Evangelicalism and Society: A Reappraisal

The few articles that have mentioned ‘evangelicals’ or the like have not always been fair, due no doubt to their brevity, or misunderstanding or some such thing. Many have rightly condemned the distasteful pronouncements of some of the movement’s leaders but appear to ignore its contributions. I will continue the conversation by delineating what I consider to be the salient features of the evangelical movement, with the hope of clarifying certain matters.

Bob Marley, said to have been an evangelical Christian

Bob Marley, said to have been an evangelical Christian

Over the past 70 years the movement has assumed global proportions. But what in the world is evangelicalism? And what is the movement doing in the world—particularly the Caribbean? The purpose of this article is to address especially the second question. However, before doing so some attention must be given to the first.

Evangelicalism is not a religion or a denomination. It is a movement within the ranks of Christianity encompassing all the major denominations. In other words, there are evangelical Christians to be found in Catholicism and Protestantism (the two major dimensions of the great Reformation divide), though the majority stands outside the Catholic enclave and the traditional Protestant denominations.

It is said that the roots of evangelicalism may be traced to European soil. The Evangelical Revival, which took place in the United Kingdom back in the 18th century, is thought by some to be the fountain-head of the modern evangelical movement. What happened then, according to one authority, was a rediscovery of the Gospel’s power to address the human condition of alienation.

The first strictly evangelical group to arrive in the Caribbean was the Moravians. Like the Catholics and Anglicans before them, they sought to preach the gospel to the new “native” population; they also addressed the stark social inequality with which they were confronted, particularly amongst the black population in the Diaspora.

But some, like the late Byang Kato, would trace the roots of evangelicalism even further back, to the first couple of centuries of the Christian era. Although in modern times missionaries from Europe and North America brought the gospel to Africa, they are not the first representatives of Christianity on our continent. As a matter of fact, history shows that Christianity’s ties are closer with Africa than with Europe or North America.

Kato goes on to make the amazing claim that “we can, therefore, rightly call Christianity an African religion” (Allan 1989, 34).

At the end of the last decade of the 19th century nearly 50 percent of the African population had some affiliation to Christianity. That number has since grown. But while evangelicalism is not entirely responsible for that figure, recent reports have attributed a great deal of it to the movement. So although Kato’s claim that Africa is a Christian continent may be considered exaggerated, the continent today is experiencing a Christian presence which is unprecedented.

Turning to Latin America, a predominantly Roman Catholic domain, we also see a significant growth of evangelical Christians, particularly among the Pentecostal and Charismatic churches. In contrast to the strong social concern exhibited in other latitudes, however, Latin American evangelicals, according to one observer, has had the effect of insulating believers from the world, filling up their time with church activities and imposing strict social regulations upon them, so that their contribution to society was limited.

Interestingly, we are made to understand that some South American dictators with an extremely dubious civil rights record were friendly to the growth of Pentecostalism, because it distracted the attention of the masses from the inequality in society.

A relatively recent development in evangelicalism worldwide is the formation of regional bodies to consolidate and promote its concerns. In Central and South America, for instance, we have the Confraternidad Evangelica Latino America.

Several factors, such as the need to create an authentic African theology and the desire to pool resources, led African evangelicals to organize themselves into a unified force. In Kenya and Uganda, the motivation was different. Their unity gave a sense of solidarity and security in the face of grave danger. Out of this came in 1966 the Association of Evangelicals in Africa and Madagascar (AEAM).

The kind of evangelicalism that preceded AEAM, though lacking in organizational structure, nevertheless contributed significantly to the demise of the African slave trade, as well as giving itself to a myriad of philanthropic endeavors. Organizations similar to AEAM are found in Oceania, North America, Europe and the Caribbean as well.

Arguably, the religious phenomenon with the greatest impact on the Jamaican society, and to a lesser extent the wider Caribbean, is the Rastafarian movement. Many in recent times have sought to chart the course of this movement (e.g. Chisholm 2008; Edmonds, 2003). However, notwithstanding the Rastafarian influence in our culture, the church continues to make its mark, though it seems to some that it is not keeping pace with other institutions of social change.

