The Pious and the Profane: The Religious Life of Early Barbados Planters

By Gragg, Larry | The Historian, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

The Pious and the Profane: The Religious Life of Early Barbados Planters


Gragg, Larry, The Historian


In October 1653, William Peade, a dying planter on the island of Barbados in the West Indies, drafted his will. He began by bequeathing his soul to God, "trusting most assuredly to be saved by the death passion and onely merritts of Jesus Christ my Saviour and Redeemer" Peade called upon his wife to "have an Especiall care" to raise their five children "in the feare and nurture of the Lord." He also left the wardens of his parish 500 pounds of sugar to purchase "some ornament" for the parish church.(1) Peade's concern for immortality, for the Christian nurture of his surviving children, and for the beauty of the church contradicts the widely held notion that seventeenth-century English colonists who settled in the Caribbean were singularly materialistic and profane.

Contemporaries often commented on how Englishmen transplanted to the tropics seemed consumed by secular concerns. Visitors to Barbados, first settled in 1627, wrote about the base excesses of the slave-owning planters, noting their materialism, whoring, quarreling, negligence, swearing, and deceptive business practices.(2) Outrageous drinking habits particularly marked the planters as profane. In 1640, a recent arrival on the island described the settlers as "such great drunkards" that they will find the money "to buy their drink all though they goe naked."(3) The following year, John Wilson, an Anglican minister, charged that "the Inhabitants had pissed out 15000 [pounds sterling] ... against the wall ... by their excessive drinking."(4) While some critics blamed the "vulger" for the problem, a 1654 visitor contended that the rich were just as guilty. Attendance at a rich planter's feast, he observed, meant "quite often one is so drunk that he cannot return home."(5) Beyond an enduring reputation as heavy drinkers, Barbados settlers often struck visitors as people drawn from the lowest levels of English society. Henry Whistler, who visited the important sugar-producing island in 1655, offered this harsh assessment, "This Illand is the Dunghill wharone England doth cast forth its rubidg: Rodgs [rogues] and hors and such like peopel are those which are gennerally Broght heare."(6)

Most historians who have written on the English colonization of the West Indies agree that spiritual concerns meant very little to such an "undisciplined, exhibitionist, and freewheeling" population.(7) According to this view, advanced most clearly by Richard S. Dunn, Frank Wesley Pitman, Lowell Joseph Ragatz, Carl and Roberta Bridenbaugh, and Gary A. Puckrein, planters utterly failed to maintain organized religion. They lacked sufficient clergy, failed to attend religious services regularly, and, other than the religious sectarians who invaded the islands, left scarcely a trace of any spiritual commitment.(8) As historian Michael Craton has written, without a strong church to serve as "spiritual guide," these English planters "sank into a hopeless moral torpor, eating, drinking, and fornicating themselves into an early grave."(9)

While historians have dismissed these Caribbean settlers as vulgar materialists, historians of colonial American religion have simply ignored them. Patricia Bonomi, Ion Butler, and Charles L. Cohen have identified three important themes in colonial religious development: the growth of pluralism, an emerging toleration of diverse faiths, and a slow "Christianization" of the population that entailed accepting the Christian creed, building and maintaining an institutional structure for its promotion, and exhibiting observable behavior demonstrating its impact.(10) While these authors have confined their investigations to mainland North American colonies, all three themes are evident in the early decades of Barbados history as well. People with a variety of religious beliefs came to Barbados, and authorities on the island generally permitted them to practice their faiths. Amidst the growing pluralism and toleration, at least some early Barbados settlers contributed to the process of Christianization. …

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