The First African Baptist Church was organized by Reverend George Liele (Lisle) of Savannah, Georgia between 1773 and 1775. Liele was born into slavery in 1750 in Virginia. During his youth, he was transported to other parts of the colonies until he was sold to a Baptist deacon named Henry Sharp of Burke County, Georgia. His master later allowed him to attend a nearby Baptist church. He was baptized by Matthew Moore, the pastor of the Big Buckhead Baptist Church in Millen, Georgia. These events are recorded on the Bible Timeline Poster with World History during that time.
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The Spiritual Emancipation of George Liele
Liele would not remain in the background for long. An eloquent speaker, he soon became a preacher to fellow black slaves and whites in his home church and other plantations. He finally received his license to preach after a three-year probationary period.
Sharp, a Loyalist, freed Liele sometime before the onset of the American Revolutionary Wars (1775-1783). Leile accompanied Sharp and his family to British-occupied Savannah when the war finally broke out. There he met two slaves named David George and Andrew Bryan. Both men came from South Carolina and were also brought there by their Loyalist masters. The two men would later become instrumental in the foundation of the first African church in North America. His newly formed congregation also included Kate Hogg, Jesse Gausling, Hagar Simpson, a “Brother Amos,” and Bryan’s wife Hannah. Leile and his friends organized the church they had envisioned in the Yamacraw suburb of Savannah.
Sharp served as a Loyalist soldier during the war but died of injuries before it ended in 1783. Before his death, he had already handed Leile his manumission papers. Sharp’s children, however, tried to bring Liele back into slavery and threw him in prison when he resisted. He was able to produce his manumission papers and obtain his release with the help of a British colonel named Kirkland. After his release, Leile signed up as an indentured servant to Kirkland to repay him. He and his family later accompanied the colonel to Jamaica during the British evacuation in 1783. They landed in Kingston, Jamaica where Liele preached for the rest of his life. He became the first American missionary abroad, predating Adoniram Judson’s mission in Burma in the early 19th century.
The Foundation of the First African Baptist Church
The future of the first African church in North America became uncertain. Liele’s friend David George also fled to Nova Scotia with his family and the Loyalists. The task of continuing Leile’s legacy was left to Andrew Bryan and his wife Hannah who had chosen to remain in Savannah. Bryan started preaching months after Liele’s departure and soon attracted a number of followers. A man named Edward Davis offered the preacher and his congregation a piece of land in Yamacraw where they could build a church and hold services. Bryan agreed, and his small congregation soon had a new home. Unfortunately, they were soon evicted from this location.
Since he was a slave, Bryan and his ministry encountered fierce opposition from the white community. He was forbidden to preach and was twice imprisoned for defying the order. He, his brother Sampson, and other members of their ministry were whipped for their defiance. They were finally released from imprisonment when Andrew’s master, Jonathan Bryan, intervened on their behalf. Jonathan Bryan then offered a barn on his property called Brampton so that Andrew Bryan and his congregation could worship without fear of harassment. The congregation agreed to occupy the barn as their makeshift church. This arrangement lasted for two years.
The prominent Baptist pastor Abraham Marshall and his colleague Thomas Burton visited the congregation in early 1788. The two men conducted an interview and examination of the congregation and its pastor. After finding their answers satisfactory, he then certified the church and its pastor on January 19/20, 1788.
With more than 500 members, Bryan and his flock agreed to rename the church to First African Baptist Church in 1790. The church was under the jurisdiction of the Georgia Baptist Association. By 1794, the First African Baptist Church, with the help of their white Baptist supporters, was able to buy a plot of land in Savannah and build a permanent church there. Pastor Andrew’s master died in 1795, so his children finally allowed him to buy his freedom for a sum of fifty pounds sterling. By the time he died in 1812, the First African Baptist Church already had more than 1,000 members.
Davis, John W. “George Liele and Andrew Bryan, Pioneer Negro Baptist Preachers.” The Journal of Negro History 3, no. 2 (April 1, 1918): 119. doi:10.2307/2713485.
Gates, Henry Louis, and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. African American Lives. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Love, Emmanuel King. History of the First African Baptist Church, From its Organization, January 10th, 1788, to July 1st, 1888: Including the Centennial Celebration, Addresses, Sermons, etc. Salem, MA: Higginson Book Co., 1998.
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