Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Largely a product of forced migrations and the dramatic encounter between the Old World and the New World, the best documented Caribbean religions—such as Haitian voodoo, Rastafarianism, Cuban Santeria, and the Spiritual Baptists in Trinidad—are prime examples of creativity and change in this dynamic region that has become a fertile ground for the development of new religious admixtures and syncretisms.

Almost everyone in the Caribbean is from someplace else, and Caribbean religions have been greatly affected by the presence of Europeans, Africans, and, to a somewhat lesser extent, by Asian peoples as well. A majority of these religions have either an African or a Christian base, but Caribbean peoples have modified selected aspects of these traditions, added to them, and made them their own. While much attention has been given to African influences, one cannot completely understand religious developments in the region solely in terms of an African past, which is but a piece—albeit a large piece—of a more complex whole. Syncretisms of Hinduism and Christianity abound, and one can never underestimate the potential impact of Islam.

Rastafari is perhaps the most widely known of Caribbean religions. It is difficult to estimate the exact number of Rastafarians ("Rastas"), but the religion's influence vastly exceeds its numbers in its original Jamaica or even elsewhere in the Caribbean, to include persons in Europe (particularly the United Kingdom), Latin America, and the United States. The movement traces its history to a number of indigenous preacher-leaders in the 1930s, most notably Leonard Howell, Joseph Hibbert, Archibald Dunkley, Paul Earlington, Vernal Davis, Ferdinand Richetts, and Robert Hinds. The influence of Jamaican-born North American black leader Marcus Garvey is also apparent. Each of these leaders—working in isolation from the others—came to the conclusion that Haile Selassie, then enthroned as Ethiopian emperor, was the "Lion of Judah," who would lead all peoples of African heritage back to the Promised Land of Africa. While Rastafarianism is by no means a homogeneous movement, Rastas share seven basic tenets: (1) Black people were exiled to the West Indies because of their moral transgressions; (2) the wicked white man is inferior to black people; (3) the Caribbean situation is hopeless; (4) Ethiopia is Heaven; (5) Haile Selassie is the Living God; (6) the Emperor of Ethiopia will arrange for all expatriated persons of African descent to return to their true Homeland; and (7) black people will get revenge by compelling white people to serve them. Among contemporary Rastas, different subgroups stress different elements of the original creed; for example, the alleged death of Haile Selassie has raised significant questions regarding Selassie's place in the movement.

Cuban Santeria combines European and African beliefs and practices, but, unlike voodoo, Santeria is inspired mainly by one African tradition—the Yoruba. In Santeria, the Yoruba influence is marked in music, chants, foodstuffs, and by animal sacrifice. During major ceremonies, fresh blood—the food of the deities—flows onto sacred stones belonging to the cult leader. These stones are believed to be the objects through which the gods are fed and in which their power resides. A significant religious development in North America has been the large-scale transfer of Cuban Santeria to urban centers, notably New York, Miami, Los Angeles, and Toronto. It is estimated that there are currently more than 100,000 Santeria dev-otees in New York City alone. In 1993, the U.S. Supreme Court, in response to an appeal by Santeristas of a Florida ruling, upheld the constitutional right of Santeristas to practice ceremonial animal sacrifice (Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc., v. City of Hialeah , 113 S.Ct. 2217, 1993).

The Spiritual Baptists are an international religious movement with congregations in St. Vincent (where some of their followers claim the faith originated), Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada, Guyana, Venezuela, Toronto, Los Angeles, and New York City. Membership is predominantly black, but in recent years congregations in Trinidad have attracted membership among wealthy East Indians and Chinese. A central ritual among the Spiritual Baptists is the mourning rite . This is an elaborate ceremony involving fasting, lying on a dirt floor, and other deprivations. A major component of the mourning rite is to discover one's true rank within the church hierarchy.

A critical issue in the study of Caribbean religions is the selection of a unit of analysis. Because syncretism plays such a prominent role in the development of religions in the region, it is often difficult to separate indigenous and foreign elements. Because there has been so much outreach, it is often difficult to discover the "true" origin of any single religious group. Because most of these religions lack a denominational chain of command, one cannot make statements about them as one might make statements about the Roman Catholic Church or Presbyterianism. The most accurate assessments refer to individual congregations and their leaders. To examine movements such as Rastafarianism, Santeria, voodoo, or the Spiritual Baptists as if they were unified denominations on the European and North American model is to present an overly coherent picture of an incredibly fragmented and volatile religious situation.

See also Voodoo

Stephen D. Glazier


G. F. Brandon, Santeria from Africa to the New World (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1993)

S. D. Glazier, Marchin' the Pilgrims Home (Salem, Wis.: Sheffield, 1991)

M. Kremser (ed.), Av Bobo (Vienna: Institute fur Volkerkunde, 1994).

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