While in Savannah, GA last week, my wife and I were privileged to take a tour of the First African Baptist Church in the United States. The one hour tour contained a stimulating lecture about this historic church (founded in 1773) and its place in America's religious and social history. A number of things stood out.
The founding pastor, George Liele, who also went on to be the first American Baptist missionary, was encouraged to study and also teach the Bible by his Christian owner Henry Sharp who was also a Baptist deacon. Sharp later freed Liele, which resulted in his missionary work in Jamaica.
The structure was probably the first church building in America built by slaves for slaves. The present facility was also the first brick building in Savannah and bricks were hand carried up the steep incline from the Savannah River. As men made bricks at the river and other men did the masonry, it was probably women who transported these heavy loads. All of this labor took place at night after the slaves had already put in a full day's work.
Church at First American Baptist was not only a spiritual event, but also a family reunion opportunity for African families that had been split up and sent to work for different owners.
Many of the pastors in the church's history have also been leaders in society. For example, Rev. Emmanuel King Love, the church's sixth pastor believed in the value of education and was influential in the founding of Savannah State University, Morehouse College in Atlanta, and Paine College in Augusta.
First African Baptist was also a starting point on the famous Underground Railroad--a route that led slaves out of the South toward freedom in Canada. According to the church's website:
The ceiling of the church is in the design of a “Nine Patch Quilt” which represented that the church was a safe house for slaves. Nine Patch Quilts also served as a map and guide informing people where to go next or what to look out for during their travel.
The holes in the floor are in the shape of an African prayer symbol known as a Congolese Cosmogram. In Africa, it also means “Flash of the Spirits” and represents birth, life, death, and rebirth. Beneath the lower auditorium floor is another finished subfloor which is known as the “Underground Railroad.” There is 4ft of height between both floors. The entrance to the Underground Railroad remains unknown. After leaving our tunnel, slaves would try to make their way as far north as possible. There are no records as to who went through the tunnel or how many.
It is appropriate that this congregation used its facility to not only proclaim the gospel but to also fight against the social sin of slavery.
It is great to see that First African Baptist continues today as an active church and we received a warm invitation to worship with this church community during our visit to Savannah. Below are some images from inside the church.