The Methodist Church and Development in Tobago

Rita Pemberton

By the end of the 19th Century the Methodist Church was well established in Tobago. Apart from the main church in Scarborough and the first church that was built at Mt St George (1823) and the Mason Hall Church which was constructed in 1824, there are churches at Franklyn, Castara, Ebenezer, Charlotteville, Goodwood, Plymouth and L’Anse Fourmi as the religious organisation spread its pastoral and educational influence across the island.

By the beginning of the 20th century, the Methodist church was poised to continue to enhance lives in the new communities that were established across Tobago. All the churches established during the previous century remained operational except one. The Methodist Church at Plymouth, which was located in what was considered “Anglican territory,” did not attract a large membership and was closed towards the end of the 19th century. One new congregation was established in the 20th century, the Canaan/Bon Accord Congregation which was founded in 1992 under the Rev Malcolm Peacock.

What did the Methodist church achieve and how did the Church contribute to the development of Tobago? Most often the achievements and contributions of organisations are assessed in financial terms or in the number of outstanding performers in academia, sports and other fields of endeavour. While the Methodists have made contributions in these areas, their aim was to bring hope, build self-esteem, help people to develop a sense of self-worth in order to transform lives and enhance the quality of life in the communities they served. While their achievements in these areas cannot be quantified, they constitute solid contributions to shaping the Tobago society.

The first achievement of the Methodist Church was its ability to survive and function without interruption over a 200-year period, during which time Tobago was fraught with the turbulent relations of enslaved society, 19th century economic uncertainties and frustrations of the planter class, the post emancipation tensions between workers and employers and the poor living conditions which the majority of the population faced. Through it all, the Methodists brought hope to the population and contributed to the social stability of the island through the vicissitudes of its existence. Its next achievement came through the unwavering support it offered to the people of Tobago during difficult periods.

With steadfast determination, the focus of the Methodist was on transforming lives by mission, education and outreach programmes. These three programmes were well integrated in all the activities of the Methodist church. The Methodist Church was built on missionary outreach hence mission forms an important arm of church activity. Through the mission generated from the ten Methodist churches on the island, the lives of many individuals and families were touched. Mission proceeds by determining the needs of communities and members of the society, promoting literacy and providing care, compassion, healing and love. Mission occurred within and beyond the walls of the church and was heavily community based. This thrust resulted in cementing community relationships and creating the close bond that is evident among members of the Methodist congregations and their willingness to serve the church and support its activities. In addition, through its community outreach, church officials became close to the members of the communities and were involved in many of the traditional community activities. One important contribution of the Methodist Church was its role in conflict resolution particularly during the latter part of the 19th and early 20th century. The Church frowned on its members taking their disagreements to the courts and insisted that all such matters should be settled by the Church. Members were bound by the decision of the Church.

By its policy of building strong family relationships, the Methodist church has contributed to family stability on the island. It is noticeable that in every Methodist congregation there are several generations of loyal and devoted families who serve the church. These include the Alleyne, Alexander, Cupid, Davidson, Lyons, Nicholson, Roberts and Washington families.

Long before it became fashionable, the Methodist Church has traditionally integrated the youths in church activity. Through the Youth Arm, young people are prepared for roles of responsibility in church and communities. They are given opportunities to lead services, participate in outreach programmes, develop community awareness and loyalty as the church seeks to create leaders and teachers who can make positive contributions to the society.

The Methodist church has an unmatched record in its devotion to male development in Tobago. Through the Boys Brigade Movement young men are assisted in character development, music and creativity and social responsibility. This activity has generated numbers of talented male musicians and responsible males across the island. Prison outreach programmes also target incarcerated males and those who engage in drugs, crime and other illicit activities. Support is given to the children and families of these men who are encourage to turn their lives around by changing their relationship with God and consequently with their families and other members of society. This, in no small way, helped to keep the prison population and crime on the island at the low levels experienced across the 20th century.

Education has been a major area of contribution of the Methodist church to Tobago. The church administers six primary schools across the island and has honed a significant number of eminent headmasters and teachers who include Mr Dowling Alexander, Mr Luther Roberts, Mr Samuel Alleyne, Mr Wilford Lyons, Teacher Aggie, Mrs Martin and Teacher Lillis. These schools, which have a reputation for producing high achieving students, have been responsible for moulding some outstanding scholars and leaders of the nation. These include former Chairman of the Tobago House of Assembly, Prime Minister and President of Trinidad and Tobago, Mr ANR Robinson; Dr Jefferson Davidson, former Chairman and Presiding Officer of the THA, Mr Cecil Caruth, former School Principal and Deputy Chief Secretary of the THA, Ms Cynthia Alfred, former Deputy Chief Secretary in the THA, Ms Pamela Nicholson former Minister of Government, Dr Eastlyn McKenzie former Senator, and Mr Dodderidge Alleyne, who established a very distinguished career in the national and international public service.

The music education programme of the Methodist Church has contributed to the development of the talents of some Tobagonians. Mr George Washington assumed the responsibility for training many singers and choirs in Tobago a number of which formed the nucleus of the community choirs which participated in the Best Village Competitions and the Heritage Festival.

The Church also offers opportunities for women in all aspects of church life. They serve as teachers, preachers, leaders and members of the Girls Brigade and youth development programmes. Presently the island’s two Circuit Stewards are Mrs Annette Nicholson- Alfred and Mrs Laureen Burris-Phillip. The church has also produced civic-minded community oriented individuals such as Mr Bryson Arnold, who volunteered to rebuild, at his expense, the Scarborough Methodist Church after it was damaged by Hurricane Flora in 1963.

Put in box

To commemorate its 200th anniversary in Tobago, the Methodist Circuit has organised a series of activities in each month of the year through which, as they celebrate, members are encouraged to reflect and promote church revival. The celebration was officially launched on February24 at the Mt St George Church, when at 10 am the TORCH OF METHODISM, the symbol that the fires of Methodism continue to illuminate and empower lives in Tobago, was officially lit and began its journey to churches around the island. From Mt St George, the torch went to Goodwood (March 17t); Ebenezer (April 7); Bethel (April 28); Olive (May 19); Castara (June 9) and Mason Hall (June 30). The torch will journey to Franklyn on September 8, Bon Accord on September 29 and, having completed the circuit, will terminate at the Scarborough Methodist Church on October 20. The celebration has so far included the launch on February 24 of the Methodist Circuit’s Facebook page, a hymn writing competition, a public lecture on the history of the church and its contribution to Tobago, an anniversary service of the first sermon preached by a minister stationed in Tobago April 19, a special Aldersgate service and t-shirt Day in May and a Harvest in July before the staging of the Methodist Heritage exhibition which runs from July 13 to August 1. Focus shifts to the youth during the months of September and October when a number of school-based competitions will be held and will terminate with Youth Week and Rally in October. November will be the month of evangelism when the Church embraces men, vulnerable members of the community, those entangled in criminal activity and those incarcerated in an attempt to change lives and empower more individuals to contribute positively to the island and nation. The yearlong celebrations will end with a grand Bicentennial Banquet & Awards Ceremony onDecember 14 when families which have made intergenerational contributions to our circuit will be recognised. This will bring the curtain down on the commemoration of 200 years of solid contribution to Tobago of a church which shaped leaders, teachers and creative citizens from the descendants of enslaved Africans, and is undoubtedly one of the heritage assets of Tobago.


"The Methodist Church and Development in Tobago"

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