In mid March, I found myself wandering along the cobblestone streets of historic Bermudian village of St. George’s. When my husband had suggested weeks earlier that we visit Bermuda, I endorsed the idea with zeal. Admittedly, I knew little about the country except for the association with blue sky, warm temperatures and a salty ocean breeze. I was completely unaware of Bermuda’s Irish connection.
The day before our return to Canada, we stumbled upon this plaque affixed to a the outside of an unassuming museum. Had we not ventured down an unexplored alleyway, I would have missed it.
The plaque read ‘John Stephenson, Methodist Missionary, was imprisoned in this jail for 6 months and fined 50 pounds for preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ to African Blacks and Captive Negroes. St. George’s, Bermuda 1801.’ The reverend carved this message into the cedar floor of his jail cell. (The carving was gifted to a London museum where it was destroyed by fire years later.)
My curiosity was piqued by the circumstances that lead to John Stephenson’s arrest. I assumed that ministering to anyone was encouraged in that era, regardless of race or creed. Why was he incarcerated for his mission work?
Equally engaging was the mention of the Wesleyan Methodist Church. I had noted that a number of my Irish ancestors had listed their religious belief as Methodist on their Canadian censuses. One of my English ancestors was named after John Wesley, a co-founder of the Wesleyan Methodist movement .
Upon returning home, I set about to learn more about this John Stephenson who was stood so firmly by his convictions that he’d been willing to risk serving six months in a sweltering Bermudian jail.
In his book History and Origins of Missionary Societies (1826), Reverend Thomas Smith wrote that the captain of Thetis, one of his majesty’s ships, wintered on the island of Bermuda during the winter of 1798. Appalled by the moral condition of the inhabitants, the captain wrote a letter requesting that a Wesleyan missionary to dispatched to Bermuda at once.
The Wesleyan Methodist Church responded in 1799 by sending Reverend John Stephenson. He left his native home of Dublin, Ireland, and sailed to New York then on to Bermuda. Reverend Dr. Thomas Coke, Superintendent of the Methodist Church, reported that word spread very quickly that an Irish Methodist missionary had arrived in port. An angry mob rushed to the water’s edge.
Recent events raised the suspicions of local residents. Britain had just quashed Irish rebels one year earlier. Also, slavery was a hotly argued subject in the Americas and in England; the Methodists were well known for their abolitionist views. White Bermudians were still frightened about the possibility of slave uprisings as had happened eight years previous in Haiti. Many tried to prevent Reverend Stephenson from disembarking because they presumed him to be an Irish rebel bent on igniting insurrection among the slave population.
Fortunately for Stephenson, an enlightened magistrate stepped in to diffuse the situation. The reverend next visited the governor and offered proof that he was in fact an ordained minister and additional documents from Dublin confirming his missionary status. Overtime, opposition faded. His congregation, having grown to 74 white and 30 black parishioners by April of 1800, was able to raise moneys to build a church.
Suspicion was soon replaced with jealousy, and once again, a rising Bermudian opposition sought to silence John Stephenson. He was cautioned against the dangers of shaking hands with black people and preaching to a black audiences.
In Britain, the Methodists were becoming increasingly excluded from the Church of England. In the same spirit, Bermuda passed a law that persons not affiliated with the Church of England or Scotland were prohibited from ministering in public or private. The punishment for breaking the law included a six month incarceration and a 50 pound fine. A similar punishment would be visited on anyone who hosted said minister in their home.
Reverend Stephenson regarded the law as an infringement on basic rights and so he continued with his ministry as per usual. Mr. Peter Pallais, a renowned silversmith, was one of Stephenson’s earliest and most dedicated converts. After hosting a prayer meeting in his home, he was arrested along with Stephenson. Pallais was released after a few days out of respect for his mature age and delicate health. The reverend refused bail and served his entire six month sentence . The accusation was that he ‘read prayers from a book which he held in his hand, and sang psalms to a congregation’.
Communications were sent to his majesty’s government in England, requesting the overturn of the law that prohibited preaching by anyone outside the Church of England. The request was granted in short order but it took nearly three years before the Bermudian government announced the change to the law. It was all too late for Stephenson. Shortly after the reverend’s release from prison, failing health prohibited him from meeting the requirements of his position. He returned to Ireland where he died in 1819.
In the process of researching these events, I learned that John Wesley, one of the founders of the Methodist faith, denounced slavery after reading the works of Anthony Benezet, a Quaker abolitionist. Benezet worked ferverently to demonstrate the equality between the races. He taught poor black children to read. Notably, he also started the first American public school for girls. I’m pleased to know I’ve come from ancestral roots that supported abolitionist ideals.
I’d love to hear from you!
Perhaps you have some Bermudian history to share? Or a relative anecdote?