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The Pentecostal Movement Part 111 - The Jamaican evolution

Published:Saturday | October 29, 2016 | 12:00 AMPaul H. Williams

The Pentecostal movement grew out of the need for some members of Protestant Christian churches to see holiness demonstrated in the established churches whose focus was on material and financial attainments.

The reverence, sanctity, and Pentecostal fire that biblical Scripture speaks of, they believe, were absent from the established churches. They wanted apostolic holiness to return, as well as a lifestyle that strictly adhere to biblical teaching.

From this need, the seed of Pentecostalism was sown, and in the first installation of this series (published Saturday, October 15) the beginning and early history of Pentecostalism was explored. The second part, published on Saturday, October 22, discussed Pentecostal beliefs and expectations. And in this, the final installation, the evolution of Pentecostalism (location, members and leadership) in Jamaica is the focus.

In as much the same way Pentecostalism evolved in the USA because certain people believe their spiritual needs were not satisfied in the established denominations, some Jamaicans believed they did not have a voice in the established churches, which were not addressing their social needs. However, the research did not reveal exactly when Pentecostalism was planted in Jamaica. In his article, 'Pentecostalism in Jamaica', in Jamaica Journal No 42, Reverend Ashley Smith says, "It has grown most noticeably since the mid-thirties (1930s)."

"The reason for this is clear. The perception of the disinherited people that the established churches were incapable of meeting the needs they felt coincided with the accelerated growth of national consciousness among the mass of the Jamaican people," Smith writes.

Social, political conditions

In the 1930s and 1940s, there were prevailing social and political conditions that pushed people away from the established churches based in Europe. There was much social and religious inequity, and talks of independence from Britain. It was not just political independence that people sought. They wanted religious freedom, too, because of the spiritual disconnect that they had with the established churches whose leaders were also closely tied to the social, political and legal processes that were not committed, in essence, to the fulfilment of the needs of the mass of the people.

"These people," Smith writes, "left our churches because they perceived that they were not welcome as active participants, and therefore did not feel at home with those with whom they worshipped."

Out of this unease, and motivated by Pentecostals who came into the island from the USA, local Pentecostals established chapels all over the country. In the seminal days of the movement in Jamaica chapels were built in the vicinity of sugar estates and bauxite mining areas, on the edge of urban centres, near urban industrial complexes, along back streets and alleys of small towns, in large informal settlements, and in close proximity to established traditional churches, especially in rural areas.

This was mainly because Pentecostalism in Jamaica was spurred on by working - class black people, who had no power and influence in the established churches. Among them were domestic helpers and factory workers. "Educationally, the majority are either totally illiterate or functionally so. Many of these persons live either in tenement yards, poorly constructed shacks or in the 'maid's quarters' of middle-class houses. In short, the people who make up the constituencies of Pentecostal churches represent the most poorly educated, worst housed, lowest paid and most victimised in the population," Smith writes, in the late 1970s.

Worship style

The style of worship was also appealing to the masses, and so it did not take a long time for Pentecostalism to firmly anchor itself in Jamaica once it was established. Smith says, "Pentecostal worship is characterised by simplicity of physical setting, order of worship and speech. There is much singing, the reading of Scripture, preaching and testimony ... emphasis on freedom of expression among members of the congregation, and the patience exercised by worshippers towards each other."

In the early days, Pentecostal churches were set up mainly by disgruntled former members (mostly men) of established churches. Their decision to leave in many cases arose out of leadership disputes. Their educational and socio-economic standings were not any better than their flock's. According to Smith, their "primary requirement" for leadership was evidence of an authentic conversion experience, a good, clear voice, and a warm, outgoing personality.

"Until recently, it seemed to have been in the interest of the leader not to be too far ahead of his flock educationally, since that tended to create social distance between groups and leaders," Smith writes.

It has been 38 years since Smith's article was published. Huge Pentecostal chapels have replaced makeshift churches all over the country, and to buttress them are smaller edifices. Apart from the physical changes, the leadership and member dynamics have also evolved significantly. The style of worship is still appealing, which is perhaps the main reason it has grown to be the most popular Christian denomination on the island.