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William Knibb – Missionary to Jamaica

Category Articles
Date November 30, 2010

William Knibb was not only a great preacher but he also played a great part in the abolition of slavery. In fact in 1988, on the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery he was posthumously awarded the Order of Merit by the Jamaican government.

On 7th September 1803 William Knibb and his twin sister Anne were born in Kettering, Northamptonshire. His parents, Thomas and Mary, had eight children altogether, and William was the their third son. William’s father Thomas was a tailor who had no interest in the things of God. He was often drunk and was declared insolvent in 1810. His mother Mary was a teacher and a member of the Independent Church in Kettering.

William was educated at Kettering Grammar School. He was good at maths but otherwise he was not a particularly outstanding pupil. He was better known for his skill at playing marbles and for defending his friends in fights than for any academic achievements. William left school when he was twelve years old and started work as an apprentice for a local printer called J. G. Fuller. J. G. Fuller was the son of Andrew Fuller, a Baptist pastor in Kettering and one of the founders of the Baptist Missionary Society.

In 1816 J. G. Fuller moved his business to Bristol. William and his older brother Thomas moved with the business. William and Thomas started to attend Broadmead Baptist Church in Bristol. After some time William began to teach in the Sunday school. Mr Fuller was the head of the Sunday School. One day Mr Fuller spoke to the children on Jeremiah 3:4, ‘Wilt thou not from this time cry unto me, My Father thou art the guide of my youth.’ William realised he needed the message as much as the children did. He was teaching children about the Saviour but he himself was not saved. He was overcome with a strong sense of shame and grief over his sins. He wrote of the experience,

On leaving the school I went alone and yielded to my feelings. I wept bitterly and prayed earnestly, more earnestly than I had ever prayed before. I turned the text itself into prayer and cried fervently to God, ‘My Father wilt thou from this time be the guide of my youth?’ The Lord heard me and enabled me to give him my heart; and now it is my earnest desire to yield to his guidance as long as I live.

William was baptised at Berrymeads Baptist Church on 7th March 1822. He was given the verse, ‘Thou, therefore, endure hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.’ He soon started work for the Lord by witnessing to his family as well as teaching in the Sunday school. He also helped out in a mission hall connected to the Berrymeads church. In one year the attendance increased from twelve people to sixty people. He also went to the poorer parts of the city to preach the gospel in the street.

William’s brother, Thomas Knibb was accepted by the Baptist Missionary Society to become a teacher in Jamaica. Thomas arrived in Jamaica in 1823 but died of fever three months later. William offered to replace his brother as schoolmaster, and after a short period of training was commissioned to go to Jamaica. William married Mary Watkins on 5th October 1824 and sailed to Jamaica with her on 5th November 1824. Knibb landed at Morant Bay, Jamaica on 12th February 1825 and was warmly received. He soon started to work as a schoolmaster in the Baptist Missionary School in Kingston. The school grew to over 200 children through the work of Knibb. He also started a Sunday school for adults and children.

When Knibb arrived in Jamaica, slavery was still legal. The slave trade had been abolished in 1807, through the work of William Wilberforce, but this did not outlaw slavery itself. Knibb was disgusted with the way that masters treated their slaves. Slaves were flogged for the most minor of offences. They were also forced to work on treadmills and were flogged if they were not fast enough. William wrote a letter home describing the conditions,

The cursed blast of slavery has, like a pestilence, withered almost every moral bloom. I know not how any person can feel a union with such a monster, such a child of hell. I feel a burning hatred against it and look upon it as one of the most odious monsters that ever disgraced the earth. The iron hand of oppression daily endeavours to keep the slaves in the ignorance to which it has reduced them.

After a short time in Kingston, Knibb move to Port Royal due to poor health. He later moved to Savannah-la-Mar in 1828. A slave called Sam Swiney was a deacon at the church in Savannah-la-Mar. Swiney organised prayer meetings when Knibb was sick. The colonial magistrates heard of this and sentenced him to twenty lashes for preaching without a licence. He was also sentenced to work the road for two weeks, despite there being three witnesses that could testify that he prayed but didn’t preach. Knibb attended the flogging and also walked some of the way beside Swiney as he worked the road in chains, to show his support. He considered Swiney to be a persecuted Christian. Knibb was so horrified by this injustice that he published an account of the event in one of the Jamaican newspapers. He also sent reports to England. As a result, a church in Camberwell bought Sam Swiney’s freedom and the Baptist Missionary Society sent a letter to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, which was passed on to the Governor of Jamaica. On reading the report the Governor sacked the two magistrates who had given the sentence, for gross abuse of power.

In 1830 Knibb became pastor of Falmouth Baptist Church, which had a congregation of 600 people. In December 1831 Sam Sharpe, a slave and Baptist deacon, mistakenly heard that slavery had been abolished, so he organised a strike in which slaves refused to work without wages. Sharpe only wanted a peaceful protest but others burned the cane fields. This event is known as the Christmas rebellion or the Baptist War. The army put down the rebellion. Knibb was arrested on suspicion of complicity. He was later released, as he had no knowledge about the rebellion. Sam Sharpe was hung at the gallows in 1832.

An Anglican clergyman called Bridges started a group called the Colonial Church Union. They set out to persecute all Christians who were not members of the Anglican Church. This Union burned down a dozen Baptist chapels, including Falmouth, and forced missionaries to leave Jamaica. Knibb refused to go even though his life was at risk.

In 1832 Knibb was sent to England by the Baptist churches to plead their cause. He travelled throughout England and Scotland reporting on the work of the Gospel and the treatment of the slaves. He convinced the Baptist Missionary Society to officially speak out against slavery and also gained much support for his cause. In 1832 Knibb was summoned to appear before committees from the Houses of Parliament who were investigating the state of the colonies. Knibb’s evidence convinced the committees that slavery must be abolished.

On 28th of August 1833, a Bill was passed for the Abolition of Slavery in the Colonies. This law came into force on 1st August 1834. However, slavery was replaced by the apprenticeship where slaves were required to work a further six years for their masters before they would be completely free. The planters abused this scheme and treated the apprentices very badly. Through Knibb’s campaigning the apprenticeship scheme was reduced from six years to four years. Parliament abolished the apprenticeship scheme on 1st August 1838. On 31st July 1838 Knibb threw some shackles and chains into a coffin and buried them. A sign was written above the grave saying, ‘Colonial slavery died 31 July 1838, Age 276 years.’

Knibb returned to Jamaica in 1834. He was warmly welcomed by the slaves. He also had secured funds to rebuild the chapels. Knibb also started a Free Village scheme, in which he bought large areas of land to build villages for free slaves. One of these villages is called Kettering after his birthplace. When the apprenticeship scheme had ended in 1838, many slaves who were before prevented from going to church were free to attend. The churches were full and many people were converted. One day Knibb wrote, ‘Today, I have baptised 75 persons and 1300 sat down to the Lord’s Supper. It was one of the happiest days of my life’ This was the beginning of the Jamaican Awakening. Knibb claimed that 22,000 people were baptised on their profession of faith, through the work of about twenty missionaries between the years of 1838 and 1845.The church at Falmouth had grown from 650 to 1280 members in the space of ten years. During that time Knibb had baptised 3000 people but he had sent away 2050 people to form six new churches. William Knibb was responsible for founding 35 churches, 24 missions and 16 schools.

Knibb died of yellow fever in Jamaica on 15th November 1845. About 8000 people attended his funeral.

Taken with permission from Clifton News, October-December 2010.

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