MEMPHIS, Tenn. (USA Today) — Forty years of wandering the earth without Elvis hasn’t diminished the religious fervor of his faithful fans.
This week, more Elvis fans than ever are expected to make their annual pilgrimage to commiserate and commemorate his Aug. 16, 1977, death.
They will go to Memphis and walk tenderly and mournfully with lit candles through Graceland’s Meditation Garden, where he was laid to rest.
They will go to Mississippi and sit and stand prayerfully inside the East Tupelo First Assembly of God, where he first learned to love the Lord and play the guitar.
They will visit the sacred shotgun house where he was born, the iconic recording studio where he was born again, any shrine that bears his mark and memory.
Many will be moved. Some will weep. A few will simply fall down, as if slain by the spirit.
The wonder of Elvis Presley.
A pauper’s son who became the King of Rock ’n’ Roll.
A dirt-poor Pentecostal kid whose love for Southern gospel music propelled him to secular fame, fortune and folly.
An evangelical entertainer of deep, abiding and conflicting faith who wore a cross and a Star of David, prayed and meditated, sang spirituals and read The Tao Te Ching.
“All I want is to know the truth, to know and experience God. I’m a searcher, that’s what I’m all about,” Elvis told a friend late in life, according to Gary Tillery’s “The Seeker King.”
Elvis was baptized, undoubtedly, as a child by a Trinitarian Pentecostal preacher in Tupelo, Miss.
He was rebaptized, reportedly, as a young teenager by a Oneness Pentecostal preacher in Memphis.
He also was baptized, posthumously, by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Multiple baptisms aren’t uncommon here in the land of religious liberty, where beliefs and practices vary widely, even within various Christian denominations.
Elvis grew up in the heart of the Pentecostal South at East Tupelo First Assembly of God, where his parents met and his great-uncles were co-pastors.
The Assemblies of God, the world’s largest Pentecostal body, follow the traditional triune formula found in Matthew 28:19: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
As a child, Elvis was water baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, according to biographers.
When Elvis was 13, the Presleys moved to Memphis. They lived near the Church of Jesus Christ, led by Rex Dyson, a Oneness Pentecostal preacher.
Oneness Pentecostals reject the triune formula for baptism. Instead, they use Peter’s instructions in Acts 2:38: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for remission of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
They baptize believers in the name of Jesus only.
“Vernon and Gladys (Presley) heard me preach about baptism a few times, then they came to me and said they wanted to be baptized in the name of Jesus,” Dyson told me in 2000, two years before he died. “I baptized Elvis in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
There is no record of either baptism, but that isn’t unusual, said James R. Goff of Appalachian State University. He has researched and written about Elvis’ Pentecostal roots.
“For most Pentecostals, baptism came after revivals and were not considered synonymous with the process of joining the church,” said Goff.
For some, baptism also comes after death.
Latter-day Saints believe baptism is essential for eternal salvation. They believe everyone should get that chance, even those who were never baptized or were baptized without proper authority.
So they perform proxy baptisms on behalf of the dead. That includes Elvis, who reportedly was thinking of converting to Mormonism.
According to a 2006 documentary, “Tears of a King,” Elvis had been reading and making notes in the Book of Mormon and talking to missionaries about converting a few months before his untimely death.
Apocryphal or not, the stories of Elvis’ three baptisms only serve to enhance his immortality.
“With Elvis, there’s a sense of promises unfulfilled,” Goff said, “given the degree to which he seemed to never quite find the happiness he sought.”
Not in this life, anyway.
(David Waters is opinions editor of The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, part of the USA Today Network, and is a five-time winner of the Wilbur Award for religion writing. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidWatersCA)