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God Almighty Make Me Free: Christianity in Preemancipation Jamaica.

By Shirley C. Gordon (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1996. xiii plus 159pp. $39.95).

Shirley C. Gordon is the co-author of a widely used text, The Making of the West Indies (1960), and co-editor of a compilation of documents, Sources of West Indian History (1962). She has also edited A Century of West Indian Education (1963) and Reports and Repercussions in West Indian Education, 1835-1933 (1968). As a teacher at the University of the West Indies and the University of Guyana she played an important role in the introduction of Caribbean history in schools and colleges while most of the former British colonies were becoming independent nations. Now, in what she promises is the first of two volumes, she addresses the important topic of the history of Christianity in the principal British Caribbean colony, Jamaica. This book examines the period between the 1750s and emancipation in 1838, and the next volume will continue the story after emancipation until the Morant Bay rebellion in 1865.

This book is thoroughly researched, well-organized, and clearly written. Gordon states her chief themes explicitly: "first, that the Christianization of approximately half the population by the end of slavery was overwhelmingly the achievement of black and colored teachers, both independent preachers and the leadership of the dissenting chapels; second, that the conversion was progressively associated with the growing aspirations, both for freedom and sociopolitical recognition, of slaves and free coloreds and blacks of many generations; third, that by 1838 there was a dawning awareness of a Jamaican identity among the colored population, if only because they had nowhere else to go. This was reinforced, on the one hand, by a growing 'non-conformist' conscience of European origin and, on the other, by an Afro-Christian synthesis which required participation in worship and preferred Pentecostal and revivalist practices in their religion." (pp. xii-xiii) She makes extensive use of manuscript sources from a variety of missionary societies, including the Baptist, London, Moravian, and Wesleyan Methodist missionary societies.

By 1838, there were about 50,000 Jamaicans in the three chief mission chapels (18,720 Baptists, 16,590 Methodists, and 9,900 Moravians), as well as small groups of Presbyterians and Anglicans, and followers of the London Missionary Society. Perhaps another 50,000 Jamaicans were Native Baptists, served often by itinerant black preachers. Many Jamaicans had never met a white missionary but had adopted some aspects of Christianity, often combining them with their African religious beliefs and activities. African beliefs, in both Myalism and Obeah, were used to address the tribulations of slavery and, give an apparent "disposition to syncretism," (p. 3) Afro-Jamaican practices often adapted elements of European Christianity to their needs and purposes. Complete immersion in a river or the sea, for example, was believed to be an especially powerful ritual, and John the Baptist was sometimes judged to be greater than Jesus Christ because he baptized Christ. Belief in the cleansing power of water, and that the "spirit" could be obtained from immersion in water, was widespread in African religions. The emphasis on a person's sins being washed away, perhaps permanently, became a central aspect of Afro-Christian religion, and slaves and free blacks who had been so baptized achieved higher status in their communities.

Black Baptist preachers, who arrived from the United States after the War of Independence, introduced the system of leaders, known as daddies and mammies, and distributed tickets as a sign of membership in their church. The Jamaican Native Baptist preachers who emerged in these groups were particularly successful in reaching and converting the slaves because their belief and practices regarding baptism and burial, and their morality, were closer to those of the slaves than were those of the white missionaries. Besides, the missionaries were instructed to refrain from criticizing the slave system, even though their societies were generally in the vanguard of the antislavery movement in Britain. The slaves were less likely to be persuaded by people who inveighed against their personal sins while apparently ignoring the evils of slavery, and more likely to listen to those who could reconcile African and Christian beliefs and practices while expressing their aspiration for freedom in spiritual terms. The Native Baptists, consequently, were "the bedrock of the slave allegiance to Christianity," (p. 41) and the great rebellion of 1831, called the Baptist War, was inspired by them and organized at their meetings.(1) Though both the British missionaries and the slaves denied that the revolt had anything to do with European Christianity, the reactionary Colonial Church Union attacked the missionaries, destroyed their chapels, and sought to drive them from the island. Gordon points out that the CCU's failure to expel the missionaries resulted less from the efforts of the colonial authorities than from those of the free colored congregations who rallied in defense of their chapels. The attack on the dissenting chapels in 1832 was also an attack on the civil rights the free people of color had been granted in 1830. These Euro-Christian chapels, therefore, became a focus of the free colored struggle for rights, respectability, social mobility, and status in the last years of slavery, while the Native Baptists, along with other Afro-Christian and African religious groups, were more closely associated with the slaves' struggle for freedom. These were never hard and fast distinctions, however, as some European missionaries adopted syncretic religious beliefs from their members and "many slaves managed to develop a double religious allegiance." (p. 129)

Gordon notes the tension in the slave society between those aspects of Christianity that emphasized the slaves' duty to their masters and those that underlined the inherent worth of every human being. She tells this complex story well, with due and careful attention to its subtleties. For example, she shows that there could be differing interpretations of the same event, doctrine, or ritual. Evidence of slaves' participation in an event, such as a Christian wedding, does not mean that it has the same meaning for them as it has for their masters or the missionaries. This points to the need to relate culture to social organization, as the persistence or change of specific elements of African or European religions, or their synthesis into new elements, takes place in specific structural contexts. It follows that we can only study cultural changes in relation to the correlated changes in social structure. Anthropological studies of African and Afro-Christian religions in places such as Brazil have examined these issues,(2) and Gordon could have made some comparative references to other cases and studies, the better to illuminate her own.

Gordon supports her central theses comprehensively and convincingly. However, she does not engage in some of the thornier controversies as thoroughly as she could have done. For example, what does her study tell us about the nature of the creolization process, and the degree of cultural unity or pluralism in the "creole society" of Jamaica?(3) To what extent did the Christianization of the slaves and free people of color help create a common creole culture, or did the persistence of African religion among the oppressed, and the allegiance of the free colored to the European missionary chapels, maintain "Two Jamaicas,"(4) or even Three Jamaicas, in a state of continuing conflict? The varieties of Christianity in Jamaica at the time of emancipation played various, and sometimes contradictory, roles in the continuing struggles for political freedom, civil rights, and social justice. Gordon's planned second volume, which will examine Christianity in post-emancipation Jamaica, should address these questions more fully, and is awaited eagerly.

O. Nigel Bolland Colgate University


1. Mary Turner, Slaves and Missionaries: The Disintegration of Jamaican Slave Society, 1787-1834 (Urbana, 1982).

2. Roger Bastide, The African Religions of Brazil: Toward a Sociology of the Interpenetration of Civilizations, trans. by Helen Sebba (Baltimore, 1978).

3. Edward Brathwaite, The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica, 1770-1820 (Oxford, 1971); Mervyn Alleyne, Roots of Jamaican Culture (London, 1988).

4. Philip D. Curtin, Two Jamaicas: The Role of Ideas in a Tropical Colony, 1830-1865 (Cambridge, MA, 1955).

5. Diane J. Austin-Broos, "Redefining the Moral Order: Interpretations of Christianity in Postemancipation Jamaica," in Frank McGlynn and Seymour Drescher (eds.), The Meaning of Freedom: Economics, Politics, and Culture After Slavery (Pittsburgh, 1992), pp. 221-43.
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Author:Bolland, O. Nigel
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1998
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