Born a slave in Virginia, Liele was taken to Georgia, where he was converted in 1773 in the church of his master, Henry Sharp. He soon became concerned about the spiritual condition of his fellow slaves and began preaching to them. In 1775 he was ordained as a missionary to work among the black population in the Savannah area. Like many other slaves, he sided with the British in the Revolutionary War, as did his master, who set Liele free in 1778. In order to be evacuated with other royalists and British troops, Liele obtained a loan and accepted the status of indentured servant to pay the passage for himself, his wife, and his four children on a ship bound for Jamaica. Landing there in January 1783, he soon repaid the debt and secured permission to preach to the slaves on the island. Thus by the time William Carey—often mistakenly perceived to be the first Baptist missionary—sailed for India in 1793, Liele had worked as a missionary for a decade, supporting himself and his family by farming and by transporting goods with a wagon and team. Apparently, he never received or accepted remuneration for his ministry, most of which was directed to the slaves. He preached, baptized hundreds, and organized them into congregations governed by a church covenant he adapted to the Jamaican context. By 1814 his efforts had produced, either directly or indirectly, some 8,000 Baptists in Jamaica. At times he was harassed by the white colonists and by government authorities for “agitating the slaves” and was imprisoned, once for more than three years. While he never openly challenged the system of slavery, he prepared the way for those who did; he well deserves the title “Negro slavery’s prophet of deliverance.” Liele died in Jamaica.
From this entry and reflection on Liele's life as a whole, I have a few thoughts:
- It was Liele's owner Henry Sharp--a Baptist deacon--who encouraged Liele to explore the gospel and come to faith in Christ and then later evangelize, teach, and begin a church (First African Baptist) for slaves in Savannah. Later, Sharp had the conviction to give Liele his freedom. So despite Sharp's initial participation in this social sin, God seems to have used the Christian convictions of Sharp in George Liele's preparation for ministry.
- Liele was a diaspora missionary. That is, because of the political climate in Georgia after 1778 for a freed man, it was best for him to get hired as an indentured servant to Jamaica. Yet, as he was forced to immigrate, he preached, began churches, and was involved in intercultural mission work. Today, the relationship between global diaspora and mission is quite huge and perhaps Liele's journey could teach us something.
- Liele was also a "tentmaker." He apparently never received any compensation or financial support for being a missionary. Rather, mission flowed from who he was. Though we remember him as a missionary, I wonder if he self-identified as one.
- Finally, he clearly suffered as a slave and even after his liberation and ministry in Jamaica; yet, he remained faithful to the Lord and his call despite suffering.