What would become popularly known as Bedwardism and led by Alexander Bedward was more properly called the Jamaican Native Baptist Free Church and was started by an Afrikan American preacher and “prophet” named Harrison “Shakespeare” Woods. The actual date Shakespeare arrived in Jamaica is uncertain but in 1876, he lived in Spanish Town, St David. He was said to have lived in a cave and from time to time came among the people and made prophecies. In June 1879, for example, he visited Dallas Castle, St Andrew and told the residents it would be destroyed by flood. In October of that year, a flood killed several people, and demolished the Wesleyan Chapel and many other buildings.
In December 1888, Shakespeare visited August Town with this message: “Thus saith the Lord behold the sins of August Town have come, up before Me, and I will destroy the place as I did Dallas Castle except the people repent. If they will come together, take their white cups, and hold to Me a fast, I will not destroy them. But if they will not repent and obey Me, I will sink the valley and make the two hills meet.”28
During his visit to August Town, Shakespeare lodged during the day with a host but departed to the woods to spend the night in solitude and prayer. He called for a general meeting of existing denominations in August Town, which consisted of the Anglican, the Baptist, and the Wesleyan. At the meeting, where they fasted, during prayer he repeated his earlier admonition: “Thus saith the Lord, if the people will only observe the Fast and do as I command them, I will abundantly help them temporally and spiritually. But if they refuse to obey Me, I will sink the valley of August Town, and close the hills.”
The Baptists and Wesleyans responded to Shakespeare’s call and many assembled on April 19, 1889 on Papine Pasture. During the gathering, Shakespeare said, “The Lord is coming and will soon be here.” According to those present, then there was the sound of a strong wind, followed by a light drizzling rain. Everyone was overcome with silence and awe, and a general prostration followed. After this, Shakespeare withdrew into an apartment where a large jar of water drawn from the Mona River had a Bible placed upon it, and he called in by name twelve men, and then twelve women, establishing them as Elders. One at a time, each placed his or her hand on the Bible while expressing the solemn vow to be faithfully devoted to the Service of God even unto Death. And with this, the Jamaican Native Baptist Free Church was established. On that occasion, Shakespeare made some very remarkable and prophetic utterances. Looking on the Elders he said, “There is one among you who shall succeed me, and be the leader of a great Religious Movement, which shall be centered in August Town, and it shall be a blessing to millions. As yet however, I know not who he, my successor is.”29
In 1891, Shakespeare, announced his retirement as bishop of the church he had founded just two years earlier. The self-denying and devout Woods, who had crafted the entire liturgy of the church, further surprised the congregation when he announced his successor. It would be Alexander Bedward. He further stated that Bedward would be the leader of a great religious movement, whose fruits would “so abound in August Town that from various parts of the world people will come to gather them.” The selection of Bedward as successor was quite a surprise, as Bedward, of all the church Elders had perhaps the most questionable past. Born in 1859, Bedward had migrated to Panama, where he experienced prophetic visions and was scourged and commanded to go to August Town. These he ignored. He later returned to Jamaica, where until recently he had lived a “lascivious” life on the Mona Estate.30
The congregation was stupefied, and assumed Shakespeare had stumbled. However, within two years of his consecration as bishop, Bedward was a household name in Jamaica. Bedward as bishop of the Jamaica Native Baptist Free Church was so charismatic that in time the church and the movement became known as Bedwardism and its followers as Bedwardites. He baptized his followers in the Hope River, where once blessed by him, became a “healing stream” that was believed to cure body and soul. Every month Bedward had a baptismal ceremony and hundreds of people from Kingston and the surrounding areas came to Mona, where the Bedwardites wore white robes, staged marches, and sang hymns and chanted dirges. There were processions, frequently of great length, trams often packed with devotees. Many returned home carrying bottles or pans of the curative water, which Bedward had blessed of course.
Bedwardism was an amazing spectacle, and it attracted many followers and sympathizers. Beward was able to fill his followers with pride and self-esteem, which motivated and inspired them to build an impressive stone church. He considered the church “the finest structure in the western hemisphere.” To give his people hope, he often quoted Joel 2:29: "And also upon the servants and upon the handmaids in those days will I pour out my spirit." Another one of his favorite verses was the Ethiopian Prophecy.
Defection from established churches to the Jamaican Baptist Native Free Church was hastened when foreign newspapers and magazines reported on Bedward’s healing, which led to thousands of “tourists” visiting August Town to be touched by him. Hostilities quickly arose from the anti-Bedward establishment, which consisted of the Anglican, and Catholic churches that had lost membership to his church, and doctors whose medicines did not have the instant and magical effect of Bedward’s healing. Bishop Enos Nuttall of the Anglican Church even led a march in Kingston against the Bedwardites. The Roman Catholic bishop Charles Gordon issued a proclamation barring all Roman Catholics from visiting Bedward’s healing stream or encouraging others to do so. That proclamation was read in every Catholic Church and school in Jamaica.
