The Rastafari Religion
A brief history by the great
Norman H. Redington
Subject: Rasta History (2nd Ed.) (long)
Written: 12 May 1995 16:39:36 GMT


The following is a revised version of the history of Rastafari I posted here a year ago.It was written originally for the Orthodox Christianity list, and reflects thatperspective. Please point out any errors, etc.; I'll be revising it every year or so ifpossible. The current edition includes a section on Hindu influences, and alsoincorporates some of the findings published by Barry Chevannes about early Rastafari.

--Norman


A SKETCH OF RASTAFARI HISTORY by Norman Hugh Redington, Editor The St. Pachomius OrthodoxLibrary


INTRODUCTION: The spread of Orthodox Christianity in the New World has occurred mainly asa result of immigration from Eastern Europe. There are two regions, however, where this isnot the case: Alaska and the Caribbean. The story of the conversion of the Aleut, Tlingit,and Yupik nations in Alaska has often been told; by contrast, that of the yet moreimprobable emergence of Ethiopian churches in Jamaica is little known. My hope is thatthis little tract will inspire someone with greater knowledge to study the subjectproperly; if it also leads to a deeper respect and understanding between mainstreamChristians and the often-maligned brethren in Jamaica, may the Lord be praised.


N.Redington, 1995


ORIGINS: THE GARVEYITE AFRICAN ORTHODOX CHURCH. Marcus Garvey was a Jamaican-born Blacknationalist leader whose Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) was the mostprominent Black Power organization of the 1920s. Although himself a Roman Catholic, Garveyencouraged his followers to imagine Jesus as Black and to organize their own church. Toemphasize that the new church was neither Catholic nor Protestant, the name"Orthodox" was adopted and the filioque (a phrase added to the Latin version ofthe Nicene creed in the early Middle Ages but rejected by the Orthodox) was dropped.


The African Orthodox Church entered into negotiations with the Russian Metropolia (now theOCA) for formal recognition as an Orthodox jurisdiction. Unfortunately, these negotiationsbroke down: the Metropolia demanded an unacceptable degree of administrative control,while the Garveyites wanted to promulgate whatever doctrines they chose. Eventually, theAfrican Orthodox bishop was consecrated by the "American Catholics", a groupwhich had rejected the authority of the Pope but was otherwise similar to the RomanChurch.


The Garveyite Church had thousands of members on three continents, and was a symbol ofanti-colonialism in Kenya and Uganda. The African Orthodox in those countries quicklybroke off relations with the New York church and instead became part of the GreekPatriarchate of Alexandria and fully Orthodox. The same process repeated in Ghana morerecently, where Fr. Kwami Labe, a graduate of St. Vladimir's Seminary in New York, hasbeen building a strong Orthodox community on the foundations laid by the Garveyites. (I amdistressed, however, that many now-canonical African Orthodox often seem almost ashamed oftheir "heretical" origins, and try to distance themselves from the earliermovement.)


Today the African Orthodox Church as such is largely defunct, although the parish of St.John Coltrane (!) in San Francisco remains quite active.


MORE ORIGINS: THE BLACK ISRAELITES. Black slaves always felt an obvious affinity to theenslaved Hebrews; a few took this sympathy to its logical extreme and claimed to be, infact, Jews. This movement probably existed in the U.S. during slavery times, and there wasat least one Black convert in the synagogue of antebellum Charleston. The spread ofinformation about the Jewish "Falasha" minority in Ethiopia contributed to thegrowth of Black Judaism during the late 19th Century, and Jewish sects emerged in thenorthern ghettoes alongside Muslim ones. A number of these, and similar groups of morerecent origin, remain very active today.


These groups (a few of them very anti-Semitic in their claim of being "realJews") are in some cases "Christian", although with an Old Testamentemphasis. Frequently they claim that whites have distorted the text of the Bible, andthere are attempts to "restore" the text.


One of these, of importance in this story, is the "Holy Piby", an occult bibleallegedly translated from "Amharic" and emphasizing the destruction of white"Babylonia" and the return of the Israelites to Africa, the true Zion. The Pibywas adopted by Rastafarians as the source of their liturgical texts.