Rastafari is not as old as the evangelical movement in Jamaica. If it were, there is little doubt that it would certainly be in the forefront of the fight for “the African-Jamaican on his remote plantation, [helping to] destroy slavery and the West Indian sugar monopoly in England” along with the evangelicals. What is doubtful, though, is that Rastafarians would be establishing white-black alliances based on religious convictions (Sherlock and Bennett 1988, 177).

Early evangelical Reformists working out of England for the abolition of slavery include William Wilberforce and Granville Sharp. It is Sharp himself who was instrumental in getting a positive ruling through the courts in the year 1772. On July 22nd the chief Justice of England ruled:

“The state of slavery is of such a mixture that it is incapable of being instructed on any reasons, moral or political … it is so obvious that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconvenience, therefore, may follow from a decision . . . the black man [i.e. James Somersett, the slave represented by Sharp] must be set free.” (Sherlock and Bennett, 179)

The decision had devastating consequences for the English slave trade. “As a result of this ruling all 10,000 of the slaves held in England . . . gained their freedom. Encouraged by this ruling, the abolitionists intensified their efforts,” an anti-slavery society was formed by an evangelical group, the Quakers, and Wilberforce, an associate of Sharp, convinced the English parliament to abolish the slave trade. This was “the first time in their history African-Jamaican discovered that they had allies and friends in the world of white power” (Sherlock and Bennett, 179).

Evangelical pastors

Evangelical pastors meet at Jamaica’s Pegasus hotel

Other white allies were some of the Moravian missionaries who began working in Jamaica in the middle of the 18th century. But it is to two black Baptist preachers that the evangelical movement owes its indigenous character, according to Sherlock and Bennett (1998, 80-1). Today that indigenous character is manifest in most if not all denominations, and is now partially institutionalized in the structure known as the Jamaica Association of Evangelicals.

This organization came into being 100 years after a major turning point in Jamaica’s history– the Morant Bay rebellion (Black 1958, 203). Unlike the Morant Bay experience, the founding of the Jamaican Association of Evangelical Churches (as it was then called) was far less auspicious. Framers of the organization trace their roots to the revival of the 1860s, which, ironically, took Jamaica by storm just around the time when the island was experiencing one of its most testing periods, the one which eventually led to the aforementioned rebellion.

Whereas the political directorate of the time was quite insensitive to the plight of the peasantry (Black, 187-9), the missionaries, few as they were, “laboured tirelessly for fair wages, land settlement, and the establishment of villages. . . . [They] were also instrumental in establishing schools for the teaching of the three ‘Rs’” (Gerig 1969, 2). Partly out of this social concern and the great spiritual hunger felt at the time, the Moravians in the extreme West of the island were the first to experience the new wave of the Spirit. The rest of the island was soon to come under the new spiritual awakening (Gerig, 3).

Very early in its history the JAE expressed a deep burden for the social milieu in which it was nurtured. Cited for special mention at the time were “the loose family patterns, coupled with a high percentage of illegitimacy, the growing situation of West Kingston and the high rate of illiteracy . . .” to mention only a few.

“These ills,” declared Gerig, “require the individual and united strength and efforts of the church . . . [which] should aim toward a programme for the total man” (Gerig, 7). Despite its unabashed interest in the proclamation of the gospel, the JAE is still today interested in these ideals. This is not to say that the movement (and the constituency that it serves) has been entirely consistent with its own aspirations and goals. Therefore certain questions raised along these lines by its friends looking on ought to be pondered seriously.

But to return to the social conditions that the JAE faced in the decade in which it was formed, three challenges were highlighted: dysfunctionality in family life, the attendant problems of inner-life and illiteracy among a disproportionate margin of the adult population.

In many respects the standard of living in Jamaica has risen much higher since the decade of independence. However, this is by no means the total picture. In other areas things have markedly deteriorated. For example, in the year prior to Gerig’s speech to the evangelical clergy gathered in Mandeville, central Jamaica, the nation recorded just over a hundred cases of homicide. Today there is a 900% increase.

