There were two main Christian Churches in post-emancipation St. Vincent, the Wesleyan Methodists and Anglicans. There were also African-Caribbean generated religious groups and the emergence of the 'Shakers', a sect which originated in St. Vincent. There were also small Roman Catholic and Scottish Presbyterian congregations, but their influence was minimal on the wider African-Caribbean population.

Ever since I was a child, religion always played a huge part in the lives of people in towns and villages, though out St Vincent. I went to the Anglican Church without knowing why, probably because it was the place of worship for my parents and their parents. Others went to the Methodist Church which was virtually next door to the Anglican Church. Interestingly enough, the Methodist Church always started either earlier of later than the Anglican service. The reason for this will be seen in the following article. 

All of this was in recent times but what part did the Church play in the lives of those in slavery and post emancipation in St Vincent.? What was the real purpose of the Church in those days? Why were they at war with each other to gain membership? and  why was a slave owner and planter the Church Minister in Georgetown?

I will leave you to draw your own conclusions to these questions after you have read this account which I have adapted from a Thesis, Colour, Class and Gender in Post - Emancipation St. Vincent, 1834-1884 by Sheena Boa.

The Anglican Church

During slavery, very little was done by the Anglican Church to involve slaves. There were some mass baptisms of slaves at the request of planters, but these were carried out with little or no instructions about Christianity and the slaves that were baptised were not encouraged to attend services. However, after the abolition of slavery, there was a concerted effort on the part of the Anglican Church to gain converts among the freed slave population.

There could be two reasons for this. Firstly the free population possessed a significant share of the island's income. It was estimated that free labourers earned about $100 per year. The rural labouring population alone, therefore, controlled an annual income of over $700,000.

Secondly, free people could choose where they lived, and there was a fear that they would decide to move away from any European influence. Therefore, Anglicans wanted to instil primarily British ethics into the African-Caribbean population to ensure that the island remained dominated by British culture.

The conversion of freed slaves to Anglicanism was initially rapid. In 1841, the total number of Anglicans in St.Vincent was estimated at 7000. A new Church was also opened in Georgetown, and by 1843, it had 1500 attendants and 156 communicants. According to the 1861 census, there were 13,652 members of the Church of England island-wide.

The Anglican Church was supported by government funds and donations. It did not charge its congregations pew money, but people were expected to donate to the collection each week and had to pay fees for religious ceremonies such as baptism, marriage and funeral services. Therefore, Anglican ministers encouraged labourers to join their congregations as a means of improving Church funds.

One minister clearly confirmed this when he wrote to a local newspaper: 'It is incumbent on Ministers to extort their people to liberal charity, and to direct them to the best ways of collecting and applying their contributions."

Social control of the freed population was also very important to some Anglican ministers. The ministers were conservative men, anxious to retain and enforce systems of race, class and gender hierarchies. Among their most vociferous campaigners was Reverend Thomas Browne, Minister at Georgetown. He was a planter, and the grandson of General Thomas Browne, who had fought for the British in the American War of Independence and against the Caribs and received much of the Carib's land (Grande Sable Estate) as a reward.

Reverend Browne was also strongly against the freedom of slaves. His views on apprenticeship were typical of many planters, namely that it gave apprentices too much in the way of allowances and deprived planters of the ability to extract adequate labour from their workers. He also complained that children under six years had been freed in his opposition to free children, Browne reveals much of his own views on how the free society should be run. This was a man with great influence in the area of Georgetown, so much so that part of the area was named after him, "Browns Town"

He was anxious that schooling for free children should be organised so that only the children of those at work on estates should be allowed to attend schools. He also wanted schools to be open for only two days each week so children would have to work on estates during the other four days.

He wrote: 'In all charity schools for the lower orders, the children should be gratuitously instructed only so far as it is consistent with their future prospects in life'  ( I want alyo to read and take this in) As far as Browne was concerned no amount of schooling was going get us out of serfdom, we had no future, nothing more to look foreword to.

Members of the Anglican clergy who wanted to restrict the access of labourers to education and advancement beyond the needs of a field worker also wanted to restructure female roles. They were considered useful primarily for organizing bazaars, producing handicrafts and teaching girls. The wider roles of women in Caribbean society was viewed with some dismay by Anglican leaders. Equality between men and women on any level was therefore seen by the Anglican Bishop as a threat to society.

