“There is only one religion, though there are a hundred versions of it” – George Bernard Shaw
The Kevin Smith tragedy in Montego Bay seems to have become the usual nine-day wonder.
On the south-west section of the island, however, tongues are wagging about what many see as the beginnings of a similar type of arrangement, even if its genesis is somewhat different. It seems a group has separated itself from the Seventh-day Adventist Church (SDA) and set up a commune in what some describe as “the deep bowels of St Mary”. Deep bowels is right.
Decades ago, my aunt — a retired principal — was living in Highgate. I sometimes visited. Bored, I decided to pursue my latest hobby, checking on Jamaica's biodiversity, which seems to be rapidly disappearing because of the bauxite industry, which started not far from where I lived in Brown's Town, St Ann.
So I pressed a local idler into service. He was to accompany me into a densely forested area to look at plants. At one point along the way he stopped, and announced he would go no further. His explanation? “Ungle duppy an maskita inna dem place deh.” So I soldiered on alone. It was not long before I started to wonder if there just might be some truth to what he was saying. It was dense and dark. Mosquitos were out in their numbers and behaving in a fashion that suggested I was not welcome. I turned back. It is beyond this point that these Adventists have set up their commune. A number of wooden huts are under construction and members of the group — known as Following the Blueprint Ministries (FTB) — intend to reside there. Rapture bound, they will, from this location, await the second coming. Locals claim that professionals from the medical, financial, and educational fields are members.
This is eerily reminiscent of the Branch Davidians — a group that broke away from the Seventh-day Adventist Church in 1935 after its leader failed to get the leadership of the SDA to make policy changes in that organisation. They established a commune in a remote area of Texas and waited for the second coming. The last leader, Vernon Howell, who later changed his name to David Koresh, came under investigation by federal agents for child sexual abuse and illegal firearms. Some 80 Branch Davidians of all ages died in a fire that erupted during the seige on April 19, 1993.
The word from the head of this FTB group, who seems to be in his 30s and resides in a modern community, is that he is a “humble servant of God” following the teachings of Ellen White, a co-founder of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, who admonishes them to “leave the cities”.
I hold to the view that, when reading, it is best to know something about the writer of what one is reading and the existing conditions that influenced the writings.
Ellen White was born in 1827. Her experience of cities was that of dirty, dangerous, diseased, rat-infested slums. Most of the residents were prostitutes and criminals, themselves suffering from a variety of communicable diseases. At that time diseases and epidemics included smallpox, typhus, yellow fever, scarlet fever, and cholera was emerging as another major killer. It would not have been unusual to spot the occasional decaying corpse by the roadside. There was no running water.
In addition to her religious writings, White wrote on health and education.
In her book Ministry of Healing, she clearly outlines her understanding of what characterises a city. They were “…hotbeds of vice...enticements to sensuality and dissipation...” She goes on to say, “The physical surroundings in the city are often a peril to health. The constant liability to contact with disease; the prevalence of foul air; impure water; impure food; the crowded dark, unhealthful dwellings are some of the many evils to be met…It is not God's purpose that people should be crowded into cities, huddled together in terraces and tenements.” These are exactly the reasons for which we leave West Street and Matthews Lane for Barbican and Jack's Hill. But nobody without nefarious intentions opts for Warieka Hills.
Although there are claims to the contrary, most reports are that Adventism started in Jamaica in 1889. It seems a William Palmer got a copy of Ellen White's book The Coming King and was so intrigued and moved by it he decided to become a Sabbath keeper. He started communication with SDA's International Tract Society and started to distribute tracts, one of which was received by Margaret Harrison, an upper-class Jamaican woman of British descent.
The first meeting was September 12, 1891 at Palmer's home on Prince Albert Street in Allman Town. When it became too crowded they moved to Harrison's home at 1 Laws Street before renting premises on Highholborn Street. Nowhere in the literature did anyone explore the possibilities of retreating to any forest as a base to do God's work.
When a hospital, Andrews Memorial, was to be established, it was an easy walk down the road from King's House and just across the way from Devon House, the two competing residences of that period. Some 200 acres of land was also purchased to establish what was to become Northern Caribbean University on the outskirts of Mandeville.
My question to the leader of FTB Ministries is: When a young law student starts eating, dressing, and behaving differently, then finally abandons her studies and disappears from home to go into these bushes to sit in one of these huts and wait for God to return, how do you deal with such a case? Are these Ellen White's wishes?
Here are her thoughts on the matter from her own writings: “God requires the training of the mental faculties. He designs that his servants shall possess more intelligence and clearer discernments than the worldling, and He is displeased with those who are too careless or too indolent to become efficient…Let the youth who need an education set to work with determination to obtain it. Do not wait for an opening. Make one for yourself...Procure every advantage within your reach for strengthening the intellect…”
Whether it is called a sect, cult, commune, or something else, these groups are usually short-lived and end tragically because their goals are questionable owing to utterances such as, “The Lord is returning on March 2,” and “There will be a global disaster on December 5,” for example.
The isolation from family and friends is not accidental and rejoining society is usually a challenge. So what will be the response when all phones are taken away or nutritional deficiencies set in? What will be the response when the leader undergoes personality changes and makes new and greater personal demands in God's name?
Glenn Tucker is an educator and a sociologist. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or firstname.lastname@example.org