Mark Vowels, CGO Director
Today’s blog post begins with a quiz question:
True or False: Adoniram Judson was America’s first foreign missionary.
Do you guess true? Well, no points for you. George Leile was America’s first foreign missionary.
George Leile (sometimes also spelled Lisle, or Liele) was a missionary to Jamaica who left for the field in 1782 – thirty years before Adoniram Judson went to Burma, and even ten years before William Carey went to India.
So why don’t we generally know the name of George Leile? Probably the main reason is that he was not memorialized with a biography, as were other missionary heroes. Another reason is that he was black and was born a slave. George came to faith in Christ at age 23 and immediately began to minister to his fellow slaves. His master, Henry Sharp, encouraged George to preach the Gospel to all the slaves that he owned. Sharp was loyal to the British and fought on their side during the American Revolution. He chose to free George from slavery before the war began.
As a freed man, George first proclaimed Christ in Aiken County, South Carolina, and established a small church there, which was likely the first established black congregation in America. As the war progressed, the congregation moved to Savannah, Georgia, where the British held greater power. There, the church became the First African Baptist Church and was instrumental in starting several other Baptist churches for African Americans, both slave and free.
At the end of the Revolutionary War and the victory of the Colonists, attempts were made to re-enslave George Leile. But he was able to escape to the island of Jamaica as an indentured servant of a British Colonel (who loaned him money for his family to sail). After serving two years to pay his debt, Leile began preaching to the slaves in Kingston. People came to Christ in great numbers and soon the ministry had 350 regular attenders. Largely due to Leile’s influence, it was estimated that there were 8,000 Baptists in Jamaica by 1814.
Slavery was eventually abolished in Jamaica in 1838, but George Leile died in 1828. His life was filled with hardships and persecutions. The slave owners there wrought the same kinds of brutality and racial atrocities as were perpetrated by slave owners in America during the same period. George was once imprisoned and later was forbidden to preach to slaves. But he continued to faithfully communicate the hope of the Gospel throughout all of his days.
George Leile, the first Protestant, American missionary abroad was born as someone’s property. He received no formal education. He had no financial backing from a missionary organization. But he loved Jesus and he loved others. So, first as a slave and then as a free man, he preached the Gospel and made disciples wherever he went.
History has not remembered George Leile as a great missionary hero, but there can be no doubt that Heaven has.
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The CGO Blog
Written by the CGO staff, with guest posts from students and other faculty/staff at BJU to provide thought leadership for missions in a new millennium.