Smith Memorial Church celebrates 163rd anniversary
November 18, 2006
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The church was erected in memory of the Rev. John Smith who was sentenced to death for allegedly inciting insurrection of slaves which took place in Demerara in 1823. The epicentre of the revolt was the Bethel Chapel on Plantation Le Ressouvenir, East Coast Demerara, where Smith was based.
The evidence suggests that he did have some prior knowledge of the insurrection, information which he did not pass on to the authorities. However, he certainly did not incite it, since he attempted to dissuade certain members of his chapel from going ahead with any action.
Following his conviction by a local military court, he was granted a pardon by the King of England. Before the pardon arrived, however, he died of tuberculosis in prison, on February 6, 1824.
Rev. Smith had arrived in Demerara in February 1817 as successor to the Rev. John Wray at the Bethel Chapel. This house of worship had been erected by the former Dutch owner of Le Ressouvenir, Hermanus Post, whose initiative led the London Missionary Society to send Rev. Wray to Demerara to provide for the Christian instruction of Africans on his cotton plantation.
Despite specific instructions from Governor Murray to the country, Smith, like Wray, proceeded to teach the Africans literacy skills, so they could read the Bible for themselves.
Quamina, a slave who was a senior deacon of Bethel Chapel, was regarded as the official leader of the rising. His son Jack Gladstone was probably its most important active figure.
The revolt was put down with great savagery.
Some of the participants were hanged in that part of Georgetown, which was then known as Parade Ground.
The case of Smith became a cause celebre in Britain, as a consequence of which he acquired the sobriquet the ‘Demerara Martyr.’ The 1823 rising itself, as well as the controversy which Smith’s trial aroused, gave new impetus to the abolition movement in England to have slavery abolished.
Smith Memorial Church was opened on November 24, 1843, twenty years after Smith had been sentenced to death, as tribute to his memory and work.
Over the years a long line of ministers and missionaries have served at the church. The first minister was Rev. E.A. Wallbridge of the London Missionary Society who wrote a book on the Rev. Smith. He served up to 1875.
The Rev. Hawley Bryant arrived here in 1923 and served until March 1950. Rev. Bryant, whose remains are buried in the northern end of the churchyard near to the plinth on which the missing bust of Rev. Smith once stood, wrote the lyrics for the Song of Guyana’s Children and Born in the Land of the Mighty Roraima. (The bronze head of Smith was stolen some years ago.)
Other ministers included the Revs. George Musgrave (1951 – 1954) and Conrad Stallan (1954 – 1962), Henri Sukuakweche of Angola (1970 – 1978) and Touta Gauga of Papua New Guinea (1993 – 1994).
A long line of distinguished Guyanese also ministered at Smith Memorial and these included Rev. Pat Matthews (1964 – 1968), Rev. Adam T. Johnson (1969 – 1970), Rev. Oscar Wharton (1978 – 1991), and Rev. Clare Smith (1991 – 1993).
Pastor Oslen Small, a former Chairman of the Guyana Congregational Union is now Pastor in Charge.