The spread of the Gospel in early nineteenth century Guyana
History This Week
By Arlene Munro
July 7, 2005
Modern Protestant missions began in the early nineteenth century as a result of the writing of William Carey, a humble shoemaker who in 1792 published his An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens.
At that time the Protestant Church, with the exception of the Moravians, did not understand the importance of missions. However, William Carey had read of the missions started by Count Zinzendorf and the Moravian Church and he saw the possibility of the rest of the Protestant Church being involved in this kind of endeavour. Carey presented his ideas to his local Baptist association and as a result of his influence the Baptist Missionary Society was formed. William Carey was one of the first missionaries to be sent to India in 1793. Consequently, other missionary societies were formed which were very active in the nineteenth century in spreading the gospel to various parts of the world. It is therefore not surprising that some missionaries were sent British Guiana in the early nineteenth century to work among the slaves.
It is noteworthy that prior to their arrival, Moravian pioneer missionaries had travelled to Guiana in the eighteenth century and asked to evangelise the slaves. Their request was not granted, but they were allowed to work among the Amerindians in Berbice. This mission was destroyed during the 1763 slave rebellion. The purpose of this article is to highlight two of the famous missionaries who worked in British Guiana in the nineteenth century as well as the planter who invited them. These men were Hermanus Post, Rev John Wray and Rev John Smith.
Hermanus Hilbertus Post, a planter and proprietor of the 700-acre Plantation Le Ressouvenir, was interested in the spiritual welfare of his slaves. Born in Utrecht in 1765, his father owned a sugar refinery and sat on the local senate. Post came to Demerara to seek his fortune as a manager. After accumulating the necessary funds, he bought Le Ressouvenir and 13 slaves. Cotton was cultivated on the estate and he eventually acquired 400 slaves. Prosperity made it possible for him to live in Holland, then in the United States for eight years. While in the United States it appears that he experienced a spiritual conversion, which became evident when he returned to Demerara in 1799. He engaged the services of a free black schoolmaster to read the Bible to his slaves. Subsequently, he asked the directors of the London Missionary Society to send a missionary to work among his slaves. In 1808, Rev John Wray came to Demerara to work at Pln Le Ressouvenir. Bethel Chapel was built by Hermanus Post to accommodate the slaves on Sunday which he declared a day free of labour on that estate. Many of the neighbouring planters objected to Post's decision to recruit a missionary. They feared that this would lead to dissatisfaction and rebellion among slaves. The colonial government prohibited any meeting of slaves on Post's estate. However, this did not deter Hermanus Post. Post's concern extended to children as well. He made arrangements for another missionary, John Davies, to come to Demerara in 1809 to manage a school for planters' children in Stabroek. Post died in 1809.
Rev John Wray arrived in Demerara February 1808. At first he was unsuccessful in attracting the slaves to worship services at Bethel Chapel. He even received discouragement from a Dutch minister who advised him not to baptize the slaves because, according to Dutch law, this would liberate them legally. But the local legislature, the Court of Policy, posed a greater threat to the work of John Wray. It was planning to ask him to leave the colony. On hearing of its intentions, Wray sent a petition bearing the signatures of managers and overseers who supported his work. The London Missionary Society appealed to William Wilberforce, the abolitionist, who sent the petition to The British Secretary of State Lord Castlereagh. Sir Henry Bentinck, who had just been appointed Governor of Demerara, was also informed about Rev Wray's situation. As a result, Wray was allowed to remain in the colony.
Wray's wife was a midwife who trained and worked with slave midwives. She also taught slave children to read and write. Rev Wray eventually built a large congregation composed of slaves and a few white overseers and managers who came from Le Ressouvenir and surrounding plantations. In addition to preaching, he taught the slaves to read and was amazed by their ability to teach each other. Wray's decision to teach the slaves to read was done in opposition to instructions which he had received from Governor Murray who feared that literate slaves would read anti-slavery literature and would rebel more frequently.