GARVEY THE PROPHET: The Marcus Garvey of history books is a mainly political leaderinterested in making the black race economically equal with the white. In oral tradition,however, he appears as a divinely annointed prophet, the Forerunner of Haile Selassie. Inaddition to many miracles and prophecies, he is credited with having predicted that a"mighty king" would arise in Africa and bring justice to the oppressed. When thePrince (Ras) Tafari of Ethiopia was crowned emperor to world-wide fanfare, many Jamaicansclaimed the prophecy of Garvey had obviously just been fulfilled: the Ras Tafari Movementwas born.


Garvey himself was still alive, although his movement had largely collapsed and he himselfhad been jailed on (subsequently disproved) allegations of business fraud. Garvey was noadmirer of Haile Selassie, observing that slavery still existed in Ethiopia, and heattacked the Rastafarians as crazy fanatics. They, however continued to revere Garveynonetheless, remarking that even John the Baptist had had doubts about Christ!


THE CLASSICAL PERIOD: From 1930 until the mid '60s, Rastafari was a local Jamaicanreligious movement with few outside influences. Several Garveyite leaders hadindependently declared that Haile Selassie fulfilled Garvey's prophecy, and the movementremained dominated by independent "Elders" with widely varying views. Not onlydid no Jamaica-wide "Rastafarian Church" develop, but there was not evenagreement on basic doctrine or a canon of Scripture--both the Holy Piby and the King JamesBible were used by various Elders, but were freely emended and "corrected".


OVERSTANDING: This "anarchy" was considered a virtue by classical Rastas.Rastafari was not a religion, a human organization, or a philosophy, but an active attemptto discern the will of JAH (God) and keep it. Classical Rastas were mainly uneducatedThird World peasants, but they approached Rastafari in an almost Talmudic spirit, holding"reasonings" --part theological debate, part prayer meeting-- at which theyattempted to find the Truth.


Their attitude differed, however, from that of Protestants interpreting the Bible. Theywere certain that they would arrive, by divine guidance, at an "overstanding"(rather than understanding) of the Truth. The Truth cannot be known by human effort alone,but "Jah-Jah come over I&I", one can participate in the One who is Truth.


MYSTICISM: Early Rasta mystical experience emphasized the immediate presence of JAH withinthe "dread" (God-fearer). The doctrine of theosis was expressed with greatsubtlety (although not all Elders correctly distinguished essence from energy). Throughunion with JAH, the dread becomes who he truly is but never was, a process ofself-discovery possible only through repentance. (For this reason, Rastas did notproselytize, but relied on compunction sent by JAH.) The mystical union was expressed bythe use of the pronoun "I&I" (which can mean I, we, or even you, with JAHpresent) or simply "I" in contrast to the undeclined Jamaican dialect"me".


COMMUNITY: Many Rastas lived (and live today) in the bush in camps ruled by an Elder. Someof these camps are segregated by sex and resemble monasteries (down to the gong at thegate); more often, they are reconstituted West African villages. The dreads observe therules of "ital", a dietary code based on the Pentateuch with various additions,and otherwise observe a spiritual rule. Males are usually bearded (uncommon in Jamaicaduring the classical period, and a cause of social and religious discrimination, so thatRastas who held jobs often were "baldfaces" who kept their affiliation secret.)


The famous "dreadlocks" were worn during the classical period only by a minorityof dreads, mostly those who had taken the oath of Nazirite. Very recent historicalresearch suggests that the dreadlocks were popularized by a monastic movement whichopposed the unrestrained and potentially corrupting power of the Elders. These celibateand almost puritanical "nyabinghi warriors" objected particularly to "paganholdovers" in Rastafari, the continued use by dreads of ritual practices associatedwith the voudoun-like folk religion of the Jamaican peasantry.


