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A Man of Many Firsts: George Liele

George Liele (1750-1820) was a man on the go. He began his life as a slave on a plantation in Virginia and died a free man in Jamaica. In between he was an ordained preacher, traveling evangelist, church planter, and missionary. And, in most cases, he was the first African-American to hold that title.

Liele was born into a slave family owned by Henry Sharpe in Virginia. Sharpe was Baptist and a deacon. In 1773 at the age of 23, Liele became a Christian at the Buckhead Creek Baptist Church. He soon if not immediately wanted to preach, and Sharpe and the Baptists allowed him to do so. (In those days in order for one to preach he had to be "licensed," not just anyone could preach publicly.)

He traveled and preached at numerous plantations (with a white preacher named Wait Palmer). (The first first: He might have been the first African-American traveling revivalist.) While preaching at Silver Bluff, SC, a young slave named David George was converted. The owner of the Silver Bluff plantation was one George Gaulphin. He allowed his slaves to receive preaching (some slave owners did not) in one of his barns. As the Revolutionary War drew closer, Liele and Palmer were not able to travel as freely. Because of their restricted travel, they left David George in charge of the small (eight slaves) church in Silver Bluff in 1774. George learned to read the Bible with the help of white children, and the church grew to perhaps thirty-five members at its height. (The second first: This church, founded in part by Liele, may have been the first Black Baptist church in America headed by an African-American. The third first: It may have been the first Black church in America.)

Even though he traveled great distances and preached at many plantations, Liele was still technically a slave. This ended perhaps in the next year (1775) when Liele’s owner, Sharpe, set him free. In that same year, on May 20th, Liele was ordained as a minister. (The fourth first: Liele may have been the first ordained African-American Baptist minister, if not the first ordained African-American minister.)

Sharpe died during the Revolutionary War, and his heirs wanted to re-enslave Liele. At that time the British were in control of Savannah, GA, and Liele fled there. He stayed in Savannah, preaching, baptizing many (including his wife), and starting churches. Today, both the First African Baptist Church and First Bryan Baptist Church in Savannah claim Liele as founder.

When the British withdrew from Savannah, Liele and his family left also. They went to Jamaica in January 1783 where Liele became an indentured servant to the Governor of Jamaica. In less than two years, Liele paid his debt to the Governor and became a free man. As was his nature, he began preaching. (The fifth first: Since he was first in America and then went to another country, some consider him the first Black American foreign missionary. The sixth first: He was probably also the first American foreign missionary.) His preaching was so successful, that he was soon pastor of a church with 350 members and a church building. (The seventh first: This was the first Black Baptist church in Jamaica).

Liele spent the remainder of his life in Jamaica. At his death he had four children by his wife and countless spiritual children because of his ministry.

©2006 Mark Nickens

Questions/comments contact Mark at drnickens@triad.rr.com.

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