SARAH ANN GILL
HER final resting place is very modest, even contrastingly simple, when compared with the monumental role she performed on the religious and social landscape of Barbados.
The headstone on her grave (revised in Heritage Year 1988) located in the small cemetery at the back of James Street chapel reads:
Sarah Ann Gill
Born February 16 1795
Died February 25 1866
HEROINE OF METHODISM IN BARBADOS
THE DEFENDER OF METHODISM
WHEN ITS EXISTENCE WAS THREATENED IN 1823-1825
WAS PERSECUTED AND PROSECUTED
Like many whose lives and value to society are not always fully appreciated, the significance of Mrs. Sarah Ann Gill's contribution must be measured in terms of the context of the role played by Methodists at that time. That was her chosen faith, hence the focal point of hostility by powerful forces against its challenge to the existing social order.
Methodism was brought to Barbados in 1788 by Dr. Thomas Coke, a driving force behind early Methodist missionary activity. By 1793, Methodists were often viewed by the Barbadian upper classes as anti-slavery agitators and Methodist missionaries regarded as agents of the England-based Anti-Slavery Society.
Gill was a Free Coloured and a member of this controversial church in Barbados. In his "Methodism: 200 Years in Barbados", author Woodie Blackman wrote that the first record of her association with Methodism was in 1819 when she made a donation of ten pounds sterling towards the building of the first Methodist chapel in Bridgetown, which was to be constructed of stone. Records show she became a full member in 1820.
In October 1823, the Chapel building was destroyed by a mob of white rioters and the Methodist missionary Rev. William Shrewsbury and his pregnant wife were forced to flee for their lives to St. Vincent.
Sarah Ann and her sister-in-law, Miss Christiana Gill, were among the leaders of the church who subsequently opened their homes as meeting places for church members. In the prevailing adversarial, even life-threatening environment, this was an act of exceptional bravery.
A 28-year-old widow, Sarah Ann held regular worship services in the face of continued and active persecution. These included threats to burn down her house and two prosecutions in the law courts for holding "illegal" meetings.
The latter came about as a result of the Conventicles Act of 1664 which forbade assembly of more than five persons for divine worship unless in a licensed meeting place and led by a licensed preacher.
Sarah Ann was persecuted continuously for one year with threats of grievous bodily harm, questioned by magistrates about supposedly having guns and ammunition in her home, and finally, prosecuted by the House of Assembly.
On each occasion, and at her own expense, she not only defended herself and defied the authorities, but also took the extraordinary step of continuing to hold services in her home.
Governor Warde, censured by the Secretary of State for inaction, was forced to use soldiers to ensure the safety of Sarah Ann, her household and property when the Secret Committee of Public Safety (ringleaders of the persecution) declared that on October 19, 1824, they would destroy her home.
Instead, frustrated by the Governor, they could only burn her in effigy.
In April 1825, when Rev. Moses Rayner was re-appointed to Barbados, he sought, by letter, Sarah Ann's advice about his safety. She replied: "I don't advise you to come, but if it was me, I should come."
He returned and built a chapel on the site of the present James Street Church on land provided by Sarah Ann at a minimal cost with payment spread over eight years.
Inevitably, the outrages of the period reached the House of Commons in England and ignited debate of far-reaching consequences. On June 25, 1825, the members "... deemed it their duty to declare that they view(ed) with utmost indignation (the) scandalous and daring violation of the law and (supported by His Majesty's) ... securing ample protection and religious toleration to all ... of His Majesty's dominions."
The Gill Memorial Church at Eagle Hall is named after Sarah Ann. A large, wooden structure built in 1893, it was replaced by a new Gill Memorial Church built at Fairfield Road, Black Rock, St. Michael in the late 1980s.
It deserves to be a place of pilgrimage.
Her courage, perseverance and commitment to religious freedom set Sarah Ann Gill apart even among the unnumbered fine Christian stewards of her day. In thus discharging her primary duty to God, she undoubtedly ensured a standard by which Barbadian society has been greatly uplifted and enriched.