Keeping dignity alive
Thursday, March 30th 2006
THE Spiritual Baptist religion was an indigenous expression of Christianity which ex-African slaves created in the 19th century.
The Baptist faith was introduced to Trinidad and Tobago by emancipated African-American slaves who were brought here by the British during the years 1815 to 16.
There were 781 men, women and children. Among them, 574 settled in the Naparima district in the south, and 207 settled in the Laventille and Caroni areas.
As early as 1859, English Baptist missionary Edward Underhill visited Trinidad and officiated at a service, during which the features of the Spiritual Baptist faith were manifest.
"Towards its close, some symptoms of excitement betrayed the emotional character of the people. One woman swayed her body from side to side and was scarcely held on her seat by her neighbours,'' he noted.
This was Christianity as practised by the Africans and it spread through the Caribbean rapidly, taking root in several other islands.
The religion, however, was despised and feared, and in St Vincent a Shakerism Prohibition Ordinance was passed in 1912.
Five years later, Trinidad and Tobago Attorney General Sir Henry Gollam described the Baptists as "an unmitigated nuisance.
"The neighbourhood in which a Shouters' meeting takes place is made almost impossible for residential occupation.
"Also the practices which are indulged in are not such as should be tolerated in a well-conducted community''.
He introduced the Shouters Prohibition Ordinance on November 16, 1917. Thereafter, the Baptists suffered more than 30 years of prosecution.
The 1917 Ordinance:
It was forbidden by law
If a person held flowers in their hands at a meeting.
A person held lighted candles in a public place.
There was any semblance of violently shaking of the body.
A person rang bells at a meeting.
A person's head was tied with a white cloth.
A police officer had the right to demand the names and addresses of any person
or persons taking part in any meeting.
Anyone found guilty of any of these offences was liable on summary conviction
to a fine of $200 and/or six months' imprisonment.
Their churches were raided and destroyed, their services disrupted, their clergy and congregation beaten, arrested, jailed and fined. Their ceremonial instruments desecrated.
Even the spokesmen for the working class, the calypsonians, derided the Shouters during those painful years.
Here are some lines from the Growling Tiger's calypso:
The Shango, of course, is quite disagreeable
For the drum is miserable
But the Shouter is a husband, children and wife
And they living miserable a corrupted life.
Despite their tribulations, the Baptists never surrendered their dignity. Like early Christians, they never retaliated against their oppressors.
Rather, they steeled themselves with the fires of justice and righteousness, enduring adversity with a Gandhian fortitude and courage. They practised their religion on the run.
In later years years, the crusading works of Albert Gomes was joined by Tubal Uriah "Buzz'' Butler, and the struggle for liberation of the Baptists intensified.
After numerous petitions to the government, the Shouter's Prohibition Ordinance was repealed on May 30, 1951.
When the Report of Trinidad and Tobago public holidays was debated in the Senate in 1995, Senator Martin Daly stressed: "We talk easily about struggle for independence, the struggle for this, the struggle for that or the other.
"The struggles of the Spiritual Baptists were real as was the victory.
"People were arrested and prosecuted. It was one of the few successful struggles after years and years by a dedicated people who succeeded after boutou and lock up. It was a struggle of indigenous people against foreign rulers.''
The Trinidad and Tobago Government under Prime Minister Basdeo Panday declared March 30 Spiritual Baptist (Shouters) Liberation Day-a public holiday.
There are factions in the Baptist religion. And the word "Shouter'' is the key word to unravel any ambiguity.
The factions carry the name Baptist. They have similar traits in their apparel, songs and certain aspects of worship.
Archbishop Burke said her organisation was known as "Shouter". The others were not.
"We use different colours in our wear, the others use only white. We use the bell, drums and calabash in our church, the others do not,'' she added.
Bishop Earl Nicols of the National Congress said he preferred a disciplined organisation and did not like shouting.
At present, plans are in the making to introduce religious education for the Baptist children, said Burke.
Their Maraval headquarters also houses the Theological College of African studies in the diaspora.
There are about 120,000 Spiritual Baptists residing in Trinidad and Tobago.