Until I attended NAAMC (National African American Missions Conference) last month, I had no idea that the first missionary sent out from North America had been an African American.
Having taken the Perspectives course in 1995 and teaching its classes for twenty-four years, I have always known that William Carey was considered the “father of modern missions”, having been sent out by Baptists from Great Britain to India in 1793. I also knew that Adoniram Judson, was considered the first American missionary, having been sent out by Massachusetts’ Congregationalists to India in 1812.
Yet, at NAAMC, I learned that freed slave George Lisle went as a missionary to Jamaica in 1782 – 11 years before Carey… but a full 30 years before Judson!!
So just who was this man, George Lisle (also spelled Liele)? We know that he was:
- Born into slavery in Virginia in 1752, but was taken to Georgia in 1777, and continued to worship in this white church for four years until Savannah was evacuated by forces loyal to Britain.
- An emancipated slave who became the founding pastor of First Bryan Baptist Church and First African Baptist Church, in Savannah, Georgia (USA).
- As an adult he was converted by Rev. Matthew Moore of Burke County, Georgia, in 1777.
- 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 Sharp, also a Baptist and Loyalist, before the American Revolution began. Sharp died in battle as a Tory major on March 1, 1779.
Liele chose to leave with the British to ensure his freedom rather than risk re-enslavement 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.
To support his work, and expand it, Liele sought support from London. He was helped in this endeavor by Moses Baker, an Afro-European barber who arrived in Jamaica from the United States in 1783. He converted to Christianity and was baptized by Liele. What followed was an ongoing effort that eventually involved Quakers, Baptists, the newly-formed, non-denominational, London Missionary Society and others who helped secure funds for the missionary work of George Liele and Moses Baker to continue.
By 1814 his efforts had produced, either directly or indirectly, some 8,000 Baptists in Jamaica. At times he was harassed by the white colonists and by government authorities for “agitating the slaves” and was imprisoned, once for more than three years. While he never openly challenged the system of slavery, he prepared the way for those who did; he well deserves the title “Negro slavery’s prophet of deliverance.” He, not Carey, was the first Baptist missionary. Liele died in Jamaica.
The story of George Liele continues to inspire me and many others today, indeed as it did the many African Americans who attended the virtual, 5th annual, NAAMC conference in July. It reminds us that if God wants to take a former slave, put him in an all-white church to be discipled so he can disciple others then move him to a place like Jamaica so that the gospel can impact those people…and if He wants to throw in an Afro-European barber to get saved so that he can also preach the gospel…and if He wants to involve the British church to help fund these endeavors…He will, and if we will cooperate with the Lord Jesus, in His Great Commission plan, we too will see His Glory…and nothing will be impossible.