Renewal and revival on Spiritual Baptist Day

By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
April 03, 2023

Dr. Selwyn R. CudjoeI am disappointed I did not join with my brothers and sisters to celebrate Spiritual Shouter Baptist Liberation Day at Couva on Thursday. Try as I may, I could not find out what was being done to honour those who had fought so hard to realise themselves in a foreign land.

Spiritual Baptist Day is important to me. My aunt, Lenora O’Brien, born on November 13, 1895, was never afraid of practising her faith publicly. She rang her bell and proceeded towards the Tacarigua River on Sunday mornings as she and her fellow congregants proclaimed their faith.

It was an easy thing for her to do although it was shameful for me to see her so entranced by her religious convictions. My parents (on my paternal side), like so many Trinbagonians, had already made their historic compromise with the dominant European religions they encountered when they arrived here.

They sent their children to an Anglican school, my father taught at Tacarigua Presbyterian School under Anne Blackadder, a Canadian Baptist missionary, while my grandparents observed their Shango (Orisa) religious practices at home.

Such were our dilemma. We were caught between the faith of our grandparents and our great-grandparents while we tried (were forced) to fit into a system that was neither of our making nor our understanding. It may have been the strategic thing to do in the short term, but did it conduce to our spiritual wholeness in the long run? But then again, we were always forced to make compromises when thrust into a strange land.

It’s only as I grew in understanding I realised the central role the Spiritual Baptists (also called Shouter Baptists) played in the cultural resistance of our people in the island. In Nigeria, similar worshippers are called Aladura; and in Jamaica, Pukumina or Revival Zion.

On Thursday, Archbishop Barbara Gray-Burke called on the Government to establish a secondary school for her people. She noted: “We don’t want any cathedral. [We] want a school to educate and indoctrinate our people.”

In making the case for the establishment of a secondary school, Gray-Burke noted that “since the Dr Keith Rowley-led PNM administration came into office” she has “written letters to the Prime Minister asking for land and funding for the school… I asked them already. I wrote them. I don’t even self get a reply. But I am going to hand deliver it. By the hook and the crook I’ll be there and I will get my letter in his (Rowley’s) hand”. (Express, March 31.)

The building of a secondary school that is properly staffed and adequately equipped is a progressive demand. It requires urgent consideration. In this context, Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar was closer to the mark when she promised her party would build a modern secondary school for the Spiritual Baptists if/when she formed the next government. “The greatest gift we can give to the young ones in the Baptist community is that of a good education. That is the only way to continue the upliftment of the faith,” she said.

Apart from uplifting the faith, a good education also uplifts the race. In her book, Trinidad Yoruba, Maureen Warner-Lewis talks of the important role the Spiritual Baptist faith played in raising a strong ethnic consciousness of black people. She gives the example of David Modest, an African brother from Chickland in Central Trinidad who was eager to teach the Yoruba language to the Africans during the 1940s.

She writes: “On the day of Garvey’s death, 10th June 1940, Modeste had a dream that inspired him with a mission in life. That mission was to continue the work of raising the racial consciousness of Trinidad Africans with the aim of ‘gathering the lost race together’. The zeal with which Modeste pursued this aim found an outlet largely through non-Establishment religion—in the first instance, the Shouter Baptist faith. But Modeste clearly believed that race consciousness needed a language dimension.” (71).

Three years ago, I wrote: “Africans brought their religion with them when they came to the New World. LAA de Verteuil believed that a large number of them were ‘Yarrabas’ from Yoruba land. Each spoke an African language and perceived their world, both religious and secular, in terms of an African cosmological and social system. The Spiritual Baptists, most of whom came to Trinidad from other West Indian islands, were a part of that cosmological order.”

When Gray-Burke calls for the establishment of a secondary school to educate her people, she is really asking the Government to understand that her religion stands on a firm intellectual and academic basis which must be studied in its entire dimension. It is not good enough to claim that in 1917 laws were passed that allowed us to practise our religion freely. We must know the implications of that occurrence.

Unless we know and appreciate a few African religions, we cannot understand the historical contributions Africans have made to our humanity, and special grace and determination the Spiritual Baptists have contributed to our Trinbagonian civilisation.

Like all other religions, such an undertaking demands intense and rigorous academic attention. Failing this, we will always be glancing backward rather than looking forward. A PNM government must ask itself: “What have we done to advance an understanding of the Spiritual Baptist religion and how do we ensure its future development?”

On another related note, while I have enjoyed doing this column since 2017, the editor of this newspaper has graciously granted me a four-month hiatus to complete a book, Two Caribbean Preachers, I have been working on for several years. I hope to return stronger and better in the future.

Thanks for reading.