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A Spiritual Baptist experience

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Last Sunday evening May 17th was an experience I will remember for the rest of my life. I had the opportunity to worship with the Saints at the Mt. Carmel Spiritual Baptist Church in Chester. It was a spiritual blessing, a history lesson, and an exceptional chance to both witness and possibly embrace aspects of our religious culture which still remain very much unexplored by many.{{more}} My unforgettable experience was further cemented by the fact that my maternal grandmother (now deceased) was a member of the Spiritual Baptist Religion.

The early struggles of the Spiritual Baptist faith have sought to give its members the fighting instinct needed to sustain their freedom forever. On Sunday it was interesting to see the number of young persons attending the church service and who were also a part of the Faith. This is a very positive sign. The creativity of youth, together with our penchant for experimentation, will always position us as the agents for social change and the continuation and solidification of certain existing structures.

My brief reading of the history of the development of the Spiritual Baptists shows that the term Shouter was given to the Baptists because of their tendency to shout, clap and sing loudly during their religious services. It was a derogatory term imposed on them by mainstream society. During their fight to have the Shouters Prohibition Ordinance repealed, Baptists decided to use the term Spiritual Baptists instead of Shouter Baptists, in an effort to gain some respectability for their religion.

According to Viola Gopaul-Whittington in her book History of the Spiritual Baptist & Writings, there are four theories that place the roots of the Spiritual Baptist religion in Africa, North America, St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Grenada. Yes, SVG.

The first theory suggests that certain practices of the Spiritual Baptist can be traced directly to Africa. While researchers agree on Africa, there is some dispute as to where in Africa. Religious practices from Dahomey, Kongo, West Africa and Yoruba have all been identified as being similar to that of the Spiritual Baptists in Trinidad. The African theory is not well documented.

The second theory is that when Trinidad became a British colony in 1797, there was a new influx of settlers. A group of former American slaves, who had supported Britain during the War of American Independence, were rewarded for their loyalty. They were given freedom and grants of land in south Trinidad. They formed “company villages” which were named after the military companies in which they had served. For example, Fifth Company, Moruga. These settlers brought their Baptist faith with them.

Yet another theory suggests that the roots of the Spiritual Baptists can be found in the migration of fundamental Protestants known as “Shakers” from St. Vincent to Trinidad during the early part of the twentieth century.

Although the origins of the Spiritual Baptist faith in Trinidad can be traced to foreign countries, it has, as is the case in St. Vincent, evolved over time to become a unique, indigenous religion. It has managed to fuse the spontaneity and rhythms of Africa with the restrained, traditional tenets of Christianity to produce a religion that is vibrant, expressive and dynamic.

Did you know that at one time it was illegal to practice your faith if you were a Spiritual Baptist? The Shouters Prohibition Ordinance outlined clearly that no person was to take part in Shouters’ meeting. The law was clear that it shall be an offence for any person to hold or to take part in or to attend any Shouters’ meeting or for any Shouters’ meeting to be held in any part of the Colony indoors or in the open air at any time of the day or night. Further, the penalty was that any person guilty of an offence under this Ordinance shall be liable, on summary conviction, to a fine of $240.

The Spiritual Baptist faith has grown tremendously over the years. I take this opportunity to sincerely encourage all members of the Spiritual Baptist faith to continue to display their ability to endure many of the challenging and changing scenes that life may throw at them. After almost a week, I still remember quite clearly from the message in song at Mt. Carmel, that “Like a tree planted by the water, you shall not be moved”.

Saboto Caesar is a Lawyer and Unity Labour Party Senator.

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