Born Again In Living Waters

Theirs are the vibrations shared by most Trinidadians, everyone who can move to the music of David Rudder or Superblue. And although they are not represented in the population censuses, the Spiritual Baptists or Shouters are estimated to number anywhere between 100 to 300 thousand.

"Listen to the early steelband with the grumbler and listen to a Baptist doption," says musicologist Mervyn Williams, who has written a dissertation on the church's music, "and you wonder who influence who. It's the same Trinidad folk element cutting through steelband and religion."

And it's not only Trinidad and Brazil, as David Rudder sings, argues Archbishop Raymond Oba Douglas of the Mount Prisgah Spiritual Baptist Archdiocese International Ltd. "In Guyana they're called 'Jordanites' because immersion started at the Jordan; in St Vincent it's the Shakers; in Jamaica the Revivalists." But, explains Archbishop Douglas, apart from a few differences they have all the same general traits: "entertainment" of the Holy Spirit, "shaking" and talking in tongues. It is the Christianity of Africans in the New World.

For instance, baptism in "living waters" is a reinterpretation of an African worship of water spirits, as is the elaborate water dance of the Trinidadian dragon masquerade. Most Shouter rituals and invocations involve the sprinkling of water. "When I go to the sea I see my mother and when I ring my bell I see her rise from the sea," says Mother Superior Elaine Griffith, interim Archbishop of the National Evangelical Spiritual Baptist (NESB) faith, a woman of both great proportions and spiritual presence.

Eyes closed, she bursts into song: "Mother of all/Star of the sea/Pray for your children/Pray for me". She opens her eyes and adds, "And then She does appear, brap! And I tellin her what I want and she doing it!"

Not only the Baptists practised styles of worship similar to the African, though. Thus in 1642 George Fox was possessed by the Spirit in England and began to speak in tongues and quake in his boots and heal the afflicted. "he took to trembling, going in for contortions and making faces, holding his breath and then expelling it violently," wrote Voltaire of the founder of the USA. "Hence the name Quakers, which means tremblers."

Roman Catholicism too, with its vast pantheon of saints and predilection for ritual and spiritual intervention in the secular world, also had many features congenial to West African religious tastes.

But the Baptists had an additional feature which made them the most widespread denomination in the southern US. This church, as American historian JP Jackson wrote in the Journal of Negro History, "is the religious organisation to which the underprivileged classes, more so than to any other denomination, is likely to turn. This church is extremely democratic and is characterised by a local autonomy which makes each church practically a law unto itself."

No seminary training in theology was needed to become a priest; one had only to be inspired or "called", usually through visions or dreams. The deceased Archbishop Elton Griffith of the NESB, for example, was an Anglican until one day, looking at the midday sun, he saw haloes. That might have been an easily explained optical illusion, but he also heard a voice commanding, "Elton Griffith, I am sending you to set my people free".

Archbishop Douglas's first vision was of a large statue of a bearded man in Baptist garb on the old St Joseph Road, preaching the gospel. When Douglas scrutinised the vision more closely, he saw that it was...himself.

The Baptists came to Trinidad in 1815 with the "merikins", the liberated African slaves who fought for the British in America and were rewarded by being settled as free men in the Company villages in Trinidad. "Their services were apocalyptic and noisy, and caused concern in the staid English Baptist ministers who visited them," wrote historian Donald Wood in Trinidad in Transition. "Two streams of religious experience met in their worship, a West African one of rhythm and the dance, and the Puritanism of sixteenth-century Munster and East Anglia; their fusion brought about 'shouting' and jumping and shaking by those who felt themselves the chosen of the Lord of Hosts."

And by the late nineteenth century they were to be found throughout the island, developing an indigenous form of soca baptism.

"As a folk religion it's almost like jazz?an improvised something," says Williams. "The Spiritual Baptists followed the tradition of Southern Baptists; you had to get the call; so each church was independent. If you went to six Shouter churches, every one improvised something different." With each congregation a separate church, the Trinidadian practice naturally sprouted its own indigenous roots.

To be spiritually renewed, according to the belief, one has to be rebaptised, an idea shared with the popular "born again" Pentecostal churches. But the Shouters carry it further. First, the water must be "living water", that is, free flowing water in a river or the ocean. And then, one has to "mourn" (pronounced "moan").

According to Bishop Eudora Thomas of the Mount Carmelite NESB Assembly in Tunapuna, to mourn is to experience, sometimes repeatedly, "a Godly sorrow". It is a gruelling yet indispensable Shouter rite of passage in which the aspirant lies blindfolded and secluded in the "mourning room" next to the church for days, sometimes as long as three weeks, fasting. During mourning the aspirant discovers his "gifts" as a healer, preacher or whatever.

