Material History of American Religion Project

Gathered by the river

Primitive Baptist baptism, by Marion Post Wolcott

Project scholar Colleen McDannell has gotten interested in the pictures taken by photographers employed by the Farm Security Administration, a New Deal agency from the 1930s. The FSA hired photographers to travel through rural (and urban) America, documenting the impact of the Depression and the results of government policies. Along the way, they captured images of daily life across the country. McDannell is investigating how these photographers sought to picture religious life and practice, often shaping their images to fit their own political or philosophical conclusions.

One of the best-known of the FSA photographers was Marion Post Wolcott, who took this picture. McDannell writes of it:

By standing on a nearby bridge so she could shoot from a distance, Marion Post Wolcott created a photograph where the actions of the religious community are highlighted. She presents a congregation of Primitive Baptists as they establish a close bond between their world and the world of the New Testament by baptizing their new members as John baptized Jesus in the River Jordan. At this moment, the people being baptized are separated from the congregation, but they will eventually join it as full members of the church.

This picture is part of an exhibition McDannell created to tour the country, appearing in college and university libraries and museums. If you would like more information on the exhibit, please contact her.

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