As daylight broke on New Year’s Eve of 1920, the Jamaican Revivalist prophet Alexander Bedward climbed either a breadfruit or ackee tree fitted with a wooden chair where he sat upon this arboreal “chariot” to await his ascension into heaven, which he predicted would occur before sunset. Thousands of his devotees gathered around the base of the tree to witness this glorious rapture. Bedward had promised them the rapture would signal the end of the age and hasten the coming of their liberation. Born sometime during the 1850s (accounts differ on the year) in St. Andrew Parish, Jamaica, the future prophet endured a childhood of frequent illness that caused him to relocate to Panama, where he eventually gained enough strength to work on building the Panama Canal. Bedward returned to August Town, St. Andrew, in 1885 and subsequently experienced a mystical conversion of the soul, prompting him to join the Native Baptist Church Movement, known for its emphasis on spiritual gifts such as speaking in tongues and prophetic unction.
Though initially hesitant on account of his lack of formal education, Bedward assumed leadership over the St. Andrew Baptist community in 1891. At this time he also embarked upon a healing ministry after discovering that the waters of the nearby Hope River1 were miraculous, gathering thousands of followers and onlookers. The radicalism inherent in Bedward’s Revivalist ministry of Black wholeness brought him into direct conflict with Jamaican colonial powers, which charged him with sedition in 1895 for a fiery prophecy he preached publicly at the riverside: “There is a white wall and a black wall, and the white wall has been closing around the black wall; but now the black wall has become bigger than the white wall and they must knock the white wall down.” After a one-day trial and forty minutes of deliberation, the jury found Bedward not guilty by reason of insanity. Bedward spent one month in an asylum before his lawyer managed to set him free. Owing to the state’s persecution, however, the Bedwardite Movement membership only grew over the first decades of the twentieth century.
Anthony Bogues describes Bedward as a “prophetic redemptive figure” whose only insanity was his attempt to “break” and “reorder the epistemological rationalities of colonial conquest.” Since the Morant Bay Rebellion of 1865, during which militant Baptist preacher Paul Bogle led hundreds of Black Jamaicans in a march to the courthouse in Morant Bay, the Jamaican colonial administration grew suspicious of the Revivalist communities across the island. They were viewed as incubators of a backwards Africanized culture that fostered insurrection against Anglo institutions. State surveillance of Native Baptist communities gave rise to an ethnographic-legal language of “instability and injury” in Jamaica that linked the “hysteria” of Baptist Revivalism with madness and drew connections to the related Afro-Jamaican spirit ritual traditions of Myal and Pukkumina, derided by many as “Pocomania.” This pejorative term emphasized the seemingly-manic quality of their worship style.
While White supremacist colonial reason may only encode the confident enunciation of Black consciousness as madness, La Marr Jurrelle Bruce reminds us that within Black expressive cultures, the [figure of the] “prophet’s access to heaven’s revelations” forms a persistent, though elusive, font of creativity. Indeed, the creative impulse of such mysticism, when described from a Eurocentric scholarly perspective, was acclaimed by Harvard psychologist William James in his landmark 1903 study Varieties of Religious Experience. James argued for the psychic reality of mystical modes of consciousness that manifest experientially by two primary and, at times paradoxical, hallmarks: ineffability, the quality in which “no adequate report of its contents can be given in words” but “must be directly experienced;” and noesis, the dynamic by which mystical consciousness generates unique forms of knowing by providing one “insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect.” In James’s account, the mystic who undergoes such extraordinary experience becomes convinced of the absolute authority of the knowledge they learn in the ethereal realms. Despite this, “mystical truth exists for the individual who has the transport, but for no one else.”
But what if, like Bedward, your healing touch and prophetic vision came upon you as cosmic gifts bestowed to “work the spirit” on behalf of your community and usher in the decree of justice as divine law? Western psychology’s acceptance of mystical consciousness, premised on an individualist conception of personhood, is undone by the Black prophet’s sacred commission to create and curate a flourishing community. Bedward, perched in his tree, and his followers awaited his ascension. But when morning bled into afternoon with no flight, the crowd grew anxious. As evening’s twilight faded into nightfall, Bedward climbed down from his tree in defeat. In other variants of the tale collected by Julian Henriques, Bedward fell accidentally or jumped intentionally from the tree. Regardless, news of this “failed flight” gave authorities the ammunition they needed to return Bedward to the asylum, where he lived out the remainder of his years before dying in 1930 in ignominy. However, many Bedwardites maintained their conviction in the divinity of Blackness, a core principle that re-emerged within the nascent Rastafari movement of the 1930s.
The endurance of Bedward’s Rasta legend is heard in the 1983 reggae song, “Bedward the Flying Preacher,” performed by Singers and Players (featuring Prince Far I), although in their musical account, “Bedward climbed [a] building and jumped off. Bedward! Bedward!” Nonetheless, to salute Bedward as “the flying preacher” brings his tale into the broader constellation of “flying African” legends that proliferate across the Black Atlantic. First appearing throughout the American plantation zones during the Transatlantic Slave Trade, flying African tales recur as a figure of liberation. In one example collected among the Gullah Geechee peoples by the Savannah Federal Writers’ Project, a crowd of enslaved folks gathered together in a field to spin in a circle. They whirled faster and more frenzied until “one by one they rise up in the air and fly back to Africa. The overseer hear the noise and he come out and he see the slaves rise up in the air and fly back to Africa.”
