Alexander Bedward’s mythical powers of flight.
Edward White’s The Lives of Others is a monthly series about unusual, largely forgotten figures from history.
It’s impossible to know exactly how many people amassed in August Town, Jamaica, on New Year’s Eve, 1920, to watch Alexander Bedward fly to heaven. Some eyewitnesses claimed thousands: dense clumps of people wading in the shallow waters of the Hope River, crowding the banks or perched in the branches of the surrounding trees. Most of them were unquestioning believers to whom Bedward’s words had the weight of Scripture. For thirty years he had built a vast following by healing, rejuvenating, and baptizing in this very stretch of water, helping ordinary people to know God—and themselves—in ways they’d never imagined possible. Now in his seventies, Bedward sat in a wooden throne, dressed in pristine white robes, awaiting the sweet moment of prophetic fulfillment when he, like Elijah before him, would soar into the unknowable beyond. His ascent, he promised his followers, would hasten the Rapture; before the sun had set, he would be gone and they would be free.
Some had their doubts. In fact, a great many Jamaicans dismissed him as either a charlatan or one of the island’s growing number of feebleminded unfortunates. The idea that Jamaica was suffering an epidemic of insanity had first surfaced in the 1890s, when the Gleaner newspaper ran reports about the vast overcrowding of the island’s only asylum: supposed proof that a contagion of madness was spreading out of control, especially among the black population. According to the historian Leonard Smith, in 1863/64 the Jamaican Lunatic Asylum admitted seventy-one black people and two white people; twenty-five years later, the annual white intake had stayed exactly the same, but the number of black patients had increased to 153.
As far as the Gleaner’s excitable journalists were concerned, the principle reason for this trend was the Great Revival, a spirit of evangelical fervor that arrived in Jamaica in the 1860s and permanently transformed its spiritual life. The movement had blown in on the Caribbean Sea earlier in the century from the United States and the British Isles. It was initially welcomed by traditional Christian denominations, but only as long as the black men and women who crammed the churches communed with God in ways familiar to the ministers and missionaries from New (and old) England. When devotion began to adopt practices redolent of West African folk cultures, the sensibilities of “respectable” Jamaicans were gravely offended. William James Gardner, one of the country’s first great historians, peered inside places of worship across the island and was appalled to discover speaking in tongues, spirit communing, purification rituals, prophesying, dancing, and drumming: “wild extravagance and almost blasphemous fanaticism” had polluted the Christian faith with “foul and repulsive … impurities.”
What was “foul and repulsive” to Gardner was joyous liberation for many black Jamaicans. Slavery had only been abolished in the 1830s; this outpouring of religiosity was an expression of a new, hard-won, and still incomplete freedom. One of the hundreds of Afro-Jamaican Christian cults that sprang up in the late 1800s was the Jamaica Native Baptist Free Church—led, from 1889, by Alexander Bedward.
Little is known about Bedward as a man, but a few things seem certain: he had a rare charisma, an acute sense of theater, a scorching sense of injustice, and unshakable faith in the righteousness of his words and deeds: the underpinnings of both his rise and his fall.
Born into an impoverished family of rural laborers in either 1848 or 1850, Bedward spent part of his twenties working on the construction of the Panama Canal, an exhausting and traumatizing experience. Along with hundreds of other laborers from the Caribbean, he worked long, arduous days in immensely hazardous conditions before being boarded up at night like cattle in shoddy, disease-ridden shacks. It was a humiliation that left a permanent mark, as did the realization that while white workers from the U.S. and Europe were paid in gold, their black counterparts were paid in silver for the same work. It was in this swamp of injustice that this previously irreligious young man first heard God talking to him—and He spoke in the radical voice of social protest, urging Bedward to return to Jamaica and start a godly revolution.
