One hundred and sixty-one years after England seized the island from Spain, no attempts had been made to Christianize the enslaved in Jamaica. Unlike Haiti, where the enslaved were forced to be Catholics, the English planters in Jamaica refused to share their religion with the enslaved population; the Church of England considered its liturgy too sophisticated for people of "a lesser breed." The first sincere efforts to “give religion” to the Afrikans were initiated by the Moravians in 1734, the Methodists in 1736, the Baptists in 1784, and the Presbyterians in 1823.
In 1773, an enslaved Afrikan named George Liele became the first Afrikan American licensed by the Baptists to preach in Georgia. Liele’s master, a Baptist deacon, freed him before the American Revolution and over the next few years, Liele converted and baptized many of the enslaved in the area. He attracted nearly 30 members, established a congregation, and they soon built a church. Rather than risk reenslavement in the American South, after the Revolutionary War Liele chose to leave with the British to ensure his freedom. With his wife Hannah and their four children, he immigrated to Jamaica, after borrowing $700 for passage from a Colonel Kirkland. In 1782, he left America as an indentured servant on a ship of evacuated British troops. In Jamaica, after he completed his two-year service with the Colonel, he was given a certificate of freedom.
In January 1783, Liele secured permission to preach to the enslaved. He began by preaching in their homes, then at the Kingston racetrack, where the novelty of a Black (ex-slave) minister attracted great attention. Despite growing persecution from the whites in Kingston, Liele established on his own property the first independent church in Jamaica, called The Ethiopian Baptist Church.20 Liele called his followers “Ethiopian Baptists,” thus beginning the tradition of Ethiopian identification in Jamaica. A theme in his sermons was—Emancipation was “the Promise Land.” In 1789, his congregation built a house of worship on a piece of land containing three acres purchased for $775. By 1791, the new church comprising mostly Blacks and a few whites grew to more than 350 members. By 1814, his efforts had produced, either directly or indirectly, some 8,000 Baptists. Often harassed by the white colonists and by government authorities for “agitating the slaves,” he once was imprisoned for more than three years. While he never openly challenged the system of slavery, he prepared the way for those who did. Native Baptist churches inspired by Liele taught Christianity through the lens of Ethiopianism with a messianic millenarian fervor that became the vitalizing force behind the enslaved Afrikan’s continuous demand for freedom as a command from God.
Liele’s first two converts were Afrikan Americans, one of which was a mulatto named Moses Baker, who would become instrumental in helping Liele develop the church. Liele initially did not receive or accept remuneration for his ministry, most of which was directed at the enslaved. Consequently, his mission was always in need of resources. In addition, because most of his congregation could not read, one of Liele’s priorities was the organization and promotion of a free school for Black children, who would be taught by Black deacons. Toward this end, he and Baker turned to churches in England for financial support. Baker approached benefactors in Britain and made contact with the Baptist John Ryland, who became interested in securing funds from British donors to meet the mission’s needs. Ryland was able to get the Baptist Missionary Society of London interested in establishing chapels and schools in Jamaica. By the time the various members of the society arrived, which consisted of Thomas Burchell, James Phillippo, and William Knibb, they found that the Afrikans had already built six Baptist churches, had ordained Afrikan Jamaican deacons, and had thriving congregations. Between 1814 and 1832, with the assistance of the Baptist Missionary Society, Jamaican Baptists grew from 8,000 to 20,000. It did not take long for the white Baptists to realize it was more efficacious to use Black preachers “to fish” for Black converts, and between 1831 and 1843, during a 12-year campaign of religious proselytizing, the Baptists converted 24,000 members.
Thomas Burchell came to Jamaica to assist in the Baptist mission. Burchell, however, enters Jamaican history for an even more important event: the massive slave rebellion in 1831 called, “The Baptist War.” (Apparently, Methodist enslaved Afrikans did not participate in the rebellion.) As indicated by the name of the rebellion, which is also called the Christmas Rebellion, Baptists were involved and ultimately blamed, as well as persecuted for the uprising. There was good reason for the Baptists being implicated and Burchell narrowly escaping death. Samuel Sharpe, the educated enslaved Afrikan, 21 who led the rebellion, was a deacon and preacher in the Montego Baptist Church that Burchell pastored! This undoubtedly implicated Burchell. However, historian Leonard Barrett offers evidence that suggests that Burchell may have been totally oblivious to the plan. He shows that while Sharpe served as a deacon in the white controlled Montego Baptist Church, he was at the same time, a leader in the “native” Church, where the rebellion was actually organized.22 Sharpe was able to organize the rebellion, which started as a strike, because he spent most of his time traveling to different parishes in Jamaica, educating the enslaved about Christianity and freedom. The rebellion lasted eleven-days and mobilized as many as 60,000 of Jamaica’s 300,000 enslaved Afrikans.23 Although the rebellion was suppressed, it hastened the King of England’s decision to emancipate the enslaved throughout the British West Indian colonies in 1834. Sadly, Liele did not live to see the end of slavery in Jamaica. He died in 1828, but his impact on the institution was significant. His church promoted the widespread desire for freedom and as large numbers of the enslaved became Christians and literate enough to assume lay leadership, the desire and demand for freedom grew.
19 Left to themselves, the enslaved Afrikans fashioned the survivals of their traditional belief systems into an Afrikan syncretic practice called Kumina, which served their needs.
20 Leonard E. Barrett, The Rastafarians (Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 1997), Chap 3.
21 Born in 1801 in Montego Bay of Afrikan parentage, Sharpe died for the cause of abolition when executed on May 23, 1832. Initially buried in the sands of Montego Bay Harbor, he was later safely exhumed and reinterred with a hero’s burial near the pulpit at Burchell Baptist church. Today Sharpe is a Jamaican National Hero.
22 Barrett, Chap 2.
23 Barry W. Higman, "Slave Populations of the British Caribbean, 1807-1834," Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 16, No. 2 (Autumn, 1985), pp. 365-367.