Baptist World Alliance

Heritage and Identity Commission

Who are the Baptists?

The Caribbean

by Albert Wardin

(c) 180301

This sketch includes the nations and territories of the West Indies and the non-Latin countries of Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana which border the Caribbean on the northern coast of South America. Baptists entered the Caribbean area as early as the eighteenth century; it also became a target for early Baptist mission work. There were 35,000 Baptists in the Caribbean in 1852; today there are over a quarter of a million.

The Caribbean has been a more productive field for Baptists than Middle America and Spanish-speaking South America. In the late eighteenth century, Baptists were already in the Bahamas and Jamaica, and before the end of the nineteenth century in the Cayman Islands, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Trinidad and Tobago, Turks and Caicos, Belize, Guyana, and Suriname. Baptist missions, however, did not enter the Leeward Islands, Windward Islands, Netherlands Antilles, and French Guiana until after the Second World War. Except for a number of Cubans and Puerto Ricans, the Baptist population is largely black.

Probably the first Baptist in The Bahamas was Frank Spence, who arrived in 1780 as a slave with the British Loyalists who left the USA. Spence began preaching and eventually built a chapel in Nassau. The Bahamas National Baptist Missionary and Educational Convention with 55,000 members in over 200 churches is the largest denominational body in the country.

George Liele, a freed slave who left the USA with British forces in 1782, established in the following year the first Baptist church in Jamaica. In 1814 the Baptist Missionary Society (BMS) in England sent its first missionary to assist the Baptist movement. Missionaries of the BMS from Jamaica helped to eliminate slavery in Jamaica and the rest of the British Empire, while Jamaican Baptists themselves engaged in a slave revolt in 1831 and a revolt in 1865 against oppressive policies of the government. In 1842 Jamaican Baptists formed the Jamaica Baptist Missionary Society, which in time sent missionaries to Africa and other Caribbean areas. In 1849 they established the Jamaican Baptist Union, which today has 40,000 members in 300 churches and is one of the largest denominational bodies in the country. Other Baptist groups would add about another 10,000 members and 100 more churches.

Haiti, a French-speaking nation, has been another productive field for Baptists. William C. Monroe, sent by American Baptists, formed an English-speaking Baptist church in Port-au-Prince in 1836. But with fits and starts in Baptist mission work, there were only 8,000 Baptists in Haiti as late as 1938. Earlier, however, a new day was starting with the arrival in 1923 of the American Baptist Home Mission Society from the U.S.A. Today the Baptist Convention of Haiti has 125,000 members in over ninety congregations. With other Baptist groups, Haitian Baptists number over 200,000 in over 1,000 churches, making it the largest Protestant body in the country.

In 1816 in Trinidad, William Hamilton founded the Fifth Company Church, the first Baptist church in the country, among American settlers who had fought for England during the War of 1812. With large Roman Catholic and Anglican populations, Baptists in the country remain a small minority.

Black Baptists undertook some of the earliest Baptist work in Barbados. It is known that at least three churches were formed between 1905 and 1907. Free Will Baptists from the northern states were in fellowship with a Free Baptist Association in the early twentieth century. Southern Baptists entered the island in 1972. The Barbados Baptist Convention was formed two years later, which today has 421 members in four churches. A black National Baptist mission reports 1,500 members in nine churches.

Baptist groups are, by and large, on each of the English and French-speaking nations and territories of the Leeward and Windward Islands as well as on the islands of Aruba, Curacao and St. Maarten in the Netherlands Antilles. Each group is small with most, if not all, beginning after the Second World War. Baptists have also established work in the Spanish-speaking areas of the Caribbean - in the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. The first Baptist church in the Dominican Republic, however, was English-speaking, established in 1843 among freed American blacks. Baptist work also began among Haitian immigrants. Spanish-speaking work did not begin until after the Second World War. The Dominican National Baptist Convention, formed in 1968, has only 1,400 members in twenty-three churches. All Baptists in about eight different groups number around 5,000 in over 100 churches.

Albert Diaz formed in Havana the first Baptist church in Cuba. The Jamaica Baptist Missionary Society and Southern Baptists and Northern Baptists from the U.S.A. began to provide mission assistance. After Cuba gained her independence from Spain in 1898, the Southern Baptist Home Mission Board gave Northern Baptists responsibility for the eastern half of the island while it retained the western half, resulting in an Eastern Convention and a Western Convention. In spite of communist controls, Baptists, which also include Free Will Baptists, are, after Pentecostals, the largest Protestant body and are rapidly growing. There are about 34,000 Baptists in almost 400 churches.

Puerto Rico was acquired by the U.S.A. from Spain in 1898. In the following year it received its first Baptist missionaries - Northern Baptists from the USA - the first from any Protestant denomination. A Baptist association (today convention) was organized in 1902, which has 27,000 members in eighty-two churches. Southern Baptists appeared first among the US military; in 1964 the Home Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention entered the field. Southern Baptists formed the Puerto Rico Baptist Association in 1965 which has 4,200 members in fifty-nine churches.

The small non-Latin territories of Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana all include a Baptist presence but small in number. Work in Guyana, beginning in 1861, has been sporadic. Today it includes the Baptist Cooperative Convention, the result of Southern Baptist work, with 2,229 members in nineteen churches; an Association of Baptist Churches, the result of the work of Baptist Mid-Missions, with 200 members and seven churches; and Seventh Day Baptists with 220 members in nine churches. In Suriname the United Baptist Church, formed in 1991, is a result of Southern Baptist work. It has nine churches and 220 members. The Federation of Baptist Churches of French Guiana, formed in 1993 and also the product of Southern Baptist work, has six churches and 450 members.

Many of the Baptist bodies in the Caribbean are members of the Baptist World Alliance and also the Caribbean Baptist Federation.

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