The rise of Revivalism in Jamaica


Sunday, January 21, 2018

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Revivalists are known widely as Revival Zion, Zionist, Revival and Pocomania — a blend of Baptist, Methodist, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Pentecostal beliefs and practices with modified African beliefs and practices added.

Less diffused and in parallel tandem is the religious form called Myalism, the strongest neo-African cult in Jamaica, stemmed from ancient West African Ashanti ancestor possession cult and incorporates an African world view understanding of nature, deity and human relationships. Myalism is related to another religious formation called Pocomania, which is the union of Myalism and Protestant 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. Rastafarianism is the name of an anti-white, back-to-Africa movement in Jamaica. The Rastas believe and teach that Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia was the 'Supreme Being' and the only ruler of black people.

Barry Chevannes (1995) refers to a significant feature of Revivalism, which is that there is no dichotomy between this world and the next. And herein lies the fundamental difference between orthodox European Christianity which emphasises … in the sweet bye and bye ... the hereafter while the Myalist/revivalists emphasised the here and now! The priest being the Kumfu-man, expressing in the Jamaican tradition God's justice, His regard and love are made manifest in this life. Such belief made religion a potent force in the drive of the people for self-improvement and upward mobility. This fundamental difference in theology and outlook between European Christianity and native revivalism explain the clashes emanating from the interpretation of slavery by the enslaved Africans in Jamaica and elsewhere in respect to God's attitude, by the church of the slavemasters to the oppressed black underclass. They were told by the English Orthodox Church and many dissenting churches that slaves should not take things into their own hands and resist their bondage but rather to await God's time and providence.

The defiance by the slaves resulting from such an attempt at indoctrination explain the turbulent interface and clashes between the opposite sides of the argument and illuminates the reason for so many diverse religious groupings in Jamaica. Clashes between conformist and non-conformist churches resulting in breakaway of the membership to form their own religious sect preceded the mass coming together in the vicious slave rebellions, which has become a common part of Jamaican secular and religious history.

That there were several actors within the church, including William Knibb (see Knibb's speech Spa Field Chapel June 21, 1832) who were less than firm in their interest in the slaves and the abolition of slavery goes without saying. But the slaves, whose discernment and sophistication were always mistakenly underrated … made good use of the negative stereotype through the exhibition of the common traits of Anansi, Quarshie and Pitchy-Patchy … and with consummate ease, played the fool to catch the wise. For indeed the slaves, our ancestors, were always very clear about what they wanted and knew what alliance to form in order to achieve their objective.

No wonder by 1839, one year after slavery was abolished, attendance at orthodox churches began to fall off dramatically according to Professor of Business History at Harvard University Business School Alfred D Chandler. The Professor continued …”a few years later orthodox Christianity and the previous religious fervour seen in the period leading up to emancipation suddenly turned African.” This shattered the hopes of orthodox Christians and the British missionaries with the emergence of Myalism and Native Baptism-Bedward type church in August Town for example ... converged to lay the foundation for modern Jamaican Revivalism.

This series of breakaways was the second major phase of the mushrooming of native Baptist churches or Myal chapels … the first occurring between 1814-1827 with the arrival of several white missionaries to Jamaica with their “Popish” way of Christian worship. The late Professor Emeritus at Johns Hopkins University and historian on Africa Phillip Curtin suggested several factors that contributed to the state of contentious affair in the British missionaries- controlled churches: “Theblacks resented British missionaries' attempts to consider and promote themselves as leaders of the afro Jamaican communities in things religious, moral and cultural. For one thing most blacks considered their morals, dancing, drumming, concubinage, the Christmas festival and sabbath breaking as private concerns separate from their religion. Also, British missionary pastors discouraged baptising or christening illegitimate children. The implication of these posture and arrangements was that 70 per cent of the afro-Jamaican population was barred from British missionary or orthodox Baptist churches.

Many young women, especially, considered church approval of their sexual practice and the necessity of legalised marriage as a form of slavery. 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 raiment. By now readers must be thinking that worship must have been dead. That's exactly what our foreparents thought. So they moved to revive that which was thought to be dead by the infusion of their African culture and naturalness. Hence the word Revivalism.

How do you separate an African from his/her drums, music and dancing, etc — those cultural norms and patterns that characterise their way of life for millennia and long before the arrival of the European slave traders? As time passed Professor Curtin continued: blacks tended to prefer ministers of their own colour who were not under the control and supervision of the white missionaries.

To be trained as a minister or parson at a British Missionary College like Calabar, Rio Bueno in Trelawny became the stamp of rejection by the Afro-Jamaican people.

The resentment and distrust towards the white missionaries by the Afro-Jamaican population of which Professor Emeritus Phillip Curtin spoke was discerned by many other researchers as they wade through the morass of the complex interactive relations between the Jamaican slaves and the white missionaries. It became clearer and clearer that these white missionaries inclusive of William Knibb and Thomas Burchell ... their only objective was a perverse desire to gain notoriety particularly in England, and make money by piggybacking on the slaves' relentless struggle for freedom.

The evidence is glaring that there was a determined attempt on the part of the cast of all-white historians and biographers to bend the process of the recorded history in the direction of the white missionaries and away from the black preachers who laboured cumulatively for up to 41 years before most of the British missionaries set foot on Jamaican soil.

Market Street Baptist and Falmouth Baptist churches were both built by black missionary Moses Baker some 30 years before Burchell (1824) and Knibb (1825) arrived in Jamaica. It was Moses Baker who asked the British Baptist Missionary Society to send help to Jamaica as he was getting old and could no longer carry the burden of serving churches in western Jamaica. It was Baker who sent a horse and butler to meet Thomas Burchell at ship side in Falmouth and take him to Baker's house in Salter Hill. The horse was previously assigned to the Reverend Henry Tripp, the pastor for eight years at what is now the Burchell Baptist Church on Market Street.

Both pioneer black missionary Moses Baker and Rev Henry Tripp, who served the Market Street Baptist Church for eight years, retiring due to ill health were not mentioned in the History of the Baptists in Jamaica written by Inez Sibly, the great granddaughter of Rev William Knibb. And Sibly so embellished and exaggerated the work of Knibb and Burchell for the English audience that he would never imagine that two other white missionaries, one of whom was Rev John Rowe who in 1816 received permission from the Trelawny vestry to start a non-conformist school attached to the Falmouth Baptist church in 1816. This was 14 years before Knibb arrived in Falmouth in 1830 from Fullersfield or Ridgeland Baptist Church.

Built by Moses Baker in Westmoreland, the property was also owned by Samuel Vaughn of Vaughnsfield in upper St James. Additionally, the second white missionary, Rev Henry Mann who served at Falmouth Baptist Church from 1816-1827 due to the untimely death of Rev John Rowe, also was omitted from Inez Sibly's history.

It was Inez Sibly who also wrote that Calvary Baptist Church started in 1846, her great grandfather Knibb having died in 1845 and Burchell in 1846. Relaying that they both did such a good supervisory job that the problems with Calvary breakaway only started after the death of them both, historian extraordinaire Professor Orlando Patterson has posited a time before 1828 when the breakaway of “little Baptist” occurred.

He recorded the statement issued by the Anglican Church (established church) on page 212 of his book, The Sociology of Slavery. The rise of revivalism in Jamaica served the loudest purpose and expressions of our ancestors' defiance to secular injustice and recognition that the long arc of their worship of God must bend towards an Afrocentric trajectory.

So here we are with a twisted history but sufficient evidence that that history fooled more of the people in England than our ancestors here in Jamaica. What is now considered normal worship in every denomination, within even the most conservative churches, playing reggae music backing Negro spiritual choruses was hard won by our foreparents. What was once dead has been revived. Revivalism is both now deeply entrenched and institutionalised. But we must never forget the journey of our people in another bitter struggle. Which also is our struggle ... for who we are is who we were!

Shalman Scott is a former mayor of Montego Bay.




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