February 6th marked what would have been the 67th birthday of Jamaican reggae legend Bob Marley, widely considered one of the greatest and most influential musicians of all time. Marley, who hailed from a lower class area of Kingston, the capital city of Jamaica, saw his rise to prominence in the 1970’s with a musical group known as The Wailers, with their new brand of Jamaican ska music and reggae. His album, Legend, released 3 years after his death, is still the greatest-selling reggae album of all time. In addition to turning reggae into a global music phenomenon, Marley was also the chief promoter of the Rastafarian religion worldwide (an upcoming documentary called “Marley”, to be released in April, will certainly highlight his amazing career). While he is famous for his dreadlocks, Rastafarian ethic and signature voice, what very few know is that Marley converted to Christianity over one year before his death.
Several independent sources confirm the account of Marley’s conversion from Rasta religion to Christianity. Rastafarians use the Bible as a Holy Book but believe that deceased former Emperor of Ethiopia, Haille Selassie, is the Messiah of the Bible and worship him. The title “Ras Tafari” was a title given to Sellasie in his home country as a political ruler. The Rastafarians adopted the name for themselves. Marley became a Rasta as a youth and infused the Rasta lifestyle and beliefs into his music. With his trademark dreadlocks, socially conscious lyrics and Afrocentric consciousness, Marley put the Rasta movement on the global music scene. And some of the lyrics were anti-Christian. Biblical Christianity was often perceived in the Rasta movement as a product of the White race and Western society, also known as “Babylon.”
A sampling of the Wailer’s thoughts on Christianity are seen in the song “Get up, Stand up” one of the Wailers’ greatest hits. The entire song is addressing the issues that the group has with the Christian faith:
Get up, stand up: stand up for your rights!
Get up, stand up: don’t give up the fight!
Get up, stand up: stand up for your rights!
Get up, stand up: don’t give up the fight!
The idea of the Second Coming of Christ and a new Earth that is ruled in righteousness by Jesus is being objected to. Rather than looking to eternal life with God, the song implores the listener to look for the present life for true value. This is the exact opposite of what Jesus Christ preached. Jesus said: “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust does corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust does corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21). The point being made is that the life on Earth is temporary and fleeting. Anything anyone owns in their lives on Earth cannot be taken to the grave. And all the treasures and goods of today will rot and decay and be trash in the future. What is truly important is where your soul will spend eternity. This is why Jesus emphasized looking to eternal life in Heaven – where treasures never decay and life never ends.
Marley’s bandmate Peter Tosh, in his perhaps his most popular singing role, again attacks Christianity in the following verse:
We gonna stand up for our rights! (yeah, yeah, yeah! )
As we have detailed in several other articles, many music artists specifically target Jesus Christ by name in their lyrics. This song is no different as Tosh declares that the group is “sick” of the Gospel message and calls it all a “game.” In interviews, Marley was adamant about his rejection of Jesus. It is ironic that despite being a movement of peace, harmony and love, that there is such animosity towards Christianity and Jesus Christ specifically. But this is a part of Satan’s plan. The Great Deceiver will use any ploy to get people to turn from Biblical Christianity and in this case it was the pro-Black, Afrocentric political nature of Rastafari. Inspired by Jamaican civil rights activist Marcus Garvey, much of the Rasta movement was infused with a rejection of a white American culture that had just finished implementing almost a century of race-based segregation and oppression of people of African descent. Thus Jesus was perceived as the “White Man’s God” and thus a part of the “Babylon system”. For the Rasta, “God is a “living man”, a reference to Emperor Selassie, who the Rasta believed would return them back to Ethiopia and rule as god on Earth (following the destruction of America, Europe and Western/Caucasian society). Hence the Rasta’s use of the Bible was done to point their followers to Selassie. So while Marley’s lyrics make scriptural references, they were not done in a way that reflected the true Gospel.
