As a Baptist Christian, I am intrigued to discover the African roots of my faith tradition.
Baptist work in Jamaica started in 1783 with the arrival of George Leile from Savannah, Georgia, in the United States. This made Leile the first Baptist missionary, not William Carey, an Englishman, as is the conventional claim.
Noel Erskine, professor at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, said that “with his migration to Jamaica in 1783, Leile became America’s first missionary, 33 years before Adoniram Judson sailed for Burma and 10 years before William Carey of England sailed for India.”
Leile was enslaved but was freed during the American Revolution. Facing the threat of re-enslavement after the revolutionary war, he moved with his family to Jamaica.
Prior to leaving the US, Leile was ordained in 1775, making him the first black person in the US to be ordained a Baptist pastor, and was likely the first ordained black Baptist pastor in the world. He planted churches in Savannah, Georgia.
His ministry in the US influenced others who went on to do significant Baptist work, including David George, baptized by Leile and who left Savannah for the Canadian Province of Nova Scotia and then later to Sierra Leone in Africa.
David George planted Baptist churches in both Canada and Sierra Leone. He founded the first Baptist church on the African continent, Regent Road Baptist Church in Freetown, the Sierra Leone capital, which celebrates its 225th anniversary this year. I spoke at a special anniversary event at the church in early June.
Others who came out of Leile’s ministry included Andrew Bryan in Savannah, Jesse Peters in South Carolina, and Hannah Williams in England.
Upon arriving in Jamaica, Leile essentially continued where he left off in the US. He planted churches and developed local Baptist leadership.
Stephen Jennings, Jamaica Baptist pastor and former president of the Jamaica Baptist Union, numbered Leile among descendants of the Antonian Christian Movement, led by Dona Beatriz (Beatrice) Kimpa Vita. Jennings contends that this movement was “present within Kongolese territorial space in 1684-1706.”
The Kongo (spelt with a K) is in what is now Angola, and should not be confused with either the Republic of Congo or the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Jennings, whose doctoral dissertation examined the impact of the Antonian Christian Movement in the Americas, said, “Though it did not survive as an organized movement within Kongo, it (Antonian Christian Movement) continued in pockets across the region and across the Atlantic.” He elaborated:
Kongolese people and people from the entire Western Central African region, including Antonian Christians, were exported to Iberian Brazil, the eastern seaboard of the United States – from Maryland to Georgia – Louisiana, and the entire Caribbean – specifically through the British, French and Spanish regions, including Jamaica.
Dona Vita’s movement was incarnated by those Kongolese Christians who were scattered all over the so-called “New World.” There is evidence of such persons leading an uprising in British South Carolina in 1739. There are also clear linkages between the Antonian movement and the Haitian revolution, as a number of Haitians who participated in this revolt came from the Kongo as followers of Dona Vita. Enslaved Kongolose Antonians were also sent to Jamaica, but underwent a name change over time. … It can be seen that Kongolese Christians were among those who came to the British Protestant country of Jamaica, carrying their faith and more precisely, their theological, cultural, and political outlook.
According to Jennings, when Leile went to Jamaica in 1783, he encountered people like him who were descendants of the Antonian Christian Movement.
He claimed that:
African Americans who went as preachers and missionaries to Jamaica in the late 18th to mid-19th centuries were probably first and second generation Antonians who were seeking to escape racist hardships that were increasingly present in the revolutionary North American British colonies. As Kongolese Antonians, they would have also joined the struggle for self-determination of their fellow Kongolese Antonian Christians in Jamaica.
Jennings said Leile named his congregations “The Ethiopian Baptist Churches of Jamaica,” reflecting their ties to the African motherland.
This explains a debate among Jamaican Baptist historians about a group referred to as Native Baptists in the historical records but whose identity remains uncertain.
