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How Spiritual Baptists survived stigmatisation

CN FILE PHOTO: Pastor Ingrid Ryan-Ruben

Story by Kaelanne Jordan
Twitter: @kaelanne1

“Could the repeal of the [Shouters’ Prohibition Ordinance] Act erase decades of persecution, stigmatisation and cultural stagnation?”

That was the question posed by Spiritual Baptist leader Pastor Ingrid Ryan-Ruben during her presentation at the Caribbean Theology Today Conference entitled ‘How bias and fear became the tsunami that almost destroyed a Christian Faith indigenous to Trinidad and Tobago’.

“[Be]cause that’s what people assume. If you repeal the Act, it would do that. How do you repair something that is so damaged that it can only find new ways to exist or cope with its damaged self and adjust to a new way of living,” she said on day two of the conference which commenced Monday, June 24 and concluded Friday 28 at the Seminary of St John Vianney and The Uganda Martyrs, St Augustine.

In her presentation, Pastor Ryan-Ruben outlined the tenets of a Spiritual Baptist, the circumstances which led to 1917 Prohibition, the legislative response, the impact of the prohibition on the faithful and the way forward.

Government prohibition

Spiritual Baptists, she defined, is a syncretic Christian faith tradition indigenous to the English-speaking Caribbean especially Trinidad and Tobago, St Vincent, Grenada, Guyana and Barbados. It comprises West African doctrines and rituals, Hindu rituals and Catholic doctrines and rituals.

“The Spiritual Baptist manual says we believe the scriptures teach that there is One and only One true God, infinite, intelligent spirit…whose name is Jehovah…in the unity of the Godhead there are three persons: the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit.”

In addressing the issue of why the government decided to prohibit the practice of the Spiritual Baptists faith, Ryan-Ruben said that there were complaints of the ‘Shouters’ as early as the 1890s because their manifestation of faith was “different”.

“It was not like the Presbyterian or the Anglican or the Catholic….And I tell people one of the ways Christianity manifested in the Spiritual Baptist is that if you come to my house and you bring me a bottle of wine for us to share…and I come with my calabash, the thing that I drink in…and this became an issue because there was an expectation that when the God that was Jesus was introduced into the Caribbean, it was supposed to manifest itself the way it manifested itself in Europe,” she said.

According to Ryan-Ruben, from around 1909, there were increasingly vociferous calls in the press for the suppression of the Shouters which became “louder” after the government of St Vincent passed the Shakerism Prohibition Ordinance in 1912.

The ordinance rendered illegal indulgences of the body known as Shouters.

“The African response to Christianity concerned the European faithful…After 400 years of indoctrination into a culture that defined all things African as degenerate, bad, unlawful, uncivilised, dark, dirty and of little value to a developing society, the newly freed slaves and the freed coloureds were wary of associating with things African especially things as African as Spiritual Baptist worship.”

She highlighted that the “campaign” did not start in 1917, but right after Emancipation. The very “Africanised” manifestation of the Holy Spirit in people speaking in tongues and shaking when expressed by an African convert appeared to the European and many of the colonised ex-slaves as obeah.

This Ryan-Ruben said, is the same behaviour which is seen as Charismatic manifestations of the Holy Spirit. “I remember the days when the only Shakers were Spiritual Baptists and the only tongue speakers were Spiritual Baptists…there is a Pentecostal tongue and there is a Catholic tongue…for the Spiritual Baptists is whatever come out,” she said, which generated laughter from participants.

“And so many former slaves and freedmen felt embarrassed about the practices of the Spiritual Baptist and so agreed with the authorities to ban and outlaw Spiritual Baptists…We agreed to ban what was ours, what came from us naturally,” she said.

Badge of honour

Commenting on the fact that some of their churches are built in “dark alleys” or “little nooks” among communities, Ryan-Ruben asserted that this is a symbol of their strength and courage.

“So while other churches had a chance to grow on the main road and to develop their infrastructure and to become big…we were driven out. That is a badge of honour…despite the fact they outlawed us building or maintaining, we survived,” she declared.

Before the Prohibition was repealed in 1951, many persons were arrested and persecuted. The impact on the practitioners included criminalisation of the faith, outlawing of building improvement and no support for infrastructure.

“It stigmatised members of the faith…They were forced to baptise their children in recognised churches so that they could get into a good school…It significantly stymied the development of the faith tradition.” To this end, Ryan-Ruben recognised government’s attempts for reparation via the granting of a public holiday (March 30) and 25 acres of land.

Moving forward, she called for the local history text books to include a chapter on the history of the Spiritual Baptists and a national museum detailing the history of the faith tradition and persecution.