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To Spiritual Baptists of SVG

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Today as you proudly practice your religion, it is clear that many members of your Church are unaware of the tremendous sacrifices that your fore-parents and predecessors have made, to be able to worship in the manner they wanted to and in the Church they wanted to. Theirs was a long and glorious struggle and it is because of that struggle that you are here today worshipping in the way that you care to. It is important therefore that all members of your religion, but particularly the young ones, learn about and understand this struggle and the kind of prosecution that your earlier followers faced in attempting to practice their religion.{{more}} This knowledge will be important in helping them to strengthen their commitment to your religion and to be willing to defend it at all times, to ensure its preservation and advocate on its behalf.

The Shaker religion, as it was then known, emerged from the slave plantations and first came to the consciousness of the colony of St.Vincent from its early practitioners on the Calder estate in the period after emancipation. Given its origin it was not officially recognised by the colonial state and its followers had to live a dual life, their children being baptised in the officially recognised churches but worshipping in their own church. In this bow to officialdom, they were mostly baptised in the Methodist Church, but worshiped in their Shaker Prayer houses which were mainly located in remote areas away from official scrutiny. Members of the Church felt more at home with a religion that was their own and catered to their African persona and to the state of a people newly freed from slavery. The declining numbers in some of the recognised churches as the Shakers grew in numbers led to efforts to stamp them out. The first signal came in an article in the Sentry newspaper on October 11, 1901, that was apparently prompted by members of the official churches and which acknowledged that there was indeed a falling away from the established churches. This was only the opening round as church, government and newspapers combined their efforts in the fight against your religion. This came to a climax with the passage of the Shakers Prohibition Ordinance in 1912. Two things were held against the Shaker religion, the fact that its members were poor and that it had African roots.

The hope that the 1912 legislation was going to signal the end of the religion turned out to be an empty dream and the state prosecuted significant numbers of Shakers, particularly in the 1920s and 1930s. It still refused to die. The St.Vincent riots of October 1935 set the stage for a renewal of the struggle. The poor working people demonstrated through their participation in the riots that they were looking for a new day when their concerns would be given greater emphasis. Following the riots and stimulated by the riots came the emergence of the St.Vincent Workingmen’s Association that was prepared to fight on behalf of the working people of the colony. Among the issues taken up was that of the right of the Shakers to practice their religion in the way they saw fit. This struggle was led by George McIntosh who first entered the Legislative Council in 1937. McIntosh fought strenuously for the repeal of the Ordinance that had denied them their right to practice their religion because, he felt, they were poor people. Frequent motions were introduced into the Legislative Council denouncing the Prohibition Ordinance and seeking its removal but the colonial system worked against them for the elected members had little power. Final decisions were taken by the Administrator on behalf of the mother government. McIntosh not only fought in the Legislative Council he encouraged the Shakers to practice their religion and even allowed meetings to be held in his yard at Paul’s Lot. In 1940, when 40 Shakers were taken before the magistrate court in Barrouallie, McIntosh had advised them to shake in court, which they did and embarrassed the magistrate who dismissed the case. There was little more McIntosh could have done given the nature of the colonial system at that time. One other strategy he deployed in conjunction with members of the religion was to strive for a change of name. The Ordinance was specifically designed against people called Shakers and McIntosh felt that if the name was changed the colonial state would have been forced to allow them to practise their religion in peace. It did not work that way but it signalled the start of the change of name culminating in what we know today as the Spiritual Baptists

Ebenezer Joshua carried on the struggle after McIntosh left the political scene and was able to attract a significant number of Shakers to his political party. He, it was, who moved a motion in parliament in 1965 to have the law revoked. He was strongly supported by Milton Cato who led the Opposition in the Legislative Council. But before this final blow to the legislation which had been on the books for 53 years, Milton Cato as a lawyer had secured victory in Marriaqua in a case involving Shakers. This in reality put an end to the prosecution of Shakers but the legislation remained until 1965. The decision by the Court in 1951 would not have been possible without the struggles carried out by McIntosh and his Association from 1939. And Joshua drove the final nail in the coffin of the 1912 law. The early followers of your religion have played an important role in the history of this country. Your fore-parents suffered prosecution largely because they were poor and practiced a religion that was derived from their African past. In trying to preserve their religion they were also upholding their African past and being. Perhaps no other group in this country except the slaves themselves have been hounded and prosecuted in this way. Today you must uphold your religion with dignity, knowing that what you have today, has emerged from a period of struggle against the established forces in the country. Not many others can make such a claim.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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