On Sabbath, January 11, 2014, thousands of Seventh-day Adventists from across the 166-square-mile eastern Caribbean island nation of Barbados worshipped at the Sir Garfield Sobers Sports Complex near Bridgetown.
From Exclusion to Inclusion
How a little island became a great witness
By Glenn O. Phillips
On Sabbath, January 11, 2014, thousands of Seventh-day Adventists from across the 166-square-mile eastern Caribbean island nation of Barbados worshipped at the Sir Garfield Sobers Sports Complex near Bridgetown. The newly elected East Caribbean Conference president, R. Danforth Francis preached on the theme “God Is Ready—Are You?” His constituency across the island nation included one in every 15 Barbadians, making Adventism one of the nation’s leading Christian faiths, with more than 18,442 believers worshipping in 57 congregations. Barbadian Adventists also participate in dynamic evangelistic programs, and operate numerous educational and health services in the country.
Barbadian Adventism has come a long way from its beginnings 130 years ago, when a copy of Signs of the Times was sent to Anna Alleyne from her sister in neighboring British Guiana (now Guyana). Anna immediately read the tract, accepted its teachings, and began to keep the Sabbath. She also shared it with her neighbors, some of whom also accepted the Advent message.
Back then, departing from the island’s established colonial religions was so difficult and risky that pioneer James R. Braithwaite was jailed and placed in a lunatic asylum for his witnessing activities. Braithwaite, a Caribbean immigrant baptized in the United States, returned to Barbados in the late 1880s with his newfound faith. He corresponded with Stephen A. Haskell, president of the New England Tract Society, held Bible readings among his people, and organized the first group of seven Sabbathkeepers on the island.
In Barbados’ highly conservative British colonial society, clergy of the leading Christian denominations characterized Adventism as “a modern-day cult” led by a female American prophet. They forbade their members to read Adventist literature and attend services. Their prohibitions triggered increasing curiosity. People from a wide cross section of socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds in the 1890s requested additional Adventist literature. American Adventist colporteurs distributed numerous copies of Uriah Smith’s Daniel and the Revelation and Ellen G. White’s Patriarchs and Prophets.
A Minister Arrives
On November 20, 1890, Dexter A. Ball became the first Adventist minister to arrive in Barbados. His first evangelistic effort in Bridgetown, mostly to wealthy merchant class residents, yielded 17 baptisms in 1891. Ball established his first congregation numbering 11 women and six men, including a physician. The health message, the observance of the Sabbath, and the soon second coming of Jesus Christ became the leading truths of the Adventist faith that attracted Barbadians of all walks of life to join this fledging group.
Particularly during the earlier decades, Barbadian societal practices that accepted many of the “popular vices” of the times worked at cross purposes with the teachings of Adventism, including Sabbath as an important workday, the consumption of unclean foods, alcoholic beverages, and tobacco use. Consequently, becoming an Adventist resulted in loss of employment, ostracism, and derogatory labels. Over the decades the acceptance of Adventism slowly and dramatically changed, passing through five distinct stages as it spread in Barbados: (1) early encounters, 1884-1901; (2) shaping of an Adventist identity, 1902-1944; (3) bold evangelistic initiatives, 1945-1965; (4) the acceptance phase, 1966-1991; and (5) growing and preserving the faith, 1992-2014.
The first permanent missionaries to arrive from the United States (1896) were Elam Van Duesen and his wife. They remained until 1901, erected the first church building, established a church school, and facilitated health clinics around Bridgetown. Church membership grew from 30 to almost 100. Among the converts were many upwardly mobile young men who held teaching positions, but were forced out of employment on becoming Adventists. Three became trailblazers in Adventist work at home and abroad. Charles J. B. Cave graduated from Dr. John Harvey Kellogg’s American Medical Missionary College in 1907, returned to Barbados, and operated his own sanitarium for almost 30 years, training Adventist young women to be nurses and midwives, as well as conducting health clinics for those of lower income. His name lives on in the church-operated Cave Memorial Clinic and Nursing Home.
Wilbert D. Forde and Lambert W. Browne made their mark for the church outside the boundaries of their tiny island country. Both Battle Creek College attendees, they became pioneering ministers in the United States and beyond. Browne joined D. C. Babcock in Africa in 1906, establishing the first church in Sierra Leone, while Forde pastored his first church in Chicago in 1910 and shepherded others around the United States for the next 40 years.
Back in Barbados, peculiar sentiments among the early Adventists engendered a squabble with their minister and resulted in a letter to Ellen White. These members insisted that all should remove their shoes before entering the church; also, that people could pray with their eyes open. Ellen White’s response was both compassionate and firm: “God does not lead any man to advocate such actions.”
Growth and Development
The center of Adventist growth and development was the “mother” congregation at King Street in Bridgetown, which helped to create a strong sense of Adventist values and identity in the face of continued opposition from more established faiths. By the end of World War II there were 1,675 baptized members worshipping in 10 organized churches. Barbadian Adventists became known as diligent Bible students and began to view themselves as uniquely qualified to witness to their neighbors and relatives.
Postwar years saw yeoman contributions from tireless lay leaders Wrensford Greaves and Christopher Greenidge. O. P. Reid was a leading soul winner as membership climbed to more than 3,000 in 24 churches and companies. B.G.O. French became principal of the church’s first secondary school in September 1953, as Adventist educational efforts for the first time won the applause of the Barbados government. By the close of 1965 the church’s membership had tripled in less than 20 years.
God has greatly honored the faithfulness of His little flock, once despised as a cult. Adventism has increased in numbers and stature, multiplying since the 1990s at an average rate of 7 percent per year. Church stalwarts admired for their contributions to Barbadian society include Ena K. Walters, director for 25 years (1957-1983) of Barbados’ Queen Elizabeth II Hospital; Bradley E. Niles, extramural tutor at the University of the West Indies in Barbados for more than 25 years (1979-2005); Emerson S. Graham, district magistrate in Barbados’ judicial system for eight years (1994-2002); and the Honorable Victor L. Johnson, member of parliament, minister of government, and ambassador.
Well-known Barbadian names in international Adventism include evangelist Kembleton Wiggins, and church and university administrators such as Michael S. Banfield, Carlyle Bayne, Danforth Francis, Trevor H. C. Baker, K. Eugene Forde, Sylvan A. Lashley. One island son, G. Ralph Thompson, holds the unique distinction as the Adventist Church’s longest-serving General Conference secretary, other than Uriah Smith.
In this 130th anniversary year, Barbadian Adventists still want to be ready for God to use them as He wills, to bless their country and to bless the world. n
Glenn O. Phillips, a historian, is a fourth-generation Barbadian Adventist.