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.
Paul Bogle, a free village peasant farmer and deacon of the Native Baptist Communion church from the district of Stony Gut, in St Thomas-in-the-East, led a protest on the Morant Bay courthouse. The Native Baptists emphasized their Afrikan heritage, defended the use of patois in church liturgies, and interpreted the Bible based on Ethiopianism. They agitated for justice and fair treatment for all Jamaicans, regardless of color and class. Bogle had become a friend of landowner and colored politician, George William Gordon, who had established the church where Bogle was a deacon.
The free village system allowed missionaries to buy large tracts of land, normally located near working estates, and then subdivided them into small house lots to sell to the emancipated Afrikans. While the free villages created small farmers, it was also designed to prevent the establishment of Afrikan-type communities in the interior away from white estates and supervision. Furthermore, holdings under the free village system were small and did not meet the property qualifications to allow Afrikan Jamaicans to run for political office. Nevertheless, through their ownership of small land holdings, many Afrikan Jamaicans gained the franchise and became the majority of the electorate. Anyone seeking political office had to join forces with influential Black peasant farmers to gain Black votes.25 As a result, as political and racial consciousness developed among Black voters, they began electing candidates to the House of Assembly, like Gordon, who were sympathetic to their cause.26
The Native Baptist War actually started October 7, 1865, when Bogle and his supporters attended a trial for two men from Stony Gut. One of the men on trial had trespassed on a long-abandoned plantation. He was found guilty and sentenced. When a member of Bogle’s group protested, he was immediately arrested, angering the crowd further. He was rescued moments later, when Bogle and his men took to the market square, and retaliated. The police were soundly beaten and forced to withdraw. That following Monday, warrants were issued against Bogle and a number of others for riot and assault. The police arrived in Stony Gut to arrest Bogle but met with stiff resistance. Again, in the ensuing battle the police were forced to retreat. The protesters fought the police again, and again forced them to retreat to Morant Bay. A few days later on October 11 there was a vestry meeting in the Court House. Bogle and his followers attended armed with sticks and machetes. A few people in the crowd threw stones at the volunteer militia (presumably Maroons), who responded by firing into the crowd, killing seven people. The crowd retaliated by setting the Court House and nearby buildings afire. When officials tried to leave the burning building, the protesters killed them. The government reprisal was swift and massive as troops destroyed Stony Gut and Bogle’s chapel. Gordon was arrested and taken by boat to Morant Bay, where he was tried for conspiracy and hanged on October 23. Bogle was captured by the Jamaican Maroon militia and taken to Morant Bay, where, like Gordon, he was put on trial and hanged at the burnt-out courthouse the following day. In total, more than 493 residents were killed, 600 were publicly flogged, and 1000 farmers had their homes destroyed.27 After the rebellion, Jamaica would become a Crown colony, and the advances of Afrikan Jamaicans would be stifled.
24 EPICA Task Force, Jamaica: Caribbean Challenge (Washington DC, 1979), p. 21.
25 Veront Satchell, Jamaica, Africana.com, 1999, http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/43/130.html.
26 Unbeknownst to all at the time of the events, in May 1865 Gordon had attempted to purchase an ex-Confederate schooner with the intention of transporting arms and ammunition from America. The motivation for his actions can only be conjectural, but appear revolutionary or treasonous. Peter Handford, AEdward John Eyre and the Conflict of Laws” (PDF), Melbourne University Law Review. : pp. 822B 860.
27 EPICA, p. 23.