By Sharon Mager
When considering modern missions, most Baptists recognize the names William Carey and Adoniram Judson. Still, there’s another name to add to the list — George Liele, a freed slave who became a missionary, evangelist, and church planter in the late 1700s.
In Feb. 2020, the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) designated the first Sunday in February as “George Liele Church Planting, Evangelism and Missions Day.” Robert Anderson, the pastor of Colonial Baptist Church in Randallstown, Maryland, made the motion to add the calendar date at the SBC’s 2019 Annual Meeting in Birmingham.
The SBC formally recognized Liele’s efforts as part of a resolution on “African American Contributions To American Baptist History” at the 2012 Annual Meeting in New Orleans, the same historic year SBC messengers voted in the first African American President, Fred Luter.
Additionally, in 2019, the SBC National African American Fellowship renamed their annual banquet after Liele and presented awards to Julia Frazier White and Deborah Van Broekhoven, co-authors of the 2013 book, “George Liele’s Life and Legacy: An Unsung Hero.”
New AAF George Liele Offering
In response to the new day of recognition, The African American Fellowship (AAF) of the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware (BCM/D) encourages African-American churches to take a special offering during February in honor of Liele’s ministry. Gifts will support the “The George Liele Fund” and the BCM/D’s partnership with Kenya.
Liele entered the world in slavery in Virginia but lived most of his life in Georgia. When he was 23, he made a confession of faith after a white Baptist minister, Matthew Moore, shared the gospel with him. With permission from his master, Henry Sharp, a Baptist deacon, Liele began preaching to slaves on the local plantations. He received approval from the plantation owners, as long as he vowed not to encourage an uprising. Sharp, understanding Liele’s call to minister, gave him his freedom in 1773, not a popular decision among some of Sharp’s family and others around him. In 1775, Liele became the first ordained African-American preacher in America.
Many slaves came to the Lord after hearing Liele preach the gospel. One of the ways he shared the Word was to encourage slaves to sing hymns; he explained the meaning behind the lyrics.
Liele founded the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia, the oldest African-American church in North America.
When Sharp, a loyalist, later died in the Revolutionary War, Sharp’s family sought to re-enslave Liele but Moses Kirkland, a kind British official, prevented them.
Eventually, Liele arranged to become an indentured servant as part of an evacuation of British troops and loyalists to Jamaica. Before leaving, Leile ordained Andrew Bryan, a convert under Liele’s preaching, who became the second pastor of the church, which is still active today.
Ministry in Jamaica
After Leile, his wife, Hannah, and their four children reached Jamaica in 1783, Leile continued to minister and began organizing a church. He discipled and encouraged others to lead and start churches. White colonists and government leaders harassed Liele for “agitating the slaves” and imprisoned him, at one time for over three years. That didn’t stop Liele. He continued to share the Gospel. According to “George Liele’s Life and Legacy: An Unsung Hero,” there were 500 Baptists in Jamaica by 1891 as a result of Liele’s ministry. Within 30 years, the number grew to 20,000.
Additionally, two of Liele’s priorities included the establishment of a free school for black children and helping adult congregation members learn to read.
Not only was Liele an effective missionary and evangelist, but he encouraged his converts to preach to the nations. As a result of his leadership, these new, discipled believers traveled to Savannah, Georgia; Nova Scotia; and Sierra Leone to share the Gospel.
Liele died in 1832, leaving an incredible legacy that continues today and will only be known in heaven.
A Shortage of African-American Missionaries Today
Robert Anderson said he knew about George Liele. “I’ve always had him in the back of my mind, but about three years ago, his name came up, and in the context of Southern Baptists, so that was a bit new to me. Why didn’t I know more about this?” he wondered. Anderson began to study more and decided to make Liele’s name and work more known throughout the SBC. He started with the AAF in Maryland/Delaware, which loved the idea. Anderson then took it to the National African American Fellowship, and they embraced George Liele. “It snowballed and that’s a good thing. I’ve been to Bible college and seminary and I’ve worked on doctoral work – in all my missions classes, no one talked about George Liele. His name never came up. He was the first international missionary from the United States and nobody mentions him. I heard about others, like William Carey, but George Liele was missing. That concerned me. I figured I could help a little bit,” he said.
“It’s really exciting people are taking an interest in him now,” he added.
A shortage of African-American missionaries also burdens Anderson.
According to “Race Matters: Why we Must Send More Missionaries of Color,” an Aug. 2019 International Mission Board article by Doug Logan, “… according to recent estimates, African-Americans comprise as few as 1 percent of international missionaries. As recently as 2013, in fact, only 27 of the SBC’s 4,900 missionaries were black. Similar stats about the rarity of missionaries from other demographics are easy to find as well.”
Anderson hopes that teaching about Liele in conjunction with international missions will help African-Americans consider the need for missions. “Hopefully it will be motivating to get more African Americans going to Maui, Tanzania, Europe, Asia — to look beyond their own country,” he expressed. “There’s a whole world to reach!”
Anderson said, “If George Liele can do what he did in the midst of slavery and all of those evils and still preach the Gospel and lead people to Christ and make disciples, what excuse do we have?”
“First African Baptist Church: Savannah GA.” First African BC Logo, https://firstafricanbc.com/index.php.
“Liele, George (c. 1750-1828) | History of Missiology.” School of Theology History of Missiology, https://www.bu.edu/missiology/missionary-biography/l-m/liele-george-c-1750-1828/.
Hildreth, Lesley. “Missionaries You Should Know: George Liele – IMB.” IMB, 26 June 2018, https://www.imb.org/2018/06/26/missionaries-you-should-know-george-liele/.
Team, The. “George Liele — The Traveling Team.” The Traveling Team, 14 Feb. 2015, http://www.thetravelingteam.org/articles/george-liele
Africans in America/Part 2/George Liele. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part2/2p49.html.
Chandler, Diana. “Liele 1st Baptist Missionary from America – Baptist Press.” Baptist Press, https://www.baptistpress.com/resource-library/news/liele-1st-baptist-missionary-from-america/