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It was against slavery, ‘this greatest of curses’, that BMS missionaries in Jamaica battled in the early nineteenth century.

Arrival in Jamaica

The first BMS workers to Jamaica arrived on the island in 1814.

An important trio of missionaries emerged: Thomas Burchell, James Phillippo and William Knibb.

In the 1820s the climate for missionary work became less favourable as the plantation owners openly opposed the growing Baptist churches and the missionaries’ support for the anti-slavery movement.

The missionaries were shocked at the social conditions of slavery and were passionate in the fight against slavery. During a visit to England in 1832, the three BMS missionaries addressed the BMS Committee, churches and even Parliament about the slavery situation.  They were back in Jamaica six years later when freedom was granted to the slaves.

On the eve of emancipation, Knibb proclaimed before a packed congregation: “The hour is at hand; the monster is dying;” and then, as midnight struck,  “The monster is dead; the negro is free.” The following day, a coffin was buried containing a slave chain and whip.

The Baptist church in Jamaica grew rapidly and also soon became self-supporting, significantly enabled by Phillippo’s work in establishing Calabar College – a theological college to train people so that a permanent indigenous ministry could develop in Jamaica.

In 1849 – just 35 years after the start of work in Jamaica – there were 25 BMS missionaries and the Jamaican Baptist Union comprised 44 organised churches with 18,000 registered members.

William Knibb

The fight against slavery

It was the death of his older brother Thomas that triggered William Knibb’s departure for Jamaica in November 1824. After just four months of mission work on the island Thomas Knibb had died and William persuaded BMS to let him take his brother’s place.

Plight of the slaves
As a young minister working in Jamaica in the 1800s, preaching weekly to a packed congregation of slaves, William Knibb was shocked at their plight. In 1831 he wrote:

William Knibb
I have beheld them when suffering under the murderous cart whip; I have seen them when their backs have been a mass of blood; I have beheld them loaded with a chain in the streets…; and never have I heard one murmur – one reproach – against their guilty persecutors.

As the cruelty – and also hopes of freedom – increased, the Great Jamaican Slave Revolt broke out in 1831-32, a ten-day rebellion led by slave and Baptist deacon Samuel Sharpe. Knibb and two missionary colleagues found themselves arrested, accused of inciting the slaves to rebel against the colonial plantation owners.

The slaves are flocking in thousands to hear the Gospel. Last sabbath the chapel here was literally crammed to excess; many were outside…

Once released, Knibb returned to England to persuade BMS and the Baptist churches to take a stand against the evil of slavery, touring the country tirelessly. At one meeting in London in 1832, he held up iron slave chains [pictured] before the 3000 people there. Hurling them deafeningly to the floor, he proclaimed the downfall of slavery:

All I ask is that my African brother may stand in the same family of man…that [he] shall be allowed to bow `{`his`}` knees in prayer to that God who has made of one blood all nations as one flesh.

And so it was with great joy that he welcomed the Slavery Abolition Act the following year – looking forward to the day when slavery would be defeated throughout the whole world.

But the task was by no means finished. He felt compelled to continue speaking out against the harsh apprenticeship system that was still in place. He longed for the cruelty to end, for freedom to come, for people not to be measured by the colour of their skin.

I here pledge myself never to rest satisfied, until I see my black brethren in the enjoyment of the same civil and religious liberties which I myself enjoy, and see them take a proper stand in society as men.

“The monster is dead”
And in 1838, the last remains of slavery were finally abolished in the British Empire.

As the hour approached, Knibb pronounced before a packed congregation in Jamaica: “The hour is at hand; the monster is dying,” and then as midnight struck: “The monster is dead; the negro is free.” The following day, a coffin was buried containing a slave collar, chain and whip – slavery dead and defeated.

A right to speak
A few years before he died, Knibb summed up his outspoken campaigning:

Persons have sometimes said to me, ‘I wonder how you have the courage to speak so plainly.’ I always reply, ‘Have I not a right to speak? Who tied my tongue?

And speak on he did – until the day he died, constantly fighting against slavery in whatever form he saw it, wherever in the world he heard of it.

His life’s work was encapsulated in his prayer:

Oh that this great and mighty work advance, and that it may soon be proclaimed from the mountain’s top that a slave exists not on earth, and that no part of the universe is cursed by bondage.

And it’s a prayer we still need to pray today.

James Mursell Phillippo

Bringing freedom: missionary to Jamaica.

The young James Phillippo could have been descibed as a ‘problem child’. Around the age of nine, Phillippo was moved to a strict school where his teacher was not afraid of giving severe floggings – his first real eye-opener to injustice and the inhumane treatment of innocent people: a theme which would permeate his future.

