Sam Sharpe, Paul Bogle and Native Baptists
On National Heroes' Day, there was, in The Gleaner, quite appropriately, a feature saluting our national heroes. However, there were mistakes concerning the religious affiliation of two of our national heroes, namely, Sam Sharpe and Paul Bogle. It is important to get their religious orientation and world view correct, because it is their religious beliefs that largely influenced their actions which we celebrate.
The feature said, "Because of his intelligence and leadership qualities, Sam Sharpe became 'daddy' or leader of the native Baptists in Montego Bay". By identifying Sharpe as 'native Baptist' it is meant that he was a member of the Jamaica Missionary Native Baptist Association (JNBMS). That was not so.
Sharpe was a deacon within the First Baptist Church, Montego Bay, of English Baptist missionary, Thomas Burchell. He functioned as a pastor with 'several free men', some of whom claimed that "they had been for several years professedly connected with the Baptist Society; but they had never seen a white Baptist minister ... the only instruction which they had received being that which they had obtained from Sharpe". (See Cross and the Machete).
Sharpe's interpretation of the bible
Sharpe operated as a minister in an outstation of the English Baptist Church. It was, therefore, profound and phenomenal that Sharpe, though schooled by the English Baptists, did not listen to them, but made his own interpretation of the Bible. English Baptist missionary William Knibb, even the day before the protest, was quoting the Bible to discourage protest. When Sharpe was questioned if he got the idea that he ought to be free from the missionaries he said, "no one minister said such a word. Not one, Sir. But me read it in my Bible". (See The Cross and the Machete).
Sharpe did not blame the agitation for wages and freedom on missionaries, but he accepted full responsibility. If he had just said it was the missionaries' fault the authorities would have probably released him and his co-accused. It was not what the missionaries taught and preached, but rather what Sharpe read and how he interpreted the Bible. Sharpe's desire for freedom was not ignited by any revolutionary content in the preaching and interpretation of the missionaries, but through the thorough study of the Bible by him.
The missionaries emphasised personal piety such as honesty, submission and hard work. However, Sharpe and others focused on equality, freedom and justice. This made Sharpe even more remarkable in that he was not brainwashed by the missionaries, but interpreted the Bible for himself and had his own understanding of God. Sharpe, a Baptist within the missionary church, claimed that slavery was inconsistent with the teachings of the Bible, which school of thought was way ahead of his time in the British West Indies.
Bogle, a Native Baptist
On the other hand, Bogle was called a 'Baptist deacon in Stony Gut' when he was a Native Baptist deacon. By the time of Bogle, the JNBMS, the first indigenous missionary society in Jamaica, was active. The Native Baptists were a group of Christians who responded to the prejudice within the English Missionary Baptist churches by forming their own churches and schools. They believed that, in spite of not getting seminary training, they were still competent to be preachers and pastors. They managed the spiritual affairs of the people. Bogle and his followers established the trend that persons of African origin can form their own churches and manage their own affairs and agitate on the basis of equality of all and justice for all.
Sharpe and Bogle rose to become giants of the Christian faith by challenging the dominant Christian beliefs and practices to secure our freedom and justice.
Rev Devon Dick is pastor of the Boulevard Baptist Church in St Andrew. He is author of 'The Cross and the Machete', and 'Rebellion to Riot'. Send feedback to columns@ gleanerjm.com.