What impact may a Christian have in a world that seems restricted in speech and religious freedom? Hope may be found in the life of George Liele for those who are burdened by this question. Though he was born without freedom and relocated out of necessity, Liele was a minister of the Word of God in every situation.
George Liele was born into slavery in 1750 in Virginia to parents Liele and Nancy. George was exposed to Christianity through the influence of his father, who he claimed was the only black person in that part of the country who knew the Lord in a “spiritual way”. Not only was George blessed with a Christian father, but he also served under a Christian master, Henry Sharp. Sharp served as a deacon at the Baptist church pastored by Rev. Matthew Moore, Sharp’s brother-in-law. Moore’s church allowed slaves to attend services and also to obtain membership. Liele attended this church and became convicted of his sins as a result of Moore’s preaching. As remarkable as Liele’s opportunity for church membership was his education. Though the means of Liele’s education is unknown, what is certain is that Liele knew how to read prior to his conversion. In 1773 or 1774, Liele placed his faith in Jesus and was baptized by Moore. Liele felt a strong obligation to tell other slaves about the gospel and Moore’s church affirmed this calling by unanimously agreeing to license Liele for ministry. Moore’s ministry taught Liele the error of works based salvation, the equality of all men before God, and the utility of believers in the gospel ministry.
Sharp granted Liele his freedom on the condition that Liele stay with the family until Sharp died. Liele commenced preaching at the surrounding plantations, especially on Sunday evenings when Moore’s church did not hold services. One of the communities in which Liele ministered was Silver Bluff, South Carolina, which was located across the river from Augusta, Georgia. In this community, Liele assisted with the formation of what may be the first organized African-American church.
After Sharp’s death, Liele’s emancipation was questioned and he was imprisoned. A Tory colonel named Moses Kirkland came to Liele’s defense, provided documentation of his emancipation, and even loaned Liele money for his passage to Jamaica with the evacuating British. Liele departed with his wife and three sons for Jamaica as an indentured servant to Kirkland in December 1782 and arrived in January 1783.
Upon arrival in Jamaica, Liele worked for two years to repay his debt to Kirkland and was granted a certificate of freedom by the local and state government. Free to minister at will, he helped form his first church in a small home in 1784, thus establishing the first Baptist church in Jamaica. Beginning with this house church and ministering to the poor, Liele claimed to have baptized 400 people in Jamaica by 1791. Liele’s church had approximately 350 members including whites and Creoles in addition to the slave population. This congregation grew and eventually built a chapel near Kingston. During this time Liele was imprisoned and charged with sedition. Facing death, he was eventually acquitted and released due to a lack of evidence. Liele was again imprisoned for failure to pay the debt incurred in building the chapel. Rather than evoke protection under the Insolvent Debtors Act, Liele instead choose to remain in jail until other members of the congregation and charitable English Baptists could pay the remaining debt. Liele’s congregation was very poor and he “labored without fee or reward, supporting himself by the work of his own hands.” (Clark, 31)
After making a trip to England in 1822, Liele died in Jamaica sometime between 1825 and 1828. His legacy included several churches established by himself and other affiliated with his ministry as well as 1500 people throughout Jamaica who were connected with the Baptist community, all with the permission of their owners. Though George Liele was not without flaw or fault, he was a faithful minister in every stage of his life. His impact was felt throughout Jamaica, the United States, and even Canada through the ministries of those he led to faith in Christ. He was a minister of the gospel in all circumstances and a champion for the Kingdom of Jesus Christ
Ballew, Christopher Brent. The Impact of African American Antecedents on the Baptist Foreign Missionary Movement, 1782 – 1825. Toronto Studies in Theology. Vol. 96. Lewiston, NY: The Edward Mellen Press, 2004.
Clark, John, W. Dendy, and J. M. Phillippo. The Voice of Jubilee: A Narrative of the Baptist Mission, Jamaica. London: John Snow, 1865.
Gayle, Clement. George Liele: Pioneer Missionary to Jamaica. Kingston: Jamaica Baptist Union, (1982).
Rippon, John. The Baptist Annual Register. 1790 – 1793. London, 1793 – 1801.
Simms, James. The First Colored Baptist Church in North America. New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969.