George Liele – First Baptist Missionary in Jamaica

George Liele – First Baptist Missionary in Jamaica

It has been said that the first American Baptist missionary was not Adoniram Judson, but George Liele, a former slave. Some have quibbled that Liele, although licensed to preach, was not specifically sent abroad by a church. In any case, his life was marked by so many “firsts” and his ministry was so impressive that an additional title doesn’t make much of a difference. Most likely, it wouldn’t have made a difference for him.

            Public interest in Liele’s ministry was first sparked by Joseph Cook, a minister in the Euhaw, upper Indian Land, South Carolina, who reported in amazement: “A poor negro, commonly called, among his own friends, Brother. George, has been so highly favoured of God as to plant the first Baptist Church in Savannah, and another in Jamaica.”[1]

            Soon, Cook received inquiries by pastors who wanted to know more. Over fifty questions were sent to Liele, who replied each carefully, beginning with his life story.

The Making of a Pastor

            “I always had a natural fear of God from my youth,” Liele wrote, “and was often checked in conscience with fear of death which barred me from many sins and bad company.  I knew no other way at that time to hope for salvation but only in the performance of my good works.”[2]

            After the local pastor spoke to Liele about salvation in Christ, Liele embraced the gospel with joy, attended church faithfully and was baptized. Soon, he was moved by a compelling desire to share the same gospel with others. To do so, he taught his fellow slaves to sing hymns and explained the meaning to them. Recognizing his abilities, the local pastors examined his beliefs, tested his exposition of God’s word, and licensed him as a preacher in 1775. This made him the first licensed Baptist preacher of African descent in America.

            Some of the people in his Savannah congregation went on to be preachers too, including Andrew Bryan, who continued Liele’s work in Savannah in spite of fierce persecution, and David George, who became an important church planter both in North America and in Sierra Leone.[3]

            Liele had no idea of his legal age but, by his own estimation, he was about 40 years old at the time of his letter. If this was correct, he was born around 1751 and was 25 at the time of his ordination. He was originally from Virginia, but had been living in Georgia in the service of Henry Sharp, a Baptist deacon in Burke County. Sharp encouraged Liele’s ministry by freeing him in 1778.

            During the Revolutionary War, both Liele and Sharp sided with the British. Sharp died in combat and Liele was thrown in prison, risking re-enslavement, until he was able to produce papers proving his freedom.

            The British, who had promised lands to those who fought on their side, were not able to keep their promise, and could only help to relocate loyalists to other countries. Liele, his wife, and their four children moved to Jamaica in 1783, where he worked as an indentured servant until he could pay off debts he had contracted in the relocation.

The First Baptist Church in Jamaica

            He began preaching in September 1784 in a private house “to a good smart congregation,”[4] mostly composed of local slaves. Since his congregation could not offer him financial support, he and his family worked the land and traveled by wagon to sell its products and transport other goods.

            His first meetings were frequently interrupted by people who were suspicious of gatherings of slaves, with their potential for fomenting sedition. There were also people who doubted a former slave could properly minister to a congregation.

            In his report in The Voice of Jubilee, the Baptist missionary John Clark mentioned an incident when “a gentleman (so called) rode into the chapel and, urging his horse through the midst of the people to the very front of the pulpit, exclaimed in terms of insolence and profanity, ‘Come, old Liele, give my horse the Sacrament!’ Mr. Liele coolly replied, ‘No , sir , you are not fit yourself to receive it.’”[5]

           "Eventually, Liele appealed to the Jamaica Assembly for freedom of worship, presenting his congregation as “poor people, desiring to worship Almighty God according to the tenets of the Bible.[6] His petition was approved and Liele was able to legally continue his church services.

            Within a short time, Liele baptized hundreds of people and organized them into congregations. He preached twice on Sundays and two more times during the week. He also traveled around the region to bring the gospel to others, and opened a free school for the instruction of free and enslaved children, with one of his deacons, Thomas Nichols Swingle, as headmaster.

            Through fund-raising, he was able to purchase some land to build a church and a cemetery in Kingston, Jamaica. Unlike other ministers who had constant problems with land-owners, he only allowed in his congregations slaves who had obtained permission by their masters. In fact, he used a church bell to signal when the services started and ended, so that the land-owners could know when they could expect their slaves to be back. These policies, combined with the fact that the gospel was visibly transforming lives, earned him respect and trust and helped the number of congregants to grow at an impressive rate. 

            In spite of this, he was imprisoned at least twice, once for a debt he had not yet paid to the builder of his chapel and another time under charges of encouraging sedition. The first imprisonment lasted over three years (1797-1801) because Liele refused to apply for the benefits of the Insolvent Debtors’ Act. Instead, he stayed until he had paid his debt in full. The second imprisonment, in 1794, ended in a trial where Liele was acquitted of all charges.

            Eventually, he was able to raise his family to the status of “planters” and earn enough money to purchase the manumission of at least six slaves.

            He died in 1828, leaving behind a vibrant church and several well-trained ministers who were able to continue his work.



[1] The Journal of Negro History I, 1916, 84, http://www.bookrags.com/ebooks/13642/51.html#gsc.tab=0

[2] Ibid., 85-86

[4] Ibid., 87

[5] John Clark, Walter Dendy, J. M. Phillippo, The Voice of Jubilee, A Narrative of the Baptist Mission, Jamaica, from Its Commencement, London: John Snow, Paternoster Row, 1865, 31.

[6] The Journal of Negro History I, 87