BEDWARDISM IN JAMAICA
“Dip dem, Bedward, dip dem
Dip dem in de healing stream
Dip dem sweet but not too deep
Dip dem fi cure bad feelin”
This popular folk song was originally composed by detractors of the Revivalist and founder of Bedwardism, Alexander Bedward. It was intended to be a mockery of his activities, but instead, it served to immortalize the man who to date, is one of Jamaica’s most influential figures.
The charismatic Bedward was born in St. Andrew in 1859. He grew up on the Mona Estate and became a labourer after not being afforded the privilege of attending school. Very little has been documented on his early life, however, it is said that he was afflicted by a disease for twelve years for which no doctor could find a cure.
His illness caused him to move to Colon where his condition improved. After two years, he returned to Jamaica only to be afflicted once again by the disease, so, he went back to Colon. While in Colon, Bedward received two visions. The first instructed him to return to Jamaica to save his soul and the soul of others. The second instructed him to seek baptism from a Mr. Raderford in August Town. Bedward heeded the advice of the visions and returned to Jamaica.
In 1891, Bedward received a special calling which led him to establish the Jamaica Baptist Church in August Town in 1894. This church was part of the Native Baptist movement which was originally established on an Afro-Christian pattern. It had strong spiritual links to the African ancestors and its manifestations were often in the form of dancing, trances, sexual orgies, flagellations and public confessions of sins.
Bedwardism grew very popular which was evident in the increasing number of ‘camps’ being set up over the entire island. The main cause of Bedward’s popularity was his use of the water from the Hope River as a cure-all. People were given the water to drink or were baptized in the river. The water was reputed to have special healing powers which would cleanse all sins, evils and diseases. It was customary for Bedward to go to the river every Wednesday morning dressed in a white robe to perform baptisms. Persons would travel from all over the island to be ‘cured’ by Bedward and his healing water. It is reported that the numbers sometime reached thirty thousand.
To the non-believers, Bedward appeared to be a mad man, especially after his proclamation to be the Messiah, the Son of God. His actions resulted in his being incarcerated and committed to a mental institution on a few occasions. Bedward was also seen as a threat to the whites in society because he often preached that black people should crush the whites. He saw the latter as oppressors, liars, hypocrites and thieves.
In what was intended to be his greatest act of faith, Bedward likened himself to the Prophet Elijah and prophesied that he would ascend into heaven on December 31, 1920. His prophecy continued to predict that he would return to Earth for the chosen ones, after which Earth would be destroyed by fire. His prophecy did not come true, re-affirming for the non-believers that he was insane. Nevertheless, the faith of many of his followers did not wane. He explained to them that God had delayed the event so that he could encourage more persons to follow him and reap eternal reward so, they continued to believe in him and revere him as their prophet. Following his initial failure, Bedward continued to make predictions; however, the result was always the same, failure.
In April 1921, Bedward announced that he would be marching to the city of Kingston to have a “manifestation” and “do battle with his enemies.” This was the final straw for authorities who intercepted Bedward and his 800 followers before they entered the city. Bedward was arrested and charged with resisting arrest and threatening to commit a breach of peace. He was tried and then sentenced to the asylum.
After his death in 1931, there were still several followers of Bedwardism. Despite the decline of Revivalism following his passing, practitioners of the movement are still to be found in some parts of August Town, where his church still exists; evidence of the great impact the movement had on Jamaicans.