Author Roy Francis explores the historical roots of some of the UK’s foremost churches frequented by Black Christians, and the role of race in their development.
The majority of Windrush people, who came to Britain in the 1950s and ’60s, were not Pentecostals, as many people suppose. The majority were Anglicans, Baptists, Methodists, Catholics and members of the established church in the Caribbean.
What these newcomers did on Sundays in Britain is what they did every Sunday in the Caribbean: they went to church. What they were expecting in Britain was a welcome, but instead got a frosty, impolite and discourteous reaction. Some of the clergies even took many of them aside, and told them not to come back, as their presence was “upsetting the White congregation”. The consequence was a generation of Caribbeans lost to the Church, as many have left and never returned. But where did this reaction to Black people come from? What are the historical forces that led to this? The answer, in parts, is found in the historical relationship between the English and the people of the Caribbean, a history based on the capture and subjugation of a people, which the Church in England supported.
The Spaniards were the first to arrive in the Caribbean in 1492. They conquered the indigenous people; established their settlements; introduced Roman Catholicism, and Columbus the great explorer even came with his own priest! The French came next, followed by the English in 1665. They drove out the Spaniards from Jamaica, and their slaves took to the hills. There in the mountains, the slaves formed a group known as the ‘Maroons’, who fought the English until the Treaty of 1739 gave them a measure of autonomy, which their descendants hold to this day.
Once in the Caribbean, the English turned the Islands into a massive sugar plantation colony, which made the settler class very rich.
It is estimated that between 1761 and 1807, traders based in British ports transported over three million African slaves to work on the plantations in the Caribbean, producing sugar. Sugar made Britain rich and, during the 18th and 19th centuries, it was one of the driving forces of Britain’s industrial success. Sugar was important to Britain as oil is today, and it was sugar that made plantation owners rich. The term, ‘as rich as a West Indian’, was an indication of how wealthy a person was, and it was the proceeds from sugar and the slave trade that made London, Liverpool and Bristol incredibly wealthy.
At first, the Church in England sent out clergies to the Caribbean, not so much to convert the slaves, but to act as chaplains to the White plantation settler class. It sanctioned, supported and justified slavery, and saw its connection with the people of the Caribbean more in terms of a master/servant relationship, than that of a church and its parishioners. In other words, the racism that stemmed from this relationship – the idea that a person’s racial characteristics determined their place in society – continued unfettered throughout British history, reaching its climax during the colonial period. It was only when the independence movements of the 1950s and ’60s began to throw off colonial rule, that this relationship began to change.
Internalising racial stereotypes is one of the ways this racism was perpetuated, producing a mindset, where all that is negative is black, black is evil, and black is the devil. This is often expressed directly and indirectly, and at times actioned accordingly. It didn’t need a great leap of the imagination for White people, who had internalised many of these racial stereotypes, to link this with the Black people they saw coming into their churches for the first time in the 1950s and ’60s.
The established churches in England were not the only ones to respond to Black Caribbean Christians in this way. The Church of God of Prophecy’s behaviour in this area was far from exemplary. Historically, the church in Britain and America is a White-led church and when, in the early years, members of the church in the Caribbean started arriving in Britain, and heard that there was a Church of God of Prophecy in Bedford, they flocked there.
It wasn’t long before the complexion of the church changed, and this led to a great deal of uneasiness among its White members. Many of them left to start their own ‘White’ church, and at one time, Dr Joe Aldred, in his book Respect, states there were three White-majority Church of God of Prophecy in Bedford! However, as more and more people from the Caribbean arrived, they set up branches of the Church of God of Prophecy congregations in their areas, and today, Black members of the church vastly outstrip their White counterparts, and the church is now an overwhelmingly Black one.
The Seventh Day Adventists and their record in this area fared no better. Historically they too were a White-led church, with a predominantly White membership in America, but not so in Britain.
When, in the 1960s, Caribbean Adventists began arriving in Britain, the profile of the church began to change. Many White members felt threatened by this and left, but as the number of Caribbeans continued to rise inexorably, this came to a head in the 1970s, with a threat of the church splitting along racial lines. A solution was found and agreed on, with provision made for an overhaul of the church structure, and a stipulation that where there was an African Caribbean majority, the church would appoint an African-Caribbean pastor. This has undoubtedly eased the situation, and although the overall numbers of Black people in the church have risen markedly since the 1960s, there is still a steady exodus of White people from the church.
The New Testament Church of God is not without blame in this regard either, and although the church in Britain is Black, the headquarter church in America is White-led. The church in Britain was started in 1953 by Oliver Lyseight, a Black Caribbean pastor. In the 1970s, young members from the church began visiting ‘the mother church’ in America. They were surprised by what they found: a church with an almost exclusive White leadership and congregation. It took them a while to process this, for it was so different from their church in Britain. Furthermore, the ‘mother church’ was based in the American South, and nobody had told them what this meant politically in American racial politics. The psychological tension that this caused has reverberated in the church ever since, and today the implication of this reality is never far from the surface.
Today, both the George Floyd killing and the Black Lives Matter movement have led to many of the established churches looking at themselves and their structures to see how racist they are. Perhaps some of our traditional Pentecostal churches, including the Elim church, should be doing the same.
Taken from: Windrush and the Black Pentecostal Church in Britain www.royfrancis.co.uk – Out Soon!