Throughout the 19th and early 20th century, Jamaica was a stunning contrast of natural beauty and stark poverty. The twin legacies of slavery and colonialism left the island with a population consisting primarily of former slaves, people of mixed race ("coloured"), and white colonists who, despite beinga small minority, owned most of the land and resources. While formal independence from the U.K. would come in the 20th century, life in 19th century Jamaica was often harsh for the freed slaves and their descendants.
It hardly seems surprising that religion would be a major influence among the island's inhabitants. Not only with the various branches of Christianity, but also more exotic religions based on traditions imported from Africa. Obeah and Myalism were widely practiced despite attempts at suppression by the authorities. These traditions were often incorporated into more mainstream religions and helped fuel the Christian revivalist movement. The 19th century was marked by religious clashes and spiritual missions that quickly attracted believers.
Which brings us to Alexander Bedward.
He was born in southeastern Jamaica in 1848 into extreme poverty. While his father is unknown, his mother had a local reputation as a healer. Alexander Bedward never learned to write and had minimal reading. Given his family's poverty, he had little choice but to work on one of the big sugar plantations in Colon, Panama. Whatever future he may have planned changed after a massive fire swept through Kingston, Jamaica in 1882. Following the fire, Bedward began to have disturbing dreams and erratic behaviour that so frightened his family that they tried to have him put away for lunacy. He insisted that the dreams meant that God had chosen him for a divine mission. By 1889, Bedward was formally installed as one of the 24 elders of August Town's Native Baptist church and his religious crusade began.
And what a crusade it was! By October 1891, Bedward had resigned from his plantation job to launch his healing mission. Using water from a spring on his property near Jamaica's Hope River, he conducted healing ceremonies based on a divine vision that told him that "the water of the Hope River would be miraculously converted into medicine for soul and body". Along with his healing, Bedward delivered sermons on a large rock overlooking the river and thousands of people gathered every Wednesday to hear him.
The descriptions of Bedward's crusade were closely followed by reporters from Jamaica's Daily Gleaner. Although the newspaper dismissed Bedward as "an ignorant black man living somewhere in the Long Mountain", his movement certainly made news. In one less-than-complimentary account, Bedward's crusade was described as "one of the most painful and saddening [phenomena] that could possibly be witnessed by anyone of ordinary intelligence, who has his country's good at heart …. [T]he seething mass of ignorance … congregates in the vicinity without a blush of shame at the credulity and infatuation which is [sic] on every side exhibited". Not only did Bedward's followers gather to hear him speak, they also brought bottles, jugs, and anything else capable of holding the precious spring water to bring back to their homes. There were also the invalids who came hoping for divine healing including "lepers, people with running sores, the crippled and deformed, blind, consumptive, asthmatic and in fact every complaint known in the medical world".
The local authorities and clergy were especially outraged by the healing sessions featuring nude men and women bathing together by the thousands. Medical doctors denounced Bedward for his outlandish claims and the false hope he gave patients. Stung by his numerous critics, Bedward continued his Wednesday sessions and people still gathered at the river for healing. The Daily Gleaner gave regular editorials denouncing the "Bedward craze" and unsavory hints at his family's previous attempts at having him committed began to surface. Meanwhile, the "Bedwardites" (as they were being called) were making arrangements to build a temple to honour their prophet. Colonial authorities were increasingly worried by Bedward's sermons directed against the upper-class Jamaicans who "grabbed the substance of the poor".
On January 16, 1895, Alexander Bedward gave a sermon denouncing the white minority and predicted the end of the world in which the wicked would be punished and the faithful rewarded. He railed against the government and the Clergy as "vagabonds, thieves, robbers and liars" and called on his followers to drive out the white population. That was enough for the government to lay a charge of seditious language against him and Bedward was quickly arrested. His subsequent trial in April of that same year (with an all-white jury) returned a verdict of Not Guilty By Reason of Insanity. Although Bedward was sent to a local asylum, he was released a few weeks later after a successful appeal. Bedward returned to his mission and the healing sessions went on as before (though he eventually insisted that his followers be fully clothed when they bathed in the river).
Although skeptics claimed that Bedwardism would eventually "run its course", the movement continued into the early years of the 20th century. By 1910, Bedward and his followers had built an impressive compound in August Town complete with a chapel. While Alexander Bedward was still seen as a threat by the colonial authorities, he had enough support to prevent any attempt at arresting him again. It's hard to say how far the movement might have gone if Bedward hadn't had one final vision...
In 1920, believing that the millennium was at hand, Alexander Bedward announced to this followers that he would ascend into heaven on December 31, 1920. As you might expect, the Gleaner scoffed at this revelation but thousands of his followers gathered at the compound in hope of being "saved". Many of these followers sold all their possessions and the tailor shop on site provided simple white gowns for them to wear for the big event. Due to fear of rioting (and a possible black uprising), a military regiment was sent in to maintain order. Throughout the day, Bedward's followers were repeatedly told that his ascension was postponed (he had originally promised that it would happen at ten in the morning). By late afternoon, the followers were told that the ascension would be "spiritual" rather than physical and, by evening, most of the followers went home disappointed.
Although this event broke up much of Bedward's support, he was still able to rally six hundred followers for a "manifestation" in Kingston that following year. Police took no chances and promptly arrested him and many of his followers. Once again, he was declared Not Guilty By Reason of Insanity but there was no release this time. Up until his death in 1930, Alexander Bedward was held in Jamaica's Bellevue Asylum.
Much like Richard Brothers and Joanna Southcott before him, Bedward's supporters slowly drifted away following his imprisonment and death. Many of these followers later became part of Marcus Garvey's Pan-African movement as well as the growing Rastafarian religion. In some circles, Bedward is still considered a martyr and an early leader in Jamaican nationalism. Leaving aside questions surrrounding whether he was mentally ill, his religious crusade inspired tens of thousands of people at the peak of his popularity.
Although I have focused on three very different prophets in this series, the similarities among their movements and the people who believed in them seem apparent enough. So why do some religious leaders launch major movements that continue after their death while others sink into obscurity? Heaven only knows.