Saturday, September 23, 2017

The hero of Shouter Baptists

Archbishop Griffith leads struggle for recognition


Shouter Baptists in Trinidad and Tobago had to wait 37 years before they could lawfully practise their religion, and another 40 years before a public holiday was granted to celebrate the ban placed on them in 1917.

The first promise of a holiday was made by former prime minister Dr Eric Williams during the 25th anniversary celebration of the repeal of the ordinance at Woodford Square, Port of Spain.

Three former prime ministers made similar promises, but it was not until Basdeo Panday, heading the UNC government, that a holiday was granted to celebrate March 30 as Shouter Baptist Liberation Day.

In declaring March 30 as a public holiday, Panday recalled, "It was always my feeling that there was too much discrimination and division of the races, so I took the matter to Cabinet in an attempt to remove the frustration among the Baptist community, and on that basis March 30 was declared a public holiday."

Panday said his decision was loudly applauded by Senator Archbishop Barbara Burke.

"There was no other event in the life of the Baptists which carried greater significance than March 30, 1951, the day on which we were allowed to practise our religion freely," said Burke.

"The removal of the ban which was imposed in 1917 must be credited to former archbishop Elton George Griffith, the person who led the campaign for the repeal of the Prohibition Ordinance," said Burke.

Twenty years have passed since Griffith's death, but he will be immortalised at a ceremony on March 29 at the Point Fortin Borough Council.

Alderman Clyde Paul, Mayor of Point Fortin, said, "The honour is long overdue. It is now 20 years since he died but his noble efforts are still alive in the hearts of the Baptist community. He was undoubtedly a hero and we must show our appreciation in a meaningful way."

The part played by Griffith in having the ban removed dates back to 1941 when he left his native home in Morne Jaloux, Grenada, and was on his way to Syria to join the armed forces, when he stopped off in Trinidad to meet his sister Elizabeth who was already living here.

Having heard that a ban—similar to one passed in St Vincent in 1912—was causing frustration among the followers of the Baptist faith, he decided to remain in Trinidad and champion the cause of the Baptists.

He settled in Port of Spain, where he gained employment as a mason.

In a few months he developed a circle of supporters also opposed to the ban. The list included Granville Williams, Phillip Granger, Andrew Balfour and a host of devoted Baptists who were prepared to join forces and move forward in the struggle to have the legislation removed from the statute books.

In this struggle they sought and obtained political and legal assistance from the City Council. The team included CB Mathura, representative for St James, Albert Gomes, and senior members of the faith.

All attempts to have the ban removed met with resistance from the government administered by colonial governor Sir John Shaw. 

Ironically Griffith was later able to convince the government that the rites of baptism were in keeping with what Jesus did in the River Jordan.

Griffith then invited the Governor to Holket River, Carenage, to witness a baptism. The Governor sent Albert Gomes, a long standing friend of Griffith. The Attorney General was also present.

All efforts fell to naught, but in October 1949 Griffith led a group to Parliament to present a petition for the removal of the ban. The group comprised Pastor Brown, Oliver Bobb, H A Phillips, A G Superville, Granville Williams, and CB Mathura . The petition called for the immediate removal of the ban.

One month later the Legislative Council tabled the petition and a Committee of the Council was appointed to investigate the matter. The committee of four included Albert Gomes, Victor Bryan, Georgiana Beckles, with LC Hannays as Chairman.

While Griffith's petition was being considered, police continued to arrest members of the community for violating the law.

According to police records, Teacher Patrick of Picton Road, Sangre Grande, was arrested along with members of her church while performing a baptism in a river. They were sentenced each to three months imprisonment. Leader Roach, alias "Braveboy", and his wife were often pelted with rotten eggs while preaching at street corners.

Leader Harold Lackeye was raided by police, arrested and charged for holding a prayer meeting. Leader Smith of Roxborough, Tobago, was beaten and arrested by police as he was about to perform a baptism.

One year after the committee was appointed, members submitted a report recommending that the matter be debated in the Legislative Council.

After a lengthy debate, the motion which was piloted by Roy Joseph, Minister of Education and Social Service, was passed unanimously.

On March 31, 1951 the news of the repeal of the ordinance got front page coverage outlining the victory of the Shouter Baptists.

The following month Griffith was elected Archbishop, a position he held until his death in 1992.

Griffith was awarded the Trinity Cross posthumously and is regarded as the Hero of the Shouter Baptists.