By Haydn Brown.
James Mursell Phillippo was a missionary, born simply James Phillippo in East Dereham, Norfolk, on 14 October 1798; he was the eldest son of Peter Phillippo, a locally well-known master builder and part-proprietor of an iron foundry, and his wife, Sarah, née Banyard.
Jame’s mother, was the daughter of a respectable and wealthy tradesman and farmer and was serious in her religious beliefs. As for her son, James, he was considered not to be a diligent student, but was intellectually talented enough to win prizes for his extraordinary memory and his ability to recite poetry or long passages from books. At about seven years of age he was sent locally to the Rev. Samuel Green’s Baptist school where he quickly became known for little more than being disobedient and mischievous for which he was frequently punished. Subsequently, James was sent to a Grammar School at Scarning until the age of around thirteen years, from where he left formal schooling completely and went, initially, into his father’s building business.
Before long he moved on to live with his grandfather who, more than likely, tried to encourage James to take an interest in both farming and trade. Unsurprisingly perhaps, James preferred to become ‘very involved with worldly pleasures, forgetting his mother’s teaching’. However, after two near fatal accidents he began to re-evaluate the direction in which his life was clearly heading and started attending a local Baptist chapel. A clue to this almost sudden change in James’s interests and possible ambitions would be found in the fact that, as a child, he had read Robinson Crusoe and Captain Cook’s voyages; he was being increasingly drawn to missionary work. According to his 1874 Autobiography, his induction into the Baptist faith allowed him to ‘experience conversion and cast his lot ‘with the despised people of God’!
According to the Dereham Baptist Church: “He had a desire to go to the Baptist Church at about the age of 15 on attending he was directed to a seat near the pulpit. After a number of visits and under the conviction of sins, he accepted Christ has his Saviour. He took religious instruction with Rev. Samuel Green and in 1816 he invited his family to the Dereham Baptist Church to witness his baptism. They went with some reluctance. His father was a staunch member of the Parish Church and had threatened to disown him. A considerable number of the town attended the service. James’ family continued to attend the church, and his mother also became a Baptist. After working for his father for a while James became a book keeper, printer and bookbinder before he felt the call of missionary work and applied for training.”
James Phillippo Makes his Move!:
James, having made up his mind to apply to enter the field of missionary resigned from his post, which at that moment was in Elsing. His Pastor there, the same Rev. Samuel Green of James’s early school days, was also about to leave the Dereham Baptist Church for a Pastorate in Huntingdonshire; he wrote a letter of introduction, on behalf of James, to the Rev. Kinghorn of Norwich, stating its object and recommending that James Phillippo should meet with him. Kinghorn clearly agreed for the Rev Green loaned James a horse to travel to Norwich for the meeting. But James was fearful that he would not be accepted, and it was said that:
“…… he prayed earnestly to God during the whole of the journey, a distance of fourteen or fifteen miles, sometimes dismounting from his horse to pray at places along the road or in a field.”
It was also said that on arrival, “Rev Kinghorn soon put James at ease and gave him every encouragement”. He also promised to write to the Baptist Missionary Society on his behalf, and suggested that James make a direct application to the Society himself.
James Phillippo applied to the Baptist Missionary Society (BMS) in 1819, addressed to its Secretary, the Rev. John Dyer. However, several months passed without hearing anything from the Society and James filled in the time by visiting his friends in different parts of the county, and taking on preaching engagements and attending different religious meetings at Aylsham, Foulsham, Fakenham, Burnham Market, including Dereham. He was met with encouragement from both ministers and people, with one proposal being made by some members of the Dereham church – which happened to be without a Pastor (and James was still a member of that church) to be their Pastor. This proposal came to nothing. James was also advised to go into business; his advisors arguing that his prospects of a missionary life were evidently closed. Whilst this option was pursued, it failed from, apparently, “mysterious causes.” Then a situation was offered him in Norwich which did not require permanency of residence; he accepted and joined the Norwich Church under the Pastorate of his venerable friend, the Rev Kinghorn. After a lapse of two or three months, during which time James’s hopes of missionary work had all but expired, he began to receive ‘an occasional hint’ from Kinghorn.
