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Alexander Bedward

Published:Friday | November 21, 2014 | 12:00 AMLouis Marriott
File The ruins of Alexander Bedward's church, a landmark in August Town, St Andrew.

IN 1891, the very old Harrison E. Shakespeare Woods, an America-born prophet, deadly accurate 'warner man', and cave-dwelling hermit whose diet consisted exclusively of wild meat and strange vegetables, announced in August Town his retirement as bishop of the Jamaica Native Baptist Free Church, which he had founded in that St Andrew suburb three years earlier.

The self-denying and devout Woods, who had crafted the entire liturgy of the church, sprang an even greater surprise when he informed his congregation that he would be succeeded by Alexander Bedward, that Bedward would be the leader of a great religious movement centred in August Town, and that fruits would "so abound in August Town that from various parts of the world people will come to gather them".

Bedward, who was born some time between 1840 and 1846, had lived a lascivious youth on the Mona Estate before migrating to Panama, where he claimed he had had two visions and was scourged and commanded to go to August Town. He was one of 24 elders appointed by Woods on the establishment of the Jamaica Native Baptist Free Church.

Within two years of his consecration as bishop, Bedward was a household name in Jamaica. He was healing the sick in the waters of the Hope River, to which he said God had led him. The government chemist collected samples of the water and, upon analysis, said that it had "every medicinal property except that found in castor oil".

Health tourism

Defection in the membership of the traditional European churches (mainly Anglican and Methodist) to the native church, which began with Shakespeare Woods' warning of disaster unless the people repented of their sins, accelerated when foreign newspapers and magazines reported on Bedward's healing and thousands of visitors from overseas joined the trek to August Town to be touched by Bedward's hands.

Hostilities began in earnest when the anti-Bedward establishment orchestrated their opposition. In the forefront were the churches that lost membership to the Jamaica Native Baptist Free Church and the doctors whose medicines did not have the instant and magical effect of Bedward's healing.

The Roman Catholic bishop Charles Gordon issued a proclamation forbidding all Roman Catholics from visiting Bedward's stream or encouraging others to do so. That proclamation was read in every Catholic church and school in Jamaica. The Anglican bishop Enos Nuttall led a march in Kingston against Bedwardism.

Black and white walls

The newspapers of the time were also hostile to Bedward, and there were high-level meetings at King's House to set traps for him. On a number of occasions, he was charged with incitement and sedition, but his highly skilled lawyer, Philip Stern, QC, kept him safe most times.

Bedward attributed establishment hostility to him and his church to race hatred. He reminded his enemies of Paul Bogle and 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 imbued his poor black unskilled members with self-esteem and pride when he motivated and inspired them to build an impressive cut-stone church that he described as "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 favourite quotation was Psalm 68:31: "Princes shall come out of Egypt. Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God."

Bedward, who was held in high esteem as the poor black people's champion, used those quotations to lift them out of a sense of despair. It is noteworthy that those passages from the Christian Bible were later embraced by Marcus Garvey and in time by the Rastafarians.