THE WORK TAKES SHAPE
A Period of Transition and Defining Moments in our History
The period of the 1800’s after Baxter’s death was a period of transition generally and a defining epoch in the story of Antiguan Methodism. It was a period filled with many defining moments that influenced the shape that the work would take.
Coming of the Missionaries
This period saw the continuous stationing of missionaries out of England to carry on the work in the circuit. Periods of fall in membership followed Baxter’s death in 1805, but by 1821 the membership increased to 3,912 at which time there were four ministers in charge. The revival of 1822 produced great growth and the missionaries enjoyed a heightened sense of satisfaction. As far as Coke was concerned, “There were few places on earth where our Lord’s commandment of mutual love amongst Christians was better kept than in Antigua at that time.” Membership peaked at 4,560 in 1823. Following this the island was divided into two circuits, the Antigua West and Antigua East Circuits. However, numerous problems arose and this division lasted only two years. In 1827 the two Circuits were reunited. The joy of this period was marred by tragedy in 1826 with the sinking of the Maria mail boat resulting in the loss of the ministerial staff of the Antigua Circuit.
Methodist involvement in education and social services
It was during this epoch of our history that the Methodists blazed the trail in introducing education in Antigua, in a formal way through the setting up of schools. This clarification is necessary as the women in the earlier epoch would have been involved in teaching the slaves. The various congregations’ profiles will speak to our church’s involvement in education. It should also be noted that in attending to the educational needs of its members, the church found itself having to respond to the physical and social needs of its members that were left unattended. A full account is given later of Methodist involvement in education and social services.
Emancipation and the transition to freedom
It was during this time that one of the biggest shifts of all times took place – that being the transition from slavery to emancipation in 1834. It must be kept in mind that Antigua was among the first to abolish slavery in the Caribbean. While other territories went from slavery to apprenticeship, Antigua went straight from slavery to full abolition in 1834. In acting for immediate emancipation, Antigua had become a focal point of world attention. Emancipation in Antigua was an abrupt termination of a harsh system. Abolitionist anticipated a peaceful transition that would serve as a model for other regions. A peaceful transition demanded the assistance of all available moderating influences. In this regard the missionaries played their part. This policy was strongly advocated in the Catechism devised in1836 by the Wesleyan James Cox and Edward Fraser.
This period however, was not without its challenges that created opportunities for ministry by the Church. Farquhar makes the point that:
The disruption caused by emancipation was far-reaching. The guarantee of civic and political privileges necessitated adjustments in the total framework of life in the islands. A certain degree of prominence had to be given to problems of domestic relations, especially in view of the legal incapacities of the black population during slavery. The desire of the freedmen for further independence warranted much consideration. With the multiplicity of problems which this period of transition introduced, the role of the missionaries would assume additional dimensions.”
The planters and civic authorities who once resented the missionaries for their role in forcing the emancipation of the slaves, now found themselves having to appeal to the missionaries for help. Farquhar goes on to say that in “1841, of the thirty-two West Indians appointed to public office, ten were coloured among whom were five Wesleyans.” The Wesleyans played a leading role in ensuring that appropriate marriage laws were enacted in 1843. It should be pointed out that while the missionaries generally cooperated with the civic authorities there came a time when the missionaries had to issue a reminder that “They are not the servants of any political party but the commissioned servants of Christ; and their business is to preach the gospel.”
Acquisition of land
Prior to emancipation the missionaries used to preach at various plantations having received the permission of the planters to do so. Some planters felt that the missionaries’ message had a civilizing effect on the slaves. The period after emancipation saw planters selling plots of land to exslaves and other interested parties as they attempt to deal with some of their financial woes. Farquhar makes the observation that the Wesleyan Missionaries as did other denominations, took advantage of this opportunity and acquired property throughout the island with a view of encouraging independent settlements (away from the plantations) that would support their work. To date, many of our properties are still vested in the Wesleyan Missionary Society. In support of the work, the planters and many philanthropists also donated properties from their personal resources.
It must be pointed out that the Government of Antigua and Barbuda has always been extremely generous towards the Methodist Church. This generosity demonstrated itself in, among other things, the government’s gift of several pieces of land for the building of chapels to support the work. The present site of our Connexional Conference Headquarters at Scotts Hill, Belmont, Antigua is also a gift from the Government and people of Antigua.
Set up of Free Villages
With the coming of emancipation in 1834 and with the free movement of persons and the setting up of free villages, missionary work began to shift locations and were now concentrated in a number of these villages. Major settlements gravitated around the missions. Farquhar opines that, “probably the labourers need the religious and social security which the various activities of the missions afforded.” Certain denominations dominated certain areas. For example, the Wesleyans dominated and had congregations of sizeable numbers in Bethesda, English Harbour and Sawcolts as a result of missionary activities in these areas over a number of years.
Earthquake of 1843
The earthquake of 1843 was not only destructive but disruptive resulting in shifts in locals. Many of the old estate houses were destroyed and planters were simply reluctant to rebuild them. There was an established Mission at Willoughby Bay which was a thriving town and which serviced both Freetown and Bethesda. However, this 1843 earthquake destroyed Willoughby Bay and hastened the relocation to Freetown that has already started since 1834, and gave impetus for the establishment of the work at Bethesda.
Emerging of Congregations
Emerging from the foregone was the birth of a number of our congregations. Despite the ups and downs of the church, the work and dedication of the early and later pioneers both ministerial and lay, led to the establishment of the initial ten congregations in Antigua, namely: Barrett Memorial (Liberta), Baxter Memorial (English Harbour); Bethesda, Bolans, Ebenezer, Freemansville, Freetown, Gilbert Memorial (Zion Hill), Parham and Sawcolts.