THE PORTUGUESE PRESBYTERIANS
Reverend Clifford R. L. Rawlins
Christianity in the Western Hemisphere has been closely associated with the imperialist policies of Western Europe at the height of their colonial prowess. It was European foreign policy that created the environment of slavery and indentureship and plantocracy and the subjugation of various races into these systems and the subsequent upheavals and cleavings for freedom and self-determination that has led to the society, psyche and world view that we have today.
The initial problem, though, stems from the vehicle the church used to convey its message: the expansionist policies of rival European kingdoms seeking the glory of conquest and empire. Christianity became synonymous with Europeanisation.
So then, Christianity used the State and shared in its imperialist lust for empire because in its triumphalist mode it confused itself and its missionary goals with the ultimate universal exaltation of the kingdom of God. And the State, in turn, also used Christianity and its gospel of peace as a decoy for its tyranny (although an ineffective one) and as “opium” for the subjugated peoples.
However, there is one bright spark of a positive brand of Christianity that came to Trinidad in this colonial era; the advent of the Madeiran Presbyterian refugees or exiles in 1846. These Madeirans had converted to Presbyterianism by the missionary efforts of Dr Robert Reid Kalley, a medical missionary of the Free Church of Scotland who was ministering in that place with considerable success.
“In 1842 people came in large numbers to hear the Scriptures read and explained. Many walked ten or twelve miles, and climbed over mountains 3,000 feet high, in coming and returning to their homes.....For several months not fewer that one thousand persons were present each Sabbath: generally they exceeded two thousand, and once were reckoned at five thousand.”
This movement would soon catch the attention of the ecclesiastical authorities who instigated police action for the suppression of Kalley’s adult evening schools and the excommunication of converts from the Roman Catholic Church.
“In that awful document the faithful were forbidden on pain of the highest ecclesiastical censure to give them fire, water, bread, or any other thing that may be necessary to them for their support. They were not to pay them their debts, or support them in any case which they might bring judicially.”
Even families and spouses were forced to excommunicate and divorce their converted relatives. Kalley himself was imprisoned several times along with members of his flock, and state persecution followed relentlessly.
“Fifty soldiers were quartered for three days on a portion of the parish of António da Serra, and allowed to plunder and perpetrate every cruelty, as if in the land of a vanquished enemy.”
In 1846 persecution broke out with even greater ferocity than before and it was deemed necessary for the persecuted church to flee for refuge.
Trinidad was chosen as an immediate destination as in 1820 King George III of Britain had declared the island one in which there would be unilateral religious tolerance. He had done so in answer to the prayer of a petition by the Methodist Conference of Great Britain challenging the blatant discrimination of Governor Ralph Woodford against non-conformist churches.
Over eight hundred refugees came to Trinidad with the Rev William Henry Hewitson who had been sent to Madeira to assist Dr Kalley, and among them others under the cloak of religion seeking a new and better life. Many of them subsequently left for the USA, settling in Jacksonville, Illinois and in Hawai’i where they established notable Presbyterian congregations. (See the article by Rev Jorge Gameiro.)
Those who remained became the founders of the The St. Ann's Church of Scotland, Charlotte Street, Port-of-Spain (earlier St. Ann's Road), as the church is known today. This church went by the familiar name of the Portuguese Church in times past. This Portuguese Church began as an indigenous ministry within the Presbytery of Trinidad, with services for many years in Portuguese, until the dominant English language was grafted in more and more.
The Presbyterian Church at Arouca also accommodated numerous families who moved out East. Later at the turn of the twentieth century, a mission was begun in Arima at the home of Joaquim da Silva in the Heights of Guanapo.
The Portuguese Church had their own Portuguese pastors called and ordained from among them; notably, Rev Arsenio da Silva who was ordained locally and Rev António de Mattos and Rev Henrique Vieira who were ordained in Scotland. The first two ministers were also the first two converts, then deacons, elders and ministers of the fledgling congregation. Kalley himself ended up in Brazil where he continued his medical and evangelical missions.
Of the arrivals of two groups of Portuguese immigrants to Protestant and Roman Catholic, the former eventually came to be in the minority. Frequent intermarriage and merger into the more dominant Roman Catholic families and culture was to be a symbol of a religious approach that contributed to the decline of the Presbyterian Portuguese from the local landscape. In Trinidad, they have come to be fewer and fewer and nearly to disappear altogether.
Ferreira Fernandes. “Os Madeirenses Errantes / The Wandering Madeirans”; translated by Elinor Anderson and João Kay. Focus Magazine 2000.
Presbyterianism in the Colonies. Edinburgh: Macniven and Wallace, 1899.
Rawlins, Clifford. The History of the Barrow Memorial Church of Scotland, Arouca, 1840-2002.
St. Ann's Church of Scotland Historical Sketch 1846-1996; Kirk Session of Greyfriars/St. Ann's Church of Scotland 1996.
© Clifford Rawlins, 2011