Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

"Walking on the Highway to Heaven": Religious Influences and Attitudes Relating to the Freed Population of St. Vincent, 1834-1884

Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

"Walking on the Highway to Heaven": Religious Influences and Attitudes Relating to the Freed Population of St. Vincent, 1834-1884

Article excerpt


Until the abolition of slavery in the British Caribbean, the religious instruction of slaves was not officially welcomed by the planter class. The Christian doctrine of equality contrasted with the harsh realities of slavery. Planters and legislators attempted to monitor and restrict the activities of Christian mission groups, while the Anglican Church maintained an apathetic stance towards converting slaves. After emancipation, however, the activities of Anglican and missionary churches increased to meet the changing requirements of the free labour force. Furthermore, the ex-slaves themselves saw religion as a vehicle that would enable them to cast off some of the degradation of slavery. Religious organizations offered the newly freed persons both secular and religious education, which they believed would enable them to progress both intellectually and morally. Therefore, there was a great increase in the membership of religious institutions after slavery ended. As Shirley Gordon wrote in her study of Christianity in Jamaica: "One of the most emphatic benefits of freedom was exercised in a variety of activity in religious life."1

The focus of this study is St. Vincent, a small windward island in the Caribbean. I will examine the two main Christian churches in postemancipation St. Vincent, the Wesleyan Methodists and the Anglicans. After slavery, these two churches competed with each other to increase their membership. The conflicts and rivalries between them often mirrored problems within the wider society. During this period, the economy of the island declined rapidly. Many plantations were abandoned, but planters clung tenaciously to their control of the land, forcing many ex-slaves into a marginalized and migratory existence. Poverty, caused by low wages, unemployment, and landlessness, resulted in tensions within the island as the newly freed people struggled to achieve independence and financial stability. In a society as divided as St. Vincent was during the postemancipation period, it is not surprising that religious beliefs and affiliations often strengthened class and race barriers. Membership of religious organizations usually reflected social and economic positions and aspirations of the population.

This article also discusses locally generated religious groups, which incorporated trances and spirit possession along with Christian doctrines. I. M. Lewis has suggested that in many societies these ecstatic religious expressions have been utilized by dispossessed groups, and especially women, as a means of protesting against social constraints. This study assesses the role of an African-Caribbean religious movement that originated in St. Vincent, which became known as the "Shakers". It considers this religious organization as a vehicle of self-expression and protest. There were also small Roman Catholic and Scottish Presbyterian congregations in St. Vincent, but as their influence was minimal on the wider African-Caribbean population, they will be given less attention here.2

European males wrote much of the contemporary material consulted for this article. This obviously limits the study. Therefore, this investigation aims to assess how colonial officials, missionaries, and travellers perceived the religious experiences of the ex-slaves. The thoughts of the freed people themselves can only be inferred.

The Anglican Church

The Anglican Church originally served English and, to a lesser extent, other British residents. During slavery, the Anglican Church did very little to involve slaves within the church. There were some mass baptisms of slaves at the request of planters, but these were carried out with little or no instruction about Christianity and the slaves who were baptized were not vigorously encouraged to attend services. Between 1798 and 1817, a total of 14,603 slaves were baptized in St. Vincent. The lack of religious instruction offered to slaves was a result of both the planters' reluctance to educate them and improve their moral state, and a general apathy towards religion. …

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