Selassie’s Actual Beliefs
Despite having literal worshipers, Selassie himself was a Christian and member of the Ethiopian Orthodox church. “He always rejected the view that he was the second Christ,” explains the Reverend of Holy Trinity Church, where Selassie attended later in life. “He always remained a Christian.” Unlike many false prophets and messianic figures who have come and gone through the years, Selassie never claimed to be the Christ or God. He also never followed or led the Rastafari movement. It was the rare case where one was basically “selected” as messiah. In an interview with Canada’s CBC news in 1967, Selassie stated: “I have heard of that idea [that I am divine]. I also met certain Rastafarians. I told them clearly that I am a man, that I am mortal, and that I will be replaced by the oncoming generation, and that they should never make a mistake in assuming or pretending that a human being is emanated from a deity.” Selassie died in 1975, prompting many Rastas to proclaim his death was a hoax, while others claimed Selassie was still existing, just no longer in bodily form. Despite his death proving that he did not fulfill the Bible’s prophecies about the Second Coming of the Messiah (who will come and rule and reign on a His throne forever), and Selassie’s own personal denials, many Rastas today still insist on Selassie’s divinity.
Selassie commissioned Abuna Yesehaq to start a church in Jamaica to specifically preach to the Rasta community and turn them from worship of him and towards worship of the true Jesus Christ of the Bible. In a 1984 interview with the Jamaica Gleaner’s Sunday magazine titled “Abuna Yesehaq Looks Back on 14 Years of Ministry in Jamaica”, Yesehaq spoke of Marley’s desire to convert to Christianity. “Bob was really a good brother, a child of God, regardless of how people looked at him,” Yesehaq said. “He had a desire to be baptized long ago, but there were people close to him who controlled him and who were aligned to a different aspect of Rastafari. But he came to church regularly.”
While the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Jamaica preaches that sacraments are required to receive God’s grace, which is an unbiblical stance (Christians are saved by their faith according to the Bible and not by any actions), Yesehaq’s confirm’s Marley’s converson to Christianity based on his faith and never mentions Marley being confirmed in the church, wearing a Mateb necklace or other Ethiopioan church ordinances. In the interview, Yesehaq also addressed claims that Marley’s terminal cancer was the motivation behind his acceptance of Jesus Christ as his personal savior.
“When he toured Los Angeles and New York and England, he preached the Orthodox faith, and many members in those cities came to the Church because of Bob,” Yesehaq said. “Many people think he was baptized because he knew he was dying, but that is not so. He did it when there was no longer any pressure on him, and when he was baptized, he hugged his family and wept, they all wept together for about half an hour.”
Judy Mowatt’s Testimony
Judy Mowatt, a reggae singer who formerly sang backup for Marley in the group the “I-Threes” (which also included Marley’s wife Rita and Marcia Griffiths), recalled learning about Marley’s conversion to Christianity in an interview with Cross Rhythms radio. Marley, who died of cancer at the age of 36, was severely ill in his final days. Mowatt spoke with her former bandmate and Marley’s wife, Rita, about the late musician calling out to Jesus Christ on his death bed.
“When Bob was on his dying bed, his wife Rita called me on the phone and said to me that Bob was in such excruciating pain and he stretched out his hand and said, ‘Jesus take me.’ I was wondering to myself, ‘Why is it that Bob said Jesus and not Selassie,'” Mowatt questioned. “Then I met a friend of mine and he said his sister, who is a Christian, was a nurse at the hospital where Bob was before he passed on, and she led him to the Lord Jesus Christ. So when Rita saw him saying ‘Jesus take me,’ he had already received the Lord Jesus Christ in his life.” (source)
So Mowatt confirms that it was not the Orthodox Ethiopian Church that led to Marley’s conversion but a nurse during one of his hospital visits. After hearing of Marley’s conversion, Mowatt soon found herself on her own spiritual journey:
“I was a Rasta for 22 years and I was genuine. I embraced the objectives of Rastafari, knowing that one of the aims and objectives were to repatriate to the land of our ancestors. And also to make music to let people be aware of who they are as a people and knowing that the western hemisphere is only a place for them to pass through, but we should return to our father’s land. That was my plan, but God had a different plan! After 22 years I became very unfulfilled, dissatisfied; not by any one thing or by any one person but I started to search inside because I [realised] that there was something else that I needed that I could not put my hand on. I knew that God was calling me into deeper waters. I was a little bit fearful because I was wondering what my brothers and sisters would say and what would be their reaction. So I was a bit fearful.”
