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SEEN UP NORTH: Book on Spiritual Baptists


Tony Best

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Imagine this. The Right Reverend Gay Lisle Mandeville, the first Barbadian elected as the country’s Anglican bishop, is asked in 1957 about Granville Williams.
Chances are Bishop Mandeville would have responded: “Granville who?”
After all, back then Williams was an obscure religious figure who had just returned from Trinidad and Tobago after 13 years, and was devising plans for the launching of the Sons of God Apostolic Spiritual Baptist Church.
Now fast-forward to the present. If the same question were asked of Archbishop of the West Indies and Bishop of Barbados the Most Reverend Dr John Holder, his answer would be much different.
It would reflect his knowledge of the work of Patriarch Williams, his large cathedral at Ealing Grove, Christ Church, and his place as an important member of the island’s religious hierarchy.
For Patriarch Williams, who has lectured on religion and culture in Barbados at several prominent United States institutions of higher learning, including Yale, has amassed considerable influence at home and in the United States where the Spiritual Baptists have spread their wings.
The story about the Spiritual Baptists is one of a religious movement coming in from the cold of anonymity and outright rejection to earn a place of respectability.
Professor Ezra Griffith, a Barbadian who is deputy chairman for diversity and organizational ethics in Yale University’s Department of Psychiatry of African American Studies, has just written an illuminating book on the evolution and religious significance of the church and Williams to culture and religious practice in the Caribbean.
Entitled Ye Shall Dream: Patriarch Granville Williams And The Barbados Spiritual Baptists, the 205-page extensively researched and beautifully illustrated book, published by the University of the West Indies Press, provides ample insights into the movement and its charismatic leader.
It does so in an easy-to-read style that removes many of the cobwebs and even hostility that often surround both the church and its founder. Those interested in understanding the facts behind the movement’s rapid growth would find it fascinating reading.
“This moving story of a charismatic pastor’s life, as he went from strength to strength, will inspire the religious audience and stir the secular reader’s curiosity,” said Rev. Dr John Young, a Yale University clinical professor of psychiatry who is also a Catholic priest.
Griffith, a former student of Harrison College before coming to the United States half-century ago, has spent 25 years studying the Spiritual Baptists and his knowledge of the movement is evident in the book. That became clear when he read an excerpt at a reception held at the Barbados Government offices in Manhattan under the patronage of Lennox Price, consul general in the city.
“The book and Professor Griffith’s presentation were thought-provoking, informative and entertaining,” said Price.
The author used a multidisciplinary approach to the writing of Ye Shall Dream, and he drew extensively on historical, anthropological and sociological perspectives to trace the origins and message of the Baptists and the archbishop, who was first introduced to the movement in Trinidad and Tobago when he went there in 1944.
Griffith tracks the key element of the Baptists’ early years beginning in the 19th century, the teachings, the relevance of their ideology to black people and their use of music, not to mention the robes, all of which bring a unique sense to religious observations.
“The movement is rooted in the secular world and it helps people to cope with everyday life,” said Griffith, who once sang in St Michael’s Cathedral Choir. “You cannot be a serious student of Caribbean culture and not study the Spiritual Baptist Church. There is no other church in Barbados that uses rhythms in the same way.”
Built on a fundamental belief that both Jesus and God are black, the movement accentuates the positives about people of colour. Its use of the “mourning” ceremony and coffins, secret passwords and elaborately designed robes spawn victorious feelings, a sense of pride and triumph over temptation or challenges.
Griffith, who told the audience at the reception that the church had made a significant contribution to Barbados, alluded to the “mistakes” Williams made, but was quick to describe him as a believer in God.  
He explained that many of the practices of the Spiritual Baptists were rooted in biblical texts – “the truth” of the Bible.
“I have a fascinating and fundamental respect for Archbishop Granville Williams and for what he has done and has been able to achieve,” said Griffith. It certainly shows in Ye Shall Dream.

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