THIS IS PART ONE IN A SPIRITUAL SERIES I WILL RUN IN THE AFTER HOURS
MYALISM WAS a religious movement started by Africans who were brought to Jamaica to work on plantations. It was regarded as one of the first anti-slavery movements as Myalists worked to free themselves from enslavement, an evil caused by European witchcraft, they believed.
It went through periods of proliferation, suppression, and spiritual and ideological warfare with white missionaries, who felt that Myalism was too powerful a force, which compromised their orthodoxy. But, in the late 1850s, Myalism began to evolve into what is now known as Revivalism.
“Although Myal as a separate religion probably no longer exists, core elements survived in later developments such as Revival … . As a religious cult, Myalism reached its zenith after Emancipation to around the time of the Great Revival of 1860-61 and seems to have become absorbed into what is now called Revival,” Olive Senior writes in Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage.
The Great Revival began from 1858-59 as a great Christian revival, known as The Prayer Meeting Revival. It swept across continental USA and the British Isles.
Tony Cauchi, writing online, says, “The results of this revival were filled churches, transformed lives, missionary expansion, evangelistic passion, philanthropic growth and a massive revitalisation of the universal church. It was extraordinary, even in Jamaica!” The fervour spread, and took root in 1860-61 in Jamaica.
Yet, Revivalism didn’t emerge as one cohesive force. There are two branches, the 60 Order or Revival Zion, and the 61 Order or Pocomania. Zion tends to have many elements of orthodox European religions, while Pocomania represents mainly elements of African spiritual worship and practices.
Pocomania much berated
For whatever reasons, Pocomania is much berated, even by some Zion Revivalists themselves. This negative attitude was vocalised recently in an interview with a pilgrim at the Zion Headquarters at Watt Town in St Ann.
“In everything, there is good and bad. We have 60 and 61, 60 is clean, let me not say a thing more,” Linda Edwards, a long-time Zion Revivalist said.
And just as how Myalism was regarded with much disdain by planters and missionaries who didn’t understand the sensibilities of traditional African religious practices and philosophies, the birth of Revivalism was to be another era of tension, misunderstanding, resentment by post-Emancipation plantation owners and the established churches.
“At the time of the Great Revival, the orthodox church leaders, alarmed by what they saw as over-emotionalism and ‘heathenism’, roundly denounced the Revivalists, and this attitude has influenced popular perception to this day of what are generally referred to as ‘Poco People’,” Senior writes.
But condemnation and persecution could not dampen the fervour of Revivalism, which has evolved into a full-fledged religion. “It is a Christian religion which many people don’t know, and most people don’t know that revival means from death to life. It’s an ongoing process,” Edwards said.
The process has come a long way, according to Senior. “Once sidelined as small bands of deluded and derided cultists, Revival bands nowadays are organised churches with pastors and bishops, convention and communion services,” Senior says.
Revival churches have organised themselves into bands or ‘bans’ led by a charismatic or influential leader called a captain in Zion or Shepherd in Pocomania. The female leaders are called Mother and members call themselves Brother and Sister. Each band has a leadership hierarchy.
The compound on which the church is located is usually the ‘yard’ of the leader. It’s known as the mission ground, which is easily recognised by brightly coloured flags hoisted on very tall poles. “This is both to identify the ground and attract spirits,” Senior writes.
EVIVALISTS BELIEVE the spiritual and the earthly realms are one. The living and the departed, therefore, can communicate with each other. “Therefore, the living can become possessed and influenced by the spirits of the dead,” Olive Senior writes in Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage.
They also subscribe to the holy trinity concept of The Father, Son, and The Holy Ghost, known as the ‘messenger’ or the ‘spirit’, who possesses worshippers and converts.
The spirit might be that of Old Testament prophets, New Testament apostles and evangelists, archangels, Satan, his assistants, other beings and mystical figures, and the spirits of influential dead Revivalists.
And in as much the same way, Revivalists believe the spiritual and earthly realms are one and the same, in that they can move from one to the other through possession. They don’t see a separation between good and evil forces. One force has evil and benevolent qualities, which are called upon to do different things.
“Power derived from the spirit world is used for both physical and spiritual healing and the enhancement of the worshipper’s life and well-being,” Senior says. However, there is
a general belief that spirits are also requested to perform
“Revivalists are concerned with harnessing the unseen forces of the universe that are not good or bad in themselves, but can be utilised by man for different purposes,” Senior also says.
The types of spirits that Zion and Pocomania call upon are very different. Zion invokes sky spirits, such as that of God, archangels, angels, etc. Pocomania Revivalists entreat Earth spirits, such as those of dead acquaintances, and mystical beings, for instance, the river maid is one of their main agents.
“Under possession, she confronts and deals with hostile water spirits who impede the spiritual journey of possessed brethren through a river, her spiritual territory,” according to a note in Jamaica Journal Vol. 32 Nos. 1-2.
Possession is the vehicle that transports Revivalists from one realm to the other. To get into the spirit or be possessed
happens after much singing, dancing, clapping, drumming, trumping and praying. The worshipper who is possessed is said to be travelling. Dreams and visions are also portals that connect the realms of the living and that of the departed.
Sometimes the possession occurs for days, when the possessed is said to be in a ‘schoolroom’, getting instructions from the spirits. “Possession by spirits then is central to Revival worshippers and powerful rituals,” Senior states.