HINDUISM: Another source of "pagan" thought in Rastafari was the religionpracticed by the thousands of East Indian labourers imported to Jamaica after theabolition of slavery. Classical Hinduism is a major religious force throughout the WestIndies, especially on Trinidad, but its influence on Rastafari has been little remarked.The dreadlocked, ganja-smoking saddhu or wandering ascetic is a well-known figure inIndia, and bands of saddhus often live in Rasta-style camps and smoke marijuana from aformally-blessed communal chalice-pipe. The Hindu doctrine of reincarnation is alsoadvocated by many dreads, although often with a subtle twist: to say that (for example)today's Jamaicans are reincarnated Israelites, and even "I myself have felt theslave-master's whip", means to some dreads not that they personally have livedbefore, but that their solidarity with their ancestors is so great that there is a"oneness through time".


REPATRIATION: Among the few things all Elders agreed on were that Haile Selassie was"divine" (although what that meant was much debated) and that he intended torestore New World Blacks to Africa. Although a mystical interpretation of"repatriation" was advanced, there is no doubt that all early Elders (and mostmodern ones) expected outward literal return as well. This gave Rastafari an overtpolitical dimension: the Rastafarians all, without exception, wanted to immediatelyemigrate to Ethiopia. This was a situation with no analogue except Zionism, and was beyondthe ability of the Jamaican authorities to deal with. Revolutionaries are one thing, butthe Rasta slogan was not "power to the people", but "let my peoplego". As time passed, Rastafarian frustration at this unmet demand became explosive.


The situation grew especially tense after 1954, when the government overran a Rastafarianmini-state called the Pinnacle, ruled by Elder Leonard Howell in exactly the style of atraditional West African chief. Howell's followers migrated to the slums of Kingston, andthe movement went from a rural peasant separatist movement to one associated with theghettoes of the capital. In the late '50s and early '60s, a few Rastas in desparationrejected the non-violent teaching of all authentic Elders and mounted a series ofincreasingly violent uprisings, culminating in several deadly shoot-outs between Rastasand British troops.


With this violence, the existence of Rastafari came to (negative) worldwide notice; morepositive publicity was brought by the popularity of Rasta-performed reggae dance music afew years later. The classical period of isolation was at an end.


ETHIOPIANISM: I will now treat the issue of direct contact between Rastafari and theEthiopian Orthodox Church.


THE ETHIOPIAN WORLD FEDERATION (EWF): As an African country mentioned in the Bible and theonly African nation to successfully resist colonialism, Ethiopia was always prominent inNew World Black consci- ousness, but actual contact was minimal until the Second WorldWar. In 1937, Haile Selassie's government in exile founded EWF to raise money andpolitical support from Black nationalist groups in the West. After the war, the EWFcontinued to exist in various forms, some completely under local control but all providingat least some contact with Abyssinia.


TRINIDAD & TOBAGO: In the 1940s, a Garveyite bishop named Edwin Collins set up what hesaid was a legitimate Coptic church under the Patriarch of Alexandria. However theGarveyite Coptics were tied more closely to the African Orthodox Church than to Egypt, andtheir canonicity was widely doubted. In 1952 the Garveyite Coptic diocese of Trinidad andTobago broke away and placed itself under Addis Ababa. Clergy were imported from Africaand a fully canonical church was organised in the islands. Trinidad is an EthiopianOrthodox success story: native- born clergy (including old-time Garveyite leaders) wererapidly ordained and parishes were founded all over the country and in Guyana.


ABBA LAIKE MANDEFRO: In 1959 the central Garveyite Coptic organisation in New York triedto improve its canonical status. The archbishop went to Ethiopia, where he was supposedlyordained chorepiscopos, and returned with a group of young Ethiopian priests and deaconswho were to study in American universities. These clergy almost immediately broke with theGarveyites, however, and set up parishes more oriented to the needs of Ethiopianimmigrants; the Garveyite Coptic church which had sponsored them went into an evidentlyirreversible decline. One of the young priests who came over at this time soon becameEthiopian Orthodoxy's main representative abroad. He is Laike M. Mandefro, now ArchbishopYesehaq, exarch of the Western Hemisphere and many would add Apostle to the Caribbean.


