Claude’s Comments: Why Britain owes Spiritual Baptists an apology and reparations

In November 2017, the Spiritual Baptists of T&T solemnly commemorated the centenary of “The Shouters’ Prohibition Ordinance,” the second wave of legislation designed to eradicate Afro-Caribbean Christianity. In 1927, Grenada was hit by the third wave, the “Public Meetings (Shakerism) Prohibition Ordinance.”

The tidal wave of state persecution of Spiritual Baptism began in St Vincent with “The ‘Shakerism’ Prohibition Ordinance” of 1912, the prototype for the later ordinances. The leadership of the faith in all three territories officially adopted the term Spiritual Baptists during the prohibition years but, although many had tactically denounced Shakerism/Shouterism, that did not stop the persecution.

Photo: A Spiritual Baptist ritual at the seaside.
(Copyright Noel P Norton)

Notwithstanding the abuse of “pure” Crown Colony absolutism in T&T and St Vincent, the more disturbing fact is the complicity of the British Government in sanctioning these ordinances, knowing that they had gone beyond the pale of political expediency and had violated the most sacred principles of British civilization.

The recognition of the individual right to liberty, including the liberty to worship according to one’s conscience, is, arguably, the cornerstone of modern civilization; many other rights are wrapped around it, whether one is religious or not.

Among European nations, England had led the way with the “Toleration Act, 1689,” which removed the most vexatious disabilities from Dissenters (also referred to as Non-conformists and Sectarians). In that Act, Baptists were named beneficiaries.

Parliament continually expanded religious toleration over the next 160-odd years, by which time Jews and Muslims were accorded equal rights with the United Church of England and Ireland via the “Trinity Act, 1813;” Roman Catholics at last found relief under the “Catholic Emancipation Act, 1829” and all other denominations, including Oriental faiths, were accorded the same legal rights under “The Places of Worship Registration Act, 1855” (PWRA). These Acts applied to all British colonies.

Laws are either constitutional or unconstitutional. Toleration Acts, particularly the PWRA, protected the religious freedom of the Shakers and Shouters (Spiritual Baptists). It goes without saying, therefore, that legislative prohibition was ultra vires British Toleration and, thus, unconstitutional.

Photo: Famous British Judge Lord Denning.

The universal application of the PWRA was successfully tested in Australia in the Church of the New Faith v Comr of Pay-Roll 1983, and re-confirmed in the case Hodkin v RG 2013 in Britain: in both cases, the defendants belonged to the US-based Church of Scientology. They won their cases based on the 1855 PWRA’s ubiquitous extension of toleration to “other Religious Denomination or Religious Appellation.”

In delivering judgement on the British case, Lord Denning ruled thus: “The purpose of the 1855 Act was to grant freedom of worship to all, regardless of social or educational background.” Caribbean Governors, Administrators and senior jurists were fully aware of this Act.

Contrary to one school of thought, the Spiritual Baptists were not banned because they practised an African religion. Even if the religious movement was fundamentally African, the PWRA of 1855 protected them. Esoteric African (and Asian) practices, as interpreted by colonial elites fell under anti-obeah laws, which were to be found in every British Caribbean jurisdiction. For this reason, contrary to belief popular in T&T, Orisha/Shango was not banned under the 1917 Ordinance; nor was Rada (still extant in Belmont) nor was Islam (which was first practised in Trinidad by Africans).

Although religions brought by Indian indentured labourers [including Islam] suffered immense prejudice at the hands of the State, they too were not banned or persecuted. Spiritual Baptist prohibition was unique and merits special study in law.

Photo: Spiritual Baptist worshippers.
(Courtesy THA)

Prohibition of the Spiritual Baptists is a velvet stain on the British constitution, which the current generation must acknowledge.

In his book, Trinidad Village, renowned anthropologist Melville Herskovits correctly identified one of the major reasons for Shouter Prohibition: “…because of the understandable need felt by the more conventional denominations to counteract the inroads these ‘shouters’ were making in their following.”

This concern was explicitly addressed in the Legislative Council debate on Prohibition. But, the challenge that Spiritual Baptists represented to colonial elites went even further.

The Spiritual Baptists’ dominance in the second wave of expansion of Friendly Societies provided an economic rationale for prohibition that was closely intertwined with the challenge to “conventional denominations.” Anglican Minister SF Branch likened the Friendly Societies to a vehicle for economic and intellectual emancipation that, if allowed to continue unabated, would upset the post-Emancipation status quo in St Vincent.

