Presbyterians in the Caribbean

Caribbean-flavoured Presbyterianism

Jerome Teelucksingh

UWI School of Continuing Studies, 2008.

ISBN 978-976-620-235-4, 244 pages.

In the acknowledgments of his book, historian Jerome Teelucksingh first expresses his “gratitude to God for allowing me the strength and wisdom to produce this scholarly work.” So this immediately clues the reader that this book will be more of an apologetic for the Presbyterian Church than a rigorous academic history.

Teelucksingh has several agendas in this work, but two main ones are to prove that the minority of Afro-Trinidadians in Presbyterian schools does not mean that the church was racist, and that there were no forced conversions of Indo-Trinidadians. His purely academic purpose, he writes, “encapsulates critical periods in Trinidad’s history and incorporates the sociological and historical processes which helped shape the island’s educational system.” Teelucksingh takes a curious approach in showing that Presbyterian schools were not anti-black. He quotes former teachers and students who recall Negro girls and teachers in the schools, even utilising fictional works for this purpose. “Novelist Ramabai Espinet, a past student of NGHS, in one of her novels mentioned a teacher, Miss Camilla Lee, who was of African and Chinese heritage,” he writes.

He also excuses racial statements (against Indians) from Canadian Presbyterian newsletters by saying, “While there are racial overtones in the articles, this could be the personal opinion of the editor or a few individuals and does not necessarily mean that entire Presbyterian Church and its missionaries were guilty of racism.” However, since spokespersons for any institution usually attain that position precisely because they reflect the values and attitudes of the organisation, Teelucksingh’s apologetic is unconvincing.

He ties himself into even more contradictions when he argues that the Canadian missionaries did not attempt to convert the students who attended their schools. On the one hand, he provides statistics showing the low rate of converts to Presbyterianism, while on the other hand he quotes a retired school principal saying “I used the opportunity to evangelise to my pupils and others in the community”, and also cites many instances of students of Presbyterian schools who became converts. In any case, it again seems more than a little improbable that missionaries who set up schools for the specific purpose of converting “heathens” to Christianity would not try to do so, even if they had the good sense not to be overt in their attempts.

So what about the academic aspects of the book? Teelucksingh does provide some useful statistics on the relationship between Indians and Christianity in Trinidad, as well as a summary of the presence of the Presbyterian Church throughout the Caribbean. He also shows how important the Presbyterian schools were in accelerating the acculturation of Indians into Trinidad society.

But his main technique for demonstrating the “sociological and historical processes which helped shape the island’s educational system” consists of long lists of names of prominent graduates from Presbyterian primary and secondary schools, which he apparently fails to realise can only interest Presbyterians themselves, who make up just three percent of the population (though Teelucksingh throughout the book claims four percent).

Ironically, despite his agendas, he does not delve into the fact that Presbyterians are the most highly educated group in TT relative to their size, nor does he cite Selwyn Ryan’s surveys showing their tolerant attitudes. And, despite the book’s title, he never explains how Presbyterianism in the Caribbean is differently-flavoured to its mother church in Canada. Teelucksingh’s book is therefore a good insider’s account, which will not offend God. As a scholarly work, however, it is more polemic than history.


"Presbyterians in the Caribbean"

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