'In all charity schools for the lower orders, the children should be gratuitously instructed only so far as it is consistent with their future prospects in life'

Rev Thomas Browne

Wesleyan Methodists

Unlike the Anglican Church, the Methodist mission's initial goal in St. Vincent was to effect the conversion of slaves to Christianity. Methodists enjoyed significant success in St. Vincent, and by 1823 had a membership of 15 whites and 2889 slaves, five missionaries and three schools. In 1861, the census revealed that there were 14,177 Wesleyan members. More than the Church of England.

The initial success of the Methodists resulted in conflicts between them and the Anglican Church as each group attempted to poach members from the other. For example, before Methodist marriages were legally recognised, missionaries complained that Anglican ministers persuaded Methodists to marry in the Anglican Church. Methodists who married Anglicans were also expected to adopt the Anglican faith, and missionaries claimed that Anglican ministers also used the power of their friendly societies to bind new members 'hand and foot' to the Church.

Thomas Browne was especially opposed to Wesleyans, he accused the Wesleyans of teaching their people that if any labourers worked on their free days, they would be whipped as the King had stated that these were days given to the apprentices by God. Browne also enjoyed tormenting individual missionaries. In 1842, he initiated complaints against Josias Browne, the missionary stationed in Georgetown. He accused Josias Browne of baptising the unconverted. In 1851, Thomas Browne accused Henry Pinner of permitting Shakers and accused witches to join the Wesleyan Church. A few years later, Browne attacked missionary Henry Pimm, accusing him of baptising illegitimate babies on the day that Browne had reserved for baptising legitimate babies.

Churches at war?

In the early 1860s, however, Browne was successfully defeated by the Wesleyan missionary John Greathead. In Georgetown, the Methodist chapel and Anglican Church are situated next to each other. Greathead's style of preaching was so loud that he could actually be heard inside Browne's Church. Browne complained to the Wesleyan leaders in England about Greathead's noise and began a campaign against him, he forbade his parishioners from even entering the Wesleyan chapel. Browne was eventually forced to close his Church on Sunday mornings and hold his services in the afternoon to avoid the sound of Greathead's preaching. However, Greathead's actions during the 1862 riots, when he sided with the planters against the labourers, precipitated the decline in support of the Wesleyan mission.

In 1865, Reverend Frederickson replaced Browne as minister for Georgetown. One of his first acts was to offer to re-baptise any Wesleyans who wished to join the Anglican Church. As this came at a time when the Wesleyans' popularity was at its lowest, many people took the opportunity to attend the ceremony.

The conflict between the Anglican and Methodist Churches intensified in the late 1860s because of a review of the funding of religious institutions. After many years of campaigning by the Wesleyans, the Legislature agreed to vote funds to religious bodies according to their membership. This led to allegations by both Churches that their rival was falsifying membership figures, and the Wesleyans accused the Anglicans of continuing to re-baptise Methodists.

Money was also a primary motive for the church. Fund raising was a major part of the missionarie's work. Letters from missionaries to the General Secretaries reveal the large sums of money extracted from members and the efforts made by missionaries to increase their collections. In periods of prosperity they praised members for their generosity.

For example, in 1839, one circuit was able to double its subscriptions when a class leader publicly decided to pay double. This action swayed the other members to follow suit and Reverend Cullingford, the missionary for Kingstown and the leader of the St. Vincent mission, wrote that 'if proper exertions be made, their liberality will be well sustained'. It also appeared that Wesleyans had a reputation among local people for their love of money.

In 1856, for example, one woman recalled during a court case, that when she wanted to visit a missionary meeting she had to first visit her daughter to get a silver bit as the missionaries did not like coppers. Missionaries were under strong pressure to send money to England for the Wesleyan general funds, and during periods of economic depression, they were frequently castigated if their subscriptions were down. By 1868, the St. Vincent Wesleyans had debts of over £5,000.