As the church sank deeper roots into Trinidad soil, so it generated a complex series of rituals, bringing it closer to Catholicism or Hinduism than to the more straightforward forms of Protestantism. African polytheism, Shango, Islam, Jewish mysticism, all alongside more standard forms of Christianity, features in the faith in a weird syncretism. African thanksgiving feasts are held in Curepe in the fashion of Hindu weddings, with paratha roti and curried vegetables being served. Healing and exorcism, blessing and ancestor worship all have flowered from a maze of symbols and sacred objects.

If the Shouters stand mid-way between European Christianity and African Shango, the common description "Shango-Baptists" tells which pole they are closer to. Indeed, many Baptists are also members of the Orisha (Shango) faith.

To the outsider at any Spiritual Baptist service there is a bewildering array of things going on. Water is sprinkled from brass "lotas" (Hindi for bowl) which also contain flowers. Complex symbols like those in Haitian voodoo shrines are chalked on the floor. Flags are waved, especial red, green and gold, the Ethiopian colours. Olive oil is poured around the "centre pole", a pillar in the centre of every Baptist church and is topped by two spinning discs, one bearing lit candles, the other small flags. Candles are lit and incense is burnt. Sermons, punctuated by bell ringing, are read. Traditional hymns are sung to the beat of a solitary drum which may be accompanied by a tambourine.

But the "doption" (adoption of the Holy Spirit) takes place during the singing of the "trumpets" when the solitary drumbeat speeds up dramatically, the changing becomes accompanied by syncopated clapping, and the singing grows in fervour and is joined by counterpoint exclamations much like those used by David Rudder and Brother Resistance. And gradually, powerfully, the Holy Ghost descends.

The Shouters Prohibition Ordinance which drove them underground in 1917 sought to eradicate, more than anything else, the doption of the Spirit. "It is not only the inconvenience caused by the noise which they make that has given rise to this legislation," justified the Attorney General that year, "but also the fact that from the information that has been received, the practices which are indulged in are not such as should be tolerated in a well-conducted community".

When during a service the trumpets are sung, the tempo quickens and a simple melodic line is repeated over and over. The congregation begins to sway. A woman moves into the aisle to dance a little shuffle that would not be out of place on any J'Ouvert Morning. A small girl does the same. One elderly woman is stepping in her pew. An aspirant, eyes closed, begins to dance and a priest with his stole keeps him from tipping over. He is spun round and round, first in one direction and then in the other. One very pretty pre-adolescent girl, a very dark negro, does a sinuous Indian-looking moves. Not a move is unsteady even though she balances a lota of flowers and water on her head and her eyes are closed. By now the singing is lusty, and an old woman takes a flag stuck in the wall and dances up and down the aisle waving it. A youngish priest, speaking in tongues, pulls an attractive young woman out from her pew. She begins to dance too, but he still "chastises" her with a cocoyea broom.

When Roman Catholics speak in tongues and catch the spirit, none of this is considered unusual, and the Spiritual Baptists have likewise moved toward orthodoxy. In addition to, or overlapping with its traditional teachers, provers, healers, shepherds, pumpers, divers, surveyors, judges, nursers, the faith has an elaborate hierarchy of archbishops, bishops, suffragan bishops, reverends, arch-priests, deacons and deaconesses. NESB ecclesiastics wear elaborate ceremonial clothes sewn by Mother Superior Griffith and patterned on designs in a Vanpoules Ltd catalogue: vestments gothic, chasuble, stole and veil (burses extra); St Benet gothic vestments; hardwearing gothic; reversible gothic; budget price vestment sets; washable mission vestments. Archbishop Douglas orders his ready-made from abroad, though.

When the religion was legalised through the tireless petitions of the late Archbishop Elton Griffith and a general softening of the colonial attitudes, the independence of individual churches began to be challenged. In 1964 Griffith's NESB Diocese was incorporated by an Act of Parliament to be trustees for the entire Shouters faith. But the tradition of independence dies hard, and there are about eight dioceses, each with dozens of churches: Mt Prisgah Spiritual Baptists; Mt Hope SB; West Indian Sacred Order of SB; Ecclesiastical of SB; Triune Shouters.

"People just go to the Companies Registrar and register their church, so it splits us up, complains NESB Bishop Earl Nichols. Archbishop Raymond Douglas of Mt Prisgah, for example, used to be in the NESB and now his group and three or four others are holding a seminar next month aimed at forging a different unity. And it seems unlikely that there will be a single Spiritual Baptist Church in the immediate future. And yet there is a deeper unity, because, as David Rudder sang, "When they feelin the doption/And they show their emotion/Something in the rhythm does show them where they coming from".

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