Some classrooms at Kingston College, one of Jamaica's largest boys secondary schools, founded by Anglicans.

Some classrooms at Kingston College, one of Jamaica’s largest boys secondary schools, founded by Anglicans.

In connection with the high level of crime and violence is the widening gap between the poor and the well to do, not to mention the growing number of the unemployed. When seen against the backdrop of global economic trends, the immediate future for Jamaica, though not hopeless, appears quite bleak.

All this raises the intriguing question concerning the church’s role in culture and society – in a word, nation building. What exactly is the church doing? Is it really relevant to the culture? Is the church a part of the problem of social decay, or what?

I think that clerics of all denominational stripes will agree that the church can do more. However, the church’s failure or success in these matters should not be judged merely by individual expectations. Let us remind ourselves that, though the church today still struggles with its own identity and mission, it does in fact have its particular modus operandi to which in varying degrees it is committed, although not all church leaders grasp the Dominical mandate in the same way.

For example, evangelicals in the Caribbean basin understand the church’s mandate in basically two ways. One group underscores the need to proclaim the gospel as top priority. For instance one of the declared objectives of the JAE is to promote evangelism. Another group of evangelicals believes that the proclamation of the gospel should not be the exclusive responsibility of the people of God. One of the chief spokespersons for this position is British theologian, John Stott.

For Stott evangelism and social responsibility are grounded in the very character of God, because the God of biblical revelation is concerned for the total wellbeing of all humanity. The second ground for keeping evangelism and social concerns together is the teaching and ministry of Jesus (Luke 4:16-21). Jesus’ ministry, then, as the Gospels testify, certainly did not preclude social action and community service. A third argument is to be found in the very demands of effective contextualization (Stott 1992, 334 – 349).

It seems that (in its embryonic stage) the JAE would not have endorsed Stott’s position, which, it appears, has been adopted by the majority of evangelicals worldwide. However, later developments have revealed a shift in policy. For example, when Pastor Henry White became president of the JAE, he not only affirmed the organization’s commitment to evangelism as a matter of primary importance, but also announced the establishment of a Relief and Development Commission to deal with community aid projects.

The announcement was made at the 14th annual conference of the Jamaica Association of Evangelicals. One year later after this report the Jamaican public was informed that the organization had been effective in its objectives of rendering special services by way of help to certain flood victims “and relief aid to earthquake victims in Guatemala, as well as [a] gift of $10,000 to the Ministry of Health to help remove the mentally ill from the streets” (Daily Gleaner, October 15 1980, p. 11).

Evangelicals, like many other Christians everywhere, tend to be reticent about placarding their community involvement. Many critics have missed this. Already we have pointed out ways in which this kind of involvement has taken shape and a brief review at this juncture is in order.

Whereas not much can be said about the social involvement of Jamaican and American evangelicalism at the turn of the century, the momentum of community involvement on the part of people like Wilberforce was still strong in the UK. Not that it was needed most there.

Conditions in America in particular and to a lesser extent in Jamaica definitely warranted the philanthropic efforts of all interests. But such organized effort was lacking at the time. In the UK, though, voices of evangelical persuasion could be heard.

With the full realization that the church aided and abetted the privileged classes to maintain the status quo, these voices aggressively addressed societal ills such of all sorts. Their talk was ably backed up by the Salvation Army. Regrettably, due to the advent of the First World War and its aftermath, coupled with the attendant apocalypticism among a number of evangelicals at the time, social concern on the part of those associated with the church waned significantly.

Meanwhile in Jamaica a severe economic crisis waged, not unlike the present global financial meltdown. There was rapid decline in exports and a serious rise in the unemployment rate. The resulting conditions included widespread poverty and mal-nutrition, inadequate housing, below par educational opportunities nation-wide and occasional rioting. There was no organized response from the church to address these conditions.

But amidst the mayhem of the period there was one evangelical clergyman who was to emerge with flying colours. Father Hugh Sherlock, who eventually penned the words of the Jamaican National Anthem, was that man. While not 40 years old, Father Sherlock established one of the most effective inner-city institutions, the now famous Boys’ Town. Observing the plight of the under-privileged youths, Father Sherlock requested time from the Methodist church to address their needs.

