Profiles in Africana Religion – Part 3: George Liele and the First African Baptist Church
The American South has always been an arduous setting to nurture any semblance of freedom for its African population. The efforts of Varick and Allen, while extremely difficult in their own right, had the distinct advantage of being wrought above the Mason-Dixon Line. Below that illusory border the difficulties of being African in America increased exponentially. Yet, African Americans cradled in Dixie’s bosom still managed to develop religious movements that would reverberate throughout history. For example, George Liele became a Baptist preacher in the American South a century before the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. He also became one of the first American missionaries of the Baptist Church at a time when escape from the tumultuous South for people of African descent was but a dream with nightmarish consequences. Appropriately, this essay will examine the efforts of Liele in the development of the First African Baptist Church.
George Liele (also known as George Sharp) was born in to slavery in Virginia around 1752 to Liele and Nancy Sharp. Sometime during his childhood/adolescence he was moved to Georgia where he was baptized and became heavily involved in the Baptist Church. The Baptist congregation that Liele joined was a satellite of the Baptist Church of England which was in somewhat of a precarious position as an extension of the Crown during the period of American independence. However, Liele, like his enslaver Henry Sharp, was a loyalist during the American Revolutionary period and had no interest in defecting to the Yankees because he understood social position of Africans in the American South (with the British there was at least the opportunity for social advancement). Moreover, as a Baptist under the Crown he made it clear that his focus was on the spiritual welfare of African people, stating: “[I desire] to prove the sense I had of my own obligation to God, I endeavored to instruct the people of my own color in the word of God: the white bretheren 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 a congregation.”
Liele’s handler Sharp fought in the Revolutionary War and fell, possibly at the Battle Brier Creek. After Sharp’s death, Liele was emancipated and remained loyal to the Crown by continuing to organize a Baptist congregation in Savannah, Georgia under the British flag. Savannah was a stronghold for Britain as well as a location of reprieve for those who absconded to freedom because the Crown offered emancipation for enslaved Africans who fought on their side. Liele used this to the advantage of the British Baptist Church in that he would convert manumitted Africans. Moreover, in Savannah Liele was allowed to organize both the First Bryan Baptist Church (with Andrew Bryan) and the First African Baptist Church.
Liele’s fidelity to the Crown would eventually force him and other loyalists to vacate the Georgia territory as the war began to favor the Yanks. Liele was one of many who fled to Jamaica during the heart of the Revolutionary conflict because the Island remained a British strong hold. He arrived on the island sometime in 1783 and continued his dutiful work with enslaved Africans in Jamaica. However, the maturation of the Baptist church of Jamaica did not have an easy go of it due to the presence of the Anglican Church, the principal Christian denomination of the Island. To be clear, the Baptist presence in Jamaica was problematic for the Anglicans not simply because they were unwilling to share spiritual space with a different tradition, instead, socially and politically the Baptist church represented a shift for the colony, especially for its bondsmen and women. Essentially, the Baptist church wanted to do away with the umbrella governance of the Anglican Church, so that individual congregations could exercise more autonomy. As well, the Baptist Church of England advocated for the education of the enslaved, to which the leaders of the Anglican Church were vehemently opposed. Nevertheless, Liele won the support from London, with the help of Moses Baker (a convert of Liele who would prove to very impactful in the spiritual lives of the enslaved in Jamaica), by writing the first covenant of the Ethiopian Baptist of Jamaica: a document which ensured the development of Baptist education among the enslaved Africans of the Island as well as their loyalty to their masters as law-abiding subjects under the Crown.
The founding of the Black Baptist movement in America is truly remarkable when compared to the AME/AMEZ movement in that they represent almost polar opposites of each other. To explain, the AME/AMEZ movements were founded in the North and driven by the American revolutionary spirit for freedom and independence; whereas the First African Baptist Church was founded in the antebellum South and was loyal to the British Crown. In both contexts, the principal focus for the organizations was autonomy and freedom. In the North, Freedom was something that had shape and substance for African Americans, even if complete equality impossible. However, for some bondsmen and women in the South during the revolutionary period, the only path to freedom, save for a treacherous trip to the North, was through loyalty to Britain. It seems that Liele was keenly aware of this paradox and rightly took the path of least resistance. Further, this path led to the conversion of thousands of Jamaicans to the Baptist Church of England under the guidance of Liele, who remained active until his death in 1828.
There is no indication that Liele ever returned to Georgia, yet his legacy remains strong with the First African Baptist Church. To elaborate, since the late 1700s the Church has gone through a number of variations and iterations, yet it has sustained itself through the 21st century as both a physical edifice and communal church body. Some of original sanctuary and its memorabilia (pews, quilts and artwork) still exist. As well, much of the original documents of the congregation has been archived at the Church’s museum and can be dated back to the initial founding by George Liele himself. The remarkable record keeping of this particular institution provides scholars and historians with an extremely important lens into the religious/spiritual life of Africans in the antebellum South. This reveals one of the most important aspects of church life for African Americans: it is not necessarily the theology or even the effort to “save” one’s soul, on the contrary, it is the maintenance of historical knowledge that becomes the record of one’s existence, a display of their trials and triumphs as well as proof of their thought and philosophy which invariably cements their humanity.
 Carter G. Woodson. History of the Negro Church. (Associated Publishers, 1921).
 Liele, George, Stephen Cooke, Abraham Marshall, Jonathan Clarke, and Thomas Nichols Swigle. "Letters Showing the Rise and Progress of the Early Negro Churches of Georgia and the West Indies." The Journal of Negro History 1, no. 1 (1916): 69.
 Walter H. Brooks. "The Evolution of the Negro Baptist Church." The Journal of Negro History 7, no. 1 (1922): 15-16.
 Ibid., 70-71.
 Ibid., 14-15.
 This legislation was called the Dunmore Proclamation. Alan Gilbert. Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012). Jim Piecuch. Three Peoples, One King: Loyalists, Indians, and Slaves in the Revolutionary South, 1775-1782 (University of South Carolina Press, 2008).
 Walter H. Brooks. "The Evolution of the Negro Baptist Church." The Journal of Negro History 7, no. 1 (1922): 16-17.
 Gerloff, Roswith. "The African diaspora in the Caribbean and Europe from pre-emancipation to the present day." The Cambridge History of Christianity 9 (2006): 6.
 Davis, John W. (1918). “George Liele and Andrew Bryan, Pioneer Negro Baptist Preachers.” Journal of Negro History. 3 (2): 119–127.
 Boston University School of Theology. George Liele: http://www.bu.edu/missiology/missionary-biography/l-m/liele-george-c-1750-1828/. Accessed July 2017.
 First African Baptist Church. “History”: http://firstafricanbc.com/history.asp. Accessed July, 2017.