In a report to the West Indian Royal Commission in 1897, Branch is quoted as follows: “The labourer, by his lay, friendly and religious societies and his revolt from the healthy control of the clergy of the Church and Minister of Weslyan [sic] body, shows he is testing the pleasure of thinking and determining for himself.

Photo: Spiritual Baptists dance during a service.
(Copyright Afrikan Heritage)

Accordingly, the government planned to deploy religious prohibition as a political weapon against this proletarian phenomenon.

Indeed, in an unpublished paper, “Religious Intolerance and Persecution: The Case of the Shakers in St Vincent, 1900-1934,” Edward Cox tells us that Gideon Murray confided to his superior, Acting Governor Edward Cameron (the same who had, as Administrator, vigorously pursued prohibition): “Now that the Bill is law, I expect that in a few weeks these lodges will likewise be closed down and that Shakerism in St Vincent will be as dead as mutton.”

Prior to the colonial states’ deployment of scandal, demonology and immorality to sway public opinion against the Shakers and Shouters, both movements were described in official documents as “religion.” For example, Administrator Edward Cameron of St Vincent described the Shakers as “a distinct religious manifestation.”

By 1912, the State’s subversion of the integrity of Spiritual Baptism was completed with the Prohibition Ordinance, which labelled the Shakers a “pseudo-religion,” a term that had no meaning in religious law and which was merely political jargon intended to hoodwink the British Government into sanctioning the Ordinance.

Caribbean precedents demonstrated unequivocally that the Prohibition Ordinances were ultra vires the Toleration Acts. Among the more immediate was a Jamaica Bill of 1903 to outlaw Pocomania, the Jamaican version of Spiritual Baptism. This Bill was rejected by a Select Committee of the Legislature on the ground that it was inconsistent with Toleration.

In 1911, the Legislature passed an alternative bill, “The Noises (Night) Prevention Law,” which only targeted excessive noises but which had to be carefully drafted “to prevent frivolous and vexatious prosecutions.”

Photo: Former St Vincent Acting Governor Edward Cameron.

In St Vincent, there were two botched attempts at Shaker Prohibition prior to 1912, both under Cameron. Cameron brazenly stated that the first Bill of 1904 was intended “to suppress any sort of religious meetings after sunset with the exception of those held by ‘recognised religious denominations.’” The Shakers, however, were the sole target of the Bill.

Fortunately, after reviewing the Bill, judicial officers based in Grenada concluded that the British Government would disallow any ordinance requiring religious leaders to have a special licence or restricted by any other form of regulation. Accordingly, the Governor killed the bill. The Governor also vetoed Cameron’s second bill of 1908 for the same reason.

Interestingly, in the six weeks’ interval between the first reading of the 1912 Ordinance and its third reading, new Administrator Gideon Murray personally assured Shaker leaders that “the Government has no intention of interfering with ordinary prayer meetings, that no British Government would take such a step.”

Having gained the confidence of Shaker leaders, Murray turned around with consummate Machiavellian duplicity and appealed for assistance from “other people not mixed up with Shakerism,” to help him bring the Shakers back “into the folds of the recognised Churches.”

To these potential allies, he also indicated that the Bill already in the Legislature would ultimately see “the disappearance of Shakerism.”

Photo: Spiritual Baptists ring the bell.
(Copyright Washington Post)

Colonial Office officials who reviewed the Trinidad Ordinance recommended sanction because it was a virtual copy of the St Vincent law, “which was allowed [by Lewis Harcourt, Secretary of State for the Colonies] after discussion with the administrator.”

In 1917, with no end in sight to World War I, Walter Long, the new Secretary of State, had no intention of stirring up dissent in the colonies, not even to correct a major constitutional blunder.

In debating the repeal of the Shouters’ Prohibition Ordinance in 1951, Ashford Sinanan issued the strongest indictment of British lawmakers: “I believe, sir, that it would be extremely difficult for one to find in this island a piece of legislation which turns out to be a greater assault on the liberty and the freedom of the individual or a greater infringement of the religious rights and freedom of the people.”

As a fitting corollary, Chanka Maharaj appealed directly to Albert Gomes to support his call for reparations.

Maharaj’s call was directed at the colonial government. The metropolitan government, however, did not only sanction the original ordinances but also reaffirmed the need for maintaining them when they were reviewed some years later.

For many Spiritual Baptists today, an apology from the British Government might be sufficient to bring closure for this injustice. My research into this sad episode of Crown Colony autocracy compels me to agree with Chanka Maharaj; there cannot be closure without reparations.

