Tue | Sep 25, 2018

Peter Espeut | Our sexual heritage is not all positive

Published:Friday | October 20, 2017 | 12:00 AM

At the turn of the 19th century, only a small portion of the Jamaican population was even nominal adherent to the Christian faith. The Anglican Church - the church of the colonial Establishment - maintained about 20 church buildings across the island and had not yet reached out to the black majority.

The Moravian Church had sent missionaries to Jamaica from 1754 to minister to slaves on certain plantations, but at that time, they had confined themselves to St Elizabeth. The Methodist mission had not got very far: since Coke's first visit, 19 different Methodist missionaries had taken up residence in Jamaica, but eight had either died or had left the island.

No Presbyterian, Congregational or the Disciples of Christ missionaries had yet arrived. The first English missionaries from the Baptist Missionary Society did not get here until 1814; before the 19th century, the three or four black American Baptist preachers who had found their way here had limited exposure. The seven or eight Catholic priests - mostly refugees from the Haitian revolution - confined themselves to their flock in Kingston.

The human founders of the Church of God, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and the Jehovah's Witnesses had not yet been born.

The project to Christianise Jamaica had not yet begun in earnest.

Almost 220 years later, some call Jamaica a Christian country. The work of the non-conformist missionaries in the 19th and 20th centuries changed the character of Jamaican society and culture: their churches and day schools socialised a new type of Afro-Jamaican equipped to assume responsibility for the governance of parish and colony (and, ultimately, the nation); the free village movement gave the former slaves new status as landowners and, therefore, voters (and, ultimately, as candidates for Vestry and Assembly).

With Heritage Week having just gone, we need to recognise that Christianity is a positive part of our heritage that has helped to make Jamaica what it is today - and we should celebrate it!


Still a far way


But we must not - in our exuberance - overstate the case; there is abundant evidence that the project to Christianise Jamaica was not blessed with overwhelming success. If Christianity is ultimately about the state of the heart, about peace on Earth, and about how we treat our neighbours, the project still has a far way to go. Our violent society and our world-class murder rate is evidence of that.

If you want an indicator of the progress that the Christian Church has made in Jamaica over the last 200 years, I invite you to consider that of every 10 children born in Jamaica, eight are born out of wedlock. The family is the basic unit of the church and of society.

Quite correctly, we attribute many of our social ills to dysfunctional families. One of the main components of the project to Christianise Jamaica was to foster stable family life with both parents raising their children; in this, the Church has failed.

Family life in both Africa and Europe in the 17th century was fairly stable and highly regulated by societal norms and values. Maybe we need to be honest and admit to ourselves that sexual profligacy is part of our Jamaican heritage that 200-plus years of missionary activity has not been able to reverse.

Very few slavemasters were married, and even many of the married ones had their way with their slaves. In his diary, Thomas Thistlewood, English slave owner in St Elizabeth and Westmoreland, listed every sexual encounter with his many slaves, including the location and the quality of the experience.

Once the slave trade was abolished, a high birth rate among slave women was of economic importance, and was encouraged. Only when the non-conformist missionaries came on the scene was there any effort to bring some order to Jamaican sexuality on religious grounds.

If it is true that early sexual initiation, teenage pregnancies, absent fathers, and poor parenting are the causes of child sexual abuse, school dropouts, low literacy rates, male aggression, and the rise of gangs and thuggery, then as a society, we have reasons other than religion for wanting to regulate sexual behaviour in Jamaica.

Besides, the influence of religion in modern Jamaican society is declining, as sexual libertarians spread their propaganda about sexual freeness. At a time when sexual discipline is needed more than ever, the Christian Church is relatively silent because of sex scandals involving their ministers.

Maybe it is secular social scientists who seek to engineer social development and progress in Jamaica, who need to take on the project of advocating sexual self-control and sexual self-discipline in this land.

Maybe then - in years to come - we will be able leave behind a heritage of a strong and stable family life and a developed society to future generations of Jamaicans.

- Peter Espeut is a sociologist and development scientist. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.