Introduction: Reconciling religion and culture in Jamaica

Christian concepts and references are woven throughout the fabric of Jamaican life. Ordinary people and political leaders regularly cite biblical and other Christian aphorisms regularly. Business gatherings and meetings for national associations often start with prayer. Jamaicans often struggle over apparent cultural contradictions and self-perceived moral shortcomings that seem to undermine their overt claims to Christian commitment, but despite any contradictions, Christianity is a major cultural frame for Jamaican life.

Jamaicans often claim that the country’s cities and towns have more churches per square kilometer than anywhere else on Earth, and Jamaicans are great entrepreneurs when it comes to launching churches. Kingston neighborhoods, smaller cities, and even country villages are dotted with a remarkable variety of Seventh Day Adventist, Assembly of God, Church of God, unaffiliated Pentecostal, and Baptist churches that draw the great bulk of the population. A good number of Catholic churches are also dotted around the island, as are Anglican and Methodist churches, but the churches that dominate the landscape are those with spirit-centered, revival-style worship; literalist interpretations of scripture; healings and speaking in tongues; and frequent messages about repentance and the nearness of the end times.1 In Jamaica, these faiths are often sectarian in their worldview, and while there is religious cooperation among some churches, the religious environment overall is unusually fragmented and often competitive.

Jamaican Catholicism has been exceptionally entrepreneurial too, through the establishment of churches and schools, religious congregations, and service programs for the needy and destitute. Catholic schools are disproportionately cited among the very best schools in Kingston, but are also run by parishes at all levels of quality and access. The government relies heavily on the Church not only for education, but also for services to the poor.2 For all this, the number of Catholics is small and decreasing,3 and Jamaican Catholics consistently report that their faith is commonly disparaged by Jamaicans as “pagan” and “idolatrous.”

Jamaica’s official motto, “Out of Many, One People” speaks to the extent to which Jamaica is an amalgam of peoples, customs and cultures. West African influences are powerful, particularly among the poor, but are also fragmented and filtered through the experience of slavery and a centuries-long process of creolization.4 For many years, darker-skinned Jamaicans have tried to recover and reinvent parts of that African heritage, and the desire to honor it is a dominant theme in Jamaican society.

92% of Jamaicans today identify as black, but in fact the population saw waves of immigration from England, Ireland, Germany and (in larger numbers) from India and China. The proportion of those claiming primarily or exclusively Chinese and Indian descent is decreasing,5 being subsumed under primary identification with black and “mixed” identities, and impacted by outward migration.

Forms of worship from the African diaspora, especially Pentecostalism, set the dominant backdrop for Jamaican religion. Churches that most fully embrace varieties of Afro-Pentecostalist worship have grown remarkably over the last century, and churches with more Euro-centered forms have seen declining membership. This split was notable 50 years ago, but seems to continue to accelerate in recent decades. The number of Catholics has been shrinking steadily for decades, from representing almost 5% of the Jamaican population in 1982 to about 2.1% in 2011. The established Protestant churches, notably the Anglicans and Methodists, are in similar decline.6 Pentecostal religion has been adapted and is deeply rooted and normative in Jamaican society.7 Christian prayer in public is expected to follow the rhythms of Protestant prayer. The Bible is described, and usually treated, as the sole norm for deciding what God wants or does not want for the world.

Perhaps more than many other societies, the essence of Jamaican identity is contested,8 particularly along the lines of class and racial shade. Jamaicans often suggest that their society is deeply classist, and one hears comments from both ends of the social hierarchy that affirm this. For more than a century, Diane Austin-Broos observes, religion has been “an integral part of Jamaica’s color class stratification. The practice of the lower classes was typified by middle-class observers as both superstitious and immoral.”9 The upper and educated strata practiced in more European ways. If one were to look only at the leading newspaper’s directory of biographies of “eminent” social leaders in Jamaica, one would be forgiven for assuming that the Anglicans were the majority church in the country, followed by the Roman Catholics.10 This is not to imply that Catholics have ever been primarily upper class, but only that the class and shade divide significantly complicates Catholicism’s relationship to Jamaican culture as it is currently defined. Despite these class divisions, the demographics are shifting toward forms of Afro-Pentecostalist practice that have evolved from the life and experience of the lower classes.