Boys’ Town was first located in a churchyard in Jones town but later removed to Central Road, which was subsequently renamed Collie Smith Drive, in Trench Town. The late Robert Nesta ‘Bob’ Marley and Collie Smith, who represented Jamaica and the West Indies at cricket, were undoubtedly the brightest stars to have been associated with the institution.

Boys’ Town was more than a school. It also became a major sports club participating in various Corporate Area competitions, especially cricket and football. For many years Father Sherlock himself represented Boys’ Town at cricket, and the present national Technical Director of Cayman, Carl Brown, at football.

Brown, like Collie Smith and a host of others, went on to represent his country in the field of his endeavour. For his contribution to football, Brown, who attends an evangelical church, was honoured by his country with the Order of Distinction. Later he became the first recipient of the Father Hugh Sherlock Award for Excellence.

Father Sherlock died in 1998. But before his passing he was able to participate in the 55th Anniversary Thanksgiving ceremony held at the school on November 19, 1995. In his speech on that occasion Father Sherlock noted with pride that, despite set backs, the institution that was on his mind when he penned the words Strengthen Us the Weak to Cherish, is still continuing “to build the mind, body and spirit [of the] underprivileged to gain an opportunity to become good citizens.” (Sunday Observer, December 10 1995, [Sparkle] 3)

Father Sherlock was not the only cleric who saw the potential of education as a means to address some of the challenges in society. Neither was he the first. Some important forerunners include the Rev. Enos Nuttall, who became the mentor of Percival William Gibson, the founder of Kingston College in 1925.

When Nuttall arrived in Jamaica in the middle of the 19th century, he was a Methodist Minister like Father Sherlock. But after three years working with that group he switched to Anglicanism from where he was to have his greatest influence.

Between 1866 – 1895 the man, who was once a main attraction at evangelical meetings in his native England was instrumental in organizing the Mico Training School. The Reverend was also responsible for the recruitment of black men to the Anglican Clergy and the co-founding of the first degree granting institution in the West Indies (which only lasted for a year). He also became the Chairman of the Jamaica Schools Commission and took part in the establishment of the Jamaica Church Theological College one of the first local divinity schools, the Shortwood Teachers College, Kingston Technical, Jamaica College and Cornwall College in Montego Bay.

It was indeed Nuttall’s efforts that helped significantly to place Jamaica’s educational system on a firm footing for the 20th century. Can the church do the same for this millennium?

Perhaps the single most important contribution of the Jamaican church to society- -quite apart from being the conscience of the nation–is in the area of education. The number of clergymen following in the noble tradition of bishop Nuttall is great. Many have worked hard in and for our nation’s schools, particularly at the secondary level. I think it safe to say that some of the best high schools in the island are connected to churches.

Apart from those already mentioned, others that readily come to mind (the list is by no means exhaustive) are St. George’s College, Mt. Alvernia, Immaculate Conception, Holy Childhood and Campion (Roman Catholic), Kingston College and Westwood (Anglican), Meadowbrook (Methodist), Calabar (Baptist), Ardenne (Church of God) and Merle Grove (Associated Gospel Assemblies).

Although the latter two schools are evangelical, secondary education has not been the strongpoint of the movement. Traditionally, this has been the forte of the older and more established churches. Over the last 20 years or so, the evangelicals have concentrated their efforts in the setting up of a plethora of basic and preparatory schools islandwide. Three of these, Vaz, Covenant Christian Community Academy and Mavisville, located in the capital, have done quite well in recent times, while Priory is poised to make its mark as an educational complex which includes a secondary school.

But while evangelicals have sought to create a niche for themselves in the area of the nation’s educational system, they had for the better part of the last century neglected their own intellectual needs in terms of making serious provision for an educated clergy. In fact some prided themselves in not having been to “college but to Calvary.”