While sometimes interpreted by scholars as metaphors of suicide, Toni Morrison cautioned against reading these narratives solely as symbolic language:
There’s some truth in there no matter how bizarre they may seem. When I looked at it more closely, I read alot of those slave narratives […] they published in the ‘30s, and the interviewer […] always asked about that […] they also asked about ghosts [….] Everybody said, “no I never saw any, but I heard about it,” or they said they had seen [….] Noone said, “what are you talking about?” They all had heard.
To engage these tales as true dispatches from an otherwise cosmos where humans have the gift of flight, we need only consider the matter-of-fact declaration of George Little. A formerly enslaved root worker, Little told the Savannah Federal Writers’ Project, “Take the story of them people what fly back to Africa. That’s all true. You just have to possess magic knowledge to be able to accomplish this” (emphasis added). Much Africana philosophy is premised upon gnosis, the pursuit of acquiring sacred knowledge accessible only through divine means. As Margarita Simon-Guillory has shown in the case of the New Orleans Hoodoo community of the early twentieth century, the gnostic quality of their ritual knowledge simultaneously positioned them as a countercultural element in the city on account of their stark departure from the dominant ontologies of matter, spirit, and personhood that premised Louisiana’s White supremacist political reality.
Across the Caribbean Basin, Obeah was deemed “the Caribbean science tradition,” a moniker that adds an alchemical cast to pursuits of occult truths for the ways in which practitioners tinker with the body’s range of sensation and perception. Here, we may yet harness one aspect of James’s framework: if mystical experience indeed generates various “hypotheses” that offer “the truest of insights into the meaning of this life,” then the everyday dreamers, visionaries, and prophets of the African diaspora bequeath us a critical heritage of radical Black “hyper-consciousness” that must be preserved. As Bedward’s prophecy of towering black walls overtaking white walls indicates, Black mysticism negates every ontological premise that buttresses White supremacist reality, not because of a direct conflict over ultimate truth but merely because the black walls—and by extension Black consciousness—supersede the scope and capacity of white containment.
Across her scholarly oeuvre, Jamaican critical theorist Sylvia Wynter described the praxis of being human as a joint coupling of myth and biology. The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves recursively induce our neurochemical functions and come to govern the capacity of both our imaginations and the corporeal bodies they animate. As a scholar trained in Iberian literature, Wynter traced the genealogy of Roman Catholic Europe’s binary conception of Man: a dual nature possessing a temporary body and eternal soul that was either redeemed or damned. From this initial mythic structure, Protestant and later Enlightenment Europe entrenched a colonial anthropology of Man that overdetermined rationality as the ground of truth, creating a proper subjecthood whose religious nature was premised upon an interior, individualized relationship of belief in a transcendent God. In its secular register, this conception of truth births the heuristic figure of homo economicus whose innate drive to maximize individual efficiency defines capitalist and Darwinian logics.
The prophetic figure of Alexander Bedward and his August Town community thus held allure for Wynter as embodying an otherwise model of human praxis capable of heralding the end of Man. In her 1962 anticolonial novel The Hills of Hebron, published the same year Jamaica gained political independence from Great Britain, Wynter based her unromantic but compassionate portrait of the character Prophet Moses upon Bedward. One day while “Moses the madman” visited the market square in town, he overheard a Jamaican nationalist preaching a message of secular liberation that saddened him: “All that the [nationalist] said that they would do, he, Moses, had already accomplished…. Up in Hebron they were already free, neither workers nor capitalists, only New Believers owning everything in common, safe from the flood of want on Mount Ararat.” After publicly challenging the nationalist, the crowd taunted Moses’s messianic calling, telling him, “Crucify yourself, Black Jesus!” Wynter amplified the trope of prophetic Black madness for a tragic literary effect, as Prophet Moses took up the crowd’s suggestion, literally crucifying himself atop the hills of Hebron over Easter Weekend. This was a sacrifice for his people so that “the blackness which was their secret shame would be atoned for, would become their pride, their joy.”
The act of flight has long held aspiration for Black folks across the Diaspora, evoked in the plaintive wish of Ida B. Wells: “If it were possible [I] would gather my race in my arms and fly away with them.” While our hearts often long to fly free as a bird, the everyday flow of rationalized experience keeps our feet planted firmly on the ground. But as the womanist theologian Barbara A. Holmes exhorts us, “to survive on this planet you need to know how to fly.” Spread your wings, my dear Black people! May the legend of Bedward the Flying Preacher inspire us always to take flight on the wind and soar.
A.A. Brooks’ History of Bedwardism (1917: 4) misidentified the Mona River as the source of Bedward’s miraculous water. No such river exists, but the Papine-Mona Aqueduct, constructed in 1758, drew from the Hope River to service the Mona, Hope, and Papine estates. Bedward situated his August Town community along the banks of the Hope, making this the likelier location of his healing ritual. See Jamaican National Heritage Trust, http://www.jnht.com/site_Papine_mona_aqueduct.php.↩