The Stephenson plaque and cell grating are located at the St. George's Historical Society Museum on Featherbed Alley, St. George's.
Courageous cleric Rev. John Stephenson spent six months in jail for preaching to black Bermudians—and integrated congregations—in defiance of a hastily passed law.
The first Methodist minister to have a permanent posting in Bermuda, Stephenson arrived here with a mission to spread the message of Methodism to blacks and whites, slave and free.
He was considered such a threat to a society that had slavery as its underpinnings that Government passed a law to silence him. His decision to continue with his ministry in contravention of the law put him on a collision course with the authorities—and landed him in jail.
Stephenson, who was born in Ireland in 1749, joined the Methodist church during his youth, eventually becoming an ordained minister.
Methodism had emerged in the United Kingdom during the 18th Century, and Bermuda was considered fertile ground for potential converts. World-famous Methodist evangelist George Whitefield had drawn crowds to his open-air meetings during a visit to Bermuda in 1748.
Prior to Stephenson’s arrival, there were only three clergymen in all of Bermuda. While some church leaders considered Bermudians to be an ungodly bunch, many islanders hungered for religious teaching, according to contemporary reports.
Stephenson was a missionary with years of experience when he landed in St. George’s on May 10, 1799 with a mandate, historian Cyril Packwood wrote, to preach to “black and coloured people”. Author Clayton Munroe described him as a man “of warm sympathies and graciousness with distinctive preaching ability and several years of successful ministerial experiences in the Old Country.”
However Stephenson was tagged as a troublemaker from the start. His ship was greeted by a mob. Thanks to the intervention of a magistrate, who argued that he should be given a chance, the mob dispersed and Stephenson was free to disembark.
For Bermuda’s slave-owning leaders, there were several strikes against him. Methodists were keen supporters of the campaign for the abolition of slavery which was then raging in the United Kingdom and through parts of the British Empire. As an Irishman, Stephenson was considered a rebel, the British having brutally suppressed a rebellion in Ireland the previous year.
Bermudian whites, who were outnumbered by their black slaves, remained unnerved by the spectre of slave rebellion, eight years after Haitian slaves won their freedom following a violent uprising.
Initially, Stephenson took pains not to antagonize whites and directed his message at the white community. By December 1800, he had a congregation of 59 and could count former opponents as friends.
But attitudes changed after he began to hold services in the homes of black people. In addition, he was openly critical of the sexual sins of both white and black Bermudians, many of whom had multiple partners. Stephenson’s criticism did not go down well with white leaders.
Stephenson had his first run-in with the authorities after preaching in the home of Socco Tucker, a free black man from Smith’s Parish and he was summoned to appear before a magistrate.
Magistrate Green took him to task, for among other things, shaking hands with a black person. He also voiced fears about the possibility of slave rebellion. Green said: “This preaching to the blacks may be very dangerous; you know what has taken place in the Island of St. Domingo [Haiti].”
Stephenson replied: “I exhorted them to become real Christians, by turning from evil, and especially the great evil, polygamy, which is sufficient to bring a curse upon the islands.
“I also exhorted them by honesty and obedience to please their masters, to be kind and courteous, not answering again, that their owners might know they were better for coming to hear the preaching.”
There was nothing that Green could do to stop Stephenson—but that would soon change. On May 24, 1800, Parliament passed a law that made it illegal for ministers who were not Anglican or Presbyterian to preach. The new law also took aim at supporters who allowed unauthorized ministers to preach in their homes. For both preacher and homeowner, the penalty was six months in jail and a £50 fine.
Stephenson was not to be deterred and soon fell afoul of the new law. On June 15, he led services at two separate homes, one owned by silversmith Peter Pallais, in Somerset. This reached the ears of the authorities, and on June 23, he and Pallais were arrested. Both men were jailed, but were subsequently let out on bail.
While awaiting trial, Stephenson drew up a petition protesting the law as unconstitutional. It attracted 500 signatures.
At his trial in December 1800, Stephenson was represented by a young liberal lawyer James Christie Esten, who would later become Bermuda’s Chief Justice and Attorney General.
Despite Esten’s best efforts, Stephenson was found guilty and jailed for six months in “the most filthy goal as ever existed”, according to a subsequent report in The Royal Gazette.
Undeterred by these conditions, Stephenson found a way to defy the strictures of the law by preaching from behind his cell bars to crowds, blacks and whites, who gathered outside the jail to hear his message. He refused the Governor’s offer of a shorter sentence if he agreed to leave Bermuda immediately.
When the time came for his release, Stephenson cut the following inscription on the cedar floor of his cell with a knife:
JOHN STEPHENSON METHODIST MISSIONARY WAS IMPRISONED IN THIS JAIL SIX MONTHS AND FINED FIFTY POUNDS: FOR PREACHING THE GOSPEL OF JESUS CHRIST: TO AFRICAN BLACKS AND CAPTIVE NEGROES: ST GEORGE—BERMUDA JUNE 1801
Upon his release from jail, Stephenson attempted to resume his ministry, but the poor prison conditions had affected his health. Finding homes to hold services became a challenge because supporters did not want to risk being jailed. The elderly silversmith also received a prison sentence, but it was stayed because of his age.
