Churches Celebrate 18th Century Baptist Missionary George Liele - Word&Way

Churches Celebrate 18th Century Baptist Missionary George Liele

CHARLESTON, S.C. (BP) – It’s not lost on First Baptist Church of Charleston Pastor Marshall Blalock that had Black missionary George Liele visited the church during his 18th century ministry, he would have been required to worship from the balcony.

Marshall Blalock, pastor of First Baptist Church of Charleston, South Carolina, delivered his Feb. 3 virtual devotion from the church balcony to emphasize that due to his race, George Liele, America’s first Baptist missionary, would likely have had to sit there if he’d ever visited the church. (Baptist Press screengrab)

In advance of Sunday’s (Feb. 7) inaugural “George Liele Church Planting, Evangelism, and Missions Sunday” on the Southern Baptist Convention calendar, Blalock delivered a virtual devotion Feb. 3 from the church balcony, focusing on Liele. A formerly enslaved person, Liele was the first Baptist missionary abroad.

“I doubt George Liele ever worshiped here in the Charleston church, but it is likely he would have stood in the gallery of the Savannah church back in the day,” Blalock told Baptist Press. “This Sunday in worship we will honor the memory of the first Baptist missionary, an enslaved man who came to Christ, became a church planter in Georgia and South Carolina, then as a free man went to Jamaica to lead a movement that saw thousands of enslaved African people come to Christ.”

First Baptist Charleston, founded nearly a century before Liele’s ministry began in 1782 in Jamaica, is among churches marking the day Sunday with educational resources from the International Mission Board, exhortation, and a special offering for international missions.

At The View Church in Menifee, California, Pastor Gregory Perkins will include in all three Sunday services video presentations of Liele’s life and ministry. Perkins will use part of Liele’s teaching in the Caribbean as an illustration.

“We are making it George Liele Day at The View,” said Perkins, a board member of the National African American Fellowship of the SBC, the group that successfully advocated for Liele to be officially recognized on the SBC calendar, with the support of IMB. “In all three of our services, we’re going to have via video, a presentation of who George Liele is, why he is important not only to missions work more broadly, but specifically to African American congregations, given that he was literally the first missionary. We’re going to open him up and give special tribute to him.”

George Liele

In 1775, Liele became the first ordained African American Baptist preacher in the U.S. and planted in Savannah, Georgia, the First African American Baptist Church, officially constituted in 1777 and still active today. He sailed to Kingston, Jamaica, in 1782 and planted a church there.

The View’s special Liele offering will be donated to IMB on behalf of The View and NAAF. Also Sunday, The View’s youth ministry will announce an international missions project they’ll participate in this year in honor of Liele, to be designated the George Liele Project. Previously, youth there have participated in World Changers and taken mission trips to Ghana.

“We are really excited to support this partnership with the IMB,” Perkins said of the Liele emphasis. “I hope it will open up our SBC family to understanding that African Americans have a long and storied commitment to global missions. And we’ve not just been the beneficiary of services, we have been the provider of them.”

At First Baptist Church of Crestmont in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, February has long been dedicated to missions. Proceeds of February’s mission offering are already slated to provide food and water for several villages the church adopted in Nigeria a decade ago, to support a Martin Luther King, Jr. chapel at Abington Hospital in Abington, Pennsylvania, to fund an MLK scholarship to Abington’s Dixon School of Nursing, and support other church initiatives.

Leaving that offering in place, First Baptist Crestmont will celebrate Liele in July, the only month on the church calendar that was not already dedicated to a special emphasis, Pastor Jerome Coleman said. The church added Liele to its calendar in 2020, making this July the church’s second recognition of Liele. The Liele offering supports NAAF’s missionary outreaches.

“We just decided to do it in a month where we didn’t have any extra offerings and put the emphasis on [Liele],” Coleman said. “I think it’s important for us to recognize that the first Baptist missionary was George Liele. I think it’s very important for us to recognize that before Lott Carey, before all of these persons that we recognize, before Annie Armstrong, before all of these persons there was George Liele.”

“George Liele simply wasn’t recognized because there was no official sending organization. And I find that interesting because I don’t think the Holy Ghost has to work through any official human organization to anoint somebody, to send them,” Coleman added.

Liele’s ethnicity and former enslavement also hindered his recognition, Coleman said.

“But if anybody’s really looking at this in terms of the providential hand of God,” Coleman said, “you can’t help but see God’s hand on George Liele.”