THE EWF IN JAMAICA: All of the above developments took place independently of the RasTafari Movement, which was still confined to Jamaica. An EWF chapter had opened there in1938 and been almost immediately taken over by Rastafarians, in particular by theprominent Elders Joseph Hibbert and Archibald Dunkley. Both men were noted mystics andinitiates of an all-Black "Coptic" Masonic lodge in Costa Rica; some mighttherefore find it ironic that they more than anyone else would prove responsible for thearrival of Orthodoxy in Jamaica!


"GROUNATION DAY": Presumably because of the spread of the Ethiopian Church inTrinidad, Haile Selassie was invited to visit that country in 1966. Jamaica was then inthe throws of an ongoing national social crisis in which Rastas were perceived by theestablishment as a revo- lutionary threat which had to defused; a team of socialscientists had advised the government that one way to do this was to foster close tieswith the real Ethiopia. Accordingly, the Emperor was invited to make a stop in Jamaica.


On April 21 -- "Grounation Day" to Rastas ever since -- Haile Selassie arrivedin Kingston. Contrary to the widely repeated claim that the Emperor was "amazed"or "bemused" upon "discovering" the existence of the Rastafarians (thegreater number of whom by 1966 believed him to be God in essence), there is much evidencethat Haile Selassie's whole purpose in visiting Jamaica was to meet the Rasta leadership.Greeted at the airport by thousands of dreads in white robes chanting "Hosanna to theSon of David", Haile Selassie granted an audience to a delegation of famous Elders,including Mortimo Planno and probably Joseph Hibbert. The precise details of this historicmeeting cannot be reconstructed, and there exist countless variants in Jamaican oraltradition. Almost certainly, he urged them to become Orthodox and held out the possibilitythat Jamaican settlers could receive land-grants in South Ethiopia. Most traditionalversions of the meeting specify that he also gave the Elders a secret message, very muchin keeping with the Emperor's known policies on Third World development: "BuildJamaica first."


THE JAMAICA MISSIONS: In 1970, at Hibbert's invitation, Abba Laike Mandefro began toevangelize the Rastafarians in person. In the course of a year he baptized some 1200dreads and laid the foundation for the church's subsequent growth. He also encounteredfierce opposition from those Elders who taught that Haile Selassie was Jah in essence anddemanded "baptism in Ras Tafari's name". In Montego Bay, only one dread acceptedOrthodox baptism; Laike Mandefro baptized him Ahadu -- "One Man".


THE ECUMENIST CRISIS: A major crisis struck the young church in 1971, when a publicservice marking the ninth anniversary of Jamaican independence was held in Kingston.Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox (Greek and Ethiopian) clergy all participated inthe service. The Rastas were scandalized that Orthodox would pray with representatives of"false religions"; hundreds of baptized members defected, and an entire parishwas lost. Many of these persons no doubt joined the organized Rastafarian churches whichwere beginning to replace the traditional Elder system, and which soon incorporated widelyvarying degrees of Ethiopian Orthodox liturgical and theological influence.


EWF RASTAFARI: Besides the heretical syncretist groups, however, a legitimate OrthodoxRastafari Movement continued to flourish as the backbone of the Jamaican church. The EWFunder the leadership of Dunkley and Hibbert had enormous prestige, being tied both to theroots of the movement in Garveyism and directly to Jamaica. The EWF retained the politicaland social aspects and the distinctive cultural features of classical Rastafari whileadvocating a rigorously correct and canonical Orthodoxy, venerating the Emperor as a holyliving ikon of JAH but not worshiping him. The first steps toward Orthodox Jamaica werebeing taken -- albeit by people whose main secular goal was to leave the country as soonas possible!