At first, Bedward’s ecclesiastical leadership was relatively conventional. He grew a huge following by ministering his flock in the Hope River, performing thousands of baptisms and supposed healings. By 1894, the Native Baptist Free Church was so thriving that it was able to commission a temple on the banks of the river, a confirmation in stone and slate that the Great Revival had produced genuine competition to the traditional centers of community power. Then, in the following year, Bedward delivered what was then the most radical sermon ever preached on Jamaican soil, injecting the tart invective of racial politics into the Baptist message of spiritual rebirth. He denounced the white establishment as “the Anti-Christ” sent to plague “the true people,” and spoke of Jamaican society in terms of “a white wall” and “a black wall,” two solid, monolithic structures, immovable and irreducible. “The Government passes laws which oppress the black people,” the Gleaner reported Bedward as saying. “They take their money out of their pockets, they rob them of their bread and they do nothing for it.” He also warned “the white wall” to “remember the Morant War,” an ominous reference to an event in 1865 when the government massacred hundreds of black people who had taken to the streets in protest against poverty and racial discrimination.
The rhetoric terrified the minority white population, who fretted that a race war was imminent. From the perspective of many, Bedward was one of a clutch of unhinged black troublemakers who appeared simultaneously, all of them bent on perverting the natural state of white preeminence. In the same year that Bedward assumed leadership of his church, an American-educated preacher named Robert Love arrived in Jamaica with the intention of challenging white authority and radically empowering Afro-Jamaicans—not through the power of religious revelation and the rhetoric of racial division, but by encouraging the education of black girls and launching a voter registration drive. The next year, 1896, Love persuaded two Afro-Jamaican men to take the unprecedented step of standing for election.
Loveism and Bedwardism, as their teachings became known, were poles apart, but to the white establishment, the distinctions were negligible; they both filled the heads of black people with dangerous ideas of racial equality. Love was vilified by the Honorable John Vassall Calder for guiding black people into arenas of public life in which they lacked the mental capacities to thrive, and for subjecting him, a white man of high birth, to the indignity of having to share power with an Afro-Jamaican. “Dr. Love must remember that his ancestors were my ancestors’ slaves,” Calder averred with truly epic obnoxiousness; “he could never be my equal. He is aggrieved because my forefathers rescued him from the bonds of thraldom and deprived him the privilege of being King of the Congo, enjoying the epicurean and conjugal orgies and the sacrificial pleasures of his ancestral home in Africa.”
If that was the kind of response black people could expect for having the temerity to engage in democratic politics, Bedward’s talk of racial revolution was bound to kick up a hornet’s nest. In 1917, the Bedward disciple A. A. Brooks recalled that “the feelings of many in high circles were indignantly aroused” by Bedward’s radical preaching in the 1890s. “Undauntedly, the devoted servant of God conducted his work until in God’s own time, they took him.” Where they took him was the lunatic asylum, on the grounds that only a fevered mind could have uttered such madness. And there the “white wall” hoped he would stay until such time as the madness brought on by his religious mania could be flushed out of him. But the iron-fist tactics backfired spectacularly. Within weeks of being sectioned, Bedward was at liberty again, freed by the astute work of a sympathetic white lawyer.
Over the next quarter century, Bedward became an antiestablishment hero preaching a message of black power. The crowds at Hope River grew ever larger and more ecstatic; the numbers committed to Bedward’s austere regime of fasting and temperance swelled exponentially. As people in search of cures, cleansing, or salvation waded into the water, others on the banks sang a song that has since become a Jamaican folk standard: “Dip dem, Bedward, dip dem / Dip dem in the healing stream / Dip dem deep, but not too deep / dip dem fi cure bad feeling.” Journalists, government officials, and social reformers inquisitive or prurient enough to attend a service looked on aghast, and in almost universal agreement that this was nothing other than mass lunacy. Explanations were advanced from various branches of Victorian pseudoscience as to the root cause of this medieval insanity, including the size and shape of the worshippers’ brains. Some suggested there must have been something in the water, and urged chemists to analyze the Hope River to isolate the chemical responsible.
And as the number of Bedwardites grew, so the roll call at the asylum got longer and longer. Beyond the adherence to magic and prophecy, the Bedwardites’ madness seemed all the more chronic because they turned the world on its head. Bedward preached that in the dawning twentieth century, God had bestowed “His special purpose” upon Jamaica and its black citizens, just as in Biblical times He had favored the Jews of Jerusalem. It was an audacious reimagining of the status quo: the modern world did not belong to the empires and industrialized economies, but to the poor, dispossessed, and despised ex-slaves of a small island in the Caribbean. Bedward’s sermons fitted every event of the new century—the bloody quagmire of European trenches; the sinking of the Titanic—into a scheme in which God was punishing the white Western world for hundreds of years of avarice, corruption, and brutality. When a staircase bought from an old bank building was brought in to replace a damaged one in the Native Baptist Free Church, Bedward refused to allow it: the thing was spiritually polluted by its association with capitalism and imperialism.
