During the week of the 225th Anniversary of Bwa Kayiman, a group of Protestant churches gathered on the grounds of Haiti’s National Palace to celebrate the 200th Anniversary of the Protestant Church in Haiti. These churches took advantage of the first entrance of the Anglican Church in Haiti in 1816 to claim the 18th of August 2016 as the 200th anniversary of all Protestant churches in the country. In reality, the vast majority of Protestant churches arrived in Haiti much later. Although like all Christian churches, the Protestant churches supported slavery, the French prohibited Protestant churches from operating in the colony. It is only after the Haitian Revolution that they were welcomed to the country even without issuing an apology for having supported slavery. Let us review the history of Protestant Churches in Haiti to gain a better understanding of how they came to flourish in the country.
The first Protestant Churches had nothing to do with neither Haiti nor Africa. These first churches began in Europe in a power struggle between the Pope and various kings who no longer wanted to be under the Pope’s domination as he was constantly fleecing the population with taxes. Each time the Pope wanted to build a mega-church or wanted to carry out a crusade to control more territory, he would raise taxes through the selling of indulgences. In protesting these abuses, many priests found support among Europe’s kings, allowing them to disregard the Pope’s authority to start their own churches. That is how the very first Protestant church began in Germany in 1517 under the leadership of the former Catholic priest, Martin Luther.
Soon after, other Protestant churches emerged throughout Europe, but not so much in France where the Pope retained much of his influence. In 1635, France established the French West Indies Company which had as its mission to conquer the islands of the West Indies and convert their inhabitants to Catholicism. Although under French rule, only Catholics were allowed in the territory, in 1641, Levasseur, a French Huguenot became the governor of the island of La Tortue. A coup d’etat in 1652 removed Levasseur from power and Catholics took control. It then became illegal to be Protestants, and all Protestants were evicted from the colony.
Due to French government intolerance, there were no Protestant churches in Haiti during the slavery era. It is only after independence that Protestants began to enter Haiti. In 1816, King Christophe invited 2 English Anglican teachers to teach in the schools. These teachers circulated the King James’ version of the Bible in Haiti for the first time. That same year, President Petion also received two Protestant Quakers from the U.S. City of Philadelphia, but they only stayed for two months. In 1817, two Methodists missionaries arrived from England and converted 50 people in Port-au-Prince. Among these converts was a young man who killed his mother who had apposed his conversion. The ensuing public denunciation of this barbarous act caused the government to expel the missionaries.
In 1819, under public pressure, President Boyer made Protestantism illegal but he could not uphold this law having invited African-Americans to emigrate to Haiti. The African-Americans were Protestants, and they came to Haiti along with their pastors who continued to provide church services in English. Later in 1839, Mark Baker Bird, an Anglican from London entered the country and established College Bird as a Protestant school. By 1860, Bird had 600 followers along with 479 additional Protestants in Port-au-Prince. One of Bird’s lay followers, opened a Methodist church in Jeremie. Other followers opened a Methodist church in Leogane. In 1845, A Baptist missionary group arrived and replaced the Methodist church in Leogane.
Clearly, the different Protestant churches in Haiti did not arrive all at once. In 1861, An African-American pastor named Theodore Holly, arrived in Port-au-Prince, where he opened an independent Episcopal church. As someone who knew first-hand the brutality and injustice of slavery, Pastor Holly had great respect for the Haitian Revolution and the Revolutionaries who fought it. Coming from the US where slavery still existed, he appreciated the freedom and moral order brought forth by the Revolution. Pastor Holly said that only in Haiti did he feel completely human. He did not disrespect Haitian Ancestors by repeating the insults of colonists who derided the Revolution as a pact with the devil. Pastor Holly died in Haiti in 1911 after having lived in the country for 50 years. He left a church that is graced with the portraits of the heroes of the Haitian Revolution.
