Sir James Carlisle: Dialogue with the Governor General of Antigua and Barbuda

Adventist historians may correct me if I am wrong. Sir James Carlisle is the first and the only Seventh-day Adventist to serve as a governor general anywhere in the world. Knighted in 1993 by Her Majesty the Queen of England, Sir James Carlisle is the governor of the beautiful island nations of Antigua and Barbuda. As governor, Sir James has to make many important decisions every day. If you were to ask him, “What was the greatest decision you have made in your life?” he would probably say, “My decision to love Jesus all the way by keeping the Seventh-day Sabbath.”

Sir James made that decision when he was 14. Never has he looked back. Studies, a professional career, an accomplished service, knighthood—all have remained symbols of a fulfilled life, meaningful service, and the coming hope.

Married to Lady Carlisle, he has two school-age children. Even though he is governor, Sir James finds time to serve the local church in many ways, and volunteers his dental skills at the Antigua Adventist Dental Clinic.

Sir James, what were your religious roots?

My parents were Anglicans, and some of my family were Methodists. I went to the Anglican church on Sunday mornings and enjoyed afternoons attending Sunday school sessions at the Methodist church.

How were you attracted to Adventism?

Primarily by two factors: the truthfulness of the Sabbath and the upper mobility of Adventism. As a teenager, I studied my Bible with much interest and at times with other Adventist friends. One discovery that stared into my face and pressed on my heart was that the biblical Sabbath is Saturday, not Sunday, and to follow Christ all the way is to keep the Sabbath holy. I could not put aside this truth for so long; soon I decided to keep the Sabbath, even though my Anglican family and friends were quite opposed to it.

The second force that pulled me toward Adventism is that I noticed that Adventists, above other Christians, placed a high priority in holistic education, and that Adventist trained young people were moving up in the intellectual, social, economic, professional, and every other ladder in life.

What were the results of your becoming an Adventist?

No sooner I became an Adventist than I obtained this love for truth and learning. The Bible, of course, became the great attraction for learning more and more about God’s will for my life. Adventism also instilled in me a love for higher learning. Going to college was impossible, given our poor economic background, but Adventism introduced in my life colporteuring and the dignity of labor. I distributed Adventist publications for a living and learned to do any work. Instead of going to college in Antigua, I landed in England. But life there was not rosy. I tried to teach, but their system was different. So I took whatever job I could get and attended evening college classes.

One evening I was returning home, tired, cold, hungry, and depressed—and paying no attention to anything else. As I crossed the street, a speeding car almost hit me. I soon realized where I was. I looked up, and presto, there was a poster inviting young men to join the Royal Air Force, with the opportunity of higher education. I signed in and chose dentistry. Even as I served the Air Force, I was becoming a dentist.

A real dentist?

Not quite. My primary mission was training in the Royal Air Force, but I was given the opportunity to choose a profession that could provide me a civil job when necessary. I learned quite well as a dental paramedic. When I came out of the Royal Force, I applied for dentistry in the university dental college. The competition was stiff, but the practical experience I had gained gave me an edge over other applicants, and I got in. Soon I became a dentist and returned to Antigua.

Was your faith also growing?

Not really. While in the Air Force, I drifted away. I forgot my Lord. Adventism was no longer the compelling force in my life. But after I returned to my island, something happened to me. An inner voice seemed to invite me to come back to my real home. This time, it was a true born-again experience. I decided to set up a Christian dental practice. My wife joined me as a bookkeeper. The Lord prospered our work. He strengthened our faith as well. We both took part in church activities and got ourselves in programs that could strengthen the community.

When the appointment as governor general reached you, what was your reaction?

Disbelief. I come from a simple home. I could never aspire for such a position as this. My family and I made it a matter of prayer. The examples of Joseph, Daniel, Esther, Nehemiah came leaping before us. Our lives are never our own. They are His to own, His to plan. All God expects of us is to submit ourselves to Him.

Was it easy to accept the appointment?

I wish it had been. There was opposition from within the church and outside the church. The one from within questioned my faith and commitment: What would you do if there was a royal visit on Sabbath? Can you be a true Adventist, holding such a high political position? How can you serve two masters? From outside the church, people wondered whether I would give too high a profile to the Seventh-day Adventist Church. In either case, one significant factor was clear in my mind. God is the sovereign of this universe, and when He calls simple people like us to serve, He has a purpose, and He provides the strength. Our actions should be governed only by the question: Are we serving the purposes of the Sovereign Lord?

I believe our church should communicate to all its members, especially to young men and women, the message that whatever the line of work, as long as it does not contravene God’s requirements, we should seek the very best in that profession. God wants us to be the head, not the tail. For an Adventist, the sky is the limit.

Do you find opportunities to witness for your faith in connection with your work?

Yes. In 1993, for example, I was awarded the knighthood. The following year Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth was on a tour of the Caribbean. She suggested my investiture in Anguilla. Unfortunately the appointed time was Friday night. I wrote to Her Majesty for a deferment, explaining that I was a Seventh-day Adventist observing the Sabbath from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday. Eventually, the investiture was arranged at the Buckingham Place at a later date. While my wife and I were in London for the occasion, Princess Margaret invited us to lunch, and we were delighted to find that Her Royal Highness had provided a vegetarian meal and mineral water for all guests.

Is it easy to maintain such lifestyle practices in general government functions?

I do meet some criticism because I do not serve alcoholic drinks in activities held in my name as governor general. Some people have accused me of pushing my religion down people’s throat, but I point to the benefits one gets from abstaining from alcohol. Drug addiction and alcoholism are two of the biggest problems our country is facing, and it is very appropriate for the government to set a good example.

How does your wife assist you in your role as governor general?

My wife works with handicapped children, mental patients, and the elderly. Because of her involvement, these groups are now being more favorably treated than before. The number of children who receive special attention in the school for the physically and mentally handicapped has greatly increased. They are now looked upon with responsibility and interest. My wife and I are glad that we can relate to people at all levels of society, from the most privileged to the most needy.

Is your family involved in Christian activities?

We try to give priority to God in everything we do. We have worship every morning, but find evening worships difficult. We seldom have meals together. This is one of the reasons why I love Sabbaths so much, since it is the one day of the week when we can all sit down and have our meals together—a real family day. Our children take part in everything the church has to offer and the program for the young people is hectic. We try to be active in church work. At present I am a Sabbath school teacher, and stewardship and publishing secretary. The load is a bit heavy, and next year I plan to ask to be relieved of some of these assignments.

I understand that you are a champion in the Ingathering Campaign.

I always loved Ingathering—going door to door! And I’ve had a good deal of success over the years, asking for contributions for worthy causes espoused by our church. After becoming governor general, I could not go knocking on doors, but I have a few selected contacts.... This year I was able to raise $11,000.

From your experience, what counsel would you give our young people?

First, be committed. Don’t be a church member just for the sake of being one. It is not enough to be born in the church; be born-again. Experience the joy of being a true Christian.

Second, be guided by the Lord. One of my favorite Bible promises is, “In all thy ways acknowledge Him and He shall direct thy paths” (Proverbs 3:6, KJV). When we make God the center of our lives, we cannot go astray. He is always there to guide us.

Third, aim high. Get a good education. Work hard. Set a high goal. Reaching for excellence is not a sign of pride but of pressing toward the high calling, as Paul would say it (Philippians 3:14). Don’t let peer pressure veer you away from your goal. God expects us to develop to the fullest the talents He has given to us. So strive to be the best that you can be.

Interview by Delvin Chatham. Delvin A. Chatham is education director for the North Caribbean Conference. His address: P.O. Box 580; Christiansted, St. Croix, USVI 00821-0580; U.S.A.