Photo: A Spiritual Baptist service.

I conclude with testimony that irrefutably establishes that the sanctioning of Prohibition Ordinances was a constitutional faux pas. A pre-edited draft of a Colonial Office memo to Governor Cameron stated, “I am surprised that Mr Murray should have assumed the responsibility of independent action in the matter and I am unable to accept the consideration which he has put forward as justifying the haste with which this measure has been passed into law.”

The Colonial Office definitely rejected the colonies’ legal argument that the public nuisance charge against Shakers and Shouters was sufficient to ban their prayer meetings. One official noted on Governor Chancellor’s cover letter to the Trinidad Ordinance: “If their only offence is that of making a noise—that could have been dealt with very swiftly & without so drastic suppression.”

In comparing the two Prohibition Ordinances, another Colonial Office memo affirmed:

“The real charge against the Shouters, Shakers & Holy Jumpers is that they promote indecency & crazy excitement. Some exception was taken to the St Vincent Ordinance on the ground that the charge was not fully proved. There is no evidence of it here [in Trinidad] either.”

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About Claudius Fergus

Claudius Fergus
Claudius Fergus is a retired Senior Lecturer in the Department of History at UWI’s St Augustine Campus who specialises in the abolition of British colonial slavery and its transatlantic slave trade. His major work on the subject is Revolutionary Emancipation: Slavery and Abolitionism in the British West Indies (2013). He has other extensive publications in peer-reviewed journals and edited books.

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  1. Warning: Undefined variable $userid in /www/wired868_759/public/wp-content/plugins/user-photo/user-photo.php on line 114
  2. David Cameron, with his farse and outta timing self, IN JAMAICA, told Jamaicans, like the then Prime Minister Portia SImpson-Miller, that they should “get over themselves” about their “ridiculous” request for Britain to pay all descendants of slaves reparations. I want to meet the goodly “gentleman”. I want to give him a piece of my mind.

  3. That Britain was issuing legislation banning African religions in the Caribbean is absurd. It is becoming increasingly obvious to me why after losing 70,000 men in their failed attempt to capture Haiti and re-enslave the negroes there, the British kept their defeat and surrender a secret for 120 years. They lost the wars in the West Indies badly but still managed to exercise colonial power in the region by selectively controlling the information to be released to the colonies they retained. It was said at the time that every British household lost at least one family member to that Caribbean expedition, but that soon degenerated to folklore. Folklore that still exists in a distorted form today. African influenced religions as practised by Caribbeans are still visible contributing contrasting imagery to Black identity in UK cities today. They only have British cynicism and even some old colonial fear to contend with now.

  4. Think there was also another reason which was aimed mainly at the “Shouter Baptists, which was the disturbance of the peace, same as the Orisha which was accompanied by loud drumming.

  5. Thanks for allowing Dr. Fergus space here. The quality of his research is apparent and his conclusions ethical, fair and timely.

  6. So… I read this hoping to see one line… why were they banned?

    • Claudius Fergus

      Kirk, look at the article again. But let me expand for the sake of other readers. The quote from Herskovits and Branch provides the real reasons (causa belli) for the prohibition. The final paragraph provides the justification (casus belli) advanced by colonial elites for the banning. Knowing that a religious movement could not be banned because it undermined the finances or congregational strength of rival denominations, the colonial legislators got around this protection by denying that the Spiritual Baptists were authentic religious movements and that they really constituted a threat to public order by excessive noise-making, orgies and other immoral practices, promoting insanity among initiates, etc. The point remains, however, that a religion couldn’t be banned on the basis of those charges–that’s the reason for highlighting the Jamaica case and the Cameron bills.

  7. Well researched and argued. Dr. Fergus’ recommendations need to be placed before Cabinet via the relevant Ministry.

  8. Spiritual Baptist Region did not originate in Africa.

  9. “In his book, Trinidad Village, renowned anthropologist Melville Herskovits correctly identified one of the major reasons for Shouter Prohibition: “…because of the understandable need felt by the more conventional denominations to counteract the inroads these ‘shouters’ were making in their following.”…..”

    This, and what Dr Fergus wrote in the following paragraph, brought to mind what was pointed out in Trotman’s book on crime in 19th century Trinidad regarding the criminalising of obeah. He argued that the main reason for the banning of obeah was to break the strong influence of the spiritual leaders who were figures of authority in their communities. That authority they wielded had political implications.


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