In 1819 James was invited to London to meet Baptist Missionary Society Committee, but he then had second thoughts about leaving his employment, friends and going abroad – however, there was no time for hesitation! As events turned out, his meeting with the BMS committee was postponed until the evening of the day arranged for the interview. There, in the waiting room beforehand, he met a young man who asked if he was “the young man from Norfolk”. After receiving James’s reply in the affirmative, he rose from his chair and grasped James’s hand with great warmth and said “my name is Mursell, I am come for the same purpose from Gloucestershire, how glad I am to meet you.” Thus, James established a lifelong friendship with Thomas Mursell; and such was the strength of this friendship that both men sealed it by exchanging surnames for Christian [forenames] names- the Dereham preacher becoming James Mursell Phillippo.
James was accepted into the Society and began his studies in Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire in 1821 with the Revd William Gray, minister of the Baptist church there; this was followed by further study at Horton College, Bradford in preparation for the missionary life: ‘This world is not a place of repose for a faithful soldier of the cross’ he was to tell his parents. Whilst at Bradford, he also visited the Revd Thomas Morgan in Birmingham and, again, a lifelong connection was established. Then In 1823 it was reported that “Mr. Phillippo also has pursued his studies under the patronage of the Missionary Society, and is expected soon to go to Jamaica”. Later that year James received confirmation that the committee had indeed fixed on the Island of Jamaica as the place of his labours. The time fixed for the departure was the month of November, and the period was short! – he had, while a student at Chipping Norton, met with a lady with whom a strong affection ensued – her name was Miss Hannah Selina Cecil.
After finishing college, James followed the BMS recommendation that missionaries must be married before going abroad; this was quite common for ‘a soon-to-be missionary’. He married now fellow missionary, Hannah Selina Cecil in Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire and almost immediately the couple sailed to Jamaica under the auspices of the BMS; James had expected to go to India but the BMS was responding to requests from Jamaica for support for embattled Baptists struggling with a deeply hostile plantocracy. The couple sailed from Gravesend, Kent, on Wednesday, 29 October 1823, leaving all their family and friends behind – possibly forever. They both knew that there was a strong possibility that they would not survive the tropics for long; for it was not an exaggeration to say that the Caribbean, as with Africa, was the “graveyard of the white man”. Fevers, heat and humidity killed many colonists, sometimes within weeks of arriving at their new home.
Overview of the Arrival of British Baptists in Jamaica;
James Phillippo had been appointed to the mission in Spanish Town, the capital of the island; however, at this point in his story it is important to know why the British Baptists went to Jamaica in the first place. It is a fact that Jamaica’s mission had been first set up in 1783 by George Liele, a converted freed slave and an ordained minister of the Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia, USA. It was he, and not the British, who laid the foundation for Baptist ministries throughout the island. However, the British Baptist Missionary Society in England was not to recognise this Jamaican Baptist ministry until 1814, when a John Rowe came to the island as the first English Baptist missionary. This was the Society’s eventual response to an appeal from George Liele for help – Baptist work on the island had grown rapidly since its foundation! It was from 1814 when a series of British Baptist missionaries were to arrived and work on the island.
What was seldom admitted by many was that British help brought an underlying tension between ‘native’ Baptists on the one hand, and the British missionaries on the other. Many native congregations were to become part of the ‘Jamaica Native Baptist Missionary Society’ (JNBMS) because:
“of perceived maltreatment by the English Baptists ……. to redress the sidelining of male persons of African descent who could have augmented the pastoral ministry ……. these Africans also perceived educational snobbery towards them and took umbrage.”
After the Morant Bay Rebellion in 1865, that implicated some native Baptists, there was a reaction “the white missionary began to distance itself even more from the worship forms and patterns of the black (Native) pastors.” The fact of the matter was that English missionaries who went to Jamaica never made peace with the “Africanness” of their African-descended congregants, even though when they arrived, Baptist witness was already flourishing among the enslaved in the colony. Native Baptists and their influences were sidelined, and the British understanding and practices of ministry prevailed, ensuring that thereafter “Baptist worship, polity and organization had a distinctly British look and feel to it”.
As the missionary church expanded, additional ministers were recruited from England. One of these missionaries, the Reverend Christopher Kitching, started the mission station in Spanish Town in December 1818. Its first Baptist Church was built on an area once occupied by an old military barracks and where James and Hannah Phillippo were to first settle after their arrival. In the meantime, the Rev Thomas Gooden was selected as the church’s minister in 1819 and, as James Phillippo was to find out, Protestant ministers had to obtain a licence to preach. The Rev Gooden received his licence shortly after he arrived and preached his first sermon on June 11 1819. He continued as Pastor of the church until 1824, when he was succeeded by the man whose name remains indelibly in Baptist annals – Rev James Mursell Phillippo.