: {COMMENT FOR NON-ORTHODOX READERS: Orthodox theology distinguishes
: several levels of divinity. Only the Uncreated is "God-in-essence"; humans
: can become "divine by participation"; ikons are visible channels through
: which divine energy enters the world. The question which divides the
: "canonical" brethren from non-Orthodox groups is which of these
: levels of divinity applies to Emperor Haile Selassie. The Orthodox
: say he is divine by participation and ikonicity, and thus merits "douleia"
: ("veneration"); the Tribes say he is divine in essence and merits"latreia"
: or absolute worship.}


REGGAE: This was also the time when reggae music was at the height of its popularity, andwhen explicitly religious lyrics were the norm within reggae. Many popular bands wereOrthodox, notably The Abyssinians, a group with priestly and monastic connections. Thefamily of reggae's "superstar", Bob Marley, were mostly Orthodox, althoughMarley himself was for most of his career a member of the Twelve Tribes sect. In his lastyears, dying young of cancer, Marley underwent a remarkable spiritual transformation(evident in his music also) culminating in his baptism; his Orthodox funeral in 1981 wasattended by tens of thousands of mourners.


THE SHEARING OF LOCKS: Haile Selassie was reported dead in 1975 (to the disbelief of manyRastas even today). The Ethiopian church, like many Orthodox churches under communistrule, endured terrible persecution which it survived partly by compromise with thepersecutors. The Marxist regime in Addis Ababa was very unenthused that anemperor-venerating and/or worshiping cult was flourishing in a part of the world otherwiseripe for revolution.


In addition, I have the impression that some of the increasingly numerous and oftenmiddle-class Ethiopian emigres in the West looked down on Rastafarians. The pioussuspected their Orthodoxy (no doubt often rightly; that many "Orthodox" Rastascontinued to secretly harbor heretical views is quite likely); the staid resentedassociation with an impoverished and reputedly criminal Black underclass. The latterconsideration was especially strong in Britain, where all forms of Rastafari spreadrapidly among the West Indian minority in the '70s. (It is important to add, however, thatEngland's Ethiopian community also provided legal and other support for Rastas subjectedto racist and police harassment during this period, especially in the Handsworth sectionof Birmingham.)


For whatever reason, in 1976 all Orthodox Rastas were required to cut their locks and tomake an elaborate formal repudiation of heretical emperor worship (latreia). Whatever itslong-term wisdom, this decree forced people who were "growing into anoverstanding" by the slow traditional process to make a sudden decision; the cuttingof locks, a purely external issue, seemed to many a repudiation of the movement's history.


SYNCRETISM: In spite of these not-inconsiderable conflicts, the Ethiopian Orthodox Churchhas spread through the Caribbean thanks to the Ras Tafari movement. While only a minorityof Rastas have actually become Orthodox, nearly all have been influenced by Orthodoxy. Themakwamya (the prayer stick used by Ethiopian clergy) is ubiquitous among dreads; items ofclerical garb are also frequently adopted. Rastafarian painters have been heavilyinfluenced by ikonography. Syncretism is particularly evident in the organized sects whichhave partly supplanted the charismatic Elder system.


THE TWELVE TRIBES OF ISRAEL (unrelated to the various Black Hebrew churches of the samename) are probably the largest and most famous of the sects. Founded in 1968 by VernonCarrington (the Prophet Gad), the Tribes hold that Haile Selassie is Jesus Christ returnedin majesty as King: the Second Coming has already happened. Their coherent theology andtight organization have won them many converts, including most of the famous reggaesingers of the '70s. Something of the syncretistic feel of later Rastafari is conveyed bythe cover art on the album "Zion Train" by Ras Michael (a brilliant hymnographerand one of the Ras Tafari Movement's more impressive living spokesmen). The painting showstwo clerically-turbaned dreads before the open Royal Doors of an ikonostasis -- beyondwhich, however, is only a view of mountains against a red sky.


"PRINCE" EDWARD EMMANUEL, founder of another prominent sect, was a famous Elderof the classical era, responsible for convening the first "Nyabinghi" orRastafarian general synod in 1958. The Prince was already a controversial figure whoclaimed to be one of the Holy Trinity along with Haile Selassie and Marcus Garvey;presumably, he hoped the Nyabinghi would recognize this claim (which it did not).Thereafter the Prince began transforming his large band of worshipers into an organizedchurch, complete with dogma, liturgy, hierarchy, and a kind of monasticism. The group'spriests, some of whom have actually been to Ethiopia, wear Orthodox vestments.


