In Trinidad, the Shouters Prohibition Ordinance of 1917 made practices of worship associated with the Spiritual Baptist religion illegal. Adherents of the religion were known by outsiders as ‘Shouters’, but described themselves as ‘Baptists’, ‘Penitents’ or ‘Spiritual Baptists’. The Spiritual Baptist religion was a form of African-oriented Christianity that developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, combining revival-oriented Christianity with African-derived practices of possession. Its adherents faced hostility from the press and from colonial authorities, who viewed their religion as vulgar, ‘primitive’ and inferior to European Christianity.
After the 1917 prohibition many individuals in Trinidad were taken to court. The first recorded trial involved the Spiritual Baptist leader ‘Teacher Bailey’ and many of his congregation. The Port of Spain Gazette reported on 9 January 1918 that several individuals from Perseverance Village in Chaguanas had appeared in court, charged with breaching the Shouters Prohibition Ordinance. The first was an elderly woman, Caroline French, who was charged with allowing the building of a shouters’ house on her lands at Perseverance Village. She responded that she didn’t know that this was an offence. In addition ‘Teacher Bailey’ and thirteen others, including Mary Brown, Augusta Straughn, and Albertha Jack were charged with taking part in a Shouters’ meeting at Perseverance Village. The Port of Spain Gazette reported that Teacher Bailey refused to recognize the court’s authority, and would not plead either guilty or not guilty:
“Teacher Bailey” appeared with his head bandaged around with a white cloth, a cross firmly pressed against his breast and a huge Bible encased in red cloth. When asked whether he was guilty or not, Bailey exclaimed with cross uplifted: I will only answer such a question if it comes from Christ; but not from any man.” A plea of not guilty was recorded.
The report noted some of the activities the defendants were charged with, highlighting the evidence of the arresting Police Officer Sergeant Parris:
Sergt. Parris gave evidence of having been attracted to the scene by a loud noise of shouting which emanated from the meeting place where he met the defendants singing, preaching and praying. He told them they were committing an offence against the law, and some scampered away.
The judge ‘reprimanded’ and ‘discharged’ all of the defendants with the exception of Bailey, who was deemed ‘responsible for the whole thing’. He was fined 5 shillings and costs and was told not to come back again as he could be fined £50 or sentenced to six months in prison. He replied he had no money to pay the fine and it was reported that some of his fellow Spiritual Baptists offered to pay the fine as ‘they would not allow their “brother” to go to jail.’
Many of Bailey’s fellow Spiritual Baptists appeared in court to support him and the others charged. The newspaper reported that when that when Bailey left the court,about ‘two hundred followers of his “religious” persuasion’ followed him.
In court, Bailey linked his trial to Christ’s sufferings and used the term ‘religion’ to describe his faith:
My father is 58 years old, my mother 49, and from the time I was born, 27 years ago, that is the religion I found my mother and father following – not shouting, but praying in the name of the Lord. (Holding his cross uplifted, Bailey proceeded to say:) I am prepared to go to jail every time, and to carry on these meetings, I will always do so. Christ was persecuted for religion, and if I go to jail for religion, it does not matter.
In making this argument, Bailey contested the terms of the Shouters Prohibition Ordinance, which was based on the assumption that the ‘Shouters” practices did not constitute a religion.
Bailey’s case is still remembered by members of the Spiritual Baptist faith. It was one of many cases in which adherents of the Spiritual Baptist religion were prosecuted, sometimes in large groups. The Most of those who appeared in court received fines. In 1951, however, after a long campaign, the Shouters Prohibition Ordinance was repealed. Since 1996, the anniversary of the date of the repeal of the Ordinance has been a national holiday in Trinidad and Tobago.
‘Shouter in Court’, Port of Spain Gazette, 9 January 1918
Teacher Bailey at Caribbean Religious Trials