In addition to their regular divine worships and prayer meetings, Revivalists carry our special occasion rituals, especially for christenings, baptisms, burials and new building dedications. There are also street meetings for outreach purposes, and ‘balm yard’ healing rituals in which the afflicted is rid of the charm or ‘crosses’ that is the basis of the affliction.
Revival rituals can be fascinating processes, especially to the person who is seeing one for the very first time. They are full of colour, artistry and symbolisms that can be easily misinterpreted. The beating of drums and the clashing of cymbals (sometimes) are central. They accompany the singing and set the pace and mood for the message to be carried. There is also Bible reading, preaching and testimonies.
But it is the trumping and the dancing and the ‘speaking in tongues’ that set the pace for the possession. Revivalists dance and moan in a particular way that gets intense as they trample on unwanted spirits.
“While moving their bodies forward, Revivalists bend, expelling the breath, and utter a groaning sound on the upswing … a movement that causes dizziness in some persons and facilitates the onset of spirit possession,” Senior writes.
And sometimes, the drumming stops suddenly, leaving the worshippers to utter a moaning chant as they go around in circles. “Members will become possessed and ‘travel’ to the spirit world. Each member imitates the particular spirit in movement and sound, e.g., dove … the leader himself receives and interprets spirit messages.”
REVIVALISM IN Jamaica evolved out of Myalism, another Afrocentric religion whose purpose was to rid the land of evil charms and to heal the spiritually and physically afflicted.
The emergence of Revivalism came in the 1860s with two different branches: 60 (1860) or Zion; and 61 (1861) or Pocomania.
Revivalists believe in the Holy Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), and they see no separation between the earthly and the spiritual realms.
As such, there is communion and communication between the living and the departed through the conduits of spiritual possessions, signs, dreams, and visions. Zion people call upon sky spirits such as archangels and angels, while Pocomania invokes earth spirits, such as fallen angels and water spirits.
Because of the spiritual nature of Revivalism, Revivalists use many artefactual symbols to represent elements of the religion. From their attention-grabbing attires, adorned with sundry paraphernalia, to the objects they use in their services and rituals, Revivalism is replete with
One of the symbols of Revival is the turban, wrapped, styled, and embellished in a variety of ways. It is one of the most recognisable symbols of Revivalism and has given use to the term ‘wrap-head church’. The wrapping of the head and how it is wrapped has many symbolic reasons, likewise the things with which the turban is adorned.
Early this year, Family and Religion spoke with Pastor Henry Hunter of Morant Bay, St Thomas at the first 2015 quarterly conference held at the Zion Headquarters and Jerusalem Schoolroom in Watt Town, St Ann, about the Revival turban. He said the turban represents many things. For instance, Henry said his black turban, which he calls a diadem, represents power and authority.
Turban colours and style
The colours and styles of the turbans are based on how the wearers are instructed by angels and the angels with whom that they are working. It is also “a spiritual covering of the head”, he said. “Because, you see, as servants of God, being faithful to God, we will come under spiritual attack. It’s a war that we are in – a spiritual war going on between God Almighty and the devil,” he said.
Family and Religion also spoke with Revivalism scholar and researcher at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Dr Clinton Hutton. He said the influence of the turban is to attract a particular type of spirit. In this case, Hutton said the turban is like an altar, a seal, as it is adorned with objects to induce spiritual possession. In this case, the spirit takes over the head of the wearer until the possession is over.
“The seal, a consecrated space, is where Revivalists do their cleansing (cutting and clearing) and invoking of spirits. These seals, or sacred ports, or docks, or spirit-empowered devices, are an assemblage of a multiplicity of natural and/or manufactured ritualised objects abounding with movement (aliveness) from the interplay of shapes, colours, light, shade, and texture,” Hutton writes in Jamaica Journal Vol. 32 Nos. 1-2.
The name of Hutton’s article in the journal is ‘The Revival Table – Feasting with the Ancestors and Spirits’. In it, Hutton writes about the symbolism of the Revival table, another important Revival symbol. It is an elaborately set table of cooked and baked food, fruits, citrus, liquor, candles, and other objects.
“The Revival table, which seems to combine the feeding of the ancestral spirits (ground spirits) … with the feeding of the deifical spirits (heavenly spirits) is an artistically arranged display of traditional Jamaican dishes, which are ritually cooked, usually without salt, especially those which are prepared for the spirits,” Hutton said.
In explaining the motivation for the setting up of the Revival table, Hutton writes, among other things, “The ritual feedings of the ancestors and ancestral gods is, in some respects, quite pervasive and central to the way that many people in the African diaspora make sense of their existential reality and sense of self.” It is to communicate with and have communion with the ancestors.
Outsiders who do not understand Revival symbolism have come up with their own interpretations. This misunderstanding has led to much distrust of and disdain for Revivalism, which is often vilified as an evil cult. This attitude towards Revivalism is as old as the religion itself.
Yet, no other religion or movement in Jamaica has influenced popular culture and the arts more than Revivalism, the dramatic ritual that it can be. “Revival music, dress, and behaviour have inspired novels, poems, plays, dance theatre and reggae music … ,” Olive Senior writes in Encyclopaedia of Jamaica Heritage.