“People of different religions and cultures live side-side in almost every part of the world, and most of us have overlapping identities which unite us in very different groups.”- Kofi Annan
Since the death of former Prime Minister of Jamaica, the Most Honourable Edward Seaga, a lot has been said and written about revivalism. Mr Seaga was a staunch supporter of the revivalist movement having himself done much research in anthropology.
revivalism is often shrouded in myths, superstitions and secrecy. The supporters of Revivalism are often the marginalized and the oppressed insociety. For many of those individuals, solace and acceptance is rooted in this Afro-Centric spiritual movement called Revivalism. Revivalism evolved from Myalism, which is another Afro-Centric religious movement which is practised to ward off evil spirits and to heal those who are both physically and spiritually unwell.
Many of us as Jamaicans oftentimes view Revivalism in negative terms. The practice of obeah or witchcraft is often closely linked to the cultish movement of Revivalism.
Revivalism can be defined as a form of cultural resistance which emerged in Jamaica between 1860 and 1861. The period which accounted for the emergence of the Revivalist movement was rather interesting especially since Emancipation of the enslaved Jamaicans occurred in 1838. There were many problems in the Jamaican society in this post-Emancipation period in which the shadows and the horrors of slavery were still fresh in the minds of the freed slaves. The people of the Caribbean region have had a common heritage. This common heritage has been one of exploitation, colonization, slavery and emancipation. The majority of the Jamaican population is of African descent, and as such, religion has always been and continues to be very important to Caribbean people.
No one can blame our forefathers for wanting to disassociate themselves from all memories of slavery even in terms of the European model of worship and religious practices. As a result, an alternative religious practice which infused aspects of Christianity and African spirituality found favour among the populace. It can be argued that revivalism has gone through many transformations from that of a grass-roots movement for the socially downtrodden to a religious movement which now has established churches and Dioceses similar to that of the more established churches.
Revivalism was instrumental in helping to shape and reinforce the values of the Jamaican peasantry as a direct counteraction to the plantation system. The Spiritual Baptists and the Shango traditions associated with Trinidad also proved to be a point of cultural resistance to the then colonial government.
Tenets of revivalism
Our sense of identity is integrated in symbols and ceremonies. Symbols and ceremonies are integral aspects of these ‘religions of the oppressed’. The Nine Night is a very important ceremony in Revivalism, so too is the Revival Table. The Nine Night is observed nine days after the death of the loved one. This is a kind of sending off of the duppy into the spirit world. The family of the deceased is expected to provide food and some form of entertainment to those mourners who will come to pay their respects or just pass by to full their bellies. It has been said that some folks take a “wash out” prior to going to a Nine Night. In earlier times, especially in rural Jamaica, the mourners would take along with them some item of food or liquor to the house of the deceased. The Nine Night is also done to ensure that the spirit (duppy) of the dead does not return. The observance of Nine Night celebrations cuts across all social classes from the working poor to the political and economic classes of the society.
The Revival Table is an elaborately set table consisting of candles, liquor, fruits, cooked and baked food with the primary focus being the feeding of the ancestral spirits. Of course, there is singing both at the Nine Night and the Revival Table. Music has always been at the cornerstone of identity and cultural expression.
Revivalism has two unique strands. Two numbers are very important to this movement. The numbers are 60 or Zion and 61 or Pocomania. Revivalists believe in the Holy Trinity.
Professor of Anthropology Stephen Glazier stated that African-derived religions have been greatly changed by the presence of Europeans, Asians and Africans. Glazier argues that it is no longer appropriate to see Caribbean religions solely as “religions of protest or as “religions of the oppressed.” These hybrid religions have found themselves woven into the fabric of Jamaican and indeed, Caribbean societies by their benefactors.
Anthropologist Professor Barry Chevannes views the transformation of revivalism as legitimizing African-Caribbean cultures. He cites examples in the movement regarding the attractiveness of revivalism to younger members. Chevannes argues that many Pentecostal churches have absorbed many of the revival churches in search of legitimacy, status and economic support. Those of us who tuned into local television on Wednesday, June 19 saw evidence of this at the Revival Table laid in honour of the late former Prime Minister Edward Seaga in Tivoli Gardens.
Revivalism and Rastafarianism
Both Revivalism and Rastafarianism are grass-root movements in which those who felt excluded from society found refuge and supported each other. One can argue that both movements helped in providing a space and a platform for their supporters to air an alternative viewpoint, not only on religious matters but also on social and cultural issues. These post slavery movements assisted the wider society to remain culturally authentic especially given the continuous cultural penetration from the North.
Barry Chevannes postulates that revivalism has been incorporated into Rastafarianism. The Rastafari movement, which began in the 1930s, became the voice for articulating cultural resistance and ethnic identity. Chevannes challenges us to a wider conversation in which an understanding of the processes of cultural development in the Caribbean region must take into account the wider social framework of everyday life in which the African cultural heritage has been drawn on and expressed.
As a society, we continue to struggle with issues of identity as well as issues surrounding our development. Edward Seaga, the anthropologist, was not afraid to embrace revivalism. From the laws of Jamaican House to his constituency in Western Kingston, Seaga played an integral part in keeping revivalism alive. Seaga’s death has facilitated a renewed focus, energy and discussion on revivalism. While there has not been full acceptance of the Revivalism movement by the wider ecumenical church associations, there is now a Spiritual Revivalist Council of Churches. Undoubtedly, as we continue to navigate around the legacies of colonialism and enslavement, revivalism will be part of the discourse.
Edward Seaga was Jamaica’s fifth prime minister from 1980 to 1989. He died on May 28, 2019 on his 89th birthday.
In the words of Wendell Pierce, culture is the intersection of people and life itself. It’s how we deal with life, love, death, birth, disappointment… all of that is expressed in culture.
Wayne Campbell is an educator and social commentator with an interest in development policies as they affect culture and or gender issues.