The initial enthusiasm for Methodism began to wane after the mid 1840s, when labourers had less work and less money, but were still expected to pay their subscription. After 1862, many labourers had become disillusioned with the Methodists because the missionaries supported the planters during the riots. In addition, many estates had collapsed and been abandoned. Therefore, Wesleyan missionaries found it increasingly difficult even to pay their own expenses.

"We only wanted to make labourers 'what we ardently wish them to be, a happy and industrious peasantry - a people prepared for their proper station on earth."

The Wesleyan Methodist Church 1843.

Though slavery ended, the Church still wanted to control!

Missionaries, like Anglican ministers, wanted to control the behaviour of the black population. After the abolition of slavery, Wesleyans claimed that their members were the best workers, who rarely came into conflict with managers or magistrates. This echoes similar claims made by Wesleyans in England who boasted that their members did not participate in strikes.

Wesleyans rarely supported labourers in their struggles for better working conditions, and when they did, they stressed their overall belief that labourers had duties rather than rights. Missionaries were accused of causing friction between the planter and workers. They refuted this strongly, claiming in 1843 that they only wanted to make labourers 'what we ardently wish them to be, a happy and industrious peasantry - a people prepared for their proper station on earth.

Wesleyan missionaries regularly criticised the lives of the African-Caribbean population. Missionaries were opposed to many forms of entertainment enjoyed by labourers. They despised dances, drumming and even theatrical entertainments and were also opposed to gambling and drinking alcohol. One missionary, William Griffith, was threatened and even shot at because he spent much of his time outside rum shops ordering the customers to stop drinking, and snatching and burning their playing cards.

However, it was the African-Caribbean's attitudes towards sexual relations that missionaries found most disturbing. Not only did missionaries expel large numbers for having sexual relations outside of marriage, but they also frequently lectured their congregations in an attempt to convince them that sexual activity was a sin.

Friendly Societies (Bun Pan Money)

Both Wesleyans and Anglicans introduced freed slaves to friendly societies and a rapid rise in their membership after emancipation enabled workers to insure themselves against illness and old age. The societies were initially started by the Anglican Church, but were overseen by members. Members had to abide by certain rules, including, for those who were married, living faithfully with their spouse.

They had to attend meetings regularly and pay their dues on time. In fact, the popularity of these societies, despite the strict codes of practice imposed on the members, caused Methodist missionaries to follow the Anglican lead and introduce their own societies to avoid losing their congregations to their rivals. They charged each member just over six pence each month. In return, members received assistance from the society when they were too ill to work or had to pay for a burial. 

The Wilderness People - Breaking away from European Church

While missionaries and clergy were successful in converting many labourers to Christianity, they failed to meet the spiritual needs of all members of society. One reason was the lack of leadership roles for labourers, especially women, within the European Churches. European Churches were also very restrained and frowned upon open expressions of emotions.

Sometime around 1846, a new religious group was formed among labourers from the Calder estate who called themselves the Wilderness People. They later became known by government officials and other Europeans as 'Shakers Their origins are not known, but an African-Canadian preacher, Mr. Edwards, spent some time on Calder estate in the early 1840s. It was thought by some that he was responsible for establishing the sect by instilling in some of the estate workers certain 'notions' or 'superstitions' concerning the casting out of sins and that his preaching formed the basis of the Wilderness sect.

Many of the early Wilderness people were originally Methodists. Initially, they were tolerated by Reverend Fiddler, the Wesleyan preacher of the Biabou circuit, although he was concerned about their use of convulsions and their noisy prayer meetings. But he was also impressed by their morals, which he described as 'the most consistent'. He was also aware that other missionaries expected him to expel the Wilderness people, but he believed that this would only strengthen their influence.

However, in 1849, after Fiddler had left St. Vincent, the new Wesleyan minister felt that the Wilderness people had got out of control, and 100 were expelled. Two years later a further 200 members were expelled from the Biabou circuit. The missionary blamed the increase in the membership of the Wilderness people on the dispersal of the villages. He claimed that he was not able to visit all his people regularly, so the Wilderness people were able to, as he expressed it, 'seek to ensnare and lead astray the unwary'.

