The story of God working throughout the history of Haiti to spread the message of His Son is fascinating. Here is a non-expert’s attempt to tell part of this story.
Both the Spanish and French imported numerous slaves from Africa to work the sugar plantations in the colony of Saint Dominique, modern day Haiti. As slaves arrived in the “New World”, they were exposed to Catholic doctrine and belief. Many adopted aspects of the new Catholic religion and combined it with their traditional African spiritualist practice, voodoo. “Voodoo” comes from the Fon language of Benin, West Africa, and means “spirit.” The slaves endured tremendous cruelty at the hands of their captors. As time went on, the African spiritualist beliefs became more a point of pride as Catholicism was increasingly viewed as the religion of the brutal slave holders.
Voodoo became a means to organize the fight for independence. This peaked during an infamous event in in 1791. According to Haiti’s official bicentennial website the Haitian revolution began on a night when “A man named Boukman organized a meeting with the slaves in the mountains of the North. This meeting took the form of a Voodoo ceremony in Bois Caiman in the northern mountains of the island. It was raining and the sky was raging with clouds; the slaves then started confessing their resentment of their condition. A woman started dancing languorously in the crowd, possessed by the spirits of the Loas. With a knife in her hand, she cut the throat of a pig and distributed the blood to all the participants of the meeting who swore to kill all the whites on the island.” The revolution that began on this night ended in 1804 with the formation of the first free slave republic in the world.
Soon after the revolution, all foreign priests in Haiti fled and Rome cut off all relations. This allowed the early Haitian Catholic Church to develop independently. Haiti found itself very isolated politically, racially and religiously from the rest of the world. Even the US refused to recognize the nation for years, fearing an uprising of our own slaves.
Early leaders feared that voodoo would further alienate them from the developed world. So, the Constitution of 1807 made Roman Catholicism Haiti’s official religion stating that no other religion (including Voodoo) could be practiced in public. Later, Haiti reestablished relations with the Vatican in 1860 and church power transferred once again to Europe. Meanwhile, influential Haitian voices like Louis Joseph Janvier, saw Protestantism as a means to modernize Haiti, since it encouraged pragmatism and self-reliance. During this time, Haiti’s first Protestant missionaries began to arrive. The first were a handful of British Methodist pastors with the English Wesleyan Mission who arrived in 1806.
The first American missionary was a Baptist, Thomas Paul, the son of freed slaves from Exeter, New Hampshire. Paul sailed into Cape Hayti (later Cap Haitien) in 1823 with crates of Bibles and tracts, and for six months he preached, baptized, and laid the groundwork for the establishment of the First Baptist Church there. Foreign Protestant missionaries later made significant inroads into Haiti during the US military occupation of Haiti from 1915-1934. During this time, the rural parts of Haiti began to have its first direct contact with the western world.
Many of these Protestant missionaries brought to the disadvantaged areas things many people had never had, namely, a steady supply of food, clean water, medical care and badly needed education. Through both indigenous and foreign missionaries, the message of Christ spread rapidly throughout Haiti during the first half of the 20th century. Protestant missions in Haiti, especially rural Haiti, soon found a strange supporter. It was championed by the infamous dictator Francois Duvalier, the first pro-voodoo, pro-peasant, black nationalist president. During this time, new fears of cultural imperialism and racism began to foster a reaction against continued foreign influence. Catholicism embodied this fear due to their centralized foreign power structure. Duvalier viewed the rise of Protestantism as help to break the power of the foreign dominated Catholic Church. He also supported the influx of Protestants because Protestants did not pose any immediate threat to him. They were seen not only as unwilling to interfere in political affairs, but they were eager to bring development and aid into the country as well.
Since the fall of the Duvalier regime in 1986, the religious landscape of Haiti has continued to change. A subversive grassroots group of Catholics called “Ti Legliz” developed to help oust the Duvaliers. This group among many others of the period (early 1990s) championed “Liberation Theology“ coming out of Central America and were far more political than religious. The movement drew widespread support from both the rural and urban poor and prepared the political landscape for the emergence of former Catholic priest, Jean Bertrand Aristide, and his political party, Lavalas (meaning “The Flood”) who came to dominate the political landscape. During his reign, voodoo was for the first time given equal standing as an official religion. Unfortunately, voodoo remains a powerful force today among superstitious nominal churchgoers.
Through the disastrous hurricane seasons of 2004, 2008 and the earthquake of January 2010 the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ has been dramatically spread. It remains to see what the long term impact of these events is for the Gospel. Challenges remain as poverty is the plight of most Haitians, while political corruption and civil unrest impede economic progress. It is the goal of Vanguard Ministries International to change lives through the Gospel of Jesus Christ at the individual level. Then real change will come.
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