The Expatriate Option

AS FAR AS IT CAN BE RECKONED, George Liele came into this world the same year (1751) as James Madison, future member of the Continental Congress and fourth president of the United States. When Madison was fighting to have the Bill of Rights become part of the Constitution, he did not have George Liele in mind. Yet during the Revolutionary era, black men like George Liele were also striving to secure their own freedoms, both political and spiritual. Liele’s life gives a glimpse into this lesser-known struggle in American history.

Free to preach

Of George Liele’s early years we know little. But neither did he: “I was born in Virginia; my father’s name was Liele, and my mother’s name Nancy; I cannot ascertain much of them, as I went to several parts of America when young, and at length resided in New Georgia. . . . I cannot justly tell what is my age, as I have no account of the time of my birth.”

We do know that for the first 22 or so years of his life, Liele belonged to Henry Sharp, a Baptist deacon in Burke County, Georgia. In that remarkable period of Baptist egalitarianism (sparked by the evangelical awakening of the mid-1700s), interracial fellowships of the twice—born sprouted in the southern colonies.

At the Baptist church both he and his master attended, a sermon convinced him he “was not in the way to heaven but in the way to hell.” Liele confessed Christ near the end of 1773 and went up and down the Savannah River preaching the Good News. At Silver Bluff, South Carolina, he planted the seeds of one of the earliest independent African-American congregations, known as Galphin’s Mill.

Recognizing Liele’s ministerial gifts, Sharp, a British Loyalist, manumitted him shortly before the Revolutionary War. (In fact, many blacks supported the British precisely because slavery had already been abolished in the British Isles and many British held emancipationist views).

Liele’s church also acknowledged his preaching among slaves. “The white brethren seeing my endeavors, and that the word of the Lord seemed to be blessed, gave me a call at a quarterly meeting to preach before the congregation.” They licensed and ordained Liele as a “probationer.”

In the war, Sharp enlisted as a Tory officer and died “by a ball which shot off his hand.” His heirs sought to re-enslave Liele and had him jailed for a time. He produced papers showing he was a free man, but to extricate himself, Liele had to borrow money from a British colonel named Kirkland, to whom he became indentured. When the British evacuated Savannah in 1782, Kirkland and Liele made their way to Jamaica.

Liele worked off his debt, received a certificate of freedom, and within two years began to preach in a small house in Kingston. A “good smart congregation,” it was organized with four other blacks who had come from America. The congregation eventually purchased property in the east end of Kingston and constructed a brick meeting house.

Liele reported to English Baptists that raising money for the new building was especially difficult in his circumstances. “The chief part of our congregation are slaves, and their owners allow them, in common, but three or four bits per week for allowance to feed themselves,” he wrote. “And out of so small a sum we cannot expect anything that can be of service from them.”

The free people who belonged to Liele’s church were generally poor, but “they are all willing, both free and slaves, to do what they can.” Liele himself farmed and hauled goods with his horses and wagon. He lamented that the businesses kept him “too much entangled with the affairs of the world,” but felt it also set a good example.

Resources:

Milton Sernett’s Black Religion and American Evangelicalism: White Protestants, Plantation Missions and the Flowering of Negro Christianity, 1787–1865 is now out of print. But booksellers like Amazon.com can probably still track down a used copy of this important work.

For more on black Baptists, including Liele,  Africans in America is by far the best online resource about African Americans before the Civil War. It includes articles about Liele and theFirst African Baptist Church of Savannah.

First African Baptist Church of Savannah has its own website, appropriately named The North Star: A Journal of African-American Religious History, an academic journal sponsored by Columbia University’s Barnard College, also provides information on events, new publications, research collections, and other resources in the field of African-American religious history.

By Milton C. Sernett

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #62 in 1999]

Milton C. Sernett is a professor in the department of African-American studies at Syracuse University. He is also the editor of Afro-American Religious History: A Documentary Witness (Duke, 1985).
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