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The Christian church in Jamaica
published: Sunday | April 23, 2006

Arnold Bertram, Contributor

The Mt. Refuge Revival Group of Hanover in a Pocomania ritual. - File

"But if the salt hath lost its savour, wherewith shall it be salted?" (Matthew 5:13)

ON WEDNESDAY April 5, Bishop Rowan Edwards, chairman of the Spanish Town Minister's Fraternal, in association with the Power of Faith Ministries and the Jamaica Full Gospel Assemblies, led the Christian community of St. Catherine in an all-day prayer vigil at the Spanish Town Prison Oval. The response of the 152 Christian churches based in Spanish Town and the thousands of church members to the sustained criminal and anti-social behaviour in the Old Capital was to call for divine intervention. The tendency to rely exclusively on external salvation reflects a hopelessness and an incapacity for sustained 'good works' that no Christian community should allow itself to be reduced to. "Faith without works is dead."

Spanish Town is but a microcosm of the wider society. There are now some 547 registered religious organisations in Jamaica with thousands of congregations islandwide. I would not be surprised if in terms of church members as a percentage of the population, Jamaica leads the world. Yet Christian influence on modes of behaviour can hardly be more marginal, for while church membership is growing exponentially, the country continues to decline morally.


Jesus, the central figure around whom the religion of Christianity has been built, grew up in Galilee, a fishing village on the periphery of the Roman empire. He certainly prayed and fasted, but he also developed his intellect and on a daily basis ministered to the material needs of the poor and dispossessed. His message was one of liberation which promised redemption and eternal life in return for the admission of sins and repentance. He chose as his disciples people of rural, working-class origin who emulated his disregard for earthly possessions.

Jesus, however, was neither the founder of the Christian religion, nor the bearer of the gospel to the Gentiles. That credit goes to Paul of Tarsus, who against seemingly insurmountable obstacles made the life, the teachings and the resurrection of Jesus into a doctrine of salvation and freedom which penetrated all levels of imperial Rome. Paul's missionary journeys which covered some 10,000 miles took him directly to the extensive slave communities in Corinth, Antioch, Ephesus, and other major urban centres of the Roman empire where his message had a special appeal. By the time of his martyrdom in 66 A.D., this religious genius had established himself as the central figure in the dramatic rise of Christianity. Paul's trials and tribulations documented in his second letter to the Church at Corinth was the price he courageously paid for his commitment.


It was with the arrival of the Spaniards in 1494 and the British in 1655 that Jamaica first encountered the Christian religion in the form of Roman Catholicism and the Anglican church. However, it was with the religious revival in 18th century Britain which evolved into Methodism that the agitation against slavery began, and British missionary societies took on the responsibility of bringing Christianity to the African slaves throughout the British empire.

By then the Reformation in which Luther and Calvin played central roles had removed the need for a mediator between God and man and placed the responsibility for the individual's moral salvation squarely on the individual. This was the essence of the renewed Christianity which expressed itself in the Protestant faith and the Protestant ethic and brought missionary work closer to the revolutionary traditions established by Jesus and Paul.

The first missionaries to arrive were the Moravians in 1754, who established a mission on Barham Estate in St. Elizabeth. They were followed by the black Baptists, George Lyle of Virginia and Moses Baker of South Carolina in 1783. Six years later, Thomas Coke became the first Methodist missionary to preach in Jamaica, and between 1795-1799 the London, Scottish and Church Missionary Societies were founded. Like Christ's disciples, these missionaries were in the main drawn from the British working class, sons of small traders, skilled workers and farmers.

There is no doubt about the spirit of sacrifice and the sincerity of the missionary efforts. Like Saint Paul, they could claim to have been, "in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft," as they faced the hostility of the slave owners. Few missionaries survived for more than 10 years in the field and they often watched over the death beds of their wives and children wasted by fevers and debilitating diseases.

Despite these difficulties, by 1845 the pioneering Christian missionaries had built up an impressive record of achievement. They had successfully trained a much larger number of native leaders, deacons, elders, and aides, through whom Jamaicans first experienced the Christian religion. The Baptists led by William Knibb implemented the first major programme of land reform through which some 19, 397 of the newly-freed slaves became land owners in some 200 free villages by 1845. By the elections of 1844, Knibb and the Baptists had again taken the lead in mobilising their black congregations to elect their own representatives to the legislature.

Every mission established educational facilities for the teaching of literacy to children and adults. The opening of a college for training a local clergy in 1843 by the Baptists, and the establishment of Ridgemount in 1856 by the London Missionary Society were landmarks in tertiary education.


The fundamental weakness in the European missionary effort was the insistence on a Euro-Christian cultural framework for the development of Jamaican Christianity. The fact that the Africans had brought with them their own cultural values and religious experiences was never sufficiently taken into account. It was the great religious revival which began in October 1860 and continued for some six months, which confirmed the strength of Afro-Jamaican Christianity and brought the fundamental cultural differences in the religious community to the fore, establishing the two separate lines along which Jamaican Christianity would develop.

The first phase of the revival which saw packed chapels with crowds "offering up spontaneous cries of repentance and extempore appeals for forgiveness of their sins" was greeted by the missionaries as the fruits of God's great work. The second phase ­ which saw the entry of the myal and obeah men, and in which the participants sacrificed fowls and sang and danced "until they were in a state of excitement bordering on madness" was now interpreted by the missionaries as the work of the devil.

Were it not for the firm guidance of Paul, Peter and James would have insisted that Gentiles submit themselves to the cultural framework of Judaism and Mosaic law as a precondition for Christian fellowship. Knibb was the only missionary with the stature, the revolutionary perspective and the vision to bridge the cultural divide after the great revival. His death in 1845 deprived the movement of his leadership and contributed to the increasing conservatism of the Baptists which was reflected in their withdrawal from political activism.

Over the next century, the Euro-centrism persisted as black clergymen trained in Jamaica were consistently overlooked for the most important posts in every denomination. It was the emergence of a national movement after World War I and the growth of 'black nationalism' which forced the Church to abandon policies which were clearly un-Christian and racist.

Another consequence of the Church's Euro-centrism was the fragmentation of the religious community, as increasingly, churches broke away from the parent body and ended up being owned and controlled by individuals whose motives were at least as pecuniary as they were religious. Many of these churches affirmed the Afro-Christian culture of emphasising the role of the 'spirit' in opposition to the missionaries' insistence on the reading and understanding of the word.


It was this division within the Christian community that allowed Governor Eyre to carry out the most savage repression of the Morant Bay rebellion led by the African-Christian community, with the approval of 58 members of the missionary clergy. The only firm opposition to the wholesale murder and mayhem came from the Methodist, W.C. Murray, the Baptist, David J. East and the Anglican, Henry Clarke.

The continuing inability of the Church to replicate the zeal, commitment and unity of the early missionary period is at the root of its helplessness in the face of the continuing degeneration of Jamaican society.

The major challenge facing the nation today is the continuing depreciation of the value of life, which manifests itself in the high rate of homicides; the increasing incidence of domestic violence; the abuse of women and children; and the absence of a caring spirit for the indigent and dispossessed. Even as the situation cries out for a relevant education system which inculcates appropriate values and mores, the role of the Church in education is becoming more marginal. This is inexplicable, particularly when one contrasts the success which attended earlier efforts with far less material resources than the Church has now.

The Prime Minister recently asked the Church to play a dominant role in the management of the state. I wish this request had been limited to those who currently "let their lights so shine that men see their good works and glorify their Father in Heaven."

Arnold Bertram, historian and former parliamentarian, is current chairman of Research and Product Development Ltd. Email

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