Schwerdtfeger, an elder, compares this period of study to dating.
“Do I really want to make a commitment to this person?” he said.
He equates the final step before baptism, making a personal dedication through prayer, to getting engaged.
“What do you do after your engagement? You have a public wedding,” he said. “(Baptism is) that public consummation of our dedication to God to do his will.”
The Schwerdtfegers remained in the “dating” process for six years before becoming Witnesses. They hesitated to join, he said, because he was a Presbyterian and she a Lutheran, and it takes time to change lifestyles and live “in harmony with Bible principles.”
Most Witnesses become “publishers,” people who spread the “good news of Jehovah” by knocking on doors or talking to friends, before being baptized.
Helen Schwerdtfeger said she and her husband didn’t feel ready to be publishers until after they were baptized.
“We were a little nervous about doing that so it took us a little longer,” she said.
After their baptism the two devoted themselves to what they call “internal conversion.” Henry quit smoking in 1973, two years after his baptism, as part of “moral cleansing.”
“You couldn’t become any position in the congregation if you had that bad habit,” he said.
Like all of the faith’s teachings, the requirement to change lifestyle choices can be directly connected to a biblical verse, Donna Baughman said.
“You have to meet requirements,” she said. “You just can’t go continuing the lifestyle you had and say, ‘I’m a Christian.’ The Bible said faith without works is useless, it’s dead.”
Much like the decision to make a change in lifestyle is personal, the decision to be baptized must come from within each Witness, she said.
“We never bring it up,” she said. “When that person takes in knowledge, they are moved by the knowledge and they ask themselves.”
This rang true in Henry’s spiritual journey.
Once resistant to becoming a Witness, he said he began to change after a mentor challenged him “to prove the Bible right instead of wrong.”
“After that, the truth started to sink into my heart,” he said.
And while baptisms are not meant to be emotional, he said he cried during his own.
“It’s the beginning of the rest of your life,” he said. “It’s only then that you begin to have an intimate relationship with God because you made a commitment.”
Manola Secaira: 253-597-8876
Upcoming Jehovah’s Witness gatherings in Tacoma
When: The weekends of July 1-3, July 8-10 and July 15-17.
Where: Tacoma Dome.
Hours: Fridays and Saturdays, 9:20 a.m. to 4:50 p.m.; Sundays, 9:20 a.m. to 3:45 p.m.
Admission: Free and open to the public.
For more information online: bit.ly/28YHzor or tacomadome.org/jw.