The need to provide leaders who could impart intellectual rigour to the movement did not go unnoticed by all, and so in the 1940s at least two Bible schools were started: the non-denominational Jamaica Bible College in Mandeville and Bethel Bible College associated with the New Testament Church of God. Both institutions offered certificates and diplomas, but it was not until 1960 that the first degree granting evangelical institution was established.

While it is perceived that the evangelical social engagement is growing in the broad area of education, its concern for social justice and the poor has not kept pace. This tendency appears to be a blot against the movement in several parts of the globe. In an essay entitled, “The Caribbean’s Response to the Great Commission,” Dr. Las Newman, president of the Caribbean Graduate School of Theology, delineates three models of Christian involvement deemed pertinent to our survey. The first one he calls the ethnic model “whereby missionary endeavors were focused upon people groups of particular ethnicities.” Several missionaries from the Caribbean went to sub-Sahara Africa under this model.

The second model, which emerged in the post World War II era, concentrated its efforts on the youth of the region as potential church leaders. The Inter-School/Inter-Varsity, Youth for Christ and Bible school movements all fall under this umbrella.

A third model of Caribbean mission is the contemporary model to the urban poor. Within the first three decades of post-Independence the Caribbean church, in response to the new social and economic order, has been engaged in developing [a] new ministry to the poor. Despite structural adjustment programmes (or indeed because of them) a new class of the poor has emerged. This class is semi-educated, young and urban. (Newman 1997, 19-20).

It is the established churches that have given the most telling response under the third model. Here the Catholics boast the Mustard Seed Community (Father Gregory Rakinson), the St. Patrick’s Development Foundation (Monsignor Richard Albert) and the Brothers of the Poor, founded by Jesuit Priest, Father Richard Holung.

One could add to the list the effective ministry of the Jamaica Baptist and other groups. While it is true to say that individual evangelicals here and there have participated in these ventures, the newer churches they represent seem conspicuous by their absence.

But things are changing. Congregations, such as the Holiness Christian Church, Galilee Gospel Hall and Church on the Rock in Kingston, Redemption Chapel in Montego Bay and Glengoff New Testament Church of God in St. Catherine are reaching out to their constituents through the sponsoring of clinics and other community-based projects.

Since the beginning of the decade, the JAE itself “has expressed concern at the rapid escalation in the cost of living, resulting in severe hardship to the poor, fixed income groups, and pensioners”. Decision was also taken “to encourage the expansion of social services being offered by member churches and, in particular, those in nutrition, health and education. The association [also] decided to take steps with immediate effect to establish grocery outlets with a view to providing basic food items at more affordable prices”. (Daily Gleaner, November 20 1991, 17)

Evangelicals are deeply involved in models one and two of missions. More consideration needs to be given to model three.

But what about politics? I think it is safe to say that when it comes on to Jamaican politics the actual engagement on the part of evangelical/non-evangelical clergy is very negligible, though their ideological postures may differ quite sharply. Here we have a sharp contrast to our neigbours to the North whose head of state can, with Christian conviction, write:

“[W]hat is more remarkable is the ability of evangelical Christianity not only to survive but to thrive in modern, high-tech America. At a time when mainline Protestant churches are all losing membership at a rapid clip, nondenominational evangelical churches are growing by leaps and bounds, eliciting levels of commitment and participation from their membership that no other American institution can match. Their fervor has gone mainstream.” (Obama 2006, 239).

Interestingly, since 2002 the political Ombudsman and now chairman of the Peace Management Initiative has been prominent evangelical pastor, Bishop Herro Blair. More than a decade before him, a few evangelicals did form The Christian United Party (CUP) in the early ’90s but like most third parties on the Jamaican political landscape it withered and died in the harsh and arid climate. But before its demise, CUP, along with the Republican Party, became increasingly vocal. One can only imagine what kind of impact a Christian party would have had on society if CUP had fulfilled its potential.

