Most histories of missions tell us that the first American missionaries to leave our shores for foreign missionary service were Adoniram and Ann Judson. For the most part they fail to record that as the main sail was hoisted that bleak New England day, February 19, 1812, there was aboard the brig Caravan with the Judsons their co-workers, Samuel and Harriet Newell. Harriet was destined to be the first American missionary martyr, dying at age 18 on the Ile de France.
By rolling the pages of history back into the last half of the 1700s, we learn that some historians feel our first American missionary in overseas service was really George Liele, who was born in approximately 1750 of slave parents whose names were Liele and Nancy. Like many slaves, he was separated from his parents when he was very young. All he knew about his father was from second-hand stories that related that the elder Liele was a deeply religious man. George relates: "I was born in Virginia. I cannot ascertain much of my parents as I went to several parts of America when young and at length resided in New Georgia but was informed by both white and black people that my father was the only black person who knew the Lord in a spiritual way in that country."
Henry Sharp, Liele's owner, was a Baptist deacon, a God-fearing man, and a very kind master. When Sharp moved his family to Georgia around 1770, Liele began attending the white Baptist church with his master. At the Baptist church both he and his master attended, a sermon convinced him that he was "not in the way of heaven but in the way of hell." Greatly convicted by that sermon, he struggled for several months until finally he was converted in 1773. He testified, "I saw my condemnation in my own heart, and I found no way wherein I could escape the damnation of hell only through the merits of my dying Lord and Savior Jesus Christ which caused me to make intercession with Christ for the salvation of my poor immortal soul." And, he adds, "I requested of my Lord and Master to give me a work. I did not care how mean it was, only to try to see how good I would do it."
The first work that God had for George Liele was explaining the Scriptures to the illiterate slaves. He had virtually no formal training but learned to read the Bible and was able to explain the Scriptures to the other slaves. His success in that ministry caught the attention of the pastor of his master's church; and, at the urging of the minister, the church licensed Liele to preach. Some historians believe that George Liele was the first ordained African-American Baptist pastor in America.
His master, Henry Sharp, gave Liele his freedom in order to allow him to preach without hindrance. Following his conversion in 1773, Liele went up and down the Savannah River preaching the Good News. At Silver Bluff, South Carolina, he planted the seeds of one of the earliest independent African-American congregations in the U. S.
Liele also preached even more extensively and with great success in Savannah, Georgia, and the surrounding area. Many future African-American Christian leaders were co-workers with Liele or converts under his preaching.
Henry Sharp, Liele's former owner, was a British loyalist and fought in the Revolutionary War on the side of the British. He was killed in fighting, and some of his heirs tried to re-enslave Liele. He was imprisoned for a period of time until he could produce the papers that showed he was a freed man. Nonetheless, this put concern in Liele's heart that he might indeed be taken back into slavery; so he indentured himself to a British officer names Col. Kirkland who was able to give him sufficient funds to pay passage for him and his family to Jamaica, where Kirkland himself was being transferred. Jamaica at that time was still a British colony. He arrived in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1783, served the Colonel, and paid off his indebtedness.
Once his debt was paid, Liele began preaching among the slaves and free blacks. He formed a church in a private home in September 1784. It should be noted that this was about ten years before William Carey sailed for India and 30 years before Judson reached Burma.
The free people who belonged to Liele's church were generally very poor, but they were all willing, both free and slaves, to do what they could. Liele himself farmed and hauled goods with his horses and wagon. He lamented that the businesses kept him "too much entangled with the affairs of this world," but he felt it also set a good example. By 1790 his congregation had grown to about 350. Liele said of himself and his flock, "We hold to live as nigh the Scriptures as we possibly can." His congregation certainly reflected the truth of Scripture's claim that "Not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble are called" (I Cor. 1:26).
By 1793 Liele had baptized some 500 converts. He was able to establish other congregations across Jamaica and trained others to help him in the preaching of the Gospel. He also established a free school for the children of slaves and free blacks. One of his deacons wrote that year, "We have great reason in this island to praise and glorify the Lord for His goodness and lovingkindness in sending His blessed Gospel amongst us by our well beloved minister Brother Liele. We were living in slavery to sin and Satan, and the Lord hath redeemed our souls to a state of happiness to praise His glorious and ever blessed Name, and we hope to enjoy everlasting peace in the promise of our Lord and Master Jesus Christ. The blessed Gospel is spreading wonderfully in this island. Believers are daily coming to the church."
Liele tried to keep from offending the whites in Jamaica by allowing in his congregation only those slaves who had their master's permission to attend. But in the 1790s there was increasing persecution from some of the white slave owners. On one occasion, as Liele's congregation was about to partake of the Lord's supper, a white man rode his horse directly into the church. "Come, old Liele," he said, "Give my horse the sacrament." Staring the intruder down, Liele replied, "No sir, you're not fit yourself to receive it." The pastor in his pulpit faced the mounted rider as several uneasy moments passed until the arrogant trespasser finally turned his horse and left.
Several times Liele was imprisoned on trumped-up charges; but, like Paul, he preached to the other prisoners and gave the Lord's supper to other Christians in prison. In his absence, the church continued to function under the leadership of his son and the deacons of the church.
One of the worst atrocities at this period of time occurred not directly under Liele's ministry but under the ministry of one of his converts and fellow preachers, Moses Hall. Determined to put an end to slave meetings, some slave owners broke up a prayer meeting being led by a slave named David, one of Moses Hall's assistants. They seized David, murdered him, cut off his head and placed it on a pole in the center of the village as a warning to the other slaves. They dragged Moses Hall up to the grisly object. "Now, Moses Hall, whose head is that?" the leader of the murderers asked. "David's," replied Moses. "Do you know why he's up here?" "For praying, sir," said Moses. "No more of your prayer meetings," he said. "If we catch you at it, we shall serve you as we have served David." As the crowd watched, Moses knelt beside the pole and said, "Let us pray." The other blacks gathered around and knelt with him as he prayed for the salvation of the murderers. Astonished, the slave owners departed, leaving Moses and his followers unharmed.
There is very little record of Liele's later ministry. Between 1801 and 1810 he conducted work in the interior of Jamaica, establishing churches there. That seems to be the pattern of his final years—ministering to the works he had established and establishing new works wherever he could. Liele died in 1828.
In summary, George Liele was ordained in a white church in Burk County, Georgia. This freed black slave gathered the first black church in America at Silver Bluff, South Carolina. Brought up without a church by slave parents, he became the first ordained black Baptist minister in America. Although supported by no church or denominational agency, he became the first Protestant missionary to go out from America to establish a foreign mission—ten years before William Carey set out for India. He was a man without formal education; yet he learned to read the Bible and became a preacher of such effectiveness that in seven years in Jamaica he had converted over 500 slaves to Christianity, and shortly before his death in 1838, there were over 20 thousand Baptists in Jamaica.