THE ZION COPTIC CHURCH, a semi-moribund Garveyite Orthodox denomination, was revitalizedby white hippie converts in the '60s; despite its partly foreign leadership, it enjoyedexplosive growth among Black Jamaicans disillusioned with the canonical church's approach.Although the "Coptics", as they are called, insist that they are a legitimateOrthodox jurisdiction and even publish tracts on such theological issues as the _miaphysis_ and the Council of Chalcedon, they also engage in some very questionablespeculations verging on Gnosticism. To their credit, they have gone much further than thecanonical church in incorporating the best of classical Rastafrian culture into churchlife, and their retention of dreadlocks, nyabinghi drumming, etc. has helped them gainmany converts. This success is reflected in their great material wealth, for which theyhave been criticized (they are supposedly among the largest landholders in Jamaica). Oneaspect of their "reverse syncretism" has caused much controversy, as well as alandmark church-state case which landed the Coptics' leadership in prison: theirgnosticizing theories are used to justify ritual consumption of marijuana.


GANJA: Contrary to popular belief, pious Rastas do not smoke marijuana recreationally, andsome (the canonical Ethiopian Orthodox and also the followers of certain classical Elders)do not use it at all. Most Rastafarian teachers, however, have advocated the controlledritual smoking of "wisdomweed" both privately as an aid to meditation andcommunally from "chalice" pipes as an "incense pleasing to the Lord".The argument is that ganja is the "green herb" of the King James Bible and thatits use is a kind of shortcut version of traditional ascetical practice. The EthiopianChurch, of course, strongly discourages this: Orthodox monks have learned over centuriesof experience that such shortcuts are at best dangerous and at worst soul-destroying. Theissue, however, has been much sensationalized by the press, in keeping with the raciststereotyping of Rastas as stoned criminals.


CONCLUSION: I believe that the Rastafarians have been greatly underestimated by theoutside world, including, to some extent, many elements in the Orthodox community. Theclassical Rastas were sophisticated theological and philosophical thinkers, notcargo-cultists worshiping newspaper photos of an African despot. They had discovered manysophisticated theological concepts for themselves, and had retraced many of theChristological and other debates of the early Church. They brought a truly rich culturaland artistic legacy, including some of the twentieth century's most moving hymnography..


While Abuna Yesehaq, at least, certainly seems to recognize this, in practise Rastas oftenseem to be told by the church that they must become Ethiopians in order to becomeOrthodox. Many are willing to do this, so great is their thirst for Truth and so acutetheir sense of having lost their true African culture. More, however, are not--and in away rightly so. The Church is the poorer to the extent it does not incorporate what isgood about the Rasta experience and instead tiresomely emphasizes the "heresy ofemperor-worship" and "herbal sorcery". What is forgotten is that theexistence of the Rastafari movement is a miracle: a forgotten people and a lost culturebringing itself by "reasonings" to the very edge of Orthodoxy. Surely this is asupernatural event, and so the Orthodox Rastas see it. An anonymous nyabingi chant goes:

Michael going to bring them, bring them to the Orthodox Church.
No matter what they do, no matter what they say.
Gabriel going to bring them, bring them to the Orthodox Church.
Raphael going to bring them, Uriel going to bring them,
Sorial going to bring them, Raguel going to bring them,
Fanuel going to bring them, bring them to the Orthodox Church.


I will conclude with a song by Berhane Selassie (Bob Marley), written around the time hewas converting to Orthodoxy from the Twelve Tribes and summing up the whole Orthodox Rasta"seen":


Old pirates, yes, they rob I
Sold I to the merchant ships,
Minutes after they took I
From the bottomless pit.
But my hand was made strong
By the hand of the Almighty.
We followed in this generation, triumphantly.
Won't you help to sing these songs of freedom?
Cause all I ever have: redemption songs,
These songs of freedom.


This was the last song on the last album Marley released before his death.


FOR FURTHER READING:
R. Auger et al., *The Rastafarian Movement in Kingston*, Univ. of the West Indies, 1960 (Along excerpt is in Lincoln, infra.)