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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”