Ex-slave turned Baptist missionary honored with day on Southern Baptist Convention calendar

George Liele (circa 1750-1828), a former slave who later became a Baptist missionary to Jamaica.
George Liele (circa 1750-1828), a former slave who later became a Baptist missionary to Jamaica. | Screengrab: YouTube/ naaftogether

A former slave who later became a pioneering Baptist missionary to Jamaica has been honored with a day on the Southern Baptist Convention calendar.

The SBC Executive Committee voted Tuesday to mark every first Sunday in February as George Liele Church Planting, Evangelism and Missions Day.

Pastor Fred Luter, who served as the first African American president of the SBC from 2012-2014, celebrated the news of the vote.

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“This recognition will introduce the entire SBC to a great missionary who had a tremendous role of spreading the Gospel to slaves who made a decision to be followers of Jesus Christ,” said Luter, the Baptist Press reported Wednesday. “George Liele's missionary efforts affirmed the saying, 'Red, yellow, black and white, we are all precious in HIS sight!'”

Pastor Marshal Ausberry, head of the SBC National African American Fellowship, which boasts around 4,000 pastors as members, likewise approved of the vote.

“If I use a basketball term, he was a triple threat, an evangelist, a missionary and church planter. All done under extremely difficult circumstances,” said Ausberry, according to BP.

“If George Liele had a basketball jersey I think we would all be wearing it. He rightfully stands along with the missionary giants (Adonirum) Judson and (William) Carey.”

Born around 1750 in Virginia as a slave and later taken by his master to Georgia, Liele became a Baptist in 1773 and in 1775 became the first ordained black preacher in America.

Freed in 1778, Liele sided with the British during the American Revolution and moved with his family to Jamaica following the end of the war, where he is credited with converting thousands.

According to Alan Neely in his book Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, Liele’s mission work predates that of the more famous William Carey.

“… 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,” wrote Neely.

“Apparently, he never received or accepted remuneration for his ministry, most of which was directed to the slaves.”

In a 2018 piece, Lesley Hildreth of the SBC International Mission Board said Liele is one of the “missionaries you should know.”

“Not only was Liele an effective missionary and evangelist, he was known for encouraging his converts to go preach the Gospel to the lost. As a result of his leadership, they went to Savannah, Georgia, Nova Scotia, and Sierra Leone,” wrote Hildreth.

“George Liele died in 1828. He may have begun life as a slave, but he lived as a free man in Christ. He left a rich legacy of thousands who were transformed by the good news of Jesus.”  

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