If evangelicals are still ambivalent about politics they seem to have changed their attitude towards sports and entertainment. Over the last 10 years or so Jamaica has experienced its first taste of having Christians at the helm of a national sporting endeavour in the persons of Brazilian Rene Simoes and his former assistant, Carl Brown (Earle 1998). Another evangelical who has gained prominence is Test cricket umpire and former FIFA referee, Steve Bucknor, who hails from Montego-Bay. Other sports luminaries wider a field include Brazilian footballers Kaka, Lucio and Bebeto, West Indies cricketers Ian Bishop and Ridley Jacobs, and, in the entertainment field in Jamaica, the late Bob Marley, Judy Mowatt, Carlene Davis, Papa San, Stichie, Chevelle Franklin, Winston Bell, Junior Tucker and Crissy D, adding to what Alister McGrath calls “The Evangelical Attraction.”

But McGrath is well aware of the movement’s other side as well, such as its leadership crisis, failure to instill in its constituents a proper sense of belonging based on the imago Dei and its corruption, as was alleged by the Reverend Dr. Roderick Hewitt at the National Prayer Breakfast in January 2009.

Despite these serious set-backs there are those who are still optimistic that the movement can become a spiritual and sociological force to be reckoned with, provided that radical corrective measures are put in place and an openness to change exhibited. Amidst all this the Christian eschatological hope should not be ignored, because, rightly understood, it provides the necessary balance between an overly optimistic social involvement on the one hand, and apathy toward glaring human need, on the other.

References

  • Allan, J.D., ed. 1989. The Evangelicals: the story of a great Christian movement.
    Exeter, UK: Paternoster.
  • Chisholm, Clinton. 2008. Revelations on Ras Tafari. Orlando: Xlibris.
  • Dick, Devon. 2003. Rebellion to Riot: The Jamaican Church in Nation Building. Kingston: Ian Randle.
  • Edmonds, Ennis. 2003. Rastafari. New York: Oxford.
  • Gerig, Zenas. 1969. Why the association of evangelical churches? Paper prepared for
    Discussion at the July 2 meeting of pastors at the Emmanuel Missionary Church, Mandeville.
  • Johnston, Anthony. 1997. A history of Kingston College, 1925-1995: the building of
    character. Kingston: Teejay.
  • Kato, Byang H. 1985. Biblical Christianity in Africa. Lagos: ACP.
  • Marshall, I. H. 1989. Methodism and the evangelical tradition. In The Evangelicals, ed. J.D Allan, 36-37. Exeter, UK: Paternoster.
  • McGrath, Alister. 1995. Evangelicalism and the Future of Christianity. Downer’s Grove,
    ILL: IVP.
  • Newman, Las. 1997. The Caribbean response to the great commission: history and
    models. Caribbean Journal of Evangelical Theology 1:16-32.
  • Obama, Barack. 2006. The Audacity of Hope. New York: Vantage.
  • Panton, David. 1993. Jamaica’s Michael Manley: the great transformation. Kingston:
  • Plummer, Orville. 1996. A survey of members of the Jamaican clergy concerning the
    church and Christian political involvement. Guided Research, Jamaica Theological Seminary.
  • Sherlock, Philip and Hazel Bennett. 1998. The story of the Jamaica people. Kingston:
    IRP.
  • Stott, John. 1992. The Contemporary Christian. Leicester, UK: IVP.

Delano Palmer is Academic dean at the Jamaica Theological Seminary

     

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One comment on “Evangelicalism and Society: A Reappraisal
  1. A nice walk down historical memory lane. But the question is, can it be said that the Church has been an influence of good in Jamaica? I think not.

    Even the forming of schools, (which is a good thing) was not totally altruistic. It is a trade off – Education is provided and the bodies that pass through the school presents the church with a pool of possible converts. It’s a way of perpetuating religious fundamentals through young impressionable minds. Hardly the stuff selflessness or patriotism is made of.

    A good question to ask is , are those people who come in contact with the church more likely or less likely to commit crime or be involved in corruption? Given the saturation of the country with churches and the nation’s crime rate and corruption index the former seems obvious.

    As an advocate for social upliftment, human rights et al, the church for the most part has been missing in action. In fact the church has been at the forefront lobbying for the denial of human rights for certain sections of the Jamaican populace. So while there is obviously an intertwining of Jamaica’s history with the church, the benefits of it seems dubious.

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