Newspapers were also hostile to Bedward, and there were high-level meetings at King’s House to trump up charges to imprison him. On a number of occasions, he was charged with incitement and sedition, but was able to avert arrest. Eventually he was arrested and tried for sedition. The court did not find him guilty, yet did not acquit him, instead sending him to the mental asylum.31 The doctors released him after a few months and he returned to his role as Baptist healer and preacher, hardly missing a beat.
However, apart from the religious spectacle, Bedward’s church appealed to thousands of people with its call for social justice, and its programs designed to help the poor. He attributed “the establishment’s” hostility to him and his church to racism. He likened himself to Paul Bogle, reminding followers of the Morant Bay rebellion. He railed: There is a black wall and a white wall, and the white wall has been closing round the black wall. But now the black wall is growing, and it shall crush the white wall. Bedward fearlessly and openly challenged racism and injustice, and called for changes in the race relations in Jamaican society. At the same time, he stressed to his followers the need for self-sufficiency and at its height, the movement gathered some 30,000 devotees. Ultimately, the government suppressed the movement in 1921 when Bedward and 800 followers marched into Kingston “to do battle with his enemies.” He and many of his followers were arrested and he was sent to the mental asylum for a second time where he remained to the end of his life. With Bedward being institutionalized, the movement lost its fervor.
Many former Bedwardites became Garveyites. Earlier, Bedward, in true Ethiopianist style, stated that he and Garvey were as Aaron and Moses, one the high priest, the other prophet, both leading the children of Israel out of exile. Bedward was the first to liken Garvey to a prophet. Garvey’s middle name, Mosiah, was considered by some to be a mix of the two names Moses and Messiah. Other Bedwardites became Rastafari, bringing the experience of resisting the system and demanding changes from colonial oppression and racial discrimination with them.
The church’s literature describes Bedwardism as a new religion, the heir to Christianity and Judaism.32 However, Bedwardism differed little from other Christian denominations, as it too stressed the importance of Jesus the Christ as God and man, as well as emphasizing the importance of fasting. Nevertheless, Bedward did introduce concepts that fastened his faith firmly to Jamaica. First, he likened the ruling classes to the Pharisees, which foreshadowed the likening of society to Babylon, something the Howellites would later do. But most important, Bedward established August Town, Jamaica, as a modern equivalent to Jerusalem.33 For nearly 30 years, Bedwardism was a prominent religious and sociopolitical movement in Jamaica, and it undoubtedly had an important impact on society.
28 A.A. Brooks, History of Bedwardism (Kingston, Jamaica: The Gleaner Co. LTD., Printers, 1917), p. 4.
29 Brooks, p. 4.
30 Brooks, p. 7.
31 Bedward proclaimed that he was a reincarnation of Moses, John the Baptist, Jesus the Christ and that, like Elijah, he would ascend into heaven in a flaming chariot. He then expected to rain down fire on those that did not follow him, thereby destroying the whole world. It was statements like this the authorities used as grounds for insanity.
32 Brooks, p. 17.
33 Brooks, p. 27.
Robert Athlyi Rogers and The Holy Piby
Robert Athlyi Rogers or Shepherd Rogers, as he was called, also influenced the early Rastafari movement. Rogers viewed Ethiopians, i.e., all Afrikans, as the chosen people of God, Ethiopia as the Promised Land (not Jerusalem), and considered the Holy Bible the white man’s text. He created a new religion, “Athlicanism,” a new church, which preached self-reliance and self-determination, called the Afro Athlyi Constructive Church (AACC), and in 1924, he introduced the AACC’s own sacred book, The Holy Piby, which he considered "the Black man’s Bible."
