As far as it can 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.

Improving conditions

Despite initial opposition from some whites, Liele's congregation grew to about 350 members by 1790 and 500 by 1802, including a few whites. Liele accepted Methodists after they had been baptized by immersion but did not receive slaves without "a few lines from their owners of their good behavior toward them and religion."

Nevertheless, as he had in the Savannah area, Liele prized the freedom to preach the gospel and reached those yet under the yoke of slavery. He asked for help to obtain a larger bell—one that could be heard two miles away, for the steeple of the Baptist meeting house. The reason, he said, was "to give notice to our people and more particularly to the owners of slaves that are in our society, that they may know the hour on which we meet, and be satisfied that our servants return in due time."

Next Liele helped organize other congregations, and he promoted free schools for slaves and for free black Jamaicans. On his ministerial burdens, Liele wrote in the early 1790s:

"I have deacons and elders, a few; and teachers of small congregations in the town and country, where convenience suits them to come together; and I am pastor. … I preach, baptize, administer the Lord's Supper, and travel from one place to another to publish the gospel and settle church affairs, all freely."

By the end of the decade, Liele had reason to be more pessimistic. White persecution was rising: one man rode his horse all the way into the church and demanded, "Come, old Liele, give my horse the Sacrament!" Liele stared down the intruder and replied, "No, sir, you are not fit yourself to receive it."

Charged with "seditious preaching," he was thrown into prison in 1797. The original charge was dismissed, but his inability to satisfy debts incurred in the building of his church kept him incarcerated for three years.

Despite growing persecution, crowds overflowed Liele's church, some standing outdoors during worship to hear him preach. When pressed into service during a British call to arms, Liele found it more and more difficult to meet the spiritual needs of "the poor Ethiopian Baptists of Jamaica." Yet the the Baptist presence in Jamaica continued to expand, growing to more than 20,000 within five years of Liele's death.

Meanwhile, his early work in the American South continued to bear fruit. David George, who had helped Liele found the Silver Bluff church, also found ministry outside the U.S. more fruitful; he became a minister in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone. Andrew Bryan, one of Silver Bluff's early converts, cared for the church after Liele removed to Jamaica, later founded the First African Baptist Church, one of the earliest independent black churches in the South.

George Liele died in 1828, eight years before James Madison. This son of Africa had discovered in Christianity a freedom superior to the temporal liberty begrudgingly given and ever subject to constraint. Liele was the Lord's free man.

When yet in distress over the state of his unconverted self under the preaching of the Rev. Mr. Matthew Moore, Liele "requested of my Lord and Master to give me a work, I did not care how mean it was, only to try and see how good I would do it." If history be the judge, Liele's work was good. Today we remember him as the first regularly ordained African American Baptist minister and as the founder of the Baptist tradition in Jamaica.

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).