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Alexander Bedward 1840 - 1930 | The Founder of Bedwardism in Jamaica

by Kesha Stewart | Associate Writer



Alexander Bedward was the leader of the Jamaican Baptist Free Church. He came from humble beginnings and continued in this manner as he was a tinsmith and his wife a baker. But what is the cause for us to look at Alexander Bedward today if he is such an ordinary person? The fact is an ordinary person can do extraordinary things and Bedward did set about some extraordinary things in his lifetime. Today we pause to look at a few of the things Bedward said and did and how they were viewed then.

Alexander Bedward began his life in an inauspicious rural setting. His parents were labourers. As he became an adult, sometime in his 20s, young Bedward worked on the construction project for the Panama Canal. Some writers describe this as an “exhausting and traumatizing experience” for the young man. He laboured along with several hundred Caribbean people who experienced hazardous conditions, long days and exposure to disease. This combined with the humiliation from racial injustices such as whites being paid in gold and blacks in silver for doing the same work, left a bad taste in Bedward’s mouth. God, he said, began to voice His disapproval of these things to him and urged him to return to Jamaica to commence a “godly revolution”. It is argued that the conditions experienced at the Panama Canal left a permanent mark on him.

Arriving in Jamaica, Bedward began his ministry. He spoke powerful messages of hope to the Jamaican people. History claims that in 1895 Bedward delivered what was then “the most radical sermon ever preached on Jamaican soil”. In the sermon, Alexander Bedward inserted a vehement denunciation of racial politics into the Baptist message of spiritual rebirth. He condemned the then social establishments labelling them as “the Antichrist” sent to plague “the true people,” and described Jamaican society as “a white wall” and “a black wall,” immovable and irreducible. Bedward’s rhetoric was strongly critical of the laws passed by the government, viewing them as strategies to create oppression on the blacks at the time. This statement by the Gleaner best encapsulates Bedward’s views, “They take their money out of their pockets, they rob them of their bread and they do nothing for it.” He also warned “the white wall” to “remember the Morant War,” an ominous reference to events in 1865 when the government under Governor John Eyere massacred hundreds of black people who had taken to the streets in protest against poverty and racial discrimination. Paul Bogle and George William Gordon were hanged because of this rebellion. Eventually they were declared National Heroes. Needless to say, Bedward’s views did not sit well with the ruling class who viewed his comments as a breeding ground for social upheaval. Bedward was upsetting the natural state of white preeminence.

Bedward’s followers were called Bedwardites and numbered in the thousands. His teaching is known as Bedwardism. His followers were convinced that he could perform miraculous healings and provide spiritual blessings. They pointed to individuals with physical conditions such as being unable to walk, who were restored to wellness through his instrumentality. Bedward also collected water from the Hope River, which he consecrated through prayer and sold to people so that they could be healed. This claim led to Bedward’s arrest as the authorities claimed that he was misleading the public. However, a sympathetic white lawyer came to his defence and Bedward was set free.

After this incident, Bedward’s following grew exponentially with some claiming that he had thousands of followers. He staged mass baptismal services at the Hope River frequently, eventually erecting a cathedral there on its banks. The church was built from stones gathered from the river. His Sunday morning services were the main feature of the weekly calendar. It would draw people from all over Jamaica. Some would begin to arrive from Saturday night to ensure that they got a good spot by the river where they could see all the happenings. These individuals would take their meals along with them. According to historians, by Sunday morning, the banks of the Hope River would be covered with people. Bedward usually dressed in white would occupy an armchair.
On new year’s eve 1920 Bedward predicted that he would ascend to heaven in the manner of the old testament prophet Elijah before the sun had set. He assured them that his ascension would hasten the Rapture; he would leave but that they would be set free. Some eyewitnesses claimed thousands of p[eople came out to see the ascension. They could be seen everywhere from tree branches to wading in the shallow water. Others crowded the river banks. He paced his chariot (armchair) in a tree and awaited the transition. Many loyal followers tarried there with him. After the time passed and his prediction failed to materialise he further revised the time. When this prediction did not come true by midnight, it is said that he climbed down from his perch and went home.

His followers couldn't fathom why the ascension didn't take place. However, the authorities seized the opportunity to label Bedward as “a person of unsound mind”. Consequently, he was placed in the asylum where he remained for nine years until his eventual death from natural causes.

Bedwards followers report that the claims that he was insane were untruthful and was just the strategy that the authorities used to silence Bedward.
For many years Bedward amassed a large and faithful following. To them his words were scriptural. He was their healer. He didn't just rejuvenate them but he baptized them and helped the very ordinary around him to know God as well as themselves. He awoke their social consciousness in ways they had not imagined. To the lower class ie black Jamaicans, he was deemed a prophet, leader, healer and deliverer from racial injustice, inequity and oppression. According to a Bedwardite A.A. Brooks in 1917, “the feelings of many in high circles were indignantly aroused” by Bedward’s radical preaching in the 1890s.

I also recommend you read, Insightful Information About Revivalism in Jamaica.

Regards,
KS

References:
  • Preserving Bedward's Legacy, Jamaica Information Service, https://jis.gov.jm/preserving-bedwards-legacy/
  • Alexander Bedward | News, Jamaica Gleaner, https://jamaica-gleaner.com/article/news/20141121/alexander-bedward-0


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