Rogers, born in Anguilla, on May 6, 1891, immigrated to the United States as a youth. While in America, he attended UNIA meetings, and in 1922 at one of their gatherings in Newark, New Jersey, Roger’s was so impressed with Garvey that he thought, like Bedward, that he was a prophet. 34 Rogers’ movement, however, unlike Bedward’s movement developed after Garvey’s; thus, his movement was contemporary to the UNIA and ACL, and even influenced by it. Rogers’ admiration for Garvey was such that he dedicated the seventh chapter of the Piby to him. In the Piby’s preface we find the following: In time the Piby shall contain all worthy prophesies and inspiration endowed by God upon the sons and daughters of Ethiopia preached by his Holiness, Shepherd Athlyi, apostle Marcus Garvey and colleague; the three apostles anointed and sent forth by the Almighty God to lay the foundation of industry, liberty and justice unto the generations of Ethiopia that they prove themselves a power among the nations and in the glory of their God.”35
In reality, the Piby seems to have been written to take advantage of Garveyism.36 For example, the Proclamation of the House of Athlyi states, “His Holiness, Shepherd Athlyi, 1st of the House of Athlyi, supreme of the Afro Athlican Constructive Church, requests that all Negroes the world over celebrate concord in its fullness. The first of August all members of the A.A.C. Church shall join in with the Universal Negro Improvement Association that there be a united day of joviality. O God, bless thine Apostles, and help us to establish a Heaven on earth.”37 Who are thine Apostles? The Piby is made up of four books. Garvey is identified as one of three apostles in the Second Book, while the Third Book identifies the other two apostles, Robert Poston, and Henrietta Vinton Davis, both prominent members of the UNIA. Thus, we discover that the three apostles mentioned in the book’s preface, were all Garveyites. At the end of the text, Garvey, Davis and Poston are proclaimed the saviors of the "down trodden children of Ethiopia."38
Rogers traveled to numerous cities in the United States, the Caribbean and South America preaching what he called the “law of Ethiopian redemption and liberation.” His “Athlican” faith attracted an international audience but the church never grew to the prominence he had hoped. The Piby was first published in Newark, but adherents made copies and spread its theology as they traveled. Copies were shipped to Kimberly, South Africa, where missionaries of the new faith started a church for the diamond-field workers. Through the proselytizing efforts of a Barbadian minister named Rev. Charles F. Goodridge and his associate, a woman named Grace Jenkins Garrison, the two brought the Piby to Jamaica in 1925,39 founding a branch of the AACC under the name of the Hamatic Church.40 However, the Jamaican government, like the South African government earlier, attacked the church. The government had Goodridge under surveillance and he was eventually imprisoned for spreading Athlicanism. Goodridge, though not a UNIA member, 41 had church members that were.
The Piby represented a new truth reserved for people of Afrikan descent. It promised to liberate them from oppression. More important, the Piby charges it adherents with reclaiming Afrika, overthrowing white rule, and taking their place as the greatest nation on earth. The work is an Afrikan-centered document that beckons Afrikan agency, and in the Ethiopianist tradition declares that Afrikan people, Ethiopians, are God’s chosen people. The Piby is generally recognized as one of the most important foundational texts in the Rastafarian theology, although strictly speaking not a Rastafarian document. Howell, the “First Rasta,” however, would be inspired by it and the AACC.
Pastor Robert Athlyi Rogers committed suicide on August 24, 1931, when he felt that his mission on earth had been completed. But as stated in Chapter four of his spiritual manifesto, the Piby, he left the Piby behind as a legacy for the "salvation" of Ethiopians.
34 Robert Athlyi Rogers, The Holy Piby (Newark: 1924), p. 54.
35 Rogers, p. 6.
36 Rogers’ church is often identified as the Gaathlyi church, signifying a blend of his religious ideas with Garveyism. The “Ga,” in Gaathlyi, stands for Garvey, the “athlyi,” of course is his name.
37 Rogers, p. 7.
38 Rogers, p. 50.
40 http://kobek.com/hamatic.html. This is a primary document.
The Royal Parchment Scroll of Black Supremacy
In 1926, another text espousing Ethiopianism appeared in Jamaica. The Royal Parchment Scroll of Black Supremacy is a Jamaican work published by a preacher named Fitz Balintine Pettersburgh. The text viewed Ethiopia as the Holy Land and Ethiopians as God’s chosen people. While Bedward left no writings of significance, and Rogers’ left a clear and articulate theology written in biblical-style prose, this work was written in a mystical, or better yet, confusing style. The text is usually referred to as a stream of consciousness work, and with this, the author agrees. However, when reading it one gets the impression that it was a masonic or coded treatise that spoke to initiates. However, from what one can extract from it, it is theologically in harmony with the Piby. In fact, from the text, we learn that Pettersburgh was familiar with Garvey,42 the AACC, and although he does not mention the Piby, we must assume he was conversant with it. According to Hélène Lee, Howell’s biographer, Pettersburgh was linked to the Hamatic/Hamitic Church (AACC), which had established branches in Falmouth, Mount Charles, Morant Bay, Bath, and Spanish Town.43 And it is through Pettersburgh, who Howell befriended, that many of the ideas in the Piby and The Royal Parchment find their way into the world of Rastafari. Nevertheless, we know very little about Pettersburgh’s life. What we primarily have is his text but it offers little in the way of biography.
