William Knibb Baptist Church
The twentieth-century William Knibb Memorial Baptist Church stands on the site that has housed the Baptists in Falmouth since their first chapel, built in 1831 and destroyed in 1832. The church that replaced the chapel in 1836 was demolished by a hurricane in August 1944, after which the present structure was built, incorporating material from the nineteenth-century church. Though no image survives of the first chapel, a lithograph of the second church betrays its sophisticated Greek Revival detailing.
The significance of William Knibb Memorial is largely historical, as these destroyed nineteenth-century buildings, their ministers, and the Baptist community engaged in the struggle for emancipation of Jamaica’s enslaved population. Baptist missionary John Rowe was active in Falmouth and broader Trelawny by 1814 and received a permit from the Parish Vestry to open a “non-conformist,” meaning non-Anglican, school in April of that year. He died in 1816, leaving Falmouth without a Baptist minister. In 1827, Thomas Burchell arrived in Falmouth to found the congregation. He and his successor, James Mann, were welcomed particularly by slaves. Mann died after a short but successful ministry in 1830.1
The English Baptist minister William Knibb (1803 – 1845) arrived as a missionary in Jamaica on November 5, 1824 with his new wife, Mary Watkins. Originally sailing to replace his brother as a missionary and schoolmaster, Knibb worked at the Baptist mission school in Kingston before moving to Savanna-la-Mar in 1828. In March of 1830, Knibb arrived in Falmouth with his wife and two children to assume the responsibilities of minister at the Baptist church.
Best known as an advocate for abolition, Knibb often defended black slaves’ rights. When he arrived in Jamaica in the 1820s, Knibb, other Baptists, and the Methodists opposed the House of Assembly’s re-enactment of the Consolidated Slave Law, which by prohibiting the assembly of slave congregations and taxing non-Conformist churches, sought to prevent slaves from inciting rebellions.2 Knibb also publically defended Sam Swiney, a falsely accused slave, first by publicizing his case in an island newspaper and eventually by advocating to the Secretary of State for the Colonies in London, who ultimately dismissed the magistrates responsible for Swiney’s wrongful conviction.3 In addition to preaching, Knibb was known for teaching slaves how to build houses. Records show that Knibb bought more than one hundred acres at Granville Pen, a cattle farm in Trelawny, which was subdivided and sold as lots, possibly to former slaves in Falmouth who belonged to his church.4
In January of 1832, Knibb used the Falmouth Baptist chapel as a barracks for the St. Ann’s regiment during the Great Jamaican Slave Revolt. The Revolt, led by a slave named Samuel Sharpe, encouraged as many as 60,000 of Jamaica’s 300,000 enslaved persons to rebel. Magistrates and officers of the militia suppressed the events. As the militia prepared to leave Falmouth on February 7, Mr. John W. Gaynor, a magistrate and ensign, Adjutant Samuel Tucker and the Colonial Church Union encouraged their men to demolish the chapel, making it one among many across the island destroyed after aiding the insurrecting slaves.5
Knibb was sent back to England by the Baptists of Jamaica in 1832 to plead their cause and fight for emancipation. Knibb traveled to public meetings in England and Scotland and discussed the work being done by the Baptist church for slaves in Jamaica. In May 1833, the Bill for the Abolition of Slavery in the Colonies was introduced in Parliament. The goals of English emancipators were achieved on August 1, 1834, when slaves throughout the British Empire were liberated. Knibb returned to Falmouth later that year.6
A system of apprenticeships took effect in Jamaica, and full emancipation was ultimately achieved in 1838. With full emancipation came the Jamaican Awakening, a religious revival lasting from 1838 to 1845 that involved the baptizing of 22,000 former slaves as Baptists, including 6,000 by Knibb. The Baptists in Jamaica also built 47 new chapels during this revival, and Knibb’s church congregation grew from 650 to 1,280 members.7
The lithograph of the 1836 chapel was produced by T. Picker and published by R. Cartwright in London as part of the Baptist chapel series in about 1840. The lithograph states not only that the Reverend William Knibb erected the building in 1836, but also that its dimensions were eighty by sixty feet, that it seated 3,000 people and 500 Sunday school children, and cost nearly £16,000. This church survived decades of storms and hurricanes until it was destroyed by the cyclone of Sunday, August 20, 1944.8
Two monuments originally placed within in this second structure survive today at William Knibb Memorial Church. The first recognizes emancipation, “erected, by the sons of Africa, to commemorate their freedom, August the first 1838.” Imported from Birmingham, England, this neoclassical marble monument depicts both leaders of the efforts for abolition and daily activities of former African slaves. The second monument was erected in memory of William Knibb and, while undated, both its neoclassical style and devotion indicate a mid-nineteenth-century date. Knibb died of yellow fever in Jamaica on November 15, 1845 and eight thousand African Jamaicans attended his funeral at Falmouth’s Baptist church. Commissioned by emancipated slaves, this funerary monument not only praises Knibb’s work for abolition, but also his preaching and ministering.
1 Ogilvie, Daniel L. History of the Parish of Trelawny (private publication: Falmouth, Jamaica: 1954) chapter 6. Accessed 18 October 2010 from http://www.jamaicanfamilysearch.com/Samples/histre06.htm
2 Masters, Peter, Missionary Triumph over Slavery: William Knibb & Jamaican Emancipation (London: The Wakeman Trust, 2006) 15
3 Masters, Peter, Missionary Triumph over Slavery: William Knibb & Jamaican Emancipation (London: The Wakeman Trust, 2006) 13-15
4 Ogilvie, Daniel L. History of the Parish of Trelawny (private publication: Falmouth, Jamaica: 1954) chapter 6. Accessed 18 October 2010 from http://www.jamaicanfamilysearch.com/Samples/histre06.htm
5 Masters, Peter, Missionary Triumph over Slavery: William Knibb & Jamaican Emancipation (London: The Wakeman Trust, 2006) 23
6 Masters, Peter, Missionary Triumph over Slavery: William Knibb & Jamaican Emancipation (London: The Wakeman Trust, 2006) 39
7 Masters, Peter, Missionary Triumph over Slavery: William Knibb & Jamaican Emancipation (London: The Wakeman Trust, 2006) 47-48
8 Ogilvie, Daniel L. History of the Parish of Trelawny (private publication: Falmouth, Jamaica: 1954) chapter 6. Accessed 18 October 2010 from http://www.jamaicanfamilysearch.com/Samples/histre06.htm