Today’s observance of Shouter Baptist Liberation Day, commemorating the repeal on March 30, 1951, of the 1917 Shouter Prohibition Ordinance, coincides this year with the first day of heightened COVID-19 restrictions where only essential services will be allowed to function.
On a day normally marked with joyous and colourful worship, members of the Spiritual Baptist faith, while complying with the directive to stay home, are finding innovative ways to celebrate their hard-won freedoms.
This is the only country in the world with a public holiday for the Spiritual Baptist faith, so it must be a source of deep regret for members of that community that on the 24th anniversary of officially endorsed celebrations of their major milestone a global pandemic has forced them to once again worship behind closed doors.
Lest we forget, it was prejudice, ignorance and fear that led to decades of prosecution for Spiritual Baptists.
This was the religion developed during the 19th Century which combined elements Christianity and African doctrines and rituals. But in a T&T society still carrying the social, mental and economic shackles of recently abolished slavery, the way Spiritual Baptists worshipped, with loud singing, chanting, bell ringing and holding of lit candles, was misunderstood.
Many leaders of established religions were among those who regarded Spiritual Baptists as a “threat” to colonial law and order.
The 1917 Shouter Baptist Ordinance was introduced by then attorney general Sir Henry Gollam who described the way members of the faith worshipped as an “unmitigated nuisance.” For the next 34 years, it was against the law to take part in a Shouter Baptist service or use a property for that purpose and the penalty was a then hefty fine of $240.
The law was repealed 59 years ago on this day in 1951 but it was not until 1996, during the administration of Prime Minister Basdeo Panday, that it was made a public holiday.
While there will be no large gatherings today as has become the tradition, bells of freedom can still be rung across the land proclaiming the diversity and freedom that all citizens can celebrate today.
COVID-19 cannot curtail religious freedom as was demonstrated during yesterday’s National Day of Prayer. While only a handful of religious leaders were able to gather in the chapel of the Prime Minister’s residence, thousands more were able to participate in the service when it was broadcast on radio and television and streamed online.
So it is that Shouter Baptists all across our twin islands, no longer shackled by prohibitive laws, will demonstrate to all of T&T that there is no distance in prayer. The strength of their faith and their determination to be free in their worship blesses us all today. The cords that bind them together in their unique, indigenous religion will never again be broken.
A happy Shouter Baptist Liberation Day to all.