Overview of the Situation;
James and Hannah Phillippo arrived in Jamaica in 1823, at a time of great transition. Britain had banned the Atlantic slave trade in 1807, and in 1823 propositions to abolish slavery itself were brought to the House of Commons of the United Kingdom, but were initially rejected and with little hope of success. Despite Parliament’s failure to pass the legislation, British mission workers in Jamaica, especially Baptists, were criticised by planters and the white population, the press, and the colonial government for being in league with the anti-slavery camp, with the “intention of effecting our ruin.” The plantation owners were strongly against missionaries preaching the gospel to the slaves. They were upset that the nonconformist missionaries (chiefly Baptist, Wesleyan and Methodist) were educating slaves and teaching them the Bible, believing that this made the slaves discontented with their station. Some opponents reacted by burning down missionary churches and schools for slaves. It was a cold fact that in 1807 there were 350,000 slaves in Jamaica. By 1823, there were still more than 300,000 slaves remaining on the island; the law prohibited them from practicing any form of religion. Nonetheless, when Phillippo arrived in Jamaica in 1823, he was to set out to build places of worship and to preach Christianity to the slaves.
The home allocated to James and Hannah on their arrival must have come as a terrible shock. To start with, it was in the former military barracks mentioned above, surrounded by a brick wall. Their house itself was very small with two stories and only one filthy room on each floor. The inner walls had been painted black to ease the failing sight of the previous missionary, Rev Kitching, who had died of yellow fever in December 1819 – a prevalent disease that claimed the lives of many missionaries. James and Hannah set to work with a level of optimism which youth often brings in abundance; and soon they made themselves a workable home. Clearly, Hannah was every bit as much a missionary as was James. The couple’s home was the place where hospitality was always available and, as a missionary’s wife, it was Hannah’s job to receive callers and visitors and serve them refreshments. Later the ground floor of the house became their first school, the couple living above and working side by side in the school room. It was during this period of ‘settling in’, but particulary at the moment when James first arrived on the island, that he was horrified by the ‘heathenish processions’ that took place at Carnivals.
James, in particular, energetically set about also establishing a Sunday school and Bible classes and applying for the necessary licence to preach. This he finally received in 1825 after much resistance from the planters who objected to the provision of religious teaching for the enslaved. Nevertheless, the British Missionary Society granted Phillippo permission to preach to the slaves. In fact, he was never free from persecution during this period of extreme tension on the island when hopes of emancipation had been raised by reports of the strong anti-slavery movement in Britain. Although the authorities regularly threatened him with imprisonment and he received death threats from planters, he continued. together with Thomas Burchell and William Knibb, to set up new chapels, schools, Sunday schools and Bible classes. James preached to slaves in villages where his preaching ban was not common knowledge. The slaves reacted enthusiastically to his preaching and crowds of them came to church. His congregation was drawn almost entirely from the enslaved, who were very receptive to the Baptist message of the possibilities of salvation for all, irrespective of colour. By 1828 he had established a number of out-stations together with schools and classes for adults and children.
Pressure of Work takes its Toll;
Suffering from ill health and exhausted from overwork James sailed for England in 1831 with his wife and two children, one of whom died on the voyage. He missed the major rebellion in Jamaica that Christmas which was followed by extreme retaliation against the rebels and attacks on the Baptist missionaries who were blamed for the uprising. His brother missionary William Knibb came to England in the wake of the rebellion and broke his vow to the BMS not to speak out politically, declaring that slavery and Christianity could not co-exist. James too spoke publicly in England and Wales. He returned to Jamaica in 1834 and was greeted with huge enthusiasm by the emancipated. He wrote “I was in a new world surrounded by a new order of beings”. The planters continued to harass their ‘apprentices’ and James raised money in Britain to establish ‘Free Villages’ where the emancipated could live in what he imagined as utopian religious communities, peopled with industrious and domesticated freedmen and women, under the watchful eye of their pastor.
Slavery had been a key issue for a long time, not just in Jamaica, but throughout the British Empire. Although the slave trade had been abolished in England in 1807, the country was still permitted to own slaves in the Colonies. As a missionary who had campaigned fearlessly, both in Jamaica and England, for the abolition of slavery it was only natural that James would take a leadership role in the housing of the newly freed slaves. He knew that many slaves would be emancipated, although they would be left with neither home nor source of income; he, therefore, envisaged a village where newly freed slaves could live and work. In support of his ideals, he bought twenty-five acres of land ten miles north of Spanish Town in the St Catherine Hills, there, he founded Sligo Ville, the first Free Village.