During the American Occupation of 1915-1934, the American Naval Secretary, Edwin Denby, was surprised to see so few Protestant churches in Haiti despite its proximity to the US. He met with the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ and urged them to send missions to convert the Haitian people. As a result, today, almost all the large Protestant churches in Haiti are of American origin: Baptists, Episcopalians, Mormons, Adventists, Pentacostals, to name but a few. These Protestant churches may be hesitant to admit that they arrived in Haiti with the American Occupation because the occupation left a negative legacy of brutality, deaths, forced labor and corruption. Before the American population, most of Haiti’s Protestant churches existed in the major cities. During the Occupation, they spread to the countryside. If these churches wanted to genuinely commemorate their anniversary in Haiti, a fair number of them would have to celebrate just their 101st year since the Occupation. They could do that with dignity if they would concurrently ask for forgiveness for their churches’ past passive and active support of slavery.
It is with the support of the American Occupation that the Baptist church of Pastor Norissel Lherisson was established in Jacmel, the Methodist church of Pastor Pierre Nicolas was established in Ti Goave, and the Episcopal church of Pastor Alexandre Baptiste was established in Leogane. In 1921-22, the American missionary L. Ton Evans explained to the American Congress how Pastor Lherisson had taken pleasure in burning the religious artifacts of Jacmel’s Vodou temples. Buttressed by powerful foreign allies, it was the habit of Christian churches in Haiti to destroy artifacts of African and native beliefs. Secure in this tradition, the Catholic Church went on to organize a Rejection campaign to destroy Haitian African beliefs, but the campaign backfired as it also undermined Catholic beliefs and led many Haitians to convert to the Protestant faith.
The Rejection campaign was started when a group of Italian priests who had supported Hitler, entered Haiti as head of the Catholic church in the years 1935 to 1940. These priests were convinced of white superiority and believed that only white religious practices were of value. They even wrote in the journal of the Catholic Church that nothing of value had ever come from Africa. In the Catechist of 1940, the head of the church wrote: “You come to cathechism to rid yourself of all the old beliefs from Africa…Africa cannot work with the religion of the Good Lord.” Bashing Africa was easy. These European priest were not of African descent and showed no respect for African Ancestors. But as Europeans they honored their dead, the saints.
For their Rejection campaign, the foreign priests were accompanied by military personnel and they marched from home to home destroying relics of African Heritage. As many churchgoers considered themselves both Fran Ginen (True Africans) and Fran Katolik (True Catholics), they abandoned their African Heritage along with their Catholicism. When the Catholic Church took notice of this self inflicted wound, they urged the people not to convert to the Protestant Faith, but it was too late. From the time of their campaign vilifying Vodou, the Catholic Church has not stopped shedding followers to the Protestants.
Meanwhile, The Protestant churches gained converts by equating the Catholic church with the Vodou that the church had vilified. In return, the Catholic Church accused the Protestant Pentacostal Church of being followers of Satan. In 1941, the government of then President Elie Lescot made Pentecostal gatherings illegal. But this did not curtail the growth of the Pentecostal Church nor of Protestant churches in general. With the financial backing of US institutions, Protestant churches in Haiti distribute goods that lure many followers to believe that American prosperity resides in their Protestant faith and Haiti need only copy it to develop its economy. Few converts seem to recognize wealth and poverty as the outcome of a fierce competition for control of resources in the global market.
Since the American Occupation, the growth of the Protestant Churches in Haiti has been explosive. During slavery, 0% of the population was Protestant. After the Revolution, Protestant churches were free to enter the country. During the American Occupation, these churches pierced into the countryside. By 1980, 15% of the population was Protestant. Today, approximately 30% of the population is Protestant.
In the Protestant gathering at the National Palace on August 18th , each Protestant church should have given its age and its unique history of how it came to Haiti. Pretending that all the Protestant churches have been in the country for 200 years, is tantamount to a confession that they were not there when life was at its worst for people of African descent on the island. It is a confession that these Protestant churches did not participate in freeing the country from slavery. It is only years after 150,000 Haitians died from a population of just 450,000, that the Protestant churches entered to enjoy the fruits of the liberty secured by our foreparents. Yet, too often, Protestant pastors repeat the insults of colonists who deride the heroes of Bwa Kayiman as diabolical. Let it be clear, the true demons in our history are the individuals and institutions that supported slavery. It is the epitome of hypocrisy for Haitian Protestant churches to try to steal the 225th Anniversary of Bwa Kayiman and to pretend that the week of the 14th to the 21st of August is the date of their own anniversary.