Regarding the text, The Royal Parchment can be divided into several themes. The first theme is Ethiopianism. Despite references to various Psalms, there are none to the Ethiopian Prophecy. However, Pettersburgh’s Ethiopianism has “evolve” into a form of Black Supremacist thought, which we have identified as the text’s second theme. The text is conceived as the Rule Book for the Resurrection of the Kingdom of Ethiopia. He presages the coronation of Ras Tafari, when he speaks of the immanence of the coronation of Ethiopia’s Postarities (future generations). However, since the text is contemporary with Garvey, this idea he might have borrowed from Garvey. Pettersburgh also introduces a new concept called the “Rule of Resurrection,” which puts forth the idea that only one race or civilization can rule at a time, and that the Ethiopian Kingdom will succeed the Anglo-Saxon one. The use of Ethiopians is again a reference to all Black people, and there is the notion that we are presently scattered into “Bands” that will come together under the authority of the Supreme Royal Repository (a component of the Ethiopian Kingdom).
The work is unabashedly a Black Supremacist text, and this is a fundamental theme throughout the work. To Pettersburgh, The Royal Parchment is Ethiopia’s Bible, and he envisions the Ethiopian King as a symbol of Black Supremacy. He sees Black Supremacy as the triumph over our slave masters and White Supremacy. He states that Black people have given our blood to preserve White Supremacy but the Rule of Resurrection will right everything. Once Black Supremacy under the Kingdom of Ethiopia is a reality, the term Black Supremacy shall be replaced with the term Civilization. Further, Pettersburgh does not trust white people and feels we should “wash our hands of them.” Like Garvey, and Blyden before him, he espouses racial purity, believing whites should mate with whites, and Blacks with Blacks. He derogatorily classes mulattoes as a “3rd class,” and condemns White Supremacy for its historic rape of Afrikan women, and Afrika, which he likens to a woman. Afrika has been raped by all nations, and as a result, we have no power. He believes Afrika has been too sympathetic—Afrika must now build.
A third theme or area of the text concerns his theology, church morality, and his church’s organizational structure. Pettersburgh believes Revivalist (i.e., Baptist) have not been successful because they need a resurrected Ethiopia. In conjunction with this, his church presumably a Baptist one, placed great importance on baptism, and the need for Ethiopians to be baptized in order to ensure our resurrection. At least three chapters are dedicated to baptism. Furthermore, he believes that the Bible is tainted by White Supremacy. In his theology, the Black race is the true alpha and omega of existence and the Ethiopian is the “Man” that preexisted Adam. He identifies many of the biblical personages as white, such as Adam and Abraham, calling them lepers. He also condemns both Adam and Eve for being unwed yet engaging in sexual union, this making Eve an evil harlot as well as a leper.
Pettersburgh’s church is divided into units or groups of 25 persons headed by a priest, which then formed larger groups of 100, which are led by “Stax” Officials. Additionally, his churches will provide their own certificates and diplomas that will sever the people’s reliance on the government. (They issued an Infant Diploma, for example.) In addition, toward self-reliance, the church wanted to establish its own schools and colleges. Pettersburgh offers the story of a woman, the Samarians, and Jesus, to establish that people are spiritually blind or asleep, and in need of divine leadership. His church placed great emphasis on health and healing, and fasting is seen as a physical and moral cleanser, eliminating bodily impurities and hypocrisy. There are also places called Balm Yards where communities of healers, who are divinely consecrated by God, heal the sick. He advises against the use of Obeah, stating that these healing places are neither Obeah houses nor hospitals. In terms of morality, he upholds several “traditional” moral codes, such as the sanctity of marriage, virginity (Kings must marry Virgin Queens), and marital fidelity. Additionally there are condemnations against sexual and familial irresponsibility, the mistreatment of women, and warnings against the marrying of divorced persons. He also expected educated persons to show humility to those less educated.
The text is harsh in tone. To say it is an expression of Black rage might be superfluous, but Pettersburgh spares no punches on the white man. (As for people like the Ku Klux Klan, they should be shot down in the streets!) The work is historically significant as it along with the Piby, is today recognized as one of the root documents of Rastafarian thought. Before proceeding to the next section, the author would be remiss for failing to mention that though the text is harsh in tone, it is surprisingly balanced or egalitarian in its treatment of the sexes. The author throughout the text praises women, identifying his wife as the “Canon Mistress of Creation,” and the Queen Omega to his King Alpha, and he especially has kind words for his mother.
42 The Royal Parchment like the Piby is a document that is contemporaneous with the Garvey movement. And like the Piby, the text offers glowing accolades for Garvey. Garvey and the UNIA are mentioned in Chapter 17, where Garvey is called Pilot Garvey. Later in Chapter 27, he is called General. Pettersburgh is also aware of Rogers (which he spells Rodgers) and the AACC. He is identified as bishop Rodgers, and later he too is promoted to pope Rodgers. Pettersburgh also praises the two people who founded the AACC in Jamaica, Goodridge and Garrison.
43 Hélène Lee, The First Rasta: Leonard Howell and the Rise of Rastafarianism, translated by Lily Davis and Hélène Lee (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2003), pp. 48-49.