Note: This is an encore post from 2006.
Sept. 23, 1907
A crowd of 2,000—the faithful and the doubters—gathered at Echo Park Lake as black evangelist the Rev. J.L. Griffin prepared to baptize five believers in the cold water. Children climbed in the trees to get a better view, while other people watched from rowboats.
The rite was supposed to begin at 4 p.m., but several of the people were delayed and Griffin, who had been holding tent revival meetings in Los Angeles all summer, addressed the increasingly impatient throng.
“Some of you colored men have criticized me because I am friendly with white people,” Griffin said, according to The Times. “I tell you the Lord loves us all, white or black. We are on the watch for sanctification and separation.”
“What is separation, Mr. Preacher?” a skeptic yelled.
“I’ll tell you what separation means for you, my friend,” Griffin replied. “It means separation from your devilment, that’s what.”
Born in the days of slavery, Griffin, 48, of Dallas, was an imposing, powerful man who began preaching at an early age. In 1868, he went to live on a Louisiana farm and while there, learned to read from an old green-backed Webster’s speller.
“Then I read the Testament, lots of times, from cover to cover, and some of the colored folks, they heard me talk about it. In them days the big preachers came into the country to preach sometimes and get a good collection. Finally some of the folks asked why I don’t preach and I did; I began at 9 years old.”
(Of course, The Times wrote it in dialect: “Den I read de Testament lots o’ times, from cover to cover an’ some o’ de colored folks dey heah me talk about it. Dem days de big preachers come into de country to preach sometimes and get a good collection. Finally some o’ de folks ask why I don’t preach, an’ I did; I begin at 9 years old.” )
Griffin frequently engaged the congregation in his sermons:
“You, Sam, you always done shot craps, didn’t you?”
“You going to do it any more?”
“Lord, no sir.”
The Times quoted one sermon: “We don’t want equality. We want religion; religion dat’ll make you niggahs wake up to the fac’ dat you all is bound fo’ hell faster’n Maud S. could go in her best days.”
For the baptism, Griffin and his followers erected a small disrobing tent in the park. The first to emerge was Annie Childs, wearing a white robe and a white handkerchief over her head. “She seemed unconscious of the onlookers and broke into an ecstatic song as she walked to the water’s edge,” The Times said.
When the five believers (three black, one white and one Latino) were ready, Griffin changed into a white robe and plunged into the lake, followed by two deacons who winced at the coldness of the water. While three of them wore white robes, two of the men wore blue overalls and “thin outing shirts.”
The crowd hushed as Child’s face dipped below the surface of the lake. “In an instant she reappeared, spluttering and sobbing in excitement. Once out of the lake, she went into a spasm. Her garments, saturated with water, clung tightly to her slight figure. Her eyes were closed. Suddenly she began to cry and laugh and to shout religious phrases that gave evidence to the glory that was hers,” The Times said.
Several hecklers steered their rowboats near Griffin, but he cautioned them: “You boys had better get away or I might give you a different kind of baptism.”
With the ceremony concluded, Griffin invited the crowd to attend his tent revival meetings at 9th Street and Mateo.
“It won’t harm you to come and it may do you a power of good. I guess we can all be a mite better than we are.”