As he grew up, Phillippo stayed away from church and even went out of his way to disturb services and ridicule the local congregation. However, God was at work in him, prodding his conscience. Eventually, Phillippo accepted the message of the gospel:

James Phillippo
With all my sins around me, and with an earnestness and fluency I can never forget, I supplicated mercy through the blood of Christ as the greatest boon that Heaven could bestow. I felt like Christian when he lost his burden at the sight of the cross; my mind was filled with joy unspeakable. I thought I was in a new world, surrounded by new objects, and possessed of new senses. Everything assumed a different appearance. It was heaven to me to please God, and to be fashioned into His likeness. Old things emphatically passed away; behold, all things became new!

A new world
From then on, things were different: Phillippo started preaching in the surrounding villages, and in 1818 he applied to go overseas as a missionary with BMS. Phillippo was accepted and given his destination – it was to be Jamaica.

Phillippo sailed for Jamaica in 1823 and arrived at a time of great transition: the slave trade had been banned in 1807, and in 1823 propositions to abolish slavery itself were brought in the House of Commons but rejected with little hope of success.

Despite the Act being unsuccessful, mission workers in Jamaica, especially Baptists, were criticised by the white population, the press, and the colonial government for being in league with the anti-slavery camp, with the ‘intention of effecting our ruin’. The planters were strongly against the preaching of the gospel to the slaves.

Phillippo applied to the authorities for permission to preach but was refused more than once. In spite of this he set up a new chapel, school, Sunday school and Bible class, and preached in towns where his preaching ban was not common knowledge. There was great enthusiasm from the slaves to hear the word of God and crowds of people came to church. At last, in 1825 he was granted permission to preach.

The struggle for emancipation
The struggle for the destruction of slavery began to be taken seriously by the British government, but the opposition by the colonial planters resulted in strict regulations, prejudice and abuse for slaves and missionaries alike. Barely a month passed without Phillippo being summoned before the magistrates for violating some law.

In spite of this, the school and the chapel flourished.  The school had 150 pupils, of different backgrounds – black and white, slave and free. However, there was widespread opposition to the school, with claims that Phillippo was ‘about to revolutionise the country by attempting to put the slaves on an equality with white men’.

In 1831 Phillippo was unwell and needed to return to England. In February 1832 news arrived of a slave insurrection in Jamaica. Houses had been burnt, the militia called out, and several missionaries had been arrested, including the Baptist missionaries Knibb, Whitehorn and Abbott. The enraged planters had destroyed ten Baptist chapels and mission houses. The uprising was quickly overthrown, and many hundreds of slaves were slain or hanged.

By now the slaves felt that their freedom, declared by the British Parliament, was being unjustly withheld from them. The planters though were defiant, refusing to improve the conditions of the slaves or even contemplate emancipation. The battle for freedom was now transferred to England: British public opinion needed changing to look favourably on the plight of the slaves, and the British Parliament needed influencing to take action.

Missionaries making history: 1832-34
Phillippo’s first role in England as an advocate for the slaves came in June 1832 at BMS’ 40th anniversary. He and William Knibb described the nature of slavery, the insurrection, the great response to the gospel both from the slaves and free that the missionaries had already facilitated, and how the missionaries themselves had suffered.


Phillippo spoke at many meetings up and down the country – dispelling the lies and slanders of the colonial journals reaching England, defending his fellow workers still on the island, and campaigning for the emancipation of slaves. In August 1833, the Slavery Abolition Act was passed, outlawing slavery in all British colonies. However, this did not take effect until a year later.

On Phillippo’s return in 1834 he found the chapel and schools in good order, and went on to expand the capacity of the chapel and to build two new schools. During one Sunday service the chapel was ‘crowded almost to suffocation’ with around 1,000 inside, and 300 to 400 more outside the building!

The great news of abolition was soon shrouded by the implementation of a six-year transition period of apprenticeship before the slaves could work for wages. Phillippo was quick to spot the shortcomings in this plan, and started to campaign for complete emancipation to come much sooner. The apprenticeship scheme was indeed exploited by the planters, who worked the slaves even harder than before. And on 22 May 1838 the House of Commons finally abolished the apprenticeship system.

Free villages
With freedom declared and planters no longer providing housing for their slaves, many freed slaves found themselves with nowhere to live. Phillippo had foreseen this issue, and in 1835 had purchased land in the hills of St Catherine close to Spanish Town.

The land became known as Sligoville (named in honour of the governor who freed his slaves in 1838) – it was a ‘free settlement’ with plots given to former slaves for houses and allotments.

Burchell and Knibb were able to do the same, forming the free villages of Sturge, Bethel Town, Mount Carey, Birmingham, Kettering and Hoby Town. Within five years nearly 200 free villages had been established.

Calabar College
After years of waiting, Phillippo finally saw his dream of a college to train local ministers materialise in 1842 – it was called Calabar College. The college developed links with other denominations and in 1967 moved onto the campus of the University of the West Indies.

Phillippo worked for over half a century in Jamaica and left a legacy of freedom to many. He stayed in Jamaica through his old age, and died there in 1879 at the age of 81.