As a church history professor, I realize that the American church is largely unaware of significant African American Christians who have made noteworthy contributions to God’s kingdom. So in the past few years, I have made efforts to diversify my classes and to focus on African American Christianity. One lesson that I teach in my Reformation to Modern History classes focuses on early Black Baptist pastors and their churches.
First, to set the context, I want to provide a brief historical background to slavery in America. The first African slaves arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. Slavery became the backbone of the American economy, but it was a moral contradiction for the freedom-loving republic.
At first, there were barriers to evangelism among the African slaves. Prejudice and injustice among the colonists limited evangelism. Furthermore, slaves associated Christianity with their captors. But eventually the evangelistic fervor of the Great Awakening broke out throughout the colonies, leading to conversions among the Africans. Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield and Gilbert Tennent reported awakenings among multitudes of Africans.
Methodists and Baptists emphasized religion as a spiritual and emotional experience, which attracted African Americans and later characterized their Christian worship. By 1800, slaves and free African Americans were about one fourth of the membership of Methodist and Baptist churches.
David George, from slave to Baptist pioneer
In 1773, the earliest known Baptist church of black members with a black pastor emerged at Silver Bluff, South Carolina. This church was organized by an itinerant white Baptist preacher, known as “Brother Palmer.”
Brother Palmer received permission from George Galpin to preach to his slaves. Among his first converts were David George, David’s wife, Jesse Peter and five other slaves. These eight new Christians formed the nucleus of the Silver Bluff church. Upon Palmer’s recommendation, David George became the first pastor, and under his ministry the church increased to thirty or more members.
The American Revolution brought disruption to the Silver Bluff church. The British occupied nearby Savannah, Georgia, so the slave owner George Galpin fled, and his slaves, including the new Christians, took refuge behind British lines.
Then American forces reclaimed Savannah. Because of David George’s loyalty to Britain, he relocated to Canada in 1782, and there he became a pioneer among Baptist work in the Maritime Provinces. In Nova Scotia, he became a famous preacher, delivering emotional and inspirational sermons.
In 1787, Great Britain established Sierra Leone as a refuge for former slaves, so in 1792, George led a group of Baptists from Nova Scotia to settle in this new colony. The church that he founded there is the oldest Baptist church on the African continent.
David George and his wife Phyllis had ten children. He was a pastor, church planter, and missionary.
George Liele, first Baptist missionary, answers God’s call
Let’s return our attention to Savannah, Georgia, and the small but still ongoing African Baptist congregation. Now the church is under the leadership of David George’s friend, George Liele. Liele was born a slave to a white Baptist deacon. When he was saved as a youth, his owner freed him so that he could preach. In 1775, George Liele became the first ordained African American Baptist preacher. He was successful as a preacher to both blacks and whites and he formed the First African Baptist Church near Savannah, Georgia.
When heirs of his former master attempted to re-enslave him, Liele sought protection from the British. But by 1782, the British were no longer able to protect Black loyalists. So Liele left Georgia for Jamaica with his wife Hannah and their four children. He preached in a number of locales, including the racetrack, until he founded the Ethiopian Baptist Church near Kingston.
George Liele’s mission to Jamaica preceded the work of William Carey by ten years, Adoniram Judson by thirty-two years, and William Knibb by forty-two years. George Liele was a preacher, pastor, church planter, and missionary.
Andrew Bryan: a story that ‘reads like the Book of Acts’
Once more, we return to the American South to check on the progress of early African American Baptist churches. This time, I want to introduce you to Andrew Bryan. He was born to slaves on a plantation near Charleston, South Carolina.
His owner, Jonathan Bryan, was a Christian man, who preached the Gospel to gatherings of slaves. He invited George Liele to come and preach. Andrew Bryan and his wife Hannah were converted and baptized by George Liele just before Liele left America for Jamaica.
Soon afterward, Jonathan Bryan permitted Andrew and other black Baptists to build a shack on his property in Yamacraw, on the outskirts of Savannah, Georgia. This house of worship served the small congregation that gathered around Andrew.
Many whites in the South opposed meetings of blacks, even for worship, for fear of insurrections. So several times, Andrew and his brother Sampson, a deacon in the church, were arrested, imprisoned, and beaten. Records show that these brothers were severely whipped, their backs torn, until the blood ran down to the earth. But they lifted up their hands, cried unto the Lord, and rejoiced to be whipped and to suffer for the cause of Jesus Christ. The story of the Bryan brothers and other black Baptists reads like the Book of Acts!
Jonathan Bryan interceded for Andrew and Sampson, and they were allowed to return to their congregation. The judge of the case allowed liberty for Andrew to preach and conduct worship between sunrise and sunset. The church then began meeting in Jonathan Bryan’s barn in Brampton, Georgia. The church grew rapidly from a few dozen to seven hundred.
In 1788, the good work of Andrew with his congregation led to its certification as a Baptist church and to his ordination to the ministry. In 1794, Bryan raised enough money to erect a church building in Savannah, calling it the Bryan Street African Baptist Church. In 1800, the congregation merged with the First Black Baptist Church of Savannah. The growth of the church was such that two years later, the Second Black Baptist Church was organized. Soon the churches were conducting Sunday Schools and also providing education for black children in Savannah.
Andrew Bryan died in 1812. He was a preacher, pastor, evangelist, church planter, and educator.
Today, it has been my privilege to introduce you to three early African American Baptists – David George, George Liele and Andrew Bryan. All three were born into slavery – not only political but spiritual bondage. They were set free from slavery to sin and along the way they received freedom from slavery to men. Through God’s grace, they became preachers, pastors, church planters and missionaries. They deserve our respect as models of Christian faith and service.
Dr. Rex Butler is Professor of Church History and Patristics occupying the John T. Westbrook Chair of Church History.