African American Baptist Church Is Founded

An amalgamation of African and European forms of religious worship developed into the African American Baptist Church. The cosmologies and churches fashioned by blacks in the United States helped them survive and transcend the harsh realities of slavery in the South.

Summary of Event

The religious Religious revivalism revivals collectively known as the First Great Awakening Great Awakening, First transformed the spiritual climate of British North America in the mid-eighteenth century. Church membership grew, and evangelical religious ideas, which emphasized a person’s own relationship with God, began to acquire hegemony over the religious values propagated by the established churches. Among those people who embraced evangelical Evangelism;African Americans ideals were African American Slaves;and religion[religion] slaves, who found attractive the notion of a personal God, the hope for salvation, and the less-formal style of evangelical worship. This was especially true in the South, where African Americans benefited from a practice among some white evangelicals of allowing blacks to preach to other blacks and where African Americans were the targets of white missionary activity. [kw]African American Baptist Church Is Founded (1773-1788)
[kw]Founded, African American Baptist Church Is (1773-1788)
[kw]Church Is Founded, African American Baptist (1773-1788)
[kw]Baptist Church Is Founded, African American (1773-1788)
[kw]American Baptist Church Is Founded, African (1773-1788)
Baptist Church;African American
African American Baptist Church
[g]American colonies;1773-1788: African American Baptist Church Is Founded[2030]
[c]Religion and theology;1773-1788: African American Baptist Church Is Founded[2030]
[c]Organizations and institutions;1773-1788: African American Baptist Church Is Founded[2030]
Bryan, Andrew
George, David
Liele, George

African Americans were particularly drawn to the Baptist faith, especially in the latter part of the eighteenth century. White Baptists, themselves often among the poorest in Southern society, actively recruited African Americans. Furthermore, Baptists did not require formal education as part of ministerial Christian ministry training, and what learning they did encourage centered on mastering the contents of the Bible. Even African Americans held in bondage and denied opportunities for formal education could fulfill these expectations, and more than a few became ministers. African American slaves not only joined biracial Baptist churches but also fashioned their own fellowships, where they blended the traditional folk religions they brought from Africa with the evangelical nostrums of the Europeans, thus creating a hybrid African American religion.

One area where African American Baptists flourished was the Savannah River Valley, which connected the hinterlands around Augusta, Georgia, with the port city of Savannah. Here, evangelical revivals among whites and blacks bore organizational fruit among African Americans. Indeed, African Americans formed their own Baptist church at Silver Bluff, near Augusta, in 1773, following one such revival.

About that time, a slave named George Liele heard a sermon preached Preaching;and African American slaves[African American slaves] by Reverend Matthew Moore, a white minister, and became convinced that he needed to respond to the gospel. “I was sure I should be found in hell, as sure as God was in heaven,” Liele recalled. Baptized by Moore, Liele became a preacher and began to exhort other slaves in the vicinity of Augusta to become Christians. Liele’s master, who was loyal to the British during the American Revolution, temporarily had to flee Georgia for his life and freed Liele. For the next several years, Liele and a colleague, David George, preached regularly at Silver Bluff, South Carolina, at the first black Baptist church in the Savannah River Valley region. George had been born a slave in Virginia and had run away from a cruel master before coming to the Deep South as the slave of George Galphin. Becoming convinced of his own iniquity and borrowing from whites an evangelical vocabulary and worldview, he was converted after hearing sermons in the mid-1770’s by several African American preachers, including Liele.

Both George and Liele initially had become Baptists because of their own desire to go to heaven, but quickly they took it upon themselves to preach to their fellow slaves. Having found a sense of inner peace because of his religion, Liele wanted others to experience in themselves “the work which God had done for my soul.” Liele and George organized other churches, including the congregation at Yama Craw, outside Savannah, in 1777.

Among those who heard Liele preach at Yama Craw was Andrew Bryan. Bryan had been born in Goose Creek, South Carolina, and was baptized by Liele in 1782. Bryan eventually purchased his freedom and devoted himself to his ministry. It was a decision not without consequences, as whites who feared an unshackled black man whipped Bryan twice and imprisoned him once. Undeterred, he continued to preach to ever-larger congregations, which often contained both blacks and whites. In 1788, his congregation constituted itself into the Savannah Georgia First Colored Church, commonly called the Savannah Church, Georgia Savannah Church. At the time, it boasted 575 members and would grow to more than 800 at the time of Bryan’s death.

Liele, George, and Bryan stood at the forefront of an important movement among African Americans in the South. Their religious teachings fused the African concepts of a unitary universe where the sacred and profane are not segregated; the European mythologies of Heaven, Hell, and redemption; and their present reality of slavery. God would help Africans through their travail of slavery and would one day lead them out of bondage. In this melding process, certain African religious practices were proscribed. The church covenant of Liele’s Yama Craw Church, Georgia Yama Craw Church specifically banned the consumption of blood and strangled meat of animals offered to idols, which had been a part of some West African religious rituals. Other African practices were given an important place, such as moaning as part of religious singing. This practice originated in ecstatic African religious rituals, and moaning and wailing have been preserved in Southern gospel singing. This hybrid religious ritual did not confine itself to African American communities. The emotional shouts and ritual cadences of African worship affected the rhythms of white discourse as well, especially the sermon form, in which the preacher and congregation engage in something of a dialogue.

Liele, George, and Bryan founded churches and baptized ministers who started other churches. One man converted by George and Liele was Peter, Jesse Jesse Peter. A slave, he was allowed uncommon liberties and preached around Savannah and Augusta. He helped constitute the Springfield African Church Springfield African Church (Georgia) in Augusta in 1793, which was later recognized by white Baptists for its excellent church music. Until the American Civil War, the churches started by these men existed, sometimes tenuously. Often, they had to accept direct white oversight to avoid being shut down, but they clung tenaciously to as much independence as local custom and law would allow.


The careers of George Liele, David George, and Andrew Bryan also illustrate the protean political nature of evangelicalism. The formation of churches operated by African Americans reflects the capacity of blacks to avoid complete organizