The Amazing Life of George Liele, One of the First Modern Missionaries

In the history of missions, there are many names worth highlighting. Great biographies have been written about men like Hudson Taylor and Adoniram Judson. In my own tradition, we honor the name Lottie Moon by naming our offering for International Missions after her. Their lives are inspiring stories of sacrifice so that the name of God might be glorified and the Gospel of Jesus Christ proclaimed in fulfillment of God’s call for His followers to “go and make disciples of all nations.” (Matt. 28:19-20) One astounding story that you might not have heard involves God’s transformative action in creating beauty from the ashes in the life of a slave, George Liele.

Born a slave on a Virginia plantation in 1750, George didn’t remember much of his childhood, except for being moved from place to place before finally being owned by a Baptist deacon in Georgia. His father was a follower of God, whom George recalled hearing about, “my father was the only black person who knew the Lord in a spiritual way in that country.” In 1773, at the age of 23, George accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior while attending church with his owner, Henry Sharp. George felt a passion to share the Gospel amongst his fellow slaves and began preaching among them wherever he could find opportunity, both across Georgia and into South Carolina.

Mr. Sharp recognized the spiritual value of George’s preaching and gave him freedom to travel around in order to exercise his gifts and calling to the Lord. On May 20th, 1775, just 2 years after his conversion and baptism, he was ordained to the Gospel ministry by Mr. Sharp’s pastor, the Rev. Matthew Moore, the same man who had baptized George earlier upon his salvation. Mr. Liele was the first ordained Baptist black pastor in Georgia. He was seen not only as a pastor, but a missionary to his own people in Georgia and S. Carolina. In Silver Bluff, South Carolina, Mr. Liele would found the first African Baptist Church, which is still in existence today. He would go on to plant several churches in both Georgia and South Carolina, among the slave population.

Like many slaves, George Liele would side with the British in the revolutionary war. Mr. Sharp also sided with the British, finally freeing George in 1778. Unfortunately, Mr. Sharp was killed in the war later that year and his heirs wanted to re-enslave George, along with his family. He was thrown in jail, but was released when he presented papers signed by Mr. Sharp, which had freed him. As the war came to an end, Mr. Liele was forced to flee with his family. He would choose to become an indentured servant in order to pay for him and his family’s passage by boat to Jamaica.

George arrived in Jamaica in January of 1783, and worked hard to quickly repay his debt and earn his freedom for a second time. He soon was able to secure permission to preach the Gospel to the slaves on the island. So, working to support himself, much in the same way the apostle Paul did as a tentmaker, George began his Gospel ministry as a missionary to the slaves of Jamaica. This was a full 10 years before William Carey would be sent out from England to India and almost 30 years before Adoniram Judson would be “bound for Burma.”

In his first 8 years of preaching the Gospel there, Mr. Liele would baptize over 500 people, all the while supporting his family by farming and transporting goods with his wagon and team. Since his ministry was among the slaves, they never had money to support him, instead it was often George who gave financially to them, in addition to the spiritual blessings he brought their way. Mr. Liele organized them into congregations based on a church covenant he adapted to the local context.

George’s ministry was not always welcomed by the slave owners. Around 1802, he was charged with preaching sedition and was thrown into prison, his family not permitted to see him. He was tried for the charges, but no evidence could be brought against him and he was acquitted. In 1805, a law was passed, forbidding all preaching to slaves. Though not always enforced, the law essentially gave permission for slave owners to strike out and persecute the missionaries whenever they desired. Instances of murder, sexual abuse, imprisonment and other brutality were commonly reported in the missionary accounts of the day until 1834 when slavery was abolished.

George would die in 1828, never seeing physical freedom brought to many who he led to spiritual freedom, but accounts point that his efforts, either directly or indirectly led to a count of 8000 Baptists in Jamaica in 1814 and 20,000 numbered in 1832. In addition to the work on the island, many of George’s converts would go on to plant churches not only in Jamaica, but back in Georgia and as far away as Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone.

He preached the Gospel to a people in bondage, much as we see many of the preachers in the NT, as well as Jesus. George offered up an eternal hope of freedom, regardless of physical bondage, similar to what we find in 1 Peter 2:

16 Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. 17 Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.18 Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. 19 For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. 

Mr. George Liele is definitely a name worth remembering as a fervent example of someone who did not let the difficulties that he faced impact his efforts for the growth and establishment of the Kingdom of God. During his lifetime, the majority of those to whom he proclaimed his message of freedom and salvation would continue to suffer under the bondage of slavery, but through his efforts and the power of the Gospel, they would find a freedom that is greater than any bonds of this earth.

For those looking to learn more about this incredible man, there are many resources available, some of which I used for this article. I also recommend the book, Ten Who Changed the World, which discusses George Liele as well as some of the others mentioned in this article. Finally, you can listen to the voices of pastors and missionaries today, who speak kindly of the influence of George Liele in these videos.

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