Sarah Ann Gill was a social and religious leader in Barbados during the days of slavery. Best known as the Heroine of Methodism and Freedom of Religion – and for the role she played in establishing a religious alternative to the white-dominated Church of England in Barbados.
Born in 1795, Sarah Ann Gill was a free, ‘mixed ancestry’ woman (born to a black mother and white father) who notably felt the brunt of the racism that was inherent in Barbadian society at the time.
She chose Methodism as her religion and by 1820 was considered to be a full member of the Methodist Church.
It’s said that Methodism was first brought to the shores of Barbados in 1788 by Dr. Thomas Coke, a big advocate for the religion and its associated missionary activity.
This ‘new’ religion challenged the existing social order in Barbados and was met with great hostility by the social upper class of the island.
A Brief History
As Methodism grew in popularity, so did the hostility towards it. Its membership included blacks as well as those referred to as ‘colored’, as Sarah Ann was considered.
By 1793, this growing hostility was evident when Methodist missionaries were openly viewed as anti-slavery antagonists and deemed agents from the English based Anti-Slavery Society.
Regardless of the fact that Methodist missionaries were being run from the island and the Methodist chapel in Bridgetown was destroyed by a mob of white rioters in 1823, Sarah Ann opened up her house as a church, despite being met with more serious oppression and persecution.
For one year, Sarah Ann received constant threats against her life and warnings that her home would be burnt down.
Additionally, because the Conventicles Act of 1664 prohibited no more than five persons gathering for worship at any one time, unless in a ‘licensed meeting place, led by a licensed preacher’ , Sarah Ann was persecuted by society and the legal authorities for holding ‘illegal meetings’.
Her persistence with holding these worship services and the badgering by magistrates for all manner of allegations, ended up with Sarah Ann being prosecuted by the House of Assembly.
A Woman of Honor and Inspiration
Persecution did not damper Sarah Ann’s determination or spirit.
On each occasion, she defended herself against the authorities at her own expense and continued to uphold her strong commitment to religious freedom.
She boldly continued to hold her worship services despite the incredible risk, adverse conditions and the constant threat of legal and personal endangerment.
Did you know?
Despite Sarah Ann’s advice to the contrary, Reverend Moses Rayner returned to Barbados in April 1825 and built a chapel on land purchased from Sarah Ann in order to continue the faith – the chapel was constructed on the site of the present James Street Church.
Sarah Ann’s Fight Goes Global
All of the commotion surrounding Sarah Ann Gill eventually reached all the way across the seas to The House of Commons in England.
After much debate, its members declared on 25 June 1825 that ample protection and religious toleration be secured to all…of His Majesty’s dominions.
Sarah Ann Gill is fondly remembered for her conviction and commitment to defending the right for freedom of religion which ultimately protected the very existence of Methodism in Barbados during a time when it was under severe threat.
In a mark of respect for such an incredible woman, Sarah Ann was laid to rest on February 25 1866 in the small cemetery at the back of the James Street chapel.
Locally, the Gill Memorial Church at Eagle Hall was named after Sarah Ann and in the 1980’s it was replaced by a new Gill Memorial Church built at Fairfield Road in Black Rock, St. Michael.
In 1998, by an act of Parliament, Sarah Ann Gill was also publicly named as one of the ten official National Heroes of Barbados, celebrating those who have played a major part in Barbados’ history and development.
She is the only woman to be honored as a Barbadian National Hero, no doubt for her courageous fight against oppression and social injustice, against all odds.
By: Brett Callaghan