Who was the first known Baptist missionary?

Honoring George Liele’s legacy

February 27, 2020

Editor’s Note: The Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention recently voted to approve the first Sunday in February as the annual George Liele Church Planting, Evangelism and Missions Day. Liele holds the distinction for being the first known Baptist missionary. Having been enslaved from birth, he understood the depth of the gospel message of freedom and rest in Christ and shared it with people of many backgrounds and ethnicities.

Born around 1750 in Virginia to his enslaved parents, Nancy and Liele, George Liele was originally known only as George. Not much is known about his childhood, except that his father loved God and most likely taught his son about his faith. In 1764, a farmer named Henry Sharp moved his family from Virginia to Georgia. They brought nine slaves with them, including Liele, who was around 14 years old. Eventually, Liele was given the last name of his master, so he was known as George Sharp. 

Henry Sharp was a Tory leading up to and during the Revolutionary War. Along with his brother-in-law, a preacher named Matthew Moore, Henry Sharp started a Baptist church in the early 1770s. The Sharp family taught Liele to read and write, and he attended the Baptist church they started. Liele later wrote about his faith:

I was informed both by white and black people that my father was the only black person who knew the Lord in a spiritual way in that country (Virginia). I always had a natural fear of God from my youth, and was often checked in conscience with thoughts 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 good works.

Even from a young age, Liele had an awareness of God and felt guilt over his sin. But his understanding of religion was based on works. When he was in his early 20s, something changed. He listened to the preaching in his church and realized he wasn’t a Christian. He read the Bible and prayed while learning more about the gospel in church and saw that his own good deeds could never save him; only the work of Jesus Christ could do that. Liele prayed, asking Jesus to save him and to give him work to do for God—not to earn his love, but to show him love.

When he had given his life to God, he wrote, “I felt such love and joy as my tongue was not able to express.” No longer seeking to earn his salvation, he now knew the true freedom of trusting in Christ alone. Liele then stood in the church and told his fellow church members how God had saved him, and Matthew Moore baptized him in the nearby creek. And as he had asked in his prayer, God gave him work to do. Liele began teaching fellow slaves about God out of a desire for them to have the same joy and love he had. 

The beginning of Liele’s ministry 

He started out teaching people hymns, encouraging people on the plantation to sing and explaining the hymns’ meanings. He used the hymns to teach Scripture and theology. When the Caucasian members of the church saw Liele’s talent at teaching, they granted him opportunities to preach to slaves in the church. Soon after this, the church ordained him as the first black Baptist pastor in America, and they sent him out to preach wherever he could gather slaves together, not just in the church, but also on plantations. Liele also preached to the white members of his church, an extremely rare occurrence in the 1700s.

One of the plantations where Liele preached was called Silver Bluff. At Silver Bluff, Liele didn't preach the text insisted upon by many slaveowners about slaves obeying masters, but instead he preached on Matthew 11:28, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” After the sermon, a slave named David George went to Liele and told him how he felt weary and burdened and needed Jesus to give him rest. Soon after, David George became the pastor of the Silver Bluff Baptist Church, and he and Liele remained connected through the rest of their lives.

When the war came in 1776, Henry Sharp fought as an officer for the British Empire. He freed Liele from slavery, and Liele then took his father’s name, becoming George Liele instead of George Sharp. With his wife, Hannah, and their four children, Liele moved to Savannah, Georgia, where he was joined by David George. The two men traveled around, farming and preaching the gospel to slaves. But when Henry Sharp was killed in the war, some of his children attempted to re-enslave Liele, claiming that their father hadn’t actually freed him. They had him arrested and put in jail, but he was released when he showed papers proving his freedom.

Taking the gospel beyond the U.S. 

Like his former master, Liele was loyal to England. As things became more dangerous for him in Savannah, he and his family chose to sail to Kingston, Jamaica, in 1782 with Colonel Kirkland, a British officer who had loaned Liele $700 to pay for the voyage. To pay him back, Liele worked as an indentured servant for Kirkland for two years. 

Surveying Jamaica, Liele saw the terrible treatment of slaves at the hands of their British masters. He started preaching to the slaves, but many government and religious leaders were incensed. He was thrown in jail and placed in stocks for breaking a British law that made it illegal to preach the gospel to slaves. Upon his release, Liele immediately returned to preaching the message of hope and freedom to slaves.

Liele was the first known Baptist missionary. He took the gospel to Jamaica 10 years before WIlliam Carey went to India and started a modern missions movement. Liele had no mission agency to send him to Jamaica or to support him. Instead, he worked as a farmer to provide a home and food for his wife and children. He built a church and a free school for black children. He was continually persecuted by British officials. Every sermon he preached and every prayer he prayed in his church had to be written out and checked by authorities for messages about insurrection before he could speak to his congregation. 

The message he preached of freedom in Christ soothed the hearts of many slaves. He gave them hope and taught them of a Savior who promised rest for those who were tired and weary. But his impact wasn’t felt just in Savannah and Jamaica. David George, who had grown in his knowledge of God by working with George Liele, established the first Baptist church in Canada and later moved to Sierra Leone in West Africa and started a church there.

In 1791, George Liele wrote a letter to Dr. John Rippon, a leader in the British Baptist Missionary Society in London, telling him about his life in America and his current work in Jamaica. He told Rippon he had baptized 400 people in Jamaica and that his church had around 350 members, both black and white. He asked the British Baptists to help with money for the construction of a church building, which they agreed to. He also requested that British missionaries come join him in his work. These missionaries came to Jamaica and saw the cruel treatment of the slaves, and they wrote home about what they witnessed. This testimony was helpful in abolishing the British slave trade. Today, George Liele is considered one of the men who worked to gain independence for Jamaica. 

After visiting London for six years in the 1820s, George Liele died in 1828. He left behind money and property to care for his family. But more importantly, he left a legacy of many who knew freedom and rest in Jesus Christ because of his faithful teaching. 

This article is based on a chapter from the author’s book, Strong: How God Equipped 11 Men with Extraordinary Power (and Can Do the Same for You).

Catherine Parks

Catherine Parks writes and lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with her husband, two children, and a cute dog named Ollie. She's the author of Empowered and Strong, collections of biographies for middle-grade readers. You can find more of her writing at cathparks.com Read More