Bedwardism planted a seed from which a culture of racial consciousness grew, and found its most emphatic form in Marcus Garvey and his Universal Negro Improvement Association. With Garvey’s rise to prominence in the 1910s, Bedward became convinced that God had only ever intended for him to be one of a sequence of prophets rather than a messiah—Aaron to Garvey’s Moses is how he termed it—paving the way for the younger man to deliver his people into the Promised Land. With old age now upon him, in 1920 Bedward began to tell his followers that he had been called by the Lord to fly up into heaven. To his flock, it was a potent image in keeping with his mantra of black advancement. Mythological tales about men and women blessed with the power of flight had been a staple of West African folklore for centuries; throughout the slave communities of the Americas those stories were transformed into metaphors for freedom from earthly shackles. In modern African American culture, for example, the myth of the flying African has been reprised countless times—the tale of Igbo Landing; Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon; George Clinton’s Mothership—always with the promise of awakening and liberation.
On his arrival at the river, he took to his chariot—a chair balanced in a tree—and declared that the ascension would take place at ten o’clock that morning. When ten had been and gone, Bedward revised the schedule: three in the afternoon would see God’s will done. The afternoon drifted by; Bedward stayed in his chair. When the hands of the clock swept past ten that evening, Bedward clambered down from his chariot and went home. There was incomprehension among his congregants, but to the authorities he had needled and taunted for so long it was a gilt-edged opportunity to once again brand him a lunatic, and everything that he preached a symptom of his pitiable mind. By July 1921, Bedward was returned to the asylum where he had been sent in 1895. This time there was no agile-witted lawyer to crowbar him out. Instead, Bedward spent the next nine years there, eventually dying in his cell from natural causes.
His followers were distraught and confused; as many as six thousand of them, by one estimate, had given up their worldly possessions, certain that his prophecy would come true. Bedward himself claimed that he had never intended his talk of flying to heaven to be taken literally. To this day, there are those who believe that Bedward’s reputation has been deliberately trashed by a concatenation of falsehood and lies. When the writer Ian Thomson roamed Jamaica some seventy years after Bedward’s death, he tracked down a couple of devout Bedwardites—just about the only ones still living—two elderly ladies propped up in bed in the middle of the day, their bodies tired and unreliable but their minds still clinically sharp. When Thomson asked them about the ignominy of Bedward’s demise, they arched a collective eyebrow and dismissed the idea that Bedward was insane as so much white propaganda. “Nothing happen like that,” one of them said. “They jus’ try to make the Bedward myth more sweeter, nice it up.” By “they” she meant the colonial government whom Bedward had so thoroughly infuriated and embarrassed.
Perhaps too much of Bedward’s story is tangled in myth for us, at a century’s remove, to isolate the various images of Bedward as madman, savior, demagogue, and dreamer, and decide how much of each existed within the one person. It’s worth noting that Robert Love, the inspirational advocate of racial uplift via education and political engagement, always thought Bedward to be nothing more than a skilled showman whom a hysterical establishment had managed to turn into a martyr. But the Bedward who resonates most with the people of 2016, the Bedward who uttered a message of power and defiance in the shadow of oppression and injustice, is being recovered from his cell at the asylum, just as the stigma of insanity is being lifted from all those of his contemporaries who dared to worship according to their own hearts. In August 2015, the Gleaner, the same newspaper that had wrung its hands about the Great Revival and the insanity epidemic and had ridiculed Bedward during his life, printed an article that attempted to resurrect him as “a legendary folk hero,” one whose “black-empowerment, self-sufficiency, unifying and millennial messages” had been sullied by decades of establishment propaganda. Alexander Bedward’s dreams of flight may never have come true, but he may, at last, achieve deliverance.
Edward White is the author of The Tastemaker: Carl van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America. White studied European and American history at Mansfield College, Oxford, and Goldsmiths College, London. Since 2005, he has worked in the British television industry, including two years at the BBC, devising programs in its arts and history departments. He is a contributor to The Times Literary Supplement. He lives in London.