On January 1st 1804, after twelve years of struggle against French, Spanish and British armies, the slaves of Saint Domingue declared their independence and Haiti, the first black republic in the world, was born. Eleven years later, Francis Reynalds, a ship’s captain returning to Liverpool from the West Indies, called into Port-au-Prince and offered to a beleaguered President Pétion the help of the Wesleyan Missionary Society to establish a schools system in his impoverished republic. Soon two ministers trained in the Lancasterian (monitorial) system, were on their way. They established a school, but were soon driven out by Pétion’s successor. For almost twenty years, the Methodist cause was developed by three young Haitians – Saint Denis Bauduy, Jean-Baptiste Evariste and Jean-Charles Pressoir. Bauduy became the first Haitian ordained minister in 1837.
During the long tenure (1839-1879) of missionary Mark Baker Bird these initial efforts were developed into a truly national church. Methodism was the only organised Christian body in Haiti until a Concordat was signed with Rome in 1860 and so for almost half a century, Methodists were able to win support and make members among the country’s richest and most powerful families. Churches were opened across both Haiti and the whole island of Hispaniola. Education was the mainstay of this enterprise, producing national figures in the political, intellectual and cultural life of the nation. Bird wrote two seminal books that continue to have value: The Black Man or Haitian Independence deduced from Historical Notes (1869) and Un paradis terrestre (1881).
The Methodist cause endured many severe trials – an earthquake, hurricanes, yellow fever, persecution, financial and manpower crises – with dreadful regularity but somehow survived under a succession of missionaries from the Channel Islands.These included the 28-year old Philippe Baker from Sark, who died of yellow fever on 8 November 1882, only three weeks after arriving, but not before he had made a significant impact among voodoo worshippers of the Creole-speaking community at Duplan just outside Port-au-Prince.
Even so, when Ormonde McConnell (1937-1970) arrived from Northern Ireland, he took on a moribund cause. He soon injected new life into it. Using the international phonetic alphabet and working with the widely respected linguist Frank Laubach, he established an orthography for Haitian Créole and this, with other factors, led to a huge influx of peasant Haitians into the Church. This, in turn, led to a change of emphasis in the church, with serious work undertaken to address the needs of the rural population.
Before his departure, McConnell was honoured by both Haitian and British governments, and he left three outstanding Haitian ministers – Alain Rocourt, Marco Dépestre and Edouard Domond – to take the work forward.
Haiti remains the poorest country in the Western hemisphere and a succession of Haitian leaders of the Methodist church have needed to address their country’s needs in the face of hurricanes, landslides and the devastating earthquake of January 2010.
See also Turnbull, A.F.P.