Religious Influences on Marcus Garvey

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The religious beliefs of Marcus Mosiah Garvey were rooted in Christianity and pan-Africanism, a movement and political ideology aimed at unifying the black race. Born in St. Ann’s Bay, Jamaica, Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association in 1914 to carry out his beliefs. Among his most notable convictions was that African-Americans should return en masse to the African continent. Garvey's ideology helped give rise to the Rastafarian religion in Jamaica; he was a notable adversary of W.E.B. Du Bois, who was also a pan-Africanist.

1 Christian Beginnings

Initially, Garvey was a member of the Roman Catholic Church, and later the African Orthodox Church. He revered certain passages of the Bible, particularly those that reference black people and Africa. "Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God,” he frequently quoted from Psalms 68:31. Texts from the Bible were used to bolster his belief in a black God, the “God of Ethiopia." As Garvey’s interest in African unity grew, he became critical of other sections of the Bible, which he claimed was altered to reinforce white superiority over blacks during slavery.

2 Garvey’s Brand of Fundamentalism

In a front page editorial titled "African Fundamentalism," Garvey called for the maintenance of black unity and self-respect. Garvey wrote the article for "Negro World," a weekly newspaper he owned in 1925 during the height of his movement and during a period of Christian fundamentalism. The article stressed deference to God and to the human conscience as its central theme. “God and Nature first made us what we are, and then out of our own created genius we make ourselves what we want to be.” It’s worth noting that although he himself was a Christian, Garvey made no reference to a specific God or religion, a hallmark of the UNIA.

3 Conflicting Ideologies

Garvey’s ideas of pan-Africanism and Christianity were sometimes contradictory, in view of the fact that pan-Africanism compels blacks to not only return to Africa, but also become acculturated with the practices of their ancestors. However, Garvey held to his core beliefs in the Bible -- placing emphasis on certain verses to elevate his ideology. He never fully abandoned Christianity, which some pan-Africanists called a “white man's religion." Garvey returned to Jamaica in 1927 after he served time in an Atlanta prison on charges of mail fraud. The case originated from purchase of stock in the Black Star Line, a steamship company Garvey owned. Despite selling stock for a ship called the S.S. Phyllis Wheatley, the agreement to buy the ship had not yet concluded. Garvey maintained that his prosecution was a technicality, exploited by law enforcement to put an end to the UNIA.

4 Rastafarian Rise

In Jamaica, Garvey’s views were particularly popular among the working class. He continued to spread his message of black unity and belief that both Jesus and Mary were black. Blacks were directed by Garvey to look to Africa for the crowning of a king, and in 1930, Prince Ras Tafari Makonnen, or Haile Selassie I as he called himself, was made Emperor of Ethiopia. Garvey, however, was not a wholehearted supporter of Selassie, and believed his Ethiopian followers to be zealots. Within the Rastafarian religion, Garvey is regarded as a prophet; a celebration is held on Aug. 17, the day of his birth.

Mike Finch is a writer and reporter based in Miami. He has reported from West Palm Beach, St. Petersburg (Fla.) and New Orleans. He has a degree in political science.