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George Liele (also spelled Lisle or Leile, 1750–1820) was an African American and emancipated slave who became the founding pastor of First Bryan Baptist Church and First African Baptist Church, in Savannah, Georgia (USA). He became the first American missionary, leaving in 1782 for Jamaica; this is thirty years before Adoniram Judson left for Burma. He became the first Baptist missionary in Jamaica.
Liele was born into slavery in Virginia in 1752, but was taken to Georgia.
As an adult he was converted by Rev. Matthew Moore of Burke County, Georgia, in 1777, and continued to worship in this white church for four years until Savannah was evacuated by forces loyal to Britain. His master Henry Sharp was a deacon in Rev. Moore's church and encouraged him in his preaching to other slaves.
Liele was freed by his master Henry Sharp, also a Baptist and Loyalist, before the American Revolution began. Sharp died in battle as a Tory major on March 1, 1779. Liele went to Savannah, Georgia, where he helped organize an early Baptist congregation.
Liele chose to leave with the British to ensure his freedom rather than risk reenslavement in the American South. He migrated to Jamaica with his wife Hannah and their four children. He preached at the racecourse at Kingston, Jamaica, where the novelty of a black itinerant ex-slave preacher attracted considerable attention. Liele was soon able to gather a congregation and purchase a piece of land about a mile from Kingston, where he gradually built a chapel.
Ministry in Jamaica
To support his work, and expand it, Liele sought support from London. He was helped in this endeavour by Moses Baker, an Afro-European barber who arrived in Jamaica from the United States in 1783. He converted to Christianity and was baptised by Liele. A Quaker invited Baker to live on his estate and instruct the slaves in 'religious and moral principles'. To expand this educational work, Moses Baker approached benefactors in Britain. He made contact with the Baptist John Ryland, who became interested in securing funds from British donors to meet such demand for missionary work. He was moved to helped instigate the non-denominational London Missionary Society to help provide for this.
Ryland's first missionary was funded by the Baptists rather than the London Missionary Society. His achievements were limited since he died early. Later, in the early 19th century, a trio of Baptist missionaries from Britain, Thomas Burchell, James Phillippo and William Knibb, and slightly later still others such as Samuel Oughton were more successful in supporting local African Baptist congregations and helping them develop their international links. They met fierce resistance from the planters who had great influence in the Jamaican House of Assembly and had provided adequately for their own spiritual needs with the Anglican Church. They opposed both education and the congregational governance ideas of the Baptists from being introduced among their slaves.
In 1792 Liele penned the church covenant, which served a dual purpose for the Ethiopian Baptists of Jamaica. First, it was a shared teaching tool, to instruct Baptists about commonly shared principles from the Scriptures; secondly, it gave great comfort to slave-holders; enduring that their slaves would be law abiding. The church covenant was shown to members of the legislature, the magistrates and justices to secure their approval that they might give their slaves permission to become members of the congregation.
- Part Twenty: African American Church in the Revolutionary Era, The African Americans Search for Truth and Knowledge, by Dr. Leonard Jeffries, Jr.
- Davis, John W. (1918). "George Liele and Andrew Bryan, Pioneer Negro Baptist Preachers". Journal of Negro History. 3 (2): 119–127. JSTOR 2713485.
- Davis, Robert S. "The Other Side of the Coin: Georgia Baptists Who Fought For the King." Viewpoints Georgia Baptist History 7 (1980): 47–58.
- Shannon, David T., Julia F. White, Deborah B Van Broekhoven. 2013. George Liele's Legacy: An Unsung Hero. Mercer University Press.
- Morrison, Doreen. 2014. Slavery's Heroes: George Liele and the Ethiopian Baptists of Jamaica 1783–1865. CreateSpace. ISBN 978-1500657574
- "George Liele", Africans in America, PBS
- "George Liele : America's First Missionary"
- News article "George Liele: Should be a National Hero" Jamaica Gleaner, April 8, 2003
- Sermon, MP3 Audio Podcast: The Cross and Faithful Ministry As Seen In The Pastoral and Missionary Ministry of George Leile: First Baptist Missionary To The Nations – Galatians 6:11–18, 24 Aug 2010, Daniel L. Akin, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary