The name, William Carey, is well known as he founded the Baptist Missionary Society and preached his inaugural sermon in 1793.
What is not equally well known is that another Baptist, George Liele, began his mission work in Jamaica 10 years earlier.
He arrived in January 1783 with his wife, Hannah, and their four children. At that time, slavery was at its peak and would continue for another 55 years.
Liele referred to himself and fellow Baptists as Ethiopians and established “The Ethiopian Baptist Church” in the capital city of Kingston.
His identity as Ethiopian and the name of his church clearly references Psalm 68:31: “Let bronze be brought from Egypt; let Ethiopia hasten to stretch out its hands to God.”
His work as pastor and educator among the people of Jamaica sets him apart as America’s first missionary overseas – 33 years before Adoniram Judson sailed for Burma and a decade prior to William Carey departing for India.
Beyond his work in Jamaica, Liele’s ministry reached as far afield as Nova Scotia, Canada and Sierra Leone, Africa, through the influence of his protÃ©gÃ©, David George – who was first known as David, until he assumed the name “David George” in honor of his friend and mentor.
Liele was a slave of Henry Sharp, a Baptist deacon in Georgia, prior to his mission work in Jamaica.
Sharp granted Liele his freedom so that he could practice his preaching gifts at plantations along the Savannah River.
Boating along the river for about four years, he visited plantations as far north as Silver Bluff, S.C.
It was there that Liele reconnected with a childhood acquaintance, David George.
George Liele and David George helped establish the first Independent Baptist Church around 1773 on a plantation owned by George Galphin.
It was under Liele’s preaching that David George was converted, and he became an elder and preacher in this church.
The historical priority of the Silver Bluff church is more clearly understood through comparison to other early black congregations:
â— 1794: Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church in Philadelphia
â— 1794: St. Thomas Black Episcopal Church in Philadelphia
â— 1796: A.M.E. Zion Church in New York City
â— 1807: Lombard Street Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia
Liele was licensed to preach and was ordained to the Christian ministry in 1775 by a white pastor, Matthew Moore, of Buckhead Creek Baptist church in Burke County, Ga.
He was the first ordained black Baptist pastor in the United States and the Caribbean.
Early after his relocation to Jamaica, Liele was imprisoned for preaching on Romans 10:1. The charge brought against him was that “he was exciting the slaves to rebellion.”
He developed a pragmatic and contextual approach to the Christian faith. In the American context, his confession of Jesus Christ as savior gained Liele his freedom as well as opportunities to preach. In the Jamaican context, the same faith landed him in jail.
In negotiating with the authorities in Jamaica to secure his release from prison, Liele produced a church covenant titled, “The Covenant of the Anabaptist Church” begun in America, December 1777, and in Jamaica, December 1783.
A full text of the covenant can be found in my book, “Plantation Church: How African American Religion was Born in Caribbean Slavery.”
In the context of slavery, Liele and his members understood that everything African was devalued and treated with suspicion. Adopting and embracing this church covenant became an instrument of the church’s survival.
John Rippon of the Baptist Missionary Society in London, with whom Liele corresponded while in Jamaica, invited Liele to visit England and work with freed Africans. Liele accepted the invitation and worked there from 1822 to 1828.
There is much we need to learn about Liele’s work in England, but I am confident that he faithfully preached the gospel of Christ and sought opportunities to exercise his faith.
His legacy of global mission outreach secures his place in the history of the Christian church and Baptist tradition.
Noel Erskine is professor of theology and ethics at Emory University in Atlanta.
Editor’s note: At the Baptist World Alliance 2013 gathering in Ocho Rios, Jamaica, Erskine spoke to Robert Parham, EthicsDaily.com’s executive editor, about Liele. Erskine’s reflections can be viewed here.