THE BEGINNINGS OF METHODISM IN ANTIGUA
One of the hymns of Methodism affirms that: “God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform.” Among the many wonders is the outworking of God’s providence in raising up in the Caribbean the people called Methodist. Methodists in Antigua can clearly discern the hand of God moving in our land. We earnestly believe and affirm that it must have been through the providence of God that Methodism arrived, survived and thrived in Antigua over these past two hundred and fifty (250) years. In speaking of God’s divine providence in our Methodist history, we may refer to Reverend Wilfred Easton, in his Introduction in Kindling of the Flame, where he makes the comment that “No missionary society had been formed; nor were any plans made to launch a campaign beyond the British Isles. It just happened.” Let us look at several instances of God’s divine providence as we affirm the guiding hand of God in our early beginnings.
God’s providence in the life of Francis Gilbert
Most references associated with the Gilbert family highlight the experiences of Nathaniel Gilbert, the acknowledged founder of Methodism in the West Indies. However, had it not been for the hand of God moving in the life and affairs of Francis Gilbert, the brother of Nathaniel Gilbert, the story of Methodism in the Caribbean might have been different. Francis Gilbert graduated in medicine from Cambridge and practiced both in England and Antigua. As the story goes, Francis had been reduced to poverty by loose living and a fraudulent agent. He fled to England from his creditors where he was influenced by an associate to join John Wesley’s society and thereby becoming a Methodist. It was through Francis that Nathaniel first learnt of Wesley.
God’s providence in the life of Nathaniel Gilbert
Nathaniel Gilbert, a lawyer trained at Gray’s Inn London and called to the Bar in 1741, was a slave owner, and Speaker of the House of Representatives in Antigua and the brother of Francis Gilbert. While recovering in bed from a brief illness in 1756, Nathaniel asked his daughter to bring him a book. His daughter Mary mistakenly handed him one of Wesley’s writings – “An Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion” that was sent to him by Francis. Nathaniel reluctantly read the book and was so impressed by what Wesley had written that he vowed that he must hear Wesley preach himself. In 1757 Nathaniel Gilbert sailed to England taking with him three slaves from his estate. Gilbert lost no time in locating John Wesley and under Wesley’s preaching was converted to Methodism. According to the entry in John Wesley’s Journal for 17th January 1758:
I preached at Wandsworth. A gentleman come from America had opened a door in this desolate place. In the morning I preached at Mr Gilbert’s house. Two Negro servants of his and a mulatto appear to be much awakened. Shall not his saving health be made known unto all nations?”
On Nathaniel Gilbert’s return to Antigua in 1759, he first shared his new found joy with his friends and later started to preach to his slaves the message of salvation that he had heard from John Wesley. By 1760 the “great work” had begun. The stone steps descending to the courtyard of Gilbert’s plantation house became Methodism’s “first pulpit” in the Caribbean, for it was from these steps that Mr Gilbert preached regularly to his slaves who gathered in the courtyard to hear the word of God.
The above property presently referred to as the Gilbert’s Ecumenical Centre, located at Gilbert’s Estate is the historic Nathaniel Gilbert Plantation House – the place where Methodism in Antigua and the Caribbean had its beginnings. This historic building with 60 acres of surrounding land was a gift of British Methodism to the Caribbean Area in 1960, our Bicentenary year.
There was a period in our history when Nathaniel Gilbert Plantation House fell into ecumenical controversy and as a result remained closed for many years after its renovation. It was the Youth of the Antigua Circuit who decided to use the building for a camp in 1984, and this initiated its use and seemingly brought an end to the ecumenical impasse. Perhaps the time has come for us as a church to reclaim our heritage and to revert to the title: Nathaniel Gilbert Plantation House, if not Nathaniel Gilbert Centre.
Despite the criticisms of his colleagues, Nathaniel Gilbert ably supported by women – Mrs Gilbert his wife, Mary Leadbetter his children’s governess, and slaves Mary, Sophia and Bessie, continued preaching to his slaves and to those of the neighbouring estates and to St John’s where he actually got a second house to facilitate his work. The year 1766 is believed to be the date when the first Methodist Society in the West Indies was formed in Antigua. Nathaniel later relinquished his post as Speaker of the House of Assembly in order to devote more time to this work. This Nathaniel continued to do until his death in 1774, leaving behind 200 Methodists in Antigua.
It is generally held that Nathaniel Gilbert was buried in a location in St Peters. This burial ground in Vernons is believed to be the burial spot. Unfortunately we have not located a headstone marking his grave. According to Kindling of the Flame, “we know the country grave yard in St Peter’s Parish, where they laid him to rest, but no stone [head stone] marks his grave.”
Based on recent investigations, it was determined that the Vernons Burial Ground belongs to the Anglican Church. With the necessary permission, it is the intention of the Circuit to erect a monument at this burial ground in honour of our founder Nathaniel Gilbert.
God’s providence in transcending the barriers of slavery
Another act of God’s providence, that is usually overlooked, is the way in which God transcended the barriers of slavery and allowed the active participation of two slave women and a mulatto in the Methodist drama. These three ladies are referred to as Bessie, Sophia Campbell and Mary Alley. While the journeying of these women with their master Nathaniel Gilbert to England was not unusual at the time, to have been allowed the privilege of hearing Wesley preach and to have been baptized by him went against the order of the day. This incidence was so out of the ordinary that Wesley records it in his diary. In the November 29, 1758 entry, Wesley records:
I rode to Wandsworth and baptized two Negroes belonging to Mr Gilbert, a gentleman lately come from Antigua. One of them is so deeply convinced of sin: the other rejoices in God her Saviour and is the first African Christian I have known.”
It was through their lives and witness that many Blacks were stirred to seek the Lord. When Nathaniel died in 1774, Francis assumed responsibility for the work. Even before Nathaniel’s death, in 1763 Francis would have conducted a year of evangelistic services in Antigua. In a letter to Wesley dated 18th June 1763, Francis noted that he preached in St John’s, Parham and at the Gilbert Estate. Francis later married Mary Leadbetter in 1767 and they both greatly assisted with the work especially now that Nathaniel was dead.
In 1776 on account of ill health, Francis and his wife returned to England, where Francis eventually died in 1779. Francis left the care and spiritual nurture of the flock to the slave women who kept the work going. Of them it was said that: “had it not being for these women, the light kindled by Nathaniel Gilbert, might have faded completely.”
In paying tribute to these slave women, Forever Beginning, a publication of the Jamaica District raised the question: “What would happen to the 200 Methodists in Antigua when the Gilberts were gone?” To this question, Forever Beginning responded:
West Indian Methodism must ever preserve the names of a Negress and a Mulatto, Sophia Campbell and Mary Alley. These devoted women kept the flock together after the going of the Gilberts…. Their humble and effective work preserved Methodism from extinction in the islands… We know little about them; the vast work which remains is their memorial. Without them, the work of God through the Gilberts would have passed into the limbo of lost beginnings. Let their names never be omitted from any account of Methodist origins in the Caribbean.”
We are eternally grateful to these fine slave women through whose work and witness Methodism took roots.