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West Indies

Christianity in the West Indies may be divided into two phases, “colonial” and “evangelical.” The colonial church was that which came with the Europeans and was intended for them, although it could, and ultimately did, include Indians and Africans. Evangelical Christianity, dating from the eighteenth century, was a true mission, intended for everyone, but primarily the slaves.

European colonists of whatever nationality brought their faith with them and rapidly established churches in the islands they colonized. The Spanish had a fully developed hierarchy by 1522, but neither the British nor the French were so well organized. As first-comers, the Spanish had to cope with the Indians, and men like Las Casas carried on a running fight with the colonists over the humanity of the Indians, and therefore their right to decent treatment, winning significant improvements in the law, but less in practice. Officially the church came around to a constructive attitude; at a synod in 1622 elaborate regulations governing the treatment of Indians were promulgated. As African labor replaced Indian, steps were taken to incorporate the newcomers into Christianity as quickly as possible, although with instruction. The priesthood was largely provided by European regulars, although some Creole whites were included. The quality varied, and there were never enough, for the islands soon became a backwater, and traditional Christianity in some places was seriously altered by African imports, as can be seen in the syncretistic Voodoo cult in Haiti, perhaps the clearest example. Nevertheless the Catholic Church in Spanish and French islands has proved very resistant to Protestant infiltration.

The British made no attempt to convert the slaves, considering the project at best quixotic and at worst dangerous. The only serious attempt was that of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel on its estates at Codrington, Barbados. British settlers accepted only as much of the church as they wanted, and that included neither evangelists nor episcopate. The real growth of the Anglican Church thus begins in 1825, with the arrival of bishops.

The earliest evangelicals were the Moravians, arriving in the Danish Virgins in 1732, and extending to a number of islands by 1800. Between 1786 and 1790 Thomas Coke* established the Methodists widely throughout the islands, and in 1782 a group of black American exiles opened a Baptist church in Jamaica. The black Baptists developed a number of African variations on evangelical Christianity, both in Trinidad and Jamaica, in the middle of the nineteenth century, but in the last hundred years this tradition has tended toward orthodox Pentecostalism.

Other missions entered early in the nineteenth century. Between 1800 and 1845 church growth was rapid, but those islands with a functioning establishment-Barbados (Anglican), most Windwards, and Trinidad (Catholic)-resisted the evangelicals. The Spanish and French islands were not attempted, except for a Methodist bridgehead in Haiti. By 1800 most evangelicals favored abolishing slavery, but pressure from the planters required them to keep their opinions to themselves. They were primarily interested in salvation from sin, and only when that object was threatened, as in Jamaica after the revolt of 1831, did even radical evangelicals like the Jamaica Baptists openly declare their views.

Emancipation came in the middle of a period of rapid growth and involved the churches heavily in education. Except for Trinidad and Guyana, which were still expanding ecclesiastically and economically, most churches stalled in the mid-forties, and advance was not resumed until after 1870. Although the church was largely white-led, the local ministry became more significant, educational and institutional development was marked, especially among the Anglicans who successfully adjusted to disestablishment after 1870. Serious missionary work was undertaken, both among West Indian migrants in Central America, and in Africa. Most significant of all was the growth of the church among the East Indian sugar workers, although the most important group in this field were the Canadian Presbyterians, who specialized in the problem after the arrival of John Morton in Trinidad in 1868. Their influence extended beyond Trinidad to Guyana, Grenada, St Lucia, and Jamaica. The Catholic Church shared in the general revival of Catholicism in the period, except in the Spanish islands, where its development was hindered by various political difficulties.

The twentieth century has been marked by the rapid growth of Pentecostalism and Holiness groups, mainly from the United States, which merged in Jamaica and Trinidad with the native tradition. The older churches have not grown much, but since World War II an indigenous theological movement has appeared, concentrating on the related problems of nationalism, identity, race, class and poverty.

P. Duncan, A Narrative of the Wesleyan Mission to Jamaica (1849); G. Blyth, Reminiscences of a Missionary Life (1851); J. Buchner, The Moravians in Jamaica (1854); E.B. Underhill, The West Indies, Their Social and Religious Condition (1862) and Life of James Mursell Phillippo (1881); A. Caldecott, The Church in the West Indies (1898); J.B. Ellis, The Diocese of Jamaica (1913); G.G. Findley and W.W. Holdsworth, The History of the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society, vol. II (1921); J. Bennett, Bondsman and Bishop (1958); J.L. Gonzalez, The Development of Christianity in the Latin Caribbean (1969).