Soon family problems led her to the Lord and learning the Gospel of Jesus Christ:
“I was at a place where I thought I wanted to die but I never had the strength to take my own life. I started praying and I said, ‘God, I really don’t know you because if I knew you, then all of this would not have been happening to me.’ Not knowing that God had used that situation to draw me to him. I started reading my Bible. I had read my Bible three times from cover to cover and I started reading, but the things I was seeing this fourth time were what I never saw in the three times I read my Bible.”
She continued, “I was seeing it through another pair of lenses. I read, ‘Wherein, there is no other name given among men whereby we must be saved, but by the name of Jesus Christ.’ That flew out of the Bible and into my spirit and that really turned the key. Whenever you have a mindset and you seriously believe something, you’re not going to open to anything else, and I wasn’t open to anything else. But God opened me to start seeking and searching.” (source)
Mowatt is now a Gospel reggae performer. When asked why the story of Marley rejecting the Rastafari for Christianity is not more well-known she stated: “If people knew, they would be drawn to Jesus Christ. Nobody wants to promote that in Jamaica. I said it on a popular television programme over there and a Rasta man met me and asked me why did I have to say that? I told him it was because it’s the truth! But he never wanted me to reveal that and I think that nobody wants it to be revealed because so many people would be drawn to Jesus.” Bob Marley’s official website doesn’t even mention his conversion, (although a number of fan sites do.)
Tommy Cowan, a legend in the Jamaican music industry, was Bob Marley’s business managers for years while Marley was touring the world. Cowan, who was a very staunch rastafarian, recalls the time of Marley’s conversion:
“Bob Marley himself, before he died, he got baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ,” Tommy says with much conviction. “What does Selassie teaches That Jesus Christ is the way. As a matter of fact, in one song you would have heard him militantly (saying) ‘how they crucified my Jesus Christ and they sold Marcus Garvey for rice.’One of his songs said, ‘Give us the teachings if his majesty because we dona’t want the devil’s philosophy.’ Bob, Tommy recalls, called the bishop of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and told him I need to be baptized now. Just recently Tommy was speaking with the said bishop who described Bob’s baptism. “At one point he (Bob) cried for 45 minutes non-stop; his tears wet the floor. And the Holy Spirit came down upon his body and he cried out Jesus Christ three times ‘Jesus my Savior, Jesus Christ…’” (source)
Like Mowatt, Cowan too eventually left the Rastafari movement to become a born again Christian:
“When I pursued the teachings of Rasta which is Haile Selassie, basically, Rasta would have had to be a Christian religion,” Tommy reasons. “Haile Selassie himself was a very, very committed Christian and somehow through that whole faith it led me back to that place that I had to realize that it’s not about Islam, it’s not about Buddha, it’s not about Mohammed, it’s not about Selassie but at the name of Jesus that every knee shall bow and every tongue confess.” (source)
While Bob Marley spent most of his legendary music career promoting the worship of Selassie and railing against Christianity, his final year of life is a testament to God’s grace and the fact that no matter how far someone moves away from God, they can always come back to The Lord in repentance and receive Jesus Christ as their Savior. Bob Marley made music that promoted peace, racial equality and love among all people. Yet he still did not find spiritual fulfillment in his message. Instead he found it in Jesus Christ, the true God in the flesh, who not only preached a message of peace and love but showed the world its sin and the consequences of it. As the book of Romans states: “the wages of sin is death.” But by giving His life on the cross, Jesus Christ paid the price and punishment for those who choose to believe in Him. And praise The Lord that Marley seemed to have learned all of this and professed it before he met his own untimely death. And in Marley’s conversion, not only was his soul saved, but he set an example for Judy Mowatt, Tommy Cowan and hopefully many others. Let the reader learn from Marley’s journey. Believing in peace and love is admirable but will not save your soul. Only forgiveness of sins through the one who came to Earth to give Himself for all of us (for more on what it means to have eternal life and be a born again Christian, see here). Hopefully more fans will get to know the Savior who Marley called: “my sweet Jesus Christ.”