Friday, May 25, 2012

Remembering Sam Sharpe

This week is a significant one for us Baptists, as we remember the life and death of the Rt Excellent Samuel Sharpe.

His story is one that has been often overlooked, and in the lists of great leaders and great Baptists he's often missing.

In part, his absence is due to the violence that flowed from the uprising he is most associated with. But mainly it's because of ignorance; his is a story that seldom gets told.

A well-educated Baptist deacon, Samuel Sharpe knew his scripture, and could see for himself the equality of all people, and how, in Christ, that divisions of slave and free, male and female, black and white become irrelevant as God joins all people together in one new humanity.

Sharpe was legally a slave all of his life, but his heart was that of a free man, righteously angry at the sin and violence of slavery. On Christmas day 1831 he organised a general strike, in the belief that the British government had ended slavery and that plantation owners were now acting unlawfully.

That uprising turned violent and what had begun as a peaceful protest became known as The Baptist War. Hundreds died. Eventually, after two weeks of struggle,  the Jamaican army ended the protest.

For his part in leading the rebellion Sharpe was hanged on 23rd May 1832, 180 years ago this week. Among his final words he is recorded as saying, "I would rather die upon yonder gallows than live for a minute more in slavery"

His story didn't end there though. News of what had happened caused questions to be raised in the British parliament, and the inquiries that came out of them were instrumental in bringing about the change of law the following year that abolished slavery right across the British empire.

Too often, we in the British church have focussed solely on our own anti-slavery heroes like Wiliam Knibb, or the great William Wilberforce, and we tell the story of how slavery ended by the actions of these men, at the expense or even the ignorance of the stories of the many hundreds of slaves who rose up themselves to break off the shackles of slavery. I pray the day is coming when we'll hear the stories of peoples in many places who were so inspired by the gospel, and so appalled by slavery that they fought for true freedom. I pray people like Sam Sharpe will be properly remembered not just in Jamaica, but here too as we celebrate those heroes who inspire us today.

I was honoured recently to be invited to attend the launch of the Sam Sharpe Project at the Jamaican High Commission, and I want to commend this project to you. On the website you'll learn more of the story, and of upcoming events that will ensure Sam Sharpe's legacy.

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