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

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24