On March 30th, Trinidad and Tobago celebrates Shouter Baptist Day, and we look at the history of this religious group, drawing on information of Rt. Rev. Eudora Thomas book "A History of the Shouter Baptists in Trinidad and Tobago", published by Calaloux Productions, Ithaca, New York, 1987.
The Spiritual Baptists, called "Shouters" in Trinidad and Tobago, had been suppressed by both the colonial and the independent governments for many decades. Nevertheless, the group prevailed and, in spite of being a relatively small minority, has inspired a national holiday since the 1990s.
Like Santeria in Cuba and Brazil, Voudoun in Haiti, and Shango in the British Isles: the Spiritual Baptists are a syncretic African-Christian faith that goes back at least two centuries, to the days of slavery. Being a philosophical belief system, it did not come into being at a specific moment, but evolved over a long period of time. Due to this, and due to the fact that it evolved often "undercover" in the undocumented slave population makes the exact roots of the Spiritual Baptist shrouded in the mists of history.
The Africans who settled in the Americas and in the Caribbean came from various parts of West and Central Africa, as the map shows. Up to today, we do not describe their origins with their "nationalities" (the present-day borders were drawn by the European colonisers at random, disregarding traditional tribal borders), but with their tribal ethnicity: Yoruba, Ibo, Dahomey, Mandingo, Congo, Rada, to name but a few.
The Yoruba were the largest group to come to the West Indies. It is to them that, according to Thomas, the forms of worship of the Spiritual Baptists are mostly attributed. In the slave society, where the Yoruba mixed with people of other tribal origins, Christian concepts of the dominant European culture were mixed with pan-African customs to create the syncretic forms of religious expression. Thus, the bell-ringing was borrowed from the Europeans, and the chanting from the Africans. Anointing can be found in both the Catholic and African religions.
"Handclapping and chanting, which are manifestations of the Shouters, are a substitute for the drums and shac-shacs of African custom," writes Thomas.
In the West Indies, the Spiritual Baptists were soon ousted by the Europeans. They aren't called Shouters for nothing: were simply too loud! All this chanting, shouting, bell-ringing and hand-clapping infringed on the more delicate European sense of propriety. It definitely smacked of some barbaric African cults. Laws were passed against those disturbances. The Catholic and Protestant churches too were worried about that their efforts to Christianise the African population would be undermined by the Shouters. Way into the 20th century, it was often the leaders of the established churches who opposed the revocation of the ordinances that forbid the Spiritual Baptists in the British West Indies, and not the colonial government.
In Trinidad and Tobago, the "Ordinance to Render Illegal, Indulgence in the Practice of the Body known as the Shouters", was passed on 27 November, 1917. The Anglican church was then between leaders, Bishop John Francis Welch served up to 1916, and Bishop Dr. Arthur Henry Anstey was consecrated in 1918. The Roman Catholic church was headed by Archbishop John Pius Dowling. The governor was Lieut. Col. Sir John Chancellor, after whose wife Lady Chancellor a street was named.
The bill was introduced by the attorney general, Sir Henry Gollam. He acted in accordance with the government's practices in St. Vincent, where the "Shakers" had been banned from worshipping in 1913.
"According to his statement, the Shouters' form of worship, which was introduced to the island from the neighbouring island of St. Vincent, was an 'unmitigated nuisance'," writes Thomas. "A Shouter meeting would make the neighbourhood where it took place unfit for residential occupation." She continues to give names of several leaders of the Shouters who had to suffer for their faith after 1917: Teacher Patrick of Sangre Grande served a three month prison term for conducting baptisms in a river; Leader Roach earned himself the name "Braveboy" for preaching at street corners in spite of rotten eggs being pelted at him; Leader Harold Lackeye was put into prison for six months for preaching but put on bond; Leader Smith of Roxborough was beaten and arrested for conducting a baptism; and Pastor Guiton of Tunapuna was raided several times and had to pay high fines.
