Revivalism: A response by Jamaican slaves to 'dead' English worship

by Shalman Scott

Sunday, September 09, 2018

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The system of European slavery generally, and English slavery in Jamaica particularly, was not only an economic imperative to make England “great again”.

The 'Mother Country' had become destitute arising from two factors: (1) devastation of the population due to the Black Plague, a disease transmitted from rats to humans resulting in untold deaths; and (2) the English Civil War, the conflict of which started with quarrels and disagreements with King James I of the Protestant Bible on one side of the conflict; and politicians, planters and merchants, essentially, on the other side and led by Parliamentarian Oliver Cromwell.

The conflict with King James I, who died in 1625 and was succeeded by his second son King Charles I, mushroomed into full civil war between 1642 and 1658. By 1649 King Charles I was put on trial and sentenced to death. He was beheaded. The chief judge who presided over the trial of the king and who sentenced him to death, John Bradshaw, is buried here in Jamaica at Gun Hill in the parish of Trelawny. After this monumental event of civil war in English history Oliver Cromwell emerged as “Lord Protector of England” between 1653 and 1658 and it was during this time, under Cromwell's Western Design”, that Jamaica was captured from the Spaniards, culminating in the Treaty of Madrid (1670) when Spain ceded the island to the English with a quid pro quo in which England would get rid of her pirates, including the infamous Henry Morgan from specifically the Spanish waters of the Caribbean. By this time the English monarchy abolished by Cromwell was restored with King Charles II ascending the throne in 1660. Some may ask, so what does this ancient English history, has to do with us here in Jamaica?

The answer is everything. For, indeed, events in far away England played out on the soil of the British colonies and have impacted our culture, our political, religious and economic systems in more ways than one. And if wealth was organised historically with the landlords and warlords of feudalism becoming the oligarchs of mercantilism and their generation becoming the entrepreneurs of capitalism, then poverty was also organised in a zero sum economic game from the dawn of history.

To start with, the language which the black slaves and their descendants speak today over 300 years of English colonialism and slavery was unknown to us when we were viciously uprooted by slave traders and shipped to Jamaica and the rest of the West Indies to work in the mines, on cattle ranches, cotton and sugar plantations. The assault on our African culture through the process of Anglicisation, with the use of pernicious physical violence, gibbetting, burning alive, torture, beatings, was only outmatched by the psychological violence of brainwashing — religion being one of the major sources of our acculturation. For example, the Anglican priest in Boston, Massachusetts, USA, Cotton Mather, in 1712, was contracted to come up with a creed for the negroes throughout the British Empire. And this was for compulsory memorisation for all enslaved negroes throughout the realm.

He said: “We are miserable sons of Adam and Noah. We have sinned against God and that is why we are in slavery. It is not the white man that has enslaved us…but our sins. But if we submit ourselves to the miserable condition of slavery…..while there will be no earthly reward in the form of wages…when we die a mansion will be prepared for us in Heaven, where we will be in constant companion with the Angels”.

Some slaves who were hoodwinked by the Mather interests and cabal in response made up songs known as Negro Spirituals, for example, “It soon be done ... when troubles and trials..When we get home on the other side, we are going shake our hands with the elders, we are going tell the preachers good morning (sure to be present as they were white)... we are going to sit down beside Jesus …we going to sit down and rest a little while…” Or, 'Redemption coming, praise the Lord…What a wonderful freedom, glory to His name….We are out of the bondage…We are into the Freedom …..Redemption coming...Praise the Lord'! There were several others.

But there exist also many songs of defiance with a public but crafty announcement of their intention, for example, through songs to steal away: ”Steal away, steal away home to glory …I don't have long to stay here.” To this one many slave masters listened quietly and intently… but often times misread, until the slaves went missing! The word “here” most times used by the slaves did not mean from this earth; it meant from this plantation. But the master heard steal away to Glory — NOT from his plantation. However, freedom to the slaves was glorious!

It is this craftiness and intellectual sophistication that many overseers, masters and naively pro-slavery writers misread continually, simpley because they stereotyped our ancestors as “Quarshie fools”, Pitchy-Patchy and Anansi. But were they ever fools or only played the fool to catch the wise? It was this sophistication and cunningness on the part of our ancestors that drove up the cost of slave sugar production to the Jamaican planters, and as the competition from beet sugar increased in the British Empire to the East, that economic competitive situation coupled increasingly with massive slave rebellions and sabotage eventuating higher cost of operation, and leading to the collapse of slavery.

Adam Smith puts it succinctly regarding the overall sincere attitude of the slaves. Smith said: “A person who can acquire no property can have no other interest than to eat as much and to labour as little as possible”. Admittedly there were other factors that played their part in ending chattel slavery, but those will be addressed in other articles. But a further insight into our ancestors influence and knowledge of the slave system's vulnerability may be gleaned by the story of the slave Halifax, a habitual runaway from his plantation in western Jamaica. Again, his master posted rewards for his capture. One of the search parties caught up with Halifax in central Jamaica. He presented them with bogus manumission papers convincing them that he was the case of a mistaken identity. Having convinced the search party that he was the wrong person, the group requested that he join them in search of Halifax. He reluctantly obliged and joined the search. The slave system was not water tight as the large army of pro-slavery writers tried to convey.

