of Spiritual Baptists
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
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 neighbours 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 doctors 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 grandmothers
conversion, which he considered a betrayal of the English
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
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
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 womans 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.