On March 30th, 1951, the Ordinance that banned the Shouters was repealed. Pastors Griffith and Balfour were depicted on the front page of the local newspapers. Two months later, on May 22, the ban was also lifted in St. Vincent by the colonial administration. The spokesman in the Legislative Council for them there was Vincentian George McIntosh, whom Thomas quotes:
"In view of the fact that the poorer classes of this Colony are in deplorable, poverty-stricken condition because Government is unable to remedy conditions and ... religion being the only means whereby these depressed people can find comfort in their misery and as the Superintendent of Police and His Honour the Administrator have colluded to deprave these people of their right to religious freedom in the Colony."
During the years of slavery in the Caribbean, African slaves had a need to maintain their spiritual health in order to cope with the terrible conditions they lived in. In the new environment, Europeans tried to Christianise them; many of the Africans also brought their own, powerful belief structure into the equation.
"The religious propagation, with the stunning magical power of the African medicine man, so strongly influenced the African inhabitants that they started to borrow from their own myths and religious practices until they had established a variant form of the faith," writes Thomas.
If the importation of those myths and practices was very strong, they superseded the Christian forms, i.e. in Voudoun or Shango. But the same syncretic borrowing took place in the religious practice that eventually became the Shouters, or Shakers as they were called in St. Vincent, or Tie Heads as they were called in Barbados.
But why did the slaves not accept Christianity? Was it merely a manifestation of their inner opposition against the slave master, in spite of the outward adaptation to the system?
Thomas writes that Christianity was never really fully adopted by certain African tribes because of its monotheism (which, as anthropologists would tell you, was also the problem in ancient and middle-age Europe, hence the translation of various pre-Christian religious concepts and personalities into God's son, Mother of God, patron saints etc.). To those tribes, both Christianity and Islam would have forbidden a part of their world view in that was based on nature and ancestor worship. What happened in the case of the Spiritual Baptists was that they adopted the concept of baptism and the Holy Ghost from the Christian missionaries. Thomas adds: "mourning, talking in tongues, healing preaching, and teaching of the gospel according to the diverse gifts manifested by the Holy Ghost."
From their African ancestors, the Shouters inherited other practices, e.g. the incantation of traditional Christian hymns in a pattern that leads to shouting, or the hand-clapping and "shaking", which imply African participatory patterns. In comparison, physical manifestations during worship are very reduced in European Christian churches. The Vincentian Shakers were banned after an incident where the shaking and vibrations of a group had frightened the governor's horse so much that he fell off!
In Trinidad, the first recorded leaders of a syncretic African-Christian religious cult was Papa Nanee, who has been described earlier in the Digest as the founder of the Rada community in Belmont. He was also a healer, a role which is part and parcel of Black syncretic movements in the New World. The Shouters give their spiritual leaders the title "Teacher" or "Elder". Teacher Farnum was a leader in the late 19th century, who spread the Shouter Baptist faith from her little shack off the Tunapuna road. Other significant leaders were, according to Thomas, Pastor Bowman in Arouca, Pastor William Cox, his wife Irma and his son Douglas, who established a mission in 1904 in Tunapuna, and Pastor Theophilus Ottley, who was believed to have started a church in Laventille.
In 1987, Rev. Thomas wrote:
"The Shouter Baptists celebrate their Day of Emancipation for religious observances, and efforts should be made to commemorate this day during their lifetime."
This year, it will be the 50th anniversary of their Day of Emancipation, and Eudora Thomas' wish has been granted on a national basis.
Today, in world where car engines and blaring television sets seem to be the soundtrack of our lives, it seems strange that the Shouter Baptists had been banned for 34 years on grounds of the noise level they create during worship. When we put up our feet on Friday coming, let us think a minute about the reasons for their coming into existence as a church with distinct religious practices, and let us give acquiescence to the fact that their movement is, in fact, one that finds parallels everywhere in the New World.