America’s First Missionary – A Black Man
Proverbs 25:13, “As the cold of snow in the time of harvest, so is a faithful messenger to them that send him: for he refresheth the soul of his masters.”
The first missionary to leave the shores of America to serve as a foreign missionary was George Leile, a former slave. George was born in Virginia in 1752, but lived much of his life as a slave in Georgia. He was led to Christ and baptized into the faith by Reverend Matthew Moore, an ordained Baptist minister. When Liele felt the call to preach, he was encouraged by his master, Henry Sharp, a Baptist deacon in the First Baptist Church of Savannah, Georgia. Sharp said he “emancipated the stirring preacher so he might give himself wholly to the preaching of the Gospel to the people of color.”
Liele was licensed as a lay preacher around 1773, and for two years he preached in the slave quarters of plantations surrounding Savannah, including the congregation formed at Silver Bluff, South Carolina on the Galphin Plantation, 14 miles northwest of Savannah through the efforts of Rev. Wait Palmer (white founder of the First Baptist Church of Stonington, Connecticut) and Leile. Galphin allowed his slaves to worship under the leadership of his slave, David George, in an empty barn on the plantation. David George was baptized and trained under the tutelage of Leile, who was evangelizing up and down the Savannah River between present-day Augusta and Savannah.
Liele was ordained on May 20, 1775, and labored in and around Savannah with great success before leaving as a missionary to Jamaica in 1779. Thus Leile predated the service of William Cary, “the founder of modern Baptist missions.”
Henry Sharp freed Liele sometime before the Revolutionary War began. Over the next few years, he built a congregation of black Baptists both slave and free, including the Silver Bluff group led by David George. One of Leile’s converts in the Savannah area was Andrew Bryan, who became an outstanding preacher among his people. In his early ministry, Bryan was persecuted for his efforts, but he grew greatly in public acclaim, and his master, Jonathan Bryan, allowed him to construct a building on land at Yamacraw in the suburbs of Savannah. This was the first Black Baptist church in America, and it grew to over eight hundred members and ultimately mothered two other such churches. This was a continuation of the work that Liele had started and had been entrusted to Bryan after Liele and his family had sailed for Jamaica.
Leile had to borrow the money to get to Jamaica and once there he used the agricultural skills he had learned as a slave to pay off the debt to the man that paid for him to go to Jamaica. Settling in Kingston, Liele formed a the only Baptist Church in Kingston, the capital on his own land. Liele's church flourished, despite persecution from the white population there. In exchange for a number of concessions, including inspection by authorities of every prayer and sermon, his ministry was tolerated, and he was allowed to preach to the poor and enslaved on plantations and in settlements. In 1791 he wrote, "I have baptized 400 in Jamaica....We have nigh three hundred and fifty members; a few white people among them."
Regarding his time in Jamaica, Leile writes: “The chief part of our congregation are slaves, and their owners allow them, in common, but three or four bits per week for allowance to feed themselves, and out of so small a sum we cannot expect anything that can be of service from them; if we did, it would soon bring a scandal upon religion; and the free people in our society are but poor, but they are all willing, both free and slaves, to do what they can.”
One of Liele's priorities was the organization and promotion of a free school for black children, taught by a black deacon. A few adult members of his congregation also learned to read, and he wrote that "all are desirous to learn."
Over the years, Liele kept in touch with Bryan, George and other Baptist pioneers that he had converted. He wrote with a hint of pride of their far-flung ministries, noting that "a great work is going on..." He was promoted home to Glory in 1820.
A man who had so little, accomplished so much. He went to serve a people too poor to pay him. The day Deacon Sharp released him from his bond of human slavery he became a slave of Christ, preaching to those still bound in slavery to their masters and their sin.