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The First North American Missionary—a Freed Slave

The first missionary from North America was George Liele, a former slave who left the American colonies for Jamaica in 1782 and began a ministry of preaching in 1783, nearly a full decade before William Carey sailed for India from England. Liele was born a slave (circa 1750) in the colony of Virginia. He launched his preaching career in 1773, and a year later he gathered slaves for what could be considered the first African-American church in America. After the Revolutionary War, the recently freed Liele fled to Jamaica to escape being re-enslaved.

George Liele arrived in Jamaica as an indentured servant, but would serve as a missionary-evangelist to the island. Liele became the first Christian to win a significant number of slaves on the Island to Christ, and the first to plant a church composed of slaves. He preached in private homes and public settings drawing crowds of slaves. In a letter written in 1791, Liele reported 500 converts and 400 baptisms. In 1789 Liele's congregation had organized and by 1793 they had completed the Windward Road Chapel, the first Baptist church on the island.

Liele achieved these successful evangelistic and church planting efforts despite opposition from a powerful constituency on the island. White slave owners feared the impact upon the slave population if the slaves were to embrace Christianity. Concern arose that "if their minds are considerably enlightened by religion, or otherwise, that it would be attended with the most dangerous consequences."

Despite Liele's numerous efforts to appease the slave owners, he still faced stiff opposition. He was charged with sedition and jailed on numerous occasions on trumped-up charges. Despite these obstacles, Liele was able to baptize new converts as well as plant and organize new churches. His evangelistic and church-planting efforts led to the establishment of the Baptist denomination on the island, with slaves, freedmen, and whites joining churches started by Liele. The impact of Liele's ministry continues to this day; however, Liele himself is buried in an unmarked grave in Jamaica.

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