Arts & Culture

Yes, You Can Be Baptized a Texan

You don’t have to live in the Lone Star State to become an honorary citizen, as I learned firsthand

A collage of two images: A man baptizes a woman with water on his hand; a stone fountain.

Photo: John Fortune

The author being "baptized" by former Huntsville mayor Mac Woodward; an offering of Sam Houston's favorite meal outside his gravesite.

I’ve always felt a kinship with Texans. In my experience, the people of the Lone Star State possess the perfect blend of Southern warmth and Western swagger. It’s the way a young boy holds the elevator open for you with a tip of his cowboy hat. How a patron you’ve swapped pleasantries with at a bakery pays for your kolaches. How everyone says “ma’am,” “please,” and “thank you.”

Or maybe I’ve just had a past life in Texas.

In any case, when I stumbled across the chance to be “baptized” a Texan, I quickly registered online and paid my $20 fee. No residency or property ownership required, just a desire to belong.

The baptism ceremony, which is secular and symbolic rather than religious or legal, is held annually in Huntsville, in the piney woods of East Texas, on March 2. That momentous date marks both Texas Independence Day and the birthday, coincidentally, of one of the state’s most revered figures. Sam Houston, who made his home in Huntsville, served as president of the erstwhile Republic of Texas, governor of Tennessee and Texas, and United States senator. During the Texas Revolution, he led the struggle for statehood, defeating Santa Anna in the 1836 Battle of San Jacinto. 

photo: John Fortune
Students from Sam Houston State University celebrate Texas Independence Day and Houston’s birthday.

The day kicks off with a march from the Sam Houston State University campus through downtown to Houston’s gravesite. Tri-colored Texas flags line the mile-long route. Some three hundred folks are gathered on this overcast but balmy morning; one anonymous visitor left Houston’s favorite foods—a cup of coffee, three sugar cookies, and six raw oysters—at his grave. Perhaps birds have plucked the briny morsels from the now-empty shells.

I join forty-seven other adults and kids in white folding chairs set up opposite the gravesite. In dapper attire next to me sit Frank and Cari Daniel, their daughter, Liberty, and son, Justice; they are fourth- and fifth-generation descendants of Sam Houston, visiting from Cypress, Texas. 

“As a direct descendent of Sam Houston, it is an honor and privilege to celebrate my great-great-great-great grandfather’s birthday along with Texas’s independence day each year,” Frank says to the crowd. “My family is thankful for not just remembering Sam Houston, but also for the cause he stood for, independence.”

The gravesite ceremony includes a twenty-one-gun salute, followed by the Huntsville High School choir’s singing of “The Yellow Rose of Texas” and “Deep in Heart of Texas” before the laying of the wreaths. After an invocation and pledges of U.S. and Texas allegiance, eight local officials—including Huntsville mayor Russell Humphrey and Donnis B. Battise, the principal chief of the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas—speak in quick succession.

photo: John Fortune
A sixty-seven-foot-tall statue of Houston in Huntsville.

Then it’s time for the baptism. Each candidate is called alphabetically—I’m last—to line up in front of Houston’s memorial, facing the audience. Former Huntsville mayor Mac Woodward dabs local spring water onto our foreheads. “Now I baptize thee in the name of the Republic of Texas, General Sam Houston, Stephen F. Austin, Bonham, Bowie, Travis, Crockett, Seguin, and Zavala, matchless Texas heroes them all, long may you wave! Now affirm your new Texas citizenship status and commitment to serve Texas as did these mighty men and statesmen by saying ‘I do!’’’

We proud new Texans receive goody bags containing a certificate, T-shirt, small plastic statue of Houston, and reusable water bottle. The choir wraps with the state song “Texas Our Texas,” accompanied by enthusiastic whistles. 

“This is one of those only-in-Texas things,” Derrick Birdsall, director of the Sam Houston Memorial Museum and Republic of Texas Presidential Library, tells me later. “I don’t see people wanting to be baptized a Californian or a Floridian. Texas is an almost mythical place that people want to be a part of.”

Seventh-grader Kennedy Starr, who receives a year of state history in school along with other Texas middle school students, agrees. She was so elated to be baptized that she asked to hug a stranger—me. 

“Now I can say y’all and not be a poser,” adds her mom, Brooke, another newly christened Texan.

Afterward, we attend a luncheon at the Sam Houston Memorial Museum, greeted by a coterie of locals in period dress. One hundred and fifty people enjoy a buffet of pecan- and hickory-smoked meatloaf, pork and beans with peach slices, green beans, and mashed potatoes with brown gravy. The luncheon’s keynote speaker, Fourteenth Court of Appeals Justice Ken Wise (who also serves as president of the board of directors of the Texas State Historical Association), opens his remarks with a howdy, declaring it a good day to be a Texan. Then he puts Houston’s importance into context. 

“This is one of the high holy days of Texas history. The eighteen-minute Battle of San Jacinto changed the course of Texas and world history—and gave us Buc-ee’s.”  

The audience roars. 

Is it all a clever marketing stunt? For sure. But the sincerity I feel isn’t manufactured. If I ever tire of Arizona living, Texas tops my relocation list. I feel like I already belong—and now I have the certificate to prove it.