Full freedom was finally won on 1 August 1838 and James Phillippo took pride of place with the governor in the celebrations in Spanish Town. These were heady days when the Baptist missionaries enjoyed a level of authority and prestige which was not to last. In 1843, after another period in England, he published ‘Jamaica: its Past and Present State’, which provided a triumphalist account of the ‘great experiment’ of emancipation. This was in part a response to the tide of criticism of the reluctance of the emancipated to work on the plantations. The 1840s brought new kinds of troubles as James’s patriarchal stance towards his chapels and his people was challenged and enthusiasm waned. He experienced depression and spiritual doubts in the wake of these difficulties but maintained his educational and pastoral activities with support from England and acted as a mediator between the peasantry, the plantocracy, and the colonial authorities. In 1856 he travelled to the USA and Cuba with two sons and wrote of the continuing horrors of slavery there. In the wake of the Rebellion at Morant Bay in 1865 and the brutal reaction of Governor Eyre, the Baptist missionaries were once more under attack and were anxious to separate themselves from any association with ‘Native Baptists’ and demonstrate their loyalty to the crown.
The Phillippo’s Final Years:
The death of Hannah in 1874 at the age of 82, and a partner in everything, was a severe blow to James and he could no longer bear to live in the mission-house; the fact that he did so was because of his dedication to his long-chosen work, epitomised by him continuing in his missionary work until he retired. However, in 1877 he did make, what was to be his final visit to England – at the age of 79 years; this was all part of his several fare-well visits to friends in various parts of the country. James Phillippo wrote that he was unwilling:
“….. to leave for my adopted home without a last look at, and bidding a final farewell to, my dear old native town, I went over to Dereham, accompanied by my brother. It was Saturday, the market day, when I might chance to meet old acquaintances from the country, as well as in the town.
We went to the Corn Exchange, wandered about the streets, called at some of the old houses, with whose tenants I was once so familiar; and at one or two of the principal inns, but, on my part, without the slightest recognition, except in one instance by a distant relative, though only twenty years had passed since my last visit. That visit, however, was so brief that it may be said I had been absent from Dereham fifty years. Equally disappointed was I in the result of my inquiries after the notabilities of my boyish days. Most of the old families had almost entirely passed away, root and branch.
The tenants of the house where I was born looked incredulous when I stated the fact, and requested permission to look around. The lower story was now occupied as a large ironmonger’s store, and I should have been at a loss to identify it but for the sign of the ‘ Bull’ opposite. Yes; there was the ‘ Bull,’ unaltered in form and size and noble bearing as eighty years ago. All else seemed changed. The streets looked narrower, distances much shorter, the houses smaller, though externally more attractive; the old Baptist. and Independent chapels superseded by new ones, more conspicuous, larger, and ornamental.
Improvements were everywhere considerable, especially in the suburbs, where. Beautiful villa residences had sprung up, rendering the dear old place still more worthy of the eulogy of the author of ‘Lavengro'[George Burrows]:
‘Pretty Dereham! thou model of an English country town!’
Fatigued with my perambulations, and straitened for time, I reached the station just previously to the starting of the train, in which my brother and myself took places for Norwich. But I was a stranger at home, and was sad.”
James retired on Sunday July 7, 1878 and moved to a small cottage outside Kingston, to be cared for by his daughter. He lasted less than a year thereafter and there must have been little doubt that his missionary work, coupled with a long, hard life in an unfriendly climate had finally worn him out. He died on 11 May 1879 at the age of 81 years and was buried alongside his wife, Hannah and their son, in the Phillippo Baptist Church churchyard. Two tablets were placed in the Church building dedicated to James’s memory. Also located on the Church grounds is a stone slab which marks the spot where some of the shackles of slavery are buried. The slab is inscribed to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Church. James and Hannah had nine children, five of whom died in childhood.
Jamaica had been James Mursell Phillippo’s adopted home and he was well respected by the Jamaican people at all social levels. His sons followed their father in finding colonial routes to upward mobility, becoming professionally trained in England – one becoming a doctor, another a lawyer who was to hold significant posts across the Empire. Over the course of his working life James Phillippo had baptized over 5000 men and women, been associated with the establishment of 25 stations, 17-day schools, and a college to train ‘native’ pastors. He was hailed at his funeral as ‘the Moses of Jamaica’.
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