On July 24, 1664, just over 350 years ago, the first recorded baptism by an Anglican Minister took place in Jamaica. This historic event is documented in the Baptismal Register of the
St. Andrew Parish Church, now in the Jamaica Archives. It is not known where this event took place for the land on which the church was built was not granted until 1667 and by 1682 a building, which did not survive for long, was erected.
The ceremony was conducted by the Rev. James Zeller (or Sellers) who along with a Rev. Nicholas and the Rev. John Henry Houser (or Huser, Howser) had arrived in the island the previous month. On June 9, 1664, the Council, as the Legislative Assembly was known, assigned each of them to one of the newly-established parishes of St. Thomas, St. Andrew and St. David, the latter being subsequently absorbed into St. Thomas. The other parishes established at the time were St. Catherine, Clarendon, St. John and Port Royal.
Although it can be said that the Anglican Church came to Jamaica in 1655 with the British forces which captured the colony from the Spaniards, it is doubtful whether there were any ministers in Jamaica before 1664, although there were intentions to send them. It is recorded for instance, that in 1655 seven “Godly ministers” accompanied Penn and Venables on their expedition to Jamaica, but nothing is known of their ministrations. Nothing is also known about the results of the decision by the Council for Foreign Plantations in June 1661, that the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London were to choose “five able ministers to be maintained there at the King’s expense…” Spiritual needs were high on the agenda of the colonizers. Among the instructions given in 1661 to the first Governor, General Edward
D’ Oyley, was that he was to “encourage ministers that Christianity and the Protestant religion according to the Church of England might have due reverence and exercise”.
Fate of Newcomers
In October 1664, the Governor, Lord Modyford, reported that there were seven established parishes “but in these parishes but five ministers”. These were – Mr. Johns, described as ‘an old army preacher not yet in orders’, Mr. Maxwell, Mr. Howser, Mr. Sellers and Mr. Webb. The last mentioned was described as “dying these three months…excess of drink was his crime and is the cause of his distemper”. By this time, Mr Nicholas, who was one of the ministers who had arrived in June and had settled at Port Morant, had “died of the disease by which many perished”. Mr. Johns returned to England shortly after this. It is not known when Mr. Maxwell arrived but the records indicate that in 1671 he was at Port Royal.
This meant that only Zeller in St. Andrew and Houser, who had been transferred to St. Catherine by October 1664, remained of the original set of ministers. Incidentally, they were both Swiss and had been ordained to the diaconate and priesthood together in London on January 15, 1663. They were later joined by other ministers who were assigned to Port Royal, St. Thomas and St. David’s.
In 1671 however, the Governor noted that there were still only five ministers ‘but alas these do not preach to one third of the island and the plantations are of such distance that it is impossible to make up congregations but they meet at each other’s homes…” However, he reported that the ministers were all “orthodox men, of good life and conservative, live comfortably on their means and preach every Sunday.”
The Churches established in 1664
St. Andrew Parish Church
The church with the best documented history is St. Andrew Parish Church. Not only is it known when the first Rector assumed duties, but it is the only church in the Diocese with records of an unbroken list of ministers along with the dates of their incumbencies. The first Rector, the Rev. John Sellers, served for 36 years and laid a good foundation for his successors.
It is, perhaps, because this Church can trace its history directly back to 1664 that it has taken this date seriously and celebrated some of its anniversaries with special services and events. In 1964, it commemorated its tercentenary with activities taking place virtually every month. Events were held to celebrate its 330th and 340th .anniversaries in 1994 and 2004, respectively. The commemoration of its 350th anniversary is slated to begin on St Andrew’s Day, 30th November 2014.
St. David’s Church
Rev. Houser did not stay long at St. David’s as by October1664 he was transferred to St. Catherine. It is not known when his successor arrived, but in 1671, Governor Modyford noted that “Mr. Pickering of St. Thomas and St. David… is lately dead and they have none to supply his place.” The first church building at St. David’s was erected around 1680, but it is not known how long that building survived. There is evidence that the present church which was consecrated in 1913 stands on the site of an earlier structure which had fallen into disrepair. When the corner stone of the new church was laid in 1904, it was reported that “two small parts of the wall of the old building have been preserved in the structure of the restored one.”
St. Thomas Parish Church
Very little is also known about the early years of the St. Thomas Parish Church. The first minister was Mr. Nicholas but he was dead by October1664. Reference has already been made to the death of Mr Pickering around 1671. He was apparently responsible for the churches in St. Thomas and St David’s. Since the records refer to him as being at “Port Morant”, one can assume that this was the site of the first church in St. Thomas. It is not known when the first parish church, the ruins of which can still be seen at Church Corner in the town of Morant Bay, was built as the records were destroyed in the 1865 rebellion.
St. John’s Church
Not much is known about St. John’s Parish which was later absorbed into St. Catherine. However, a map of 1671 shows an Anglican church in that parish; and the church apparently had a Rector in 1664 in the person of Mr. Johns, who did not stay long and returned to England.
St. Catherine Parish Church
It is surprising that nothing much is known of the ministry of Rev. Hauser at the St. Catherine Parish Church from 1664 to 1683 considering that the parish had the first Anglican Church building in the island. Governor Modyford, writing in October 1664, said that there was “only one church at St. Katherine, being a fair Spanish Church ruined by the old soldiers but lately in some measure repaired by Sir Charles Lyttleton …” This building was destroyed in the hurricane of 1712 and a new structure, which today comprises the present nave and transept of what is now the Cathedral of St Jago de la Vega was completed and dedicated in 1714.
In 2014, the Cathedral is celebrating the 300th anniversary of this 1714 construction. Like the other churches mentioned in this article, the Parish Church, which became the Cathedral or principal church of the Diocese in 1843, is also celebrating the 350th anniversary of its ministry this year, based on the date of the appointment of its first known minister.
The placement of the early rectors of the Church reflects the areas of the island which were first colonized by the British. Some of these parishes, such as St. John and St. David, soon declined in importance and very little is known of the early history of their churches. Parishes like St. Andrew and St. Catherine grew in importance and the history of their churches are well-documented. By the end of the 17th century, other parishes were established, dictated by 6the pattern of population settlement, and other churches were formed. Nevertheless, the ministers who arrived in 1664 not only established churches, but pioneered the system under which the clergy worked, nominally under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of London, before the establishment of the local Diocese in 1824.
The mortality rate among these early ministers was high and many of them did not survive for very long. Indeed, some died shortly after they were appointed. This meant that there were often long gaps between the incumbencies resulting in a lack of continuity in the operations of some churches. The absence of records also makes it difficult to trace their histories. This means that it is difficult, at times, to determine with any degree of certainty the date at which a church was founded; and this has implications for decisions regarding the date for commemorative events. As the Rev R. A. Minter says in his history of the Anglican Church before 1824 “where records are missing, the deficiency can be supplied by an active imagination”.
Note: Article by John A Aarons, Honorary Archivist for the Diocese of Jamaica & The Cayman Islands.