While there seems to be no formal data source to verify the claim, in the Kingston area, at least, Jamaican Catholics tend to be somewhat more mixed in terms of ethnic backgrounds than the Jamaican population at large. The multiethnic heritage of Jamaican Catholicism has complicated the synthesis of Jamaican identity and Catholicism. In terms of worship, most Catholic churches have moved in the direction of more expressive and charismatic worship styles, but not all Catholics are convinced it is what they want, or what feels like an authentic style of prayer to them. Jamaican Catholicism’s more multiethnic heritage, coupled with a longtime Catholic aversion to Pentecostal forms, and a middle- to upper-class awareness of social status, has made the church slower to adapt to Afro-Pentecostalist worship norms.

Ironically, while many African cultures have synthesized Catholicism and local cultures to a remarkable degree, non-Catholic Jamaicans hold the two in contrast to one another. Many Catholics, seeing that, fret about how to inculturate Jamaican Catholicism, clearly seeing parts of the culture that they value, and other parts that they do not want to inculturate.

Cultural Contradictions

While Jamaicans have some clear sense of how to inculturate Jamaican identity religiously, they were also often notably aware of how close cultural contradictions are alive in their society. While some societies may be better able to obscure these contradictions, in Jamaican society they were often on the surface.

Interviewees always stressed the welcoming and generous qualities they see in the culture, along with creativity and perseverance. Jamaican culture seems most iconic in terms of its music, the physical movement of its people, and the use of patois. In the poorer areas, interviewees who speak about Jamaican culture express resilience, but also a deep sense of frustration at the difficulties of life and the ways that they feel powerless. They spoke of intense pride in Jamaican identity, and passion, but also admitted that this passion can turn negative easily when provoked. Many suggested that Jamaicans had a strong moralistic streak, particularly in terms of the violence and sexuality that they saw as too prevalent in their common life.

A number of middle class Jamaican Catholics expressed dismay that lifestyles among the lower classes, especially dance hall culture and the predominance single-parent childbearing, but also wilder, more revivalist forms of worship, had become markers of “authentic” Jamaican identity. Poor Jamaicans fretted about the cultural contradictions of violence too, and spoke openly and regularly against “fornication,” even as violence and single parenthood are huge realities in their lives.

Influential as Christian faith may be, it is worth noting that the largest “church” in Jamaica is the 572,000 Jamaicans – one fifth the population – who claim no religious or denominational affiliation. Asked to explain why, many interviewees cited a skepticism toward many of the clergy and the religious/cultural contradictions they see, and a privatized religious sense that they can pray just as well on their own, without a church.

Jamaicans were asked whether Jamaican culture makes it easier or harder to be a good Catholic. Unlike any other place where the question has been asked for this project so far, including several highly secularized places, the vast majority answered that Jamaican society made it harder. Two said it did not, only because they filtered that aspect of the culture out and refused to pay any attention to it. Jamaican Catholics all readily recounted having to answer hostile questions about why they are “pagan,” “worship Mary,” have “idols,”11 why they are so stiff in church, and why they think they are better than other people. Many said that some people they encountered did not regard Catholicism as a Christian religion. The culture overtly respects Christian faith, but isn’t always sure Catholicism fits that bill.

Catholic Identity

While Jamaicans are aware of contradictions between religion and culture, most don’t see them as the primary story. Faith, in their perspective, seems to be a way to transcend any contradictions and to seek ways around them.

While the Jamaican church does not ignore Mary and the saints, it is fair to say that among Catholics interviewed, faith is very Jesus-centered. In interviews, the focus on Jesus was based overwhelmingly on his Passion – on God’s willingness to come into the world and suffer with us – much more than it was on Jesus as the moral teacher of the beatitudes. This may be surprising in a society that many interviewees described as moralistic, but the morality most Jamaicans refer to comes from the Ten Commandments, from broad mandates to love one another, and especially from a notion that if Jesus was “a King who gave it all up,” willing to “endure pain and suffering and die for us,” then we should be able to love one another better. As one interviewee expressed it, beginning to cry, it was precisely “the contrast between the way Jesus struggled for us, and how we treat each other,” that made her such a passionate follower of him.

While Jamaican religious culture is not embodied in saints, shrines, and physical images, it is very thoroughly embodied in the way it is practiced.  Worship and singing are only seen as authentic if worshipers throw their whole body into it physically. The embodiment of religion in physical images (except for pictures of Jesus) is often seen by non-Catholic Jamaicans as idolatrous. (A notable exception is when non-Catholics come to a priest to ask for rosaries or holy water to protect against an Obeah curse). In this Jamaican context, Catholics seemed to live somewhere in the middle, on the one hand trying to navigate between a European Catholic preference for stillness and an Afro-Pentecostal preference for movement in worship, and on the other hand respecting, but not usually fully embracing, the European Catholic embodiment of saints, devotions and physical objects in the practice of faith.

  • 1Jamaicans have created new and particular forms of religiosity, including Rastafarianism. Though Rastafarianism holds an important place in foreigners’ imagination, and for Jamaicans who think that it contributes to the particularity of Jamaican society, the number of Rastafarians is relatively small – half the number of Catholics, even. Pentecostalist-style churches set the cultural norms for religiosity in Jamaica. (This site will occasionally refer to a Pentecostalist style as a broad category shared by many churches in Jamaica, even if they go by other denominational names).
  • 2The schools are governmentally funded, and students are chosen through the Ministry of Education, which limits their direct use for evangelization, but Catholics say that people know and value these institutions, even as the Catholic Church may be disparaged. The ministries include major organizations like Food for the Poor, the largest charity in Jamaica, which was founded by Catholic lay people; and the Mustard Seed Communities and the Missionaries of the Poor, both founded by Jamaican priests.
  • 3 The 2001-2011 census comparison for religion is available at  "Population and Housing Census," Statistical Institute of Jamaica, last accessed June 6, 2014,
  • 4Aggrey Brown, who focuses almost entirely on the legacy of slavery and plantation stratification, describes Jamaica as a “hybrid population, the overwhelming majority of whose ancestors were Africans enslaved by the British” and whose hybridization with other peoples makes it “unique among the nations of the world,” a social system “born in incoherence.” Aggrey Brown, Color, Class and Politics in Jamaica, (New Brunswick: Transaction, 1975), 1-2, 143.  Brown argues that in this logic of Jamaican identity, “whiteness is to be valued above blackness,” (159) but the demographics make clear that this is no longer true overall on the religious front, where European forms of worship are on the decline and Afro-Pentecostal ones on the increase.
  • 5"Population and Housing Census," Statistical Institute of Jamaica, last accessed June 6, 2014,
  • 6It is interesting to note that the churches suffering the greatest drop in numbers have been those with the more educated clergy, and those most deeply involved in providing social services, education, and charity for the destitute on the island.
  • 7An excellent ethnographic source with insight into the attractiveness of Pentecostal religion in Jamaica is Diane J. Austin-Broos, Jamaica Genesis: Religion and the Politics of Moral Orders, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 93, 97. See also "Population and Housing Census," Statistical Institute of Jamaica, last accessed June 6, 2014,
  • 8See Rex Nettleford, Mirror, Mirror: Identity, Race and Protest in Jamaica, (Kingston: William Collins and Sangster Jamaica Ltd, 1970), and Rex Nettleford, Inward Stretch Outward Reach: A Voice from the Caribbean, (New York: Caribbean Diasporic Press, 1995).
  • 9Austin-Broos, Jamaica Genesis, 8.
  • 10The Directory of Jamaican Personalities 2007-2008 Edition, (Kingston: Gleaner Publishing Co., 2007).
  • 11These comments again point to the influence of Pentecostalism, which rejects most kinds of physical religious object other than the Bible or the cross. Ironically, older Afro-Jamaican religious practices like Obeah were in fact very dependent on physical objects.