Horace Scobie | Adventism in Jamaica and in East Africa: A bigger picture
For a church “abuzz with news of world president’s 11-day visit,” a reality check is in order. As Jamaica hosts Ted Wilson, “the leader of one of the fastest-growing country denominations,” meaning presumably, the fastest growing church with “the largest membership… in the nation,” it is time to look at the bigger picture. Such headlines invite the review of a century of local effort to build churches and membership more meaningful than they suggest.
It is useful, first, to recognise how, from a practical viewpoint, Adventism motivated people who traditionally never had the privilege of learning to read and write. Far-sighted leaders encouraged children to go from primary into secondary, and even tertiary education. Such encouragement brought unexpected results in new states such as Jamaica and, for purposes of this review, in East African countries.
A generation of Adventist professionals and politicians found itself caught up in urgent effort to build public institutions and upgrade public services.
Two examples of this sequel to encouraging children into education were sons of Adventist preachers. Both entered national politics. In Kenya, James Nyamweya (1927-1995) served in ministerial, parastatal and political party leadership in the Kenyatta and Moi governments.
Similarly in Tanzania, Paul Bomani (1925-2005) was first the minister of finance (1962-1965), ambassador to the United States and Mexico, and much else.
While formal accounts exist of these East Africans, no such accounts exist of their Jamaican counterparts. However, an example of encouragement and its sequel in Jamaican Adventism is available in Harry Johnston, born in Southfield, St Elizabeth, who attended the North Street church in Kingston and who returned home from study at Edinburgh University in 1930.
For four decades, Johnston worked alongside colonial administrators, and also independently, to:
Organise primary healthcare.
Transform a training station for sanitary inspectors and health visitors into the West Indies School of Public Health
Create the medical school that grew into a regional university college and later, The University of the West Indies.
Train public health nurses and inspectors in social and preventive medicine.
Structure the university’s Department of Social and Preventive Medicine.
Reconfigure a primitive Island Department of Health into the Ministry of Health and Housing, and much else.
It takes clear sight to recognise the enormous contribution men such as Johnston made to the well-being of a Jamaican population unprepared for self-government. An instructive parallel appeared in East Africa where a photograph captured the issue of clear, sightedness during a visit by the head of Adventism. A smiling president of Uganda received the gift of a Bible and pen for underlining Bible verses.
There was more than met the eye in a presidential smile that disguised memory of receiving the same gift 65 years earlier. Encouragement to read and write transformed prospects for the then eight-year-old son of semi-nomadic cattle herders.
A deeper irony saw visionary preachers assuring encouragement in East Africa by opening twice as many schools as churches. The school closest to the home of the future president was Adventist.
President Museveni alerted President Wilson, and Adventists, to his personal history. Perhaps that alert will lend value to a visit by Adventist leaders to the church’s true, unique showcase – the only country world-wide where it is the largest unitary religious denomination.
Horace Scobie is an independent researcher. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org