In June 1813, Rev Wray was sent to Berbice to serve as a missionary among the Winkel slaves who lived in New Amsterdam and at Fort St Andries. In Berbice, he established the first Mission Chapel. It was officially opened in February 1819. Prior to the construction of the church, he held services in several places in New Amsterdam. After receiving 400 pounds in retroactive salary, he bought lot 12 in the empolder of New Amsterdam from a widow who was remigrating to England. The new chapel was built on that plot of land, but was burnt in 1823 on the order of planters who blamed the missionaries for the 1823 slave insurrection on the East Coast Demerara. Wray's wife started a school where she taught Winkel slaves. She also opened the first school for free coloured young ladies in Berbice and a sewing school at Sandvoort, Berbice. When Rev Wray died, she returned to England and continued to teach.
Rev John Smith was born on June 27, 1790 in Northamptonshire, England. He was the son of a soldier who died in the Napoleonic Wars. He received his early education at the Sunday school for the Independent Chapel.
Then at age 14 he was taught the trade of baking biscuits.
He remained at the Independent
Chapel where he sat at the feet of ministers who had received a formal education. He eventually married Jane Godden and both became interested in foreign missions.
On completing his apprenticeship in biscuit baking, Smith applied to be a missionary. On 12 December 1816, he was ordained at Tonbridge Chapel. Then the London Missionary Society sent him to Demerara for his first assignment. He and his wife arrived in Demerara on 23 February 1817. He was sent to Pln Le Ressouvenir to replace Rev John Wray who had removed to Berbice. Smith agreed to preach doctrines which would not incite the slaves to rebel.
He was successful in attracting many slaves to listen to his sermons in Bethel Chapel. The congregation began to increase in number. However, many slaves on the East Coast of Demerara were prohibited from visiting his chapel and were punished with a whipping if they did. Other planters used the chapel services as incentives for their slaves when they wanted them to finish their work.
In July 1823, Rev Smith received a visit from Quamina, one of the slave deacons of Bethel Chapel. Quamina asked Smith whether a report that the Governor had received orders to free the slaves was true. Smith denied this. Then Quamina declared that his son, Jack Gladsone, had heard this rumour from the Governor's servant who claimed to have overheard the Governor talking about the issue. Smith assured him that this was not so.
The cause of this excitement was the amelioration proposals, which were sent by Lord Bathurst the British Colonial Secretary, to the Governor asking that the conditions of the slaves be improved. The Court of Policy examined the proposals on 21 July 1823 and postponed making a decision. The slaves were aware of the arrival of some important correspondence and that the planters were delaying decision-making. They erroneously assumed that it was a decision pertaining to the abolition of slavery.
On 18 August 1823 they rebelled on the plantations along the East Coast Demerara under the leadership of Jack Gladstone of Pln Success and Paris of Pln Good Hope. On 20 August they were defeated by the colonial cavalry and the militia. One consequence of the revolt was that Rev John Smith was arrested, ostensibly because he had refused to obey Captain McTurk's order to enlist as a militiaman. Then he was charged with having incited the rebellion through his preaching and with failing to inform the authorities that the slaves were planning a rebellion. Smith was arrested on 21 August, tried and sentenced to death by hanging. While awaiting a reprieve from the king in England, he died in the Georgetown jail on 6 February 1824 from pulmonary consumption which was caused by the dampness in his cell due to heavy rains. His body was buried in an unmarked grave in the former cemetery on which St Philip's Church now stands. The Smith Congregational Church was named in his honour. The foundation stone of this church was laid on 24 November 1843, the 20th anniversary of the day on which he received his death sentence.
Smith, Wray and Davies were important because they were the first Christian ministers to be allowed to work among the slaves in Guyana. They taught them to read and write in addition to other skills. The missionaries also taught the slaves spiritual truths, which they were able to relate to their own social struggles as an oppressed group in the society. The slaves were intelligent enough to draw parallels between their situation and biblical stories.