Stephenson finally left Bermuda in April 1802 and returned to Ireland. He was given a new posting, but resigned after a year because of poor health. Still, he remained active as a minister for the rest of his life, taking on temporary assignments.
He died in 1819, a man held in high esteem by his colleagues. The legal challenge to the law that landed Stephenson in jail was argued before judges in London and was eventually taken off the books because of a technicality.
Six years after Stephenson’s departure, Rev. Joshua Marsden arrived. Although he faced similar challenges as Stephenson, his tenure was more successful. He built the first Methodist church in Hamilton, Zion Chapel, on the corner of Church and Queen Streets in 1810. The ever-faithful Peter Pallais, who died in 1811, crafted Zion’s communion plate.
Stephenson’s courage and unequivocal support for racial equality continue to inspire 200 years later. Tangible evidence of his legacy remains in St. George’s. The St. George’s jail where he served his sentence was located in what is now the St. George’s Post office.
The cedar floorboard on which he scratched out his jailhouse inscription was presented to a museum in London, where it was later destroyed in a fire. In 1936, the Synod of the Wesleyan Methodist Church erected a replacement plaque at the St. George’s Historical Society Museum on Featherbed Alley in St. George’s. The original cell grating from the prison survived and was inserted in the wall just below the plaque. The Stephenson memorial is also a site on the African Diaspora Heritage Trail.
The first Methodist congregations were integrated, but the church later instituted the practice of racial segregation, which remained in effect until the 1960s.
On November 5, 2011, the Wesleyan Methodist Church Synod sought to make amends when it rededicated the Stephenson plaque during a ceremony in St. George’s. At the ceremony, Synod chairman David Atwood issued an apology to black Bermudians for not always living up to Stephenson’s ideals.
May 10, 1799—Stephenson arrives in St George’s where a mob gathers—he is allowed to disembark after a magistrates intervenes
December 1799—Winning over sceptics, he attracts a congregation of 59
1800—Is brought before a magistrate after preaching in the home of a free black man
May 24, 1800—Parliament passes a law that it illegal for ministers who are not Anglican or Presbyterian to preach
June 15, 1800—Preaches at two homes in Somerset and authorities are informed
June 23, 1800—Stephenson is arrested along with silversmith Peter Pallais, who lives in one of the homes where Stephenson preached
December 1800—He is tried, found guilty and sentenced to six months in jail
June 1801—Is released from jail
April 1802—Leaves Bermuda and returns to Ireland
1803—he leaves his new post after a year because of poor health
1819—Stephenson dies in Ireland
“I do not doubt that when compared with their treatment in some of the West Indian islands, but sire, I have nothing to do with the treatment they receive; it is my duty to assist them in saving their souls. “
“Why, yes, sir, when I had done praying with them, they came forward and returned me thanks, and to encourage them in the ways of God, I did shake hands with them, and bow to them too; and surely your Worship would not wish me to be less polite than a Negro.”
“I exhorted them to become real Christians, by turning away from evil, and especially the great evil, polygamy, which is sufficient to bring a curse upon the islands. I also exhorted them by honesty and obedience to please their masters, to be kind and courteous, not answering them, that their owners might know they were the better for coming to hear the preaching.”
- Comments made by Stephenson when he appeared before Magistrate Green in1800
The Stephenson plaque (below) and cell grating are located at the St. George's Historical Society Museum on Featherbed Alley, St. George's.
Wesleyan Methodist Church Synod chairman David Atwood delivering his historic apology on November 5, 2011. Also pictured are fellow Methodists Delasia Smith and Joan Van Putten (right).
Further reading Bermuda Journey by William Zuill, Coward-McCann Inc New York, 1946
Chained on the Rock, Cyril Outerbridge Packwood, Eliseo Torres & Sons, New York, Baxter’s Ltd. Bermuda, 1976
Slavery in Bermuda by James E. Smith, First Edition, Published by Vantage Press, 1976
Echoes of Bermuda’s Past—From Slavery to Emancipation and Beyond, James E. Smith, MA, Commission for Unity and Racial Equality, 2006
A Methodist Epic—A Historical Record of the Methodist Church in Bermuda By Rev. Clayton Munro, D.D.
Bermudabiographies.bm is grateful to the additional research provided by Rev. Dr. Graeme Carruth, currently a chaplain in the Canadian Forces, Ottawa, who served as minister at Emmanuel Methodist Church, Southampton, 1998-2004. Dr. Carruth is the author of Unity in Christ, a one-act play based on the life and ministry of John Stephenson.
Below, in a scene from the play, Stephenson (played by Dr Gordon Campbell), prays in his cell in St. George's.