LIELE, GEORGE , (1752–1825) was the first black Baptist in Georgia and perhaps the founder of the first black church in North America. He was also the first black missionary from the United States to Jamaica, West Indies, and the founder of the first black congregation there.
George Liele was born a slave in Virginia and manumitted by his owner just prior to the War of Independence. Liele's owner, Henry Sharp, was a Baptist deacon. Liele was converted to Christianity by Matthew Moore, a white minister, while on a trip with Sharp to Burke County, Georgia. Liele quickly expressed a desire to preach and was encouraged by Sharp to do so. After Liele was licensed, around 1773, he began preaching to the local black population at Silver Bluff, South Carolina. David George (1742–1810) was one of Liele's early converts and became an exhorter at the Silver Bluff congregation. The Silver Bluff congregation may have been the first black congregation to be organized in North America. The date of its founding has been variously given between 1773 and 1775. The date on the church's cornerstone is 1750, which identifies its founding as earlier than that of the black Baptist church organized on the William Byrd plantation in Mecklenburg, Virginia in 1758.
After Sharp died in battle in 1778, his relatives tried to re-enslave Liele but were prevented from doing so by the British troops who had occupied Savannah, Georgia, where Liele was then residing. He continued to preach in Savannah to a congregation of slave as well as free black Baptists. In 1782 Liele baptized one of his gifted converts, Andrew Bryan (1737–1812). This was the same year he departed Savannah with the British for Jamaica. In 1788 Bryan was officially ordained and the church was certified. The church was reorganized as the First Baptist Church of Savannah in 1800.
When Liele accompanied the British troops when they left Savannah in 1782 and relocated to Jamaica, it was as an indentured servant to Colonel Kirkland. In 1783 Kirkland transferred Liele's indenture to the governor of Jamaica, General Campbell. By 1784 Liele had worked off his indenture, and he thus had nothing to encumber the exercise of his preaching gifts except the objections of some Anglican clergymen. His congregation in Kingston soon boasted 350 members, mostly former slaves. The construction of their first sanctuary was completed in 1793. Liele was incarcerated in 1801 on the charge of preaching sedition, but he was released for lack of evidence. He was jailed a second time because the payments on the church building had fallen into arrears. Liele's ministry continued in spite of these hardships, and in spite of the fact that a law was passed on the island in 1805 that made preaching to slaves illegal. Liele referred to his members as "Ethiopian Baptist" and the importance of such a term and what "Ethiopianism" later signified for the Garvey and Rastafarian movements in the twentieth century has led some scholars to view him as their intellectual father.
Davis, John W. "George Liele and Andrew Bryan, Pioneer Negro Baptist Preachers." Journal of Negro History 2 (1918): 119–127.
Gayle, Clement. George Liele: Pioneer Missionary to Jamaica. Kingston, Jamaica, 1982.
Holmes, Edward A. "George Liele: Negro Slavery's Prophet of Deliverance." Foundations 9 (1966): 333–345.
Pinn, Ann H., and Anthony B. Pinn. Black Church History. Minneapolis, 2002.
James Anthony Noel (2005)