By 1852, the sect had again increased in numbers and held nightly prayer meetings in many villages. They had also built a chapel in Lander's village. The sect also moved to other areas in the north of Charlotte parish. In 1881, missionaries reported that 'Shakerism' had taken over in the villages and estates around Georgetown and, in Overland village, nearly all the inhabitants had been converted.

During the early 1850s, Reverend Thomas Browne became concerned about the spreading influence of the Wilderness people. Browne referred to the sect as 'Shakers', and in a letter to the Wesleyan General Secretaries, he blamed their increase in numbers on the apathy of the Wesleyan missionaries. He stated that one of the leaders of the Wilderness people had been a member of his Church, but that when she became a Shaker, he expelled her. However, she had later been allowed to join the Wesleyans.

In 1852, the Wilderness people were criticised by Chief Justice Sharpe. In his address to the Grand Jury, he referred to them as a group of 'fanatics' and demanded that 'the places at which these people assemble should be known to the police.. and if they appear to scoff at Christian religion they should be arrested and charged'.

His sentiments were echoed by the Grand Jury, who responded that 'we fear that this sect of fanatics will tend to increase immorality and crime if not speedily eradicated'. The authorities attacked the Wilderness sect again in 1862, when members of the labouring community rioted against reduced wages and unfair conditions. The authorities discovered that one of the ringleaders, George Bascombe, and some of his followers were members of the Wilderness Church. In retaliation for the riots and in an attempt to destroy the sect's influence the militia destroyed the Wilderness chapel at Mount Bentinck.

There were several reasons why the Wilderness people were singled out for persecution. One reason was probably because they were completely independent of European influence. As Reverend Hudson, a Methodist missionary wrote, 'they insisted on holding meetings independent and separate from our own'. Europeans feared that these meetings were subversive and could give members the opportunity to plot against them. European authorities and Churches were also apprehensive that the religious philosophies of the Wilderness people were unknown, that the leadership was sporadic and involved many people and that one of their doctrines was 'Equality'.

The Wilderness people were able to travel freely around the free villages and could take advantage of the dispersed communities which had caused Church attendance among Wesleyans to lapse. Europeans also disliked the Wilderness people's style of worship. The Anglican and Catholic Churches were ritualistic and reinforced class differences through segregated pews and the use of various chants. Wesleyan Methodism encouraged greater expressions of feelings from the congregation, particularly tears of contrition, but opposed dance and drumming.

The Wilderness people, on the other hand, provided their members with space to display strong emotions, and they incorporated African cultural expressions through the use of trances and dance. They usually met at night, and their ceremonies could last for the whole night. This was seen by missionaries as especially dangerous.

Reverend Browne revealed his intolerance of the Wilderness people's expressions of faith when he used the terms 'animal excitement' and 'bodily contortions' to describe these trances. The Wilderness sect continued to thrive during the nineteenth century, and in the early 1900s, it was reported that there were thirty-eight separate 'Shaker' meeting houses. During the early part of the twentieth century, the name Shaker was used consistently to describe the sect, and they were again singled out for persecution.

In 1908, there was an inquiry into the sect, and local officials decided that they should deny the Shakers acceptance as a religious group and prosecute them as a public nuisance. In 1912, the sect was declared illegal and during the next two decades, large numbers of people were arrested and charged under this Ordinance. In 1938, these persecutions ended in St. Vincent, but it was not until 1965, that the Ordinance was actually repealed.

The Wilderness sect survived the intolerance and persecutions of the authorities because of the sense of belonging it conveyed to its members The sect was seen as dangerous because it was out of the Europeans' control. It gave disaffected members of society the chance to meet and worship without the interference of any Europeans.

The leaders and followers were all local African-Caribbean labourers, therefore, they were able to convert others to their sect. It also allowed resident estate workers, and immigrants, who were the least powerful members of the society, a chance to assume leadership roles and celebrate their African heritage.

It is also noteworthy that only the African-Caribbean religious sects offered space for labourers, and especially women members, to develop their potential for leadership and decision making. Women prophets could persuade whole estates to follow them. It is therefore not surprising that many strong-minded women chose to embrace a religion that gave them leadership opportunities, a sense of belonging and unity, and the belief that through their actions, they could improve their moral and spiritual well-being.

free templates