(This is the first installment of Missionary Heroes, releasing later this year)
In 1775, a young ordained Black preacher crossed the Georgia border into Aiken County, SC, proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ. On a plantation called Silver Bluff, a small group of slaves gathered regularly to hear the Word preached. It was the first black church in America.
In 1778, the same minister arrived in Savannah, GA, where he continued to call slaves to faith in Christ. He baptized a handful of believers, forming the second black church in America. Who was this humble church planter?
George Liele (also spelled “Leile” and “Lisle”) was born a slave around 1750 in Virginia to Nancy and Liele. He didn’t know his parents; like many slaves he was farmed out to various plantations throughout his childhood. As a young man, Liele wrote, “I knew no other way at that time to hope for salvation but only in the performance of my good works.” However, at the age of twenty-three, after a long period of distress and searching, he realized the truth:
“I saw my condemnation in my own heart, and I found no way wherein I could escape the damnation of hell, only through the merits of my dying Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; which caused me to make intercession with Christ, for the salvation of my poor immortal soul; and I full well recollect, I requested of my Lord and Master to give me a work, I did not care how mean it was, only to try and see how good would do it.”
Liele was baptized by the white minister Matthew Moore, and the church quickly recognized his spiritual gift for preaching. They gave him a monthly opportunity to preach to the mixed race congregation, and his master Henry Sharp granted him freedom so that he could devote himself to proclaiming the gospel. He became the first ordained black Baptist pastor in Georgia on May 20, 1775.
Liele’s former master Henry Sharp was killed in the Revolutionary War, and Sharp’s heirs tried to re-enslave him. He was imprisoned until he could produce his free papers. Under distress, Liele made the fateful decision to seek passage to the West Indies. He left the congregations he had planted to flourish under Pastors Jesse Peters and Andrew Bryan, and he boarded a British ship. Rev. E. K. Love writes,
“He was led by the loving hand of a smiling Providence, though he knew it not…Historians, blinded by prejudice, have tried to rob the brother in black of the honor conferred upon Leile…But the planting of the first Baptist church in the West Indies, so far as human agency is concerned, was inaugurated by George Leile, the black apostle of Georgia, who planted the standard of Christianity in the far-off West Indies, and despite opposition, oppression and persecution, he saw the church strengthened, prosperous and flourishing.”
After securing a loan of $700 from Colonel Kirkland, Liele, his wife Hannah, and their four children made it safely to Jamaica in 1783. He immediately formed a church with four others who had traveled from America, and he began public preaching services at the Kingston Race Course. Initially, the gospel work was met with hostility. Liele wrote British Baptist John Rippon, “Preaching took very good effect with the poorer sort, especially the slaves. The people at first persecuted us, both at meetings and baptisms.” However, by 1791, the First Baptist Church of Kingston had baptized 500 new believers.
Whether in America or abroad, George Liele’s ministry was fundamentally the same: planting churches. His endeavors mirrored the missionary work of Paul:
“When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.” (Acts 14:21-23)
Local churches are the enduring global witnesses of the gospel. In his book The Church: The Gospel Made Visible, Mark Dever explains that a proper local church is characterized by two distinguishing marks: “The right preaching of the Word of God and the right administration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.” These were the basic hallmarks of Liele’s missionary legacy.
Preaching the Word.
George Liele was a bi-vocational minister his whole life. He farmed and ran a delivery service. The compassionate pastor refused to take the few pennies belonging to his slave congregation. His industry set a good example for the flock and protected him from accusations by whites of being an idle busybody. However, this did not keep Liele from laboring hard in the Word. The testimony of Thomas Swigle gives a flavor for the kind of preaching he was receiving from Liele’s pulpit:
“I am one of the poor, unworthy, helpless creatures, born in this island, whom our glorious Master, Jesus Christ, was graciously pleased to call from a state of darkness to the marvelous light of the gospel…We have great reason in this island to praise and glorify the Lord, for his goodness and loving-kindness, in sending his blessed gospel amongst us, by our well-beloved minister, brother Leile. We were living in slavery to sin and Satan, and the Lord hath redeemed our souls to a state of happiness, to praise his glorious and every-blessed name…”
Liele was thrown in prison—under threat of his life—charged with preaching sedition in 1802. However, his accusers were ashamed to have nothing wicked to say about the man, and he was honorably acquitted. It was the strong influence of Liele’s gospel ministry that led to the emancipation of slaves in Jamaica on July 31, 1833. Moreover, shortly after his death it was reported that despite persecution and jailing of Liele and others, over 20,000 Baptists converts lived in Jamaica.
Baptizing and Administering the Lord’s Supper.
Liele did not arrive in Jamaica to host revival meetings or to start a movement. All of his missionary efforts were directed at planting churches. New believers were baptized into the local church bodies across Jamaica. The Baptist churches planted by Liele and his partners were pastored by former slaves and had the only pulpits on the island where slavery was preached against. Baptism became the unifier and equalizer, as each new church member—white or black—became one in Christ:
“There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:4-6)
Many uneasy white masters were hostile to their slaves becoming church members. In response, Liele required all baptized believers to submit to a church covenant: “A collection of some of the principal texts of scripture which we observe, both in America and this country, for the direction of our practice.” This covenant was read aloud by the church before they took the Lord’s Supper together, a reminder of their unity in the faith and commitment to live lives worthy of the gospel. Throughout his ministry, some white masters scorned the Table fellowship in Liele’s church:
“On one occasion, when the church was about to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, a gentleman (so called) rode into the chapel, and, urging his horse through the midst of the people to the very front of the pulpit, exclaimed in terms of insolence and profanity, ‘Come, old Liele, give my horse the Sacrament!’ Mr. Liele, coolly replied, ‘No, Sir, you are not fit yourself to receive it.’ After maintaining his position for some time the intruder rode out.”
George Liele understood that the vast need in Jamaica could not be met by his efforts alone. Converted slaves were raised up and trained to take the gospel to their own plantations and more remote parts of Jamaica. Missionaries from Liele’s congregations went on to plant churches in other parts of Jamaica, in Georgia, in Nova Scotia, and in Sierra Leone. He also elicited help across the Atlantic from John Rippon and John Ryland, lighting a fire for missionary efforts from Great Britain to aid and support the work of Liele and his co-laborers.
Liele took seriously Paul’s command: “…and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” (2 Timothy 2:2). He died in Jamaica in 1828, but his work continued through the many men and women he had conscripted into the missionary effort. E.K. Love writes,
“The slave who was himself set free to declare the glorious deliverance of his Lord, had brought the fruits of the Gospel’s spirit to thousands who had learned to love his Lord and accept His salvation. The Negro prophet of deliverance had raised up many courageous servants of the Lord to lead his people into their Promised Land of freedom.”
- Akin, Daniel, “The Cross and Faithful Ministry As Seen in the Pastoral and Missionary Ministry of George Liele: First Baptist Missionary to the Nations”, Ten Who Changed the World, B&H, 2012, (Here in Amazon).
- Hildreth, Lesley, “Missionaries You Should Know: George Liele”, accessed 23 March 2019, https://www.imb.org/2018/06/26/missionaries-you-should-know-george-liele/.
- Holmes, Jr., Edward, “George Liele: Negro Slavery’s Prophet of Deliverance”, from Baptist History & Heritage, Vol. 1-4, 1965, https://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/bq/20-8_340.pdf.
- Love, E.K., “Chapter VIII: Rev. George Leile–His Work in Savannah and Departure to Jamaica”, History of the First African Baptist Church, The Morning News Print, 1888, https://docsouth.unc.edu/church/love/love.html.