According to Devon Dick, Jamaica Baptist pastor and current president of the Jamaica Baptist Union, the Native Baptists named in the historical records was distinct from the English Baptists. Perhaps these were the same Ethiopian Baptists mentioned by Jennings and others.
in his book, The Cross and the Machete, Dick indicated that the British referred to Leile’s movement as Native Baptists. However, Dick differentiated between Leile’s group that was nicknamed Native Baptists by the British, and the group that officially bore the name Native Baptists. As one can imagine, this creates confusion concerning the literature:
With the arrival of the English Baptists in 1814, the nineteenth century writings, in attempting to make a distinction between the European Baptists and Leile, started to retroactively refer to him as a Native Baptist, perhaps meaning nothing more than to claim that Leile was a non-European Baptist.
Horace Russell, a retired professor of historical theology at Palmer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania and former president of the United Theological College of the West Indies in Jamaica, made the same distinction.
in Foundations and Anticipations, Russell referred to “the Native (Black) Baptists who were not organizationally attached to the Jamaica Baptist Union.”
Russell differed from Dick in claiming that the Native Baptists had grown into a parallel organization in 1860, several decades later than Dick’s own dating. Dick, in fact, suggests that Native Baptists were in perennial decline by that time.
Even if Dick is correct, some records suggest that Native Baptists continued to have presence, at least in the capital city, Kingston. The May Pen Cemetery, Jamaica’s main cemetery in Kingston, was founded in 1851 and was divided into different burial grounds by an 1874 law. That law made a distinction between the burial ground for the Native Baptists and that for Baptists led by the British.
Dick asserted that Native Baptists even formed their own mission sending body, citing an 1841 report of the Jamaica Native Baptist Missionary Society.
What is not clear is how the Native Baptists came about. The sensible assumption is that churches founded under Leile’s movement and that of his disciple, Moses Baker, whose work concentrated in the west of the island while Leile focused on the east, formed the genesis of the Native Baptist movement. Some of these churches became identified with the English Baptists while others remained Native Baptist.
Arrival of the British
It is important to know how or why the British Baptists went to Jamaica. Baptist work on the island grew so rapidly that Leile appealed to the British for help. The first British missionary, John Rowe, arrived in Jamaica in 1814. From then on, a series of Baptist missionaries from out of the UK arrived in the island.
What is implied is that there was tension between Native Baptists on the one hand, and the British missionaries on the other. Dick said “congregations became part of JNBMS (Jamaica Native Baptist Missionary Society) because of perceived maltreatment by the English Baptists” and “to redress the sidelining of male persons of African descent who could have augmented the pastoral ministry.” He said “these Africans also perceived educational snobbery towards them and took umbrage.”
After the Morant Bay Rebellion in 1865 that implicated some Baptists, Horace Russell said that “in reaction the white missionary began to distance himself even more from the worship forms and patterns of the black (Native) pastors.”
English missionaries who went to Jamaica never made peace with the “Africanness” of their African-descended congregants, even though when they arrived, Baptist witness was already flourishing among the enslaved in the colony.
Native Baptists and their influences were sidelined, and the British understanding and practices of ministry prevailed. This is so whether by Native Baptist we mean a separate, distinct group or simply a phenomenon within the English-led churches. Since then, Baptist worship, polity and organization has a distinctly British look and feel to it.
According to Dick, there were 38 Native Baptist congregations in 1841, but only about five in Kingston in 1859. He suggested there were not many other “native” congregations on the island. The English-led Baptist churches, on the other hand, grew from 46 in 1841 to 69 in 1859.
Dick suggests that several Native Baptist churches became English Baptist congregations. I’m familiar with a significant number of the churches Dick named as originally Native Baptists that are now part of the Jamaica Baptist Union.
Could this explain why indigenization happened so early in Jamaica? That, though Native Baptists as a movement waned, their influence never died.
Calabar College, the first theological training institution for black Baptist pastors anywhere in the globe, opened in Jamaica in 1843. Its name, Calabar, derived from a region in Nigeria, a nod to the African heritage of its student body. Though its education and training were distinctly British, it could be that the genesis of Baptist work as an African movement in the island had some residual effect in the founding of the college.
Indigenization of Baptist work in Jamaica happened early compared to other countries. Not only were there highly trained Baptist pastors of African descent, they emerged into leadership of the Jamaica Baptist Union not very long after the JBU was formed in 1849.