Were that the case, the devastating frequency of slave rebellions and sabotage coupled with the psychosocial and cultural defiance/resistance, which often took the planters, military and the rest of the white population by surprise, would not have occurred. It is this psycho-cultural defiance on the part of a huge chunk of the African slaves that has also permanently grounded Revivalism and Pocomania in the mix of religious worship in Jamaica. Between the second half of the 18th and the first quarter of the 19th centuries the white English missionaries of the Non-conformist churches (not associated to the Established Anglican Church) began to arrive in Jamaica. These were Moravians, Methodists, and the Baptists. Not allowed to enter and worship God in the established Anglican churches and that of their slave masters, the slaves, on the face of it, flocked to the non-conformists, church being very clear about what they wanted and knew what alliance to form to get what they wanted, which was freedom.

The white missionaries were delighted with the progress and what they saw as a sweep of conversion of the slaves to their 'Popish” systems of beliefs. But by 1839 just about a year after slavery was abolished attendance at orthodox Non-conformist churches began to fall off dramatically according to Professor of Business History at Harvard University's School of Business Alfred D Chandler. And a few years later Orthodox Christianity and the previous religious fervour seen in the period leading up to Emancipation in 1838, suddenly turned African shattering the high hopes of orthodox christians and the British missionaries with the reemergence of Myalism and Pocomania — Bedward's type of churches in August Town, for example cpnverged to lay the foundation of modern Jamaica Revivalism.

Why was this word 'Revivalism' given by the freed slaves to their religious activities? The blacks resented the attempts by the British missionaries to promote themselves as leaders of the Afro-Jamaican communities in things religious, moral, and cultural. British missionary pastors discourage baptising or christening illegitimate children, and other rules which barred 70 per cent of the black population from being members of British missionary or orthodox Afro-Jamaican Baptist churches in particular.

Other rules included: No clapping of hands, no playing of musical instruments, no dancing and swaying of the body, no speaking in tongues, nor getting into the spirit, and worshippers were forbidden to wear costly raiments. By now readers must be thinking that worship must have been dead. That is exactly what our foreparents thought. So they moved to REVIVE that which was thought to be dead by the infusion of their African cultural practices which dates back from time immoral. And so that is how the word “Revivalism” came about within the context of our religious literature. Revivalist are also known as Revival Zion, Zionist, Revival and Pocomania, which is a blend of Baptist, Methodist, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Pentecostal beliefs and practices with modified African beliefs and practices added.

Under the broad umbrella of Revivalism is a branch called Pocomania which is the Union of Myalism and Protestant (especially Baptist) Christianity in Jamaica. This Neo-African religious movement promoted Christian Revivalism plus oral confessions, trances, dreams, prophesies, spirit seizures, and frenzied dancing. It became the strongest of the native Jamaican religions until the emergence of Rastafarianism in the 1930s.

Other branches of Revivalism involve 'Convince', an ancestral cult that started in the easternmost parts of Jamaica. Its priest is the “Bongo-man” which predated the word Rastafari by centuries.

Kumina, a type of Myalism that stemmed from West African Ashanti ancestor possession beliefs, later incorporated Christian elements as a result of African-American influences in Jamaica, especially, and involves belief in the Holy Spirit and baptism. Its priest is the Kum-Fu-Man. From the foregoing the fusion of various elements of religious and spiritual belief systems, arising from the clash of diverse cultures and subcultures of the African and European peoples, has oftentimes syncretised and crystallised to manifest behaviourally in various ways.

Revivalism and it various offshoots speak to and disavow European account of its role and embellished prestige during the period of English colonialism and slavery here in Jamaica. And so the struggles continue in less than obvious ways oftentimes. Discernment is needed always, failing which some will be searching to find “Halifax,” who is right there in our midst and by so doing we failed observation.

The Jews understood the importance of their history to their international cohesion and success. The negroes clutch on to the protestant Bible as holy scriptures which, for the most part, are Jewish history, allegories, myths and legends — and knows its content from cover to cover. And nothing is wrong with that. But how are we doing with a knowledge of our own history and the specific consequences of even the distant past on our present circumstances as negroes? How do you view Revivalists who are the poorer and seemingly the “less educated” quintile of the population but who have performed “miraculous healings” to many in the population including those from the educated middle and upper classes of society? Some even privily go to see these Revivalists with their “spiritual gifts and knowledge” that survived and transcended the dismally oppressive long night of English colonialism and slavery.

Revivalism is the manifestation of diasporic African peoples' cultural survivalism — it underlines that our people were never ever intimidated despite the atrocities and cruelties constantly meted out to them. They sang: ….”We naah give up, We naah give up…”, and meant it!


Political historian Shalman Scott is the first Mayor of the city of Montego Bay

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