Broadmead Baptist Church, Bristol UK
                                                           "The Church Above the Shops"

Knibb the Notorious

This address was given at Broadmead Baptist Church on Sunday 7th September 2003 on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the birth of William Knibb.

So who was William Knibb?

William Knibb was the son of Thomas, a tailor of Kettering, Northamptonshire, a town locally known as 'The Holy Land', because of the high degree of Sunday observance and chapel-going among its residents. The Knibb family was very much part of this, all going to the local Congregational Church, except for Thomas, who was more than once declared a bankrupt, and who William referred to kindly, but always with sorrow, as 'the unbelieving odd man out' in this Christian household. Eventually William, and his older brother Thomas, were apprenticed to J G Fuller, a printer, and the son of Andrew Fuller, the Baptist minister in Kettering who had been a founder of the Baptist Missionary Society in 1792, as well as its first Secretary.

J G Fuller moved his printing business in 1816 to Bristol, and the Knibb boys, Thomas and William, followed their work. In Bristol they both became members of Broadmead Baptist church, where John Ryland, jnr, was minister and also President of the Baptist College. William was baptised on profession of his Christian faith on 7 March 1822. In the same year a teacher was needed for a school which the Baptist Missionary Society had opened in Kingston, Jamaica, and William's older brother, Thomas, together with his wife, was accepted for the post, and arrived In Jamaica before the year as out.

William already saw himself as a missionary, and went preaching with one of the Bristol Academy students, Samuel Nichols, in the city slums, in an area known as the Beggars Opera, or 'Beggars Uproars', where Bristol beggars gathered for relaxation and drinking after a day's work. William did not find preaching easy, but continued when Nichols moved on to other responsibilities.

In the summer of 1824 came news that his brother Thomas had died in the April of a fever. William was devastated by the news, but eventually went to J G Fuller, his employer, and said: 'If the Society will accept me, I'll go and take his place.' John Ryland had already got his eye on William as a printer, and commented: 'A good lad, but not equal to Thomas'. William was accepted, and went for three month's training at the Borough Road School of the British and Foreign Bible Society, a showpiece of the 'Lancastrian' system. His irrepressible high spirits, addiction to fooling, and 'incessant activity' rather than deep thoughtfulness, reflected William's 'whole-hogging temperament and his tendency to exaggerate in all things'. J G Fuller hoped that William's bride to be, Mary Watkins, a fellow-member at Broadmead and five years his senior, a 'sweet-tempered and sensible' girl, might just be the calming influence he needed. Taken to task by Nichols for his levity, William told a Bristol lady of his acquaintance: 'I do not mean to say that a minister should not cultivate gravity, but while that is the ballast, let cheerfulness spread the sails!'

William and Mary sailed in January 1825, a few months after William's 21st birthday, arriving in Jamaica in February. Knibb became schoolmaster in Kingston, but, like his brother before him, was soon preaching at Port Royal. The BMS had given instruction to Knibb, as to all its Jamaica missionaries, that they were to view slavery through the eyes of St Paul, who had exhorted slaves to be obedient to their masters at all times, and they were in no circumstances to interfere in civil or political matters. For some years the missionaries obeyed these instructions, until circumstances forced a change. Knibb made no attempt to hide his hatred of slavery when he wrote home to his mother: 'The cursed blast of slavery has like a pestilence withered almost every moral bloom.' His colleague, Phillippo, pulled no punches either, about the awfulness of slavery in his book, Jamaica, Its past and present state, summing it up as 'dreary, hopeless and hereditary bondage.'

Early Baptist pioneers in Jamaica

The West Indies mission holds a unique place in the history of Baptist Mission, as the missionaries did not go to wholly unevangelised territory, but served as pastors and teachers of an existing Christian Negro community. It was also a period of unprecedented church growth, and the emergence of an autonomous, indigenous church soon followed. Most notably of all, Baptist missionaries there exercised a decisive influence on the course of secular history. George Lisle and Moses Baker, two former American Negro slaves were the preachers who prepared the way for Baptist work in Jamaica.

George Lisle, an emancipated slave born in Virginia, regarded as the first Baptist preacher in Jamaica, was one of 4-5000 slaves who, with their masters, had left America was a result of the War of Independence. He preached first on the racecourse at Kingston, Jamaica, where the novelty of a black itinerant preacher attracted much attention. Having gathered a 'congregation', he purchased a piece of land about a mile from Kingston, where a chapel was built, and sought support from John Rippon, of Carter Lane, London. His preaching was deemed seditious and he was imprisoned, but was later acquitted.

The mulatto, Moses Baker, a barber from New York, arrived in Jamaica in 1783. After a long personal struggle he came to faith in 1788 and was baptised by Lisle. A Quaker planter invited Baker to settle on his estate and instruct the slaves 'in religion and moral principles'. Moses Baker made contact with Dr John Ryland, Broadmead's pastor and College principal, and asked Ryland for some help in Jamaica. John Rowe, a college student, who married one of the Broadmead young women, Sarah Grundy, went to help Moses Baker, preaching to congregations of 500 slaves on the Quaker estate. Rowe, born in Lopen, Somerset, in 1788, like many of the early missionaries to Jamaica, died early, in 1816.

