It is a true—but generally unknown—story of how the reggae icon and face of the Rastafarian movement was baptised into the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. His official biographies acknowledge it, but don’t go into much detail. It is not referenced at all in the 2012 film Marley. You would probably never hear about this story unless you came across it online, as I did when an Ethiopian Orthodox friend tweeted about it, or potentially as you are doing right now with this essay.
Bob Marley was born on February 6, 1945, in the Jamaican parish of Saint Ann, near the village of Nine Mile. His father was Norval Marley, a white man of English origin who died when Marley was ten years old. His mother, Cedella Booker, was a Black woman of Afro-Jamaican origin. Marley’s mother recounts in her book Bob Marley, My Son that as a chorister at Kingston, Jamaica’s Shiloh Apostolic Church, she “got religion” before getting pregnant with Bob.
Growing up in a Christian environment had a significant effect on Marley, particularly via music. Roger Steffens quotes Cedella in Chanting Down Babylon as saying that Marley “would continually sing along with me, hymns, popular melodies, anything” in the house.
In 1963, Marley formed The Teenagers, who later changed their name to The Wailers. His early work, notably “One Love” (an earlier version of one of his well-known songs), reveals a genuine dedication to the Bible that lasted the remainder of his life and career. During his Island Records tenure, Dean MacNeil tallied 137 separate biblical references in The Bible and Bob Marley, largely from Psalms and Proverbs.
According to MacNeil, from “Judge Not,” his first published song at the age of 17 (based on Matthew 7:1/Luke 6:37), to “Redemption Song,” the final track of his final album before passing away from cancer at the age of 36 (“How long shall they kill our prophets while we stand aside and look? / How long shall they kill our prophets while we stand aside and look? / How long shall they kill our prophets while we stand aside and look? He also stated that the name of his organisation was inspired by biblical allusions to “weeping and wailing,” most likely referencing to Jeremiah 9:10, which is a lament for Judah’s loss by the Babylonians. Every day, he read from the King James Version.
Marley never lost interest in the Bible, but by the end of 1966, he had grown more acquainted with the Rastafarian concept of “Jah,” the Bible, and history. Rastafarianism, which has been reduced in popular culture to cannabis and dreadlocks, honoured African culture and heritage while condemning injustice and colonialism (“Babylon”). And the primary element of the Rastafarian faith was the belief that Haile Selassie, the Ethiopian monarch (also known as “Ras Tafari”), was both God incarnate and the return of Jesus.
Rita Anderson, a Christian who had become a Rastafarian when Selassie visited Jamaica in April of that year, and Marley had married in February of that year. Later, Marley followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the Twelve Tribes of Israel, which Dean MacNeil characterises as “the most ‘Christian’ and Bible-based Rastafari sect.” In June 1968, he recorded his first Rastafarian-influenced song, “Selassie Is the Chapel,” then two years later, “Jah Is Mighty.”
The decade of Marley the Rastafarian’s musical popularity that followed is well recognised. However, three years after his first cancer diagnosis and just months before his death, Marley launched a new, more secret revolt in 1980. Marley had visited Miami and Mexico before returning to Sloan-Kettering in New York, according to Timothy White in his biography Catch a Fire. On November 4, 1980, he travelled to New York and was baptised there. Rita arranged for Bob to be baptised at the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. He afterwards changed his name to Berhane Selassie [“Light of the Trinity”] and committed to Christianity.
We get a few more information in Stephen Davis’s 1988 biography: The baptism took place at the Wellington Hotel in downtown Manhattan. Bob was baptised by Archbishop Abuna Yesehaq, an Ethiopian Orthodox Church leader designated to assist Jamaicans. They were joined by their children and “A tearful Rita.” religious burial
It was another indication of Marley’s change from Rastafarianism, which sometimes does not follow burial customs at all, and his admission into the Orthodox Church that his funeral was a totally Christian event. The Guardian presents a detailed account of the whole episode, which is also captured on video on the internet. With the exception of the occasional reference of Rastafarianism, the celebration was strongly rooted in Christian music, readings, and prayer; all of this was done in a way that was respectful of the fundamental themes of Marley’s life and work.
Was Marley really converted? White says that Rita came up with the idea and that Marley was still basically a Rasta. Davis believes that Marley might have been attracted to the mysterious and historic Ethiopian Church, but he also doubts if Marley’s choice to be baptised was driven by a fear of dying or a desire to please his mother, who had “been trying for years to bring him back to Christianity.”
However, the eyewitness accounts of those who were closest to Marley and his conversion are instructive. Archbishop Abuna Yesehaq, who personally baptised Marley, remarked on this in So Many Things to Say: “Bob was actually a wonderful brother, a child of God, regardless of how people looked at him,” says the Oral History of Bob Marley. Long ago, he wished to get baptised, but people close to him controlled him and backed an alternate Rastafari doctrine. He did, however, often attend church. While I was conducting the Mass, I caught sight of Bob with tears pouring down his face.
“Bob preached the Orthodox faith while on tour in Los Angeles, New York, and England, and as a consequence, many individuals in those locations joined the church. Contrary to common belief, Jesus was not baptised because he knew he was going to die. He did it when he was no longer under any duress. He cried as he hugged his family after getting baptised. They all wept for around 30 minutes.
According to Yesehaq, Marley cried for a half-hour during his baptism, and he also describes how Ethiopian Orthodox and Roman Catholic beliefs are quite similar. Yesehaq described Marley’s weeping as tears of regret. He also mentions that Rita Marley, Marley’s wife, and their children were baptised into the Orthodox church in 1973, making Marley the sixth year prior. (In The First Rasta, Davis emphasises still another aspect of Marley’s long affiliation with the Orthodox Church: “He had been its clandestine contributor in Jamaica for years, supporting the erection of its church on Maxfield Avenue.”)
In a passage from Visions of Zion, Liq Kahnat Misale, an Ethiopian missionary who worked in Jamaica, affirmed Yesehaq’s interpretation: “Bob Marley’s children will attend church and serve the diaconate. Although I think Bob Marley was a devout Orthodox Christian, he never acknowledged it.
Rita’s testimony is much more striking. She said that Bob made the arrangements for himself and that she had not done so on his behalf. “On the morning of November 4, 1980, he called for a baptism,” she writes in No Woman, No Cry. Since His Majesty Haile Selassie sent Abba to Jamaica, I had been pressing him to get baptised since I had baptised all of our children—not just my own—in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. He was sobbing when he asked me to call Abba that morning. We were all in tears.
When Bob was approaching death, Rita called Judy Mowatt, a friend and former Wailers backing singer, and told her he was “in such horrific anguish and he reached out his hand and said, Jesus take me.”
Marley, who turned 78 on February 6, never publicly recognised his conversion, despite the fact that it did occur. And when you combine all of these testimonies, it is clear that it was profound as well as real. All of this raises the question: Why is it that no one wants to talk about it? Why has this incredible growth in the life of a renowned artist been consistently minimised or ignored?
Perhaps it was considered to be a fake, one of those stories Christians love to tell about “death-bed conversions.” But, more likely, it was kept private since it was so plainly factual, and many of his friends and followers saw it as an unpleasant addendum that would harm his image.
Marley’s conversion was an affirmation of what was most deeply embedded in him—his Christian heritage and impassioned quest of justice—rather than a rejection of his life. He became a Christian after being a Rasta, not a Christian Rasta. It is time to convey the good news of Bob Marley’s conversion and to listen to his songs for what they really were: seeds of the Word planting the Gospel into his (and our) hearts.