Essays in this section:
Overview Essay on Religion
Afrocuban Religion and Syncretism with the Catholic Religion
Missionaries in Jamaica
Voodooism in Haiti
The Church and Slavery: Conversion, Abolition, and Participation

According to missionaries, before their arrival in Jamaica, heathenism was rampant in both the white and the black population.  There were many missionary groups, but my research focused on the experiences of the Baptists, the Moravians and the Wesleyans.  There is no consistency in any of their experiences—sometimes the Jamaican people accepted them warmly, and sometimes they did not.  The missionaries attempted to convert two groups of people to their version of Christianity: the white elite/slave owners and the black slaves.   An important note is that the different groups never attempted to work together as Christians to convert the people of Jamaica, which makes one wonder about their agenda.  And one cannot ignore the fact that in addition to the many honest missionaries doing what they thought was right, there were many corrupt and dishonest missionaries.  Through the use of primary sources, I intend to relate the history of their work, their experiences and what they thought was right. 

Parish Church, Montego BayMany of the missionaries came to Jamaica with preconceptions about the nature of the people whom they were attempting to convert, whether white or black.  A few missionaries took pity on and understood the situation of the slaves, but many more thought that the slaves were ignorant beasts incapable of being educated and “saved.”  To the missionaries, the practice of religious cultures brought from Africa was more than shocking and the use of bones, feathers and superstitions was sacrilegious.  Another reason that the missionaries considered that the slaves were living “without hope and without God in the world,” was the fact that there were no official, legal marriages and that having concubines was acceptable. Of course, the missionaries’ opinion of the Jamaican whites was not much better.  Evangelists believed that as soon as the whites left Europe, they “left their profession of Christianity behind.” The whites were also considered heathens by the missionary groups as they too were living in concubinage, not attending church and generally living an unchristian lifestyle.

Of the two groups of people living in Jamaica, the whites were the most Spanish Town Cathedral (Interior)inconsistent in their reaction to the missionaries.  Many whites strongly resisted the acceptance of the different missionary groups.  One of the reasons is that they did not want their slaves to be educated because it was easier to oppress them when they were uneducated.  Jamaican whites feared that Christianity would give the enslaved hope and provoke thought, and then once the slaves started thinking they would become more rebellious.  Also they did not want to give their slaves time off to worship in the evenings and the mornings. 

The whites were sometimes brutal when it came to oppressing the work of the missionaries.  They passed religiously intolerant laws, forbidding the missionaries from preaching and giving serious punishments to anyone found preaching.  These laws were later dropped, but they took a toll on the ability of the missionaries to Christianize the island in the way that they had wanted.  In 1831-1832, after the rebellion of the “Baptist War,” the whites destroyed and burned the missionaries' churches.  On other occasions churches were defaced while the police turned their heads, rarely taking legal action against the criminals.  There were also outbursts of violence towards the preachers themselves.  Dr. Coke, of the Wesleyan missionaries, was attacked in the late 1780's by a mob of white men who didn't like his sermon on Ethiopia becoming Christianized.  The whites also sent abusive and slanderous letters to the newspapers denouncing the missionaries and their work.  Many times whites attended sermons for the sole purpose of rudely interrupting and causing a scene; at times they paid their slaves to create the disturbances. [1]

Although many whites tried to stop the progression of missionary work, some whites accepted and supported the missionaries.  They opened their homes to the missionaries and their families, and they donated money to help build meetinghouses, churches and schools.  There were slave owners that requested that the missionaries come to their estate preach to them and their slaves.  They would give the slaves time off to hear the sermons, and in some cases, would insist on and pay for the baptism of all of their slaves.  As generous and Christian as this may seem, the master and the preacher actually had a hidden agenda.  The master thought that once the slaves were baptized they would have no interest in actually practicing Christianity, thus avoiding the issue of education, literacy and critical thinking for the slaves.  This was an intelligent theory on the part of the master, because many slaves did not go to sermons once they had been baptized. [2]

Many Chapels were built by the people themselves who gave their labour free.The second group of people that the missionaries intended to Christianize was the black slaves.   For the most part the missionaries were well received by the slaves and their teachings were embraced.   Even so, Christianizing the blacks would prove to be more difficult than Christianizing the whites for several reasons.  Most of the black slaves were not fluent in English and many were illiterate.  This meant that for the missionaries preaching and sermons were crucial to get their message across, but the slave owners did not want their slaves to go to sermons morning and night because that would hinder the production of their crops.  In many cases a pastor would pick a literate slave to read the Bible and give sermons in his absence.  The problem with that—from the missionaries’ point of view—was that the slaves then began interpreting the Bible in their own way and mixing Christianity with their own African religion.  This displeased the missionaries because upon their arrival at an estate, they would be bombarded with questions they thought were ridiculous.  One instance was a group of slaves who insisted that John the Baptist was the Son of God because he baptized Jesus.  The slaves thought that if Jesus was the son of God that his name should be Jesus the Baptist.  Another problem for the missionaries was the distance of the parishes from where the slaves lived, if there was no parish near an estate it was nearly impossible for a slave to go to a sermon.  There are recorded instances when slaves would walk twenty miles or more on a Saturday night after working in the fields all day to arrive at a sermon on Sunday just to have to turn around and walk home.  Many slaves converted to Christianity for the simple reason that they thought if they were baptized it would protect them from Obeah, an African religious belief that is based on the casting of spells. [3]

Some groups of slaves in distant parts of the island were not violent towards the missionaries, but still did not accept their teachings.  There were some areas of the island where the slaves had no interest in Christianity or missionaries.  According to the Baptists, these blacks were heathens and living in sin.  The churches would be nearly empty and the missionaries would leave due to lack of interest in their sermons.

Although there were many missionaries that were honest and decent, there were just as many who were not.  Many of the missionaries took advantage of the old and uneducated slaves.  The missionaries bartered their religious teachings for money and convinced the slaves to buy religious materials at inflated prices.  One a Baptist preacher turned slave children away from his school because they did not have the 1-pound 'tax' required to attend.  Some pastors made slaves to pay to be baptized, pay yearly dues to attend church and pay monthly communion fees.  Because the missionaries took as much money as they could get, they were nicknamed  “macaroon hunters” by the slaves. [4]

Missionaries undertook the task of Christianizing the people on the island of Jamaica, black and white alike.  They were met with opposition by some, acceptance by others and indifference by the rest.  Through the use of the Bible they intended to civilize the inhabitants of the island and make them moral people.  While each group claimed to be wildly successful, the Christian mission as a whole was highly unorganized and sometimes dishonest.  What this research has shown is that although they met many obstacles along the way, the missionaries persisted in their effort to Christianize an entire island nation. They were somewhat successful in promulgating Christianity and by the time their missions were through they had converted and baptized many people.      

[1] Peter Duncan, A Narrative of the Wesleyan Mission to Jamaica, (London, 1849).

[2] Sir George Henry Rose, A Letter on the Means and Importance of Converting Slaves to Christianity, (London, 1823).

[3] J.H. Buchner The Moravians in Jamaica, by J.H.Buchner, (Freeport, N.Y., 1971 repr. of 1854 original.)

[4] Nancy Gardener Prince, The West Indies: Being a Description of the Islands, Progress of Christianity, Education and Liberty Among the Colored Population Generally, (Boston, 1841).