Vibrant, evocative, expressive; a European Christian religion fuelled by the rhythms and traditions of West Africa, yet totally indigenous to Trinidad; the Shouter Baptist faith has emerged from a history of persecution to occupy a unique place in Caribbean culture.
Once ‘Shouter’ was a dirty word in Trinidad, a term imposed on its followers by a mainstream society that saw their practices – dancing, shaking, falling to the ground, loudly invoking the spirit of the Lord – as unseemly and anti-Christian. Today its status in Trinidadian life is reflected by the observance of an annual holiday on March 30th to celebrate the repeal of the Shouters Prohibitive Ordinance, the law that forced thousands of Shouter Baptists to practice their faith in secrecy for years, for fear of brutal reprisals by the police.
Much has changed. There is some dispute over the origins of the Shouter religion – various theories place its roots in Africa, North America, St. Vincent and Grenada – but what is beyond dispute is that it has evolved and grown over time to become entirely unique and indigenous to Trinidad, a rich conflation of the many, often competing, cultures of the island and unaffiliated to any foreign religious organisation.
While, at a local level, the organisation and hierarchy of the Shouter Baptist faith can be incredibly complex (with countless ranks and positions, such as Leader, Mother, Shepherd, Watchman, Captain and Healer), there has traditionally been no formal organisational structure. Churches – or ‘camps’ – were founded according to the guidance and instruction of the Holy Spirit. The faith blossomed as hundreds of independent churches were established all over the island, each practising their own local variation of the faith. Today, a degree of organisation has developed, with the three main archdioceses being incorporated in 1985. However, many churches still remain autonomous, either under the umbrella of one of the archdioceses or functioning in complete independence. It is a religion that remains spontaneous, unpredictable and driven by the unseen hand of the Lord.
The once-shameful ‘Shouter’ label can be traced back to the influence of this unseen hand. Shouter services are at once highly ritualised and incredibly spontaneous. They traditionally begin with the ringing of a bell and the lighting of candles, followed by the recitation of a liturgy, the singing of hymns and ritual handshaking and the touching of all those gathered. The ‘Leader’ delivers a sermon and there is more singing and praying and, all the while, the worshippers clap hands, stamp feet and cry out in praise of the Lord. They clap, stamp and build up into a religious ecstasy until they ‘catch the Spirit’ – the Holy Spirit visits the worshipper, who begins to sway, shout, speak in tongues and eventually fall to the ground in a trance-like state.
Another fascinating practice of the Shouter faith is that of ‘mourning’, a period of ‘Godly sorrow’ lasting for seven days or more, in which the ‘mourner’ prays, meditates and is forbidden from speaking, eating, bathing or any other comfort, lying for the duration on the bare floor of a mud hut. In a ritual derived from the religion’s African influence, the mourner is ‘called’ by the Leader to go through the mourning period, which is meant to symbolise death and resurrection, a spiritual journey from which the mourner emerges cleansed of their ‘impure’ being and possessed of spiritual gifts. Or, as Archbishop Barbara Gray-Burke, of the Ark of The Covenant Spiritual Baptist Church in Laventille, puts it: “In psycho-biological terms, the rite of ‘mourning’ actually involves a period of intense physical sensory deprivation as the initiate is deprived of light and movement and receives minimal sustenance.”
It was such practices as ‘mourning’, as well as the loud and expressive elements of Shouter services – which drew disapproval from mainstream society for ‘disturbing the peace’ – that led to the colonial government of the time banning the Shouter Baptist faith from 1917 to 1951. While conservative elements of society deemed Shouter rituals and practices barbaric and ungodly, it is now felt that underlying this was a sense of embarrassment and distaste for the vivid evocation of their African roots – now considered ‘uncivilised’ – that these practices involved. The shame and self-hatred bred by their colonizers led the Trinidadian people to suppress a unique and vibrant tradition in an attempt to flee from their past.
The Shouter Baptists suffered 34 years of suffering and persecution, forbidden from worshipping and beaten and arrested if suspected of doing so. Yet they survived, slowly organising themselves from a disperse company of individual churches into a body – The West Indian Evangelical Spiritual Baptist Faith, under the leadership of the Grenadian-born Elton George Griffith – that was able to successfully lobby for the repeal of the Shouters Prohibitive Ordinance in 1951.
Now they practice freely across Trinidad and have spread their unique brand of African-flavoured Protestantism across the Caribbean and beyond to the United States, to Canada and to England. Singing, dancing, hollering: the Shouters are here now too. Catch the Spirit.