During the annual gathering of the Baptist World Alliance (BWA) in Ocho Rios, Jamaica, several speakers urged Baptists to offer their praise for a 19th-century Baptist deacon and preacher, Sam Sharpe, who played an influential role in ending slavery in Jamaica and other parts of the British Empire.
The presentations came during the Freedom and Justice Commissions’ roundtable, making this the second year the four commissions hosted a joint roundtable event.
In December 1831, Sharpe led a strike for wages among enslaved persons in Jamaica. The movement, often called the “Baptist War” due to the leadership of Baptists like Sharpe, ended in May 1832 with around 600 enslaved persons, including Sharpe, executed and hundreds of churches and church properties destroyed.
Many scholars, including the three who spoke on the BWA panel, explained that the brutality in response to Sharpe’s movement sparked a backlash among the British public that resulted in the abolition of slavery in the British Empire.
“Sam Sharpe is commonly regarded as a deacon, a preacher, a liberator, a national hero – these are roles that define him,” explained Delroy Reid-Salmon, a Jamaican who now lives in the United States. “These roles, of course, followed by the term – I call derogatory term, dehumanizing term – a slave.”
Reid-Salmon, a research fellow at the Oxford Centre for Christianity and Culture at Regent’s Park College in the United Kingdom and pastor of Grace Baptist Chapel in New York, quickly added, however, that Sharpe did not allow his enslavement to define him.
“Sharpe never regarded himself or his fellow strugglemen as slaves or enslaved persons,” Reid-Salmon argued. “This condition did not define him …The idea of freedom is what defined Sharpe.
“Sharpe was free long before slavery was abolished,” Reid-Salmon insisted. “And the abolition of slavery did not free him. It was he that freed the slavers and the system of slavery.
“What Moses was to his people is what Sharpe was to those who were in slavery in the British Empire,” he added.
Garnett Roper, president of the Jamaica Theological Seminary, focused much of his remarks on Sharpe’s nonviolent effort to challenge slavery.
“The most striking thing, to me, about Creole Sam Sharpe is that he stands out as a gentle man in a world of remarkable savagery,” Roper stated, as he explained how remarkable it was that Sharpe did not start a violent revolt.
“Violence in response to violence as a methodology had exhausted itself,” Roper explained. “Violence produces more violence. It neither succeeded in overthrowing slavery nor in getting the enslaved to accept their lot.”
The numerous violent revolts from enslaved persons in the Caribbean had merely sparked more violence in response. Sharpe, instead, led a nonviolent movement to bring about an end to a violent system.
“The means we must resemble the ends we seek – that is the real genius of Sharpe,” Roper posited.
With his nonviolent approach, Reid-Salmon argued Sharpe “post-figured Christ,” much as some Old Testament figures were often “pre-figuring Christ.”
“His life and work bore witness to the liberated Christ through events that corresponded to Christ’s life,” Reid-Salmon noted. He pointed to Sharpe’s surrendering instead of being captured, being “convicted before he was tried,” offering last words of grace, being martyred, lacking a proper burial place, and experiencing a resurrection of his legacy.
“He lives, today, through the continuity of the work we are doing, the memorials erected in his honor and the ways we are celebrating his life,” Reid-Salmon commented.
Noting that Sharpe organized his revolution after a prayer meeting, Reid-Salmon praised Sharpe’s faith as the key to his being a “post-figured Christ.”
“His faith was what defined him, who he was – defined both his identity and his destiny,” he added.
Roper, similarly, noted how Sharpe’s Baptist faith rested at the heart of his revolutionary effort and his view that slavery was inherently sinful.
“The genius of Sharpe is that he rooted his rejection of enslavement and his resistance against slavery in the nature of God,” Roper explained.
Roper and Paul Fiddes, professor of systematic theology at Regent’s Park College, both noted that Sharpe centered his anti-slavery position on the admonition of Jesus that “no man can serve two masters.”
Arguing that only Christ could be one’s master, Sharpe insisted that an enslaved person could therefore not also serve a slave master.
Fiddes argued that such a theological understanding of Christ as sole master brought significant political implications regarding slavery and freedom.
Fiddes explained how Sharpe interpreted the Bible with an active voice that drove him to “work out his own salvation” from enslavement, instead of reading Scriptures with a passive voice that offered no resistance.
“Christians need to be courageous in speaking the truth to society,” Fiddes added, as he urged Baptists to learn from what we know about Sharpe’s use of Scripture in the revolution.
Roper offered a similar challenge. After explaining how Scripture raised Sharpe’s consciousness to see the injustice of slavery, Roper suggested that churches today need to use Bible study in similar ways.
“There is a need for the church to develop within the life of the congregation tools for moral development, moral positioning and moral engagement in relation to the broader society,” Roper stated.
“There is a need for Bible study to be used as an instrument of catechism to the church,” he continued, “but, more importantly, as a tool of consciousness-raising. Bible study must awaken and sharpen God’s people in relation to things as they are.”
Connecting this principle to economic inequality in Jamaica as a form of violence, Roper urged Jamaican churches to discover Sharpe’s moral courage.
“These are the realities to which the church in Jamaica is called upon to respond by bringing the grace and power of God to bear upon these realities and liberate and then transform the world.”
Following Roper’s presentation, several audience members from around the world remarked aloud that such a message needed to be heard in other countries as well.
Brian Kaylor is a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.
Brian Kaylor is editor and president of Word&Way, associate director of Churchnet, and a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.