Thursday 30th March, 2006

 

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Rise of Spiritual Baptists

By Nicole St John

The presence of Baptists in T&T dates back to 1815, when the African slaves who fought for the British were granted their freedom along with a grant of land.

These Merikins, as they were called, settled in the south-eastern part of Trinidad and formed villages in the order in which the companies came, such as 3rd and 5th Company, Indian Walk and 6th Company, New Grant.

They brought with them the most widespread denomination in the south US at the time, which later came under the influence of the West African shango rhythm and dance. By the late 19th century, Baptists were firmly established in the country with most Baptist churches following the tradition of the southern US Baptists of the time.

A Baptist is a Christian who gets spiritual rebirth through water baptism and devotees are immersed in water three times as a sign of being baptised. At the time, no formal training was needed and the leader usually got the call through a dream or vision.

He/she would then gather their own congregation and set their own style of worship, though the basic tenets remained the same. Some of the churches remained closer to the American Baptist style while others incorporated a more West African rhythm.

My great grandmother Nellie Elder came to Trinidad from Guyana in the early 1920s, a few years after the passing of the Shouters Prohibition Ordinance. She came with her husband, her Bible and a book of English midwifery.

A hard working woman, she was of high moral principle and great ambition. She was also a staunch Anglican who attended church religiously every Sunday, even holding Sunday School classes at a neighbour’s home. Her daughter was also the organist at the Anglican Church.

On evenings she prescribed herbs and delivered babies for those who could not afford the doctor’s fee.

Every Sunday morning, the parish priest visited her home to give communion since my great grandfather was bedridden.

One night, my great grandmother dreamt she saw John the Baptist immerse Jesus Christ in the River Jordan and heard a voice say, “Christ was baptised and if he was, every believer should be.”

Since she put great stock in dreams and visions, she at once consulted with Baptist leaders in the area who saw to it that she was baptised by immersion.

The following Sunday the parish priest came as usual and, needless to say, he was highly offended by my great grandmother’s conversion, which he considered a betrayal of the English church.

He also felt she had greatly compromised her position in society by her alignment with the scorned African world and left the house never to return.

No doubt the priest felt he was correct to be concerned, since devotees of the Baptist faith at that time were forced to live in fear and shame, keeping private meetings and hiding from the police in order to keep their religion alive.

They were accused of being too noisy and their practices were looked upon as “intolerant, unspeakable acts” by the then Attorney General, who felt their behaviour could not be tolerated in a well-conducted society.

Despite the stigma attached to the religion, however, the seer man or woman, as the leader/mother of the church was known, was widely consulted by all and sundry. They were the alternative doctors, psychologists and marriage counsellors and were sought in the dead of night by the very people who oppressed them.

Following her conversion, my great grandmother never returned to the Anglican Church but she insisted her granddaughter (my mother) attend church service and Sunday School without fail.

My mother also attended the Baptist church during the week as well as the wayside prayer meetings throughout her childhood and recalls that people were often so amazed at the presence of her once Anglican grandmother at these meetings that her message was often lost to them.

In those days, Spiritual Baptists could not get jobs such as that of elementary school teacher and their children were not accepted at certain schools unless they disavowed their faith and openly embraced a more acceptable form of Christian worship.

Many Spiritual Baptists led double lives, singing and praying at morning Mass in a sedate, socially acceptable manner and getting together at night to sing, dance and shout to the rhythm of the drums. Wet with perspiration, they would clap and shout, lifting their voices in unison and giving praise for spiritual empowerment.

In the midst of this rejoicing, the devotees had to remain alert to the possibility of an informer who could report them to the police, priest or headmaster, all of whom had the power to instantly take away a job or a school place.

One of the more popular songs of that era was “She gone Moruga Road,/She gone to look for Obeah mama./Whey she gone?/She gone Moruga Road.”

Ebenezer Elliot, aka Papa Nezer, one of the best known obeah men in Moruga Road at the time, was the grandson of an Orisa priestess and healer and his knowledge of healing made him famous throughout the country.

My sisters and I were brought up as Anglicans and often attended church without my mother, who adhered more to the Spiritual Baptist side of her upbringing.

As a teacher in an Anglican school, however, she was expected to conform and at one time was called before the Anglican priest to answer why she was seen at a Baptist prayer meeting.

Today is the 55th anniversary of the repeal of the Shouters Prohibition Ordinance and the 10th anniversary of Spiritual Baptist Liberation Day.

The Spiritual Baptists in the country are now well respected and the faith has taken on a legitimacy that allows devotees to practise freely. There are Baptist schools and churches throughout the country and Baptist devotees have held and continue to hold high office in T&T.

It is not uncommon, however, for a man, on learning that a young woman’s mother is of the Baptist faith, to exercise some caution in his dealing with her. But this is usually done in jest and does not take away from the position that the Spiritual Baptists have attained in society.

 

 

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