Grenada-born Elton George Griffith had every intention of joining the Ethiopian army when he was a young man. He left Grenada in 1941 and came to Trinidad with the firm idea of going to London in furtherance of his plans.
When he got to Port of Spain, he decided that he would visit his sister Elizabeth, who had been living at East Dry River, Port of Spain, for more than 15 years.
His sister was a Shouter Baptist and it was from her that he learnt of a ban passed in 1917 which forbade the practice of the Shouter Baptist religion.
Not only did he decide to remain in Trinidad, he joined the crusade for the lifting of the ban.
Griffith was not a Shouter Baptist at that time. Before leaving Mon Jaloux, Grenada, he had been a Deacon of the Pilgrim Holiness Church, but he knew of a similar ban on the Shakers in St Vincent, which was passed in 1912.
The ban was effected after Gideon Murray, Governor of St Vincent was thrown off his horse and fell to the ground while passing through a Shakers meeting.
The Shakers were shouting and singing, and the vibration from the worshippers frightened the horse. It jerked backwards, became uncontrollable and the governor was deposited on the ground.
No such incident had taken place in Trinidad, but the colonial authorities were of the view that a similar incident could have taken place, so they felt it was necessary to take steps to avoid such an incident.
The Shouters Prohibition Act, which was passed in Trinidad and Tobago in 1917, gave police the authority to arrest and charge anyone practising the Shouters religion in any public place or at private homes.
Under the law, magistrates were authorised to fine or imprison offenders. The law did not allow for appeals to a higher court. This pernicious Act drove the Shouters underground for many years while it was in effect.
Practising their religion underground meant being in spiritual bondage from 1917 to 1951, the year in which the Act was repealed.
Hundreds of Shouters were hauled before the courts and even imprisoned as they bravely chose to go to jail for Jesus. Those who preferred to worship away from the prying eyes of the police had to assemble in forested areas or at the banks of rivers. There they assembled in small groups to worship, hence the reason why even today there are so many small groups of worshippers headed by an archbishop.
For the Shouters, the 34 years they endured the ban there were many cases brought before magistrates for trial.
Among those who suffered at the hands of police during the ban was Teacher Patrick of Picton Road, Sangre Grande. She was arrested with members of her church while performing a baptism in a river. At the court hearing, the members were released, but the leader was imprisoned for three months.
Leader Roach, also known as “Braveboy”, and his wife, Teacher Violet Roach, lived and maintained a church on Belle Eau Road, Belmont. They were pelted with rotten eggs while preaching on street corners. Leader Harold Lackeye was raided by police while preaching in a church. He was arrested, brought to trial, and sentenced to prison because he had no money to pay the fine set by the magistrate.
Leader Smith of Roxborough, Tobago, was beaten and arrested by police as he was about to conduct a baptism ceremony at San Juan River. During the ban, hundreds were allegedly beaten by police, arrested and fined or imprisoned.
The situation had become so terrible for the Shouters that they had to devise ways and means of insulating themselves from the police. To escape the police, a watchman from each group was appointed to notify the worshippers when officers were in the area. The watchman’s duty was to shout on seeing the police, “Sampson, Sampson, the Philistines are upon you.”
On hearing this, the gathering would disperse into the forest.
The agony for the worshippers was wearisome until help came to them in 1942 when, under the inspired leadership of Elton Griffith, Granville Williams, Philip Granger, Andrew Balfour and others, they decided to marshal their forces to bring an end to the ban, not by violent means, by making representations to the government through the process of the Legislative Council.
Because the repeal of the Act was a constitutional matter, it was necessary to engage the services of politicians in the struggle. Albert Gomes, the then-minister of labour, industry and commerce, and Chandra Mathura of the Port of Spain City Council joined the protesting group.
After lengthy discussions with government authorities, the group, with the unswerving commitment of Griffith, was given permission by Governor John Shaw to allow a public baptism. This took place at a river in Carenage, in the presence of Gomes and Attorney General Von Deeble.
Following the baptism, Griffith was advised to submit a petition to the Speaker of the Legislative Council asking that the Act is repealed.
The petition was prepared and sent to the Speaker. It was signed by Griffith, Pastor Brown, Richard Oliver Bobb, RHA Phillips, AG Superville, S Lovell, Granville Williams, B Mathura, and Brothers Robert, James and Medina. It read:
We the officers of the Spiritual Baptist Faith, commonly known as the Shouters, humbly beg that this ordinance, the Shouters Prohibition Ordinance, Chapter 4, No. 19, has become an annoyance to us, and has outlived its 25 years duration.
We as African descendants crave the indulgence of the Honourable Speaker of the House and Honourable Legislative Council to use their good office by assisting us to modify or repeal the ‘Shouters Ordinance’. We consider that this form of religion or sect is our ancestral heritage. Owing to this Prohibition Act of Shouters Chapter 4 No 19 has affected thirty thousand members of our faith.
One month later, the Legislative Council tabled this petition. A select committee was appointed to study it and make recommendations. The committee of four included the Hon LC Hannays (chairman) Hon Albert Gomes, Hon Victor Bryan and Georgiana Beckles.
After a year of deliberation, the committee reported on August 28, 1950 that the only justification for retaining the ordinance was that in the course of their exercises the Shouters disturbed public peace, and the followers were not moved by any sincere conviction and that the practices in themselves so gross (stet degrading or immoral) as to deserve permanent unqualified suppression.
Based on the committee’s recommendations, a motion was piloted in the council by the Hon Roy Joseph, Minister of Education and Social Services, which sought to give Shouters their freedom of worship.
Hon Ashford Sinanan, the member for Naparima, said during the debate “It was important for every man to be allowed to worship God as he pleases”. Hon Uriah Butler, St Patrick West, said, “I will vote heart and soul for the repeal of the ordinance.” Albert Gomes, the member for Port of Spain, remarked, “Government alone was responsible for the repeal of the ordinance.”
The Act was repealed on March 31, 1951, and, on that day, members of the West Indian Evangelical Spiritual Baptist Faith held their first unmolested spiritual meeting outside the Legislative Council Chamber, where Deacon George Griffith was elected archbishop and president of the Shouter Baptists.
That is the reason why Shouter Baptist Liberation Day is celebrated as an important day in the historical calendar of Trinidad and Tobago. In 1996, the then-prime minister Basdeo Panday agreed that March 30 should be celebrated with a national public holiday titled Shouter Baptist Liberation Day.