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George McIntosh and the Spiritual Baptists

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George McIntosh is one of the names frequently mentioned as deserving national hero status. In this article, I want to highlight McIntosh’s role in the struggles of the Spiritual Baptists, who were then called Shakers, to have the ban on their religion removed. The name Spiritual Baptists is a more recent name which came out of the efforts to get around the 1912 Ordinance that had declared Shakerism illegal.{{more}} The existence of the Shaker religion became well known after the publication of an article in the Sentry newspaper of October 11, 1901. That article sought to create the atmosphere to declare the religion illegal by inflaming passions and drawing out the prejudices against what the Chief of Police (Acting) regarded as being associated with ‘hereditary traits of African Barbarism’ and which Administrator Cameron considered not a religion but a practice ‘allied to African fetish worship’. The established Churches entered the picture and exerted pressure to have the religion declared illegal. This resulted in the passage of the Shakerism Prohibition Ordinance in 1912.

Some of the issues which emerged over the course of the struggle against the Ordinance involved the definition of Shakerism and the origin of Shakerism. One of the strongest defenders of the Shakers was George Augustus McIntosh who used his entry into the Legislative Council with his Working Men’s Association team to highlight the plight and struggles of these people. He traced Shakerism to the American and British Shakers who identified their roots in 1747 in Bolton near Manchester in England after which it was taken to the United States of America in 1774 by Ann Lee and eight of her followers. This appeared to have been part of a strategy by McIntosh who was quite aware that one of the motivating forces in bringing about and maintaining the ban had to do with its African roots. There is really nothing to tie the Shakers to the British and American Shakers. They appeared to have evolved their own structures and in the process to have adapted aspects of the Methodist ritual since many of them were originally and nominally Methodists.

A few months after the passage of the 1912 Ordinance Administrator Gideon Murray was prepared to declare Shakerism dead. The goodly Administrator was clearly mistaken, for Shakerism was far from being dead. In the face of the ban, they had to continue to operate in remote areas. Dr. Edward Cox, in a paper entitled ‘Religious Intolerance and Persecution: The case of the Shakers in St.Vincent, 1900-1934”, reported on the number of convictions meted out to persons who continued to practice the religion. In 1920 there were 9 convictions, 8 in the Campden Park area alone; in 1921 nineteen persons were prosecuted with nine resulting in convictions, generating fines amounting to _210 or three years hard labour. They opted to go to gaol. This continued into the 1920s and 1930s with twenty three convictions in 1923; eighteen in 1925, twenty two in 1927, thirty five in 1933 and ninety four in 1935. During this period, a petition was sent to the King complaining about religious persecution. Edward Cox, writing about this, stated: “The petitioners noted that they always started their meetings with praying and singing and held a lighted candle in their hands as a guide because ‘Jesus Christ says he is the light of the world and our lighted candle represents him…no one can say their prayers in darkness. The Church have lighted candles on the altar, no body trouble them. Why should we be troubled now?’ “ The person who signed the petition was Hilton Fife of Barrouallie who had been prosecuted in 1913 and 1933, but was apparently still practising the religion in 1934.

The turning point began in 1935, following the riots of October and the election of McIntosh and his men into the Legislative Council in 1937. He fought strenuously to repeal the Ordinance. In supporting different motions in the Legislature aimed at overturning the 1912 Ordinance, he pointed to the infringement of the right to serve God, a right that was enshrined in the British constitution. When a claim was made by the Medical Officer associating Shakerism with hysterical disorders arising from the mental excitement produced at their meetings, McIntosh regarded it as being absurd, since few, if any, of the Shakers were among the inmates at the mental asylum. He went on to make the point that fanatics of any religion would go out of their mind and even dismissed talk of immorality suggesting that there was immorality in all religions. On one occasion a motion for repeal of the Ordinance passed the Legislature with the full support of elected members and unexpected support from planter Alex Fraser on the nomination benches. This was in opposition to the Executive Council but it meant little since the country’s colonial status took care of that and the motion went no further However, in June 1939, McIntosh moved a motion urging the government to amend the Shakers Ordinance to define what was Shakerism and to grant the right of appeal to persons charged for its practice. The Executive Council later began to shift its position and suggested that there could be an amendment to allow the right of appeal to anyone convicted of Shakerism.

As the political climate began to change following the 1935 riots, the Shakers became more open in their practice. The police reported on October 6, 1939, of two cases of Shaker meetings being held in Kingstown on successive Sundays. One of these meetings was held in the yard of McIntosh’s home in Paul’s Lot. There was also an incident at the Court House in Barrouallie which signalled these changes. At a case in which some Shakers were charged, they got the spirit and began to shake before an embarrassed Magistrate Cox who dismissed the case after warning them to give up the practice. It appeared that McIntosh was behind this. The Times newspaper in an article on October 21, 1939, quoted McIntosh in his fight against the Ordinance as saying “Great and many have been the mishaps imposed on the oppressed working class people of the colony for trying to serve God as their only consolation for the half starved, naked, miserable and deplorable condition in which they have been kept.” The colony’s colonial status before Adult Suffrage set limits on what he could have achieved but he certainly highlighted and gave strong support to the Shakers’ struggle. The repeal came eventually in 1965 when Ebenezer Joshua successfully piloted a bill through the Legislative Council with support from lawyer Milton Cato who in 1951 had won a case on their behalf that really allowed them to practice their religion freely. But the final nail was struck with the bill taken through the Legislative Council in 1965. Joshua had taken up what McIntosh started in the 1930s.

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