When William Knibb arrived he joined Thomas Burchell and James Phillippo, who became a Jamaican Trio, much as Carey, Ward and Marshman had been in Serampore, 20 years earlier.

The Power of the Planters

The most influential class in Jamaica were the Planters and they were the most unwilling that Nonconformists should settle and instruct their slaves. The Planters had considerable influence in the Jamaican House of Assembly and over local magistrates, and their allies were the Anglican parish clergy. John Rowe had written to Ryland that he would have had more influence if he had not been a Baptist, 'as people in general are more prejudiced against them than any other sect'. The Planters had persuaded the House of Assembly to make preaching without a licence illegal, supported by further legislation that allowed no preacher to function before six in the morning or after sunset. These were, of course, the only times at which slaves would be free to worship. Attempts by people like Thomas Buxton, in the House of Commons in England, to pass legislation to improve the conditions under which slaves lived, only had the effect of making Planters more violent in their attitude to slaves and missionaries. Thomas Burchell, with his colleague James Mann, was working in the Northwest of Jamaica, founding new churches regularly, and it was here Knibb began his own preaching work. Knibb wrote to Sam Nichols:

I have now reached the land of sin, disease, and death, where Satan reigns with awful power, and carries multitudes captive at his will. True religion is scoffed at and those who profess it and ridiculed and insulted. The Sabbath is violated, and …many would wish all the servants of God were banished out of the land.'

Wilberforce was a by-word through Jamaica as the one who had, in 1807, secured the abolition of the British Slave trade. To the Planters, an arch-enemy, to the black people, a saint, Wilberforce and his supporters were nonetheless taking their time to abolish slavery itself: they seemed to think that it would wither away, once the trade had been stopped. It did not, and so in 1822 the abolitionists, led by Wilberforce turned their attention once more to Parliament.

The Insurrection

Only Knibb, of the Jamaica trio, was in Jamaica, when an insurrection of the slaves took place in 1831. It seems that the slaves' intention was passive resistance, refusing to work after Christmas unless given wages. But the movement's character changed swiftly, and houses and machinery on estates were set on fire. The militia were called out and the rebellion brutally and swiftly stamped out. The Planters saw this as their opportunity to get the Baptist missionaries out. At one time there were seven Baptist missionaries under arrest, charged with complicity in the insurrection. Knibb was among these, as was Burchell who, though not in Jamaica at the time, was taken off the ship that had brought him from England, and arrested on 7 January 1832 in Montego Bay. Released on 16 March, Burchell returned to England, and it was soon apparent that one of the missionaries must go to England to state their case, so Knibb and his family left for England 26 April 1832. By the time Knibb got home, news of the insurrection, and the burning of the Montego Bay chapel was reported, then the subsequent demolition of all the Baptist and most of the Methodist chapels in the western parishes of Jamaica, many at the hands of the militia, was causing rising indignation.

Knibb arrived in London, a few days before the BMS Committee meeting on 19 June, to be followed on 21 June by the public annual meetings. The committee, 'with one voice' according to Hinton, 'strove to deflect Knibb from his proposed course of action: only Dr Thomas Price encouraged him to stand fast and 'if necessary to break with the Committee, rather than be gagged.'

As Price describes it, Knibb gave a detailed account of his own personal arrest and sufferings, which was received with 'the deepest interest' by the Committee. At length Knibb stood up, 'and his words as near as I can recollect, certainly in substance were: "Myself, my wife, and my children, are entirely dependent upon the Baptist Mission; we have landed without a shilling, and may at once be reduced to penury. But, if it be necessary, I will take them by the hand and walk barefoot through the Kingdom, but I will make known to the Christians in England what their brethren in Jamaica are suffering". [Wright, p.115] The declaration had a powerful effect on the Committee, and it was agreed Knibb and Phillippo would present a report on the Jamaica Mission at the public meeting.

At that meeting, Knibb told his audience that the missionaries had resolutely kept silent about civil and political affairs, as long as they had freedom to preach: but now there was an onslaught upon Christian teaching, and it was clear the Negroes would be denied it for ever, unless slavery was abolished. 'I now stand forward as the unflinching and undaunted advocate of immediate emancipation'. The statement was greeted with tremendous applause, lasting several minutes. He told of his experiences in the insurrection, of the colonists contempt for the declared intentions of the British Government, and the lawless vengeance of the Colonial Union - 'a colonial church union', composed of Planters and Anglican clergy, further designated by Knibb as 'nearly all the fornicators in the island…formed to stop the march of mind and religion.'

Some of the platform party heard him with undisguised regret; others, realising the matter could not be avoided, had urged moderation - while he was speaking Dyer is stated to have pulled Knibb's coat-tail by way of admonition - and heard him with anxiety. But the vast majority of the Assembly heard him with ardent sympathy, and testified their concurrence by bursts of loud and long-continued applause. At a subsequent meeting of the friends of Christian Missions in the new Exeter Hall, in the Strand, 3000 representatives of the various Dissenting bodies gave repeated rounds of deafening applause to Knibb's speech, that he concluded with a touching tribute to Wilberforce, by then terminally ill.

The result was that the Abolition Bill became law on 28 August 1833. By it, slavery was to be finally abolished on 1 August 1834, and all children under six at that date, or born subsequently, were to be free, but with this exception: slaves were to be bound to work as 'apprentices' without wages, for their former masters, for a further 12 years. Up to £20million wwas to be paid to slave-owners in compensation.

The Apprenticeship system

This was bound to fail, as Phillippo among others was quick to point out. It was obvious that the Planters would work their slaves to death in the apprenticeship period, and events justified this view. The half emancipated slaves were to work for their masters for a set time each week, and for the remainder, could work for wages. The planters ruined the plan by spreading the hours to be worked for them over six days, instead of four. Additionally, the brutality to the slaves made it clear to Knibb and others that the day of complete emancipation must be brought forward.

Now back in Jamaica, Knibb urged members of his church in Falmouth who had slaves to free them immediately. Phillippo persuaded the Governor of Jamaica, Sir Marcus Sligo to free all his slaves on 1 August 1838. Sligo made his decision in the Spring of 1838, and by 22 May 1838 the House of Commons decided to abolish the apprenticeship system on 1 August 1838.

Planters had provided some kind of free accommodation for slaves, but with emancipation, was no longer required to do so, many demanding exorbitant rents or offering unreasonably low wages. To help the newly free slaves, many Baptist churches bought up land, which they then sold off in small lots to the people of their churches, thus enabling freed slaves to escape from living on the sugar plantations. Knibb and his church formed Hoby Town for this purpose. The money came from England and within a few years many ex-slaves became industrious free-holders.

The Baptist Churches in Jamaica were first formed into two Unions, the Eastern and the Western, and these came together in 1849, to form the Jamaica Baptist Union, a self-supporting Union needing no further financial support from the BMS, except for specific projects.

Knibb's death

On Sunday 9 November 1845, William Knibb preached in the Baptist Church where he was pastor, in Falmouth, Jamaica, in such a way that one hearer said 'there was too much of heaven in it for him to be long an inhabitant of earth'. After preaching in the evening, Knibb, exhausted and sweating, walked home in a downpour without coat or umbrella. The next day he drove his family to Kettering, for the Western Regional meeting of Baptist ministers, and on the way home complained of pains in his back. He took to his bed on Friday, when symptoms of Yellow Fever appeared. Knibb, from his bed, gave out a hymn and conducted a brief service for those gathered at his bedside. On Saturday morning he died.

Next day, according to the local paper, 8000 people swelled the funeral procession that left the Baptist Manse, and 'the multitude moved through the streets in a silence broken by half-stifled sounds of grief, but as the [pastor's] body was carried into the chapel they broke out into lamentations, which Walter Dendy likened to the wailing of the children of Israel when they lifted up their voice and wept at Bochim.

One contemporary minister said of Knibb, his faults were egotism, love of power and bitter intolerance. Another, acknowledging his by no means perfect character, described him as 'a man of ardent piety, an indomitable advocate of liberty, a straightforward though not always a consistent man, and a warm-hearted friend'. The Patriot newspaper felt safe in affirming that future ages would link his name with those of Clarkson and Wilberforce.

Knibb was a man of passionate intensity, who had a combative temperament that led him to champion the human rights of this black, enslaved, church members. Such crusading brought him the bitter hostility of colonial white Planters who saw him, and all Dissenter preachers as subversive agents against the status quo. To the English public he was known as 'the friend of the negro', whose views carried weight in the Colonial Office, whose words were quoted in the House of Commons, as he became powerful protagonist for the immediate abolition of slavery following the passing of the Reform Bill in 1832.

Mary Knibb remained in Jamaica, surviving William by 20 years. One of their daughters, Ann married Ellis Fray, who became pastor of congregations at Kettering and Refuge In Jamaica, and so in the grandchildren of the man who had called the apprentices, bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh, the strain of noble-minded English nonconformists was united with that of enslaved Africans. His memorial plaque in Falmouth Baptist Church, Jamaica, states the church's appreciation clearly:

William Knibb, endeared to the sons of Africa
by early devotedness to their improvement,
he was a rare example of youthful philanthropy,
hatred of oppression and love of freedom, …
who thus declared that slavery is incompatible with Christianity.

A recognition of his services that was later acknowledged when the Jamaican Government posthumously awarded William Knibb its highest honour, the Order of Merit, on 1 August 1987, 150 years after the abolition of slavery.

ROGER HAYDEN

Bibliography

Philip Wright Knibb, 'the Notorious'; Slaves' Missionary 1803-1845 Sidgwick and Jackson, 1973
B Stanley The History of the Baptist Missionary Society, 1792-1992 T&T Clark 1992
Basil Amey The Unfinished Story, CTP, Baptist Union, 1991
J H Hinton Life of William Knibb London 1847
E B Underhill Life of James M Phillippo London 1881
W E Burchell Memoir of Thomas Burchell London 1849
G A Catherall Baptist War and Peace Unpublished PhD, Keele