Roman Catholicism came to Jamaica in 1494 during Christopher Columbus’ second expedition from Spain. In 1655 the Spaniards were driven out of the island by the British, who introduced Anglicanism.
Evangelical Christianity arrived in the eighteenth century with the Moravians. They were opposed to slavery, which had been introduced by the Spaniards and continued by the British to support Jamaica’s plantation economy. Slavery was for a long time strongly defended by Jamaican planters and related commercial interests in Britain.
The first Baptist to arrive — in the late eighteenth century — was Moses Baker. He had been a slave in the USA but bought his freedom and sailed to Jamaica. Under his ministry, evangelicalism made much headway in the island. He established the first Baptist church in Kingston, east Jamaica, and the gospel subsequently spread westward.
Help was sought from Baptist churches in England and these sent out one missionary after another, including William Knibb. Eventually Baptist churches were established in many major townships.
Anglicanism looked after the slave-owning planters and their families, while the Baptists espoused the cause of the slaves — which included pressing planters for slave emancipation.
By the time emancipation was granted in the British West Indies on 1 August 1838, evangelical influence had spread throughout Jamaica. In the aftermath of emancipation it was evangelical missionaries who helped to establish villages for freed slaves. In each village a Baptist church was set up — from which further churches were subsequently planted.
The Baptists were not the only Evangelicals but they probably had the greatest support among the common people. This contrasted with the Roman Catholics and Anglicans, who were perceived as being tied to the aristocrats and ‘big men’ in society.
Evangelical witness in Jamaica prospered during the nineteenth century and had at least two seasons of spiritual awakening, including one beginning in 1838. However, the end of the century saw theological modernism beginning to take its toll.
There were church divisions, as faithful believers separated themselves from the errors of liberal theology and formed new churches. Church attendance also declined in the older denominations.
During the first half of the twentieth century, Pentecostalism rapidly gained ground. Today the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements (as represented by various ‘Church of God’ denominations) have the greatest number of adherents. The Seventh Day Adventists and the Jehovah’s Witnesses have also grown.
Compared to their heyday over a century ago, Evangelicals have lost much ground in Jamaica, and this for a number of reasons.
Firstly, Afro-Jamaicans naturally lean to emotional self-expression in religion. Emotionalism is prominent in the most ‘successful’ religious groups in Jamaica today. Even some leading Evangelicals are influenced by it. In my opinion, this is partly a reaction to apparent coldness among established denominations, including even some evangelical churches.
Secondly, there is a suspicion of theological scholarship. This has resulted in deepening ignorance among many churches. Today many preachers and church leaders have no formal theological training or basic knowledge of Christian doctrines.
There is misunderstanding too about what Reformed Evangelicals believe and stand for. It is often thought that they lack spiritual life — on the false criterion that they show no outward ‘manifestation’ of the work of the Spirit (such as tongues etc.) However, these misconceptions can be changed through exposure to true evangelical preaching.
The results of these various adverse pressures is that worship services become mere emotional outbursts of ‘praise and worship’ and the preaching of the word is no longer given a central place. A simplistic gospel is preached and doctrine is dismissed as difficult and controversial.
All this means that biblical preaching is at a discount in Jamaica and there are few workers who are able to rightly divide the Word of God. The result has been a tide of heresy in the churches.
These then are priorities for Evangelicals in Jamaica:
* To restore biblical preaching as the central focus of Christian worship. This has always been the hallmark of true evangelical witness down the centuries.
* To reject the glorifying of the emotional. True worship involves emotion but it should never be the leading factor in worship.
* To take hold again of the sound doctrinal foundations on which faithful churches in Jamaica have been established over the centuries.
* To train fresh workers, especially young men, to carry on the evangelical witness.
These are the days of which Paul speaks in 2 Timothy 4:1-5. It is our responsibility, therefore, to ‘preach the word’ in season and out of season; to watch in all things; to evangelise; and to fulfil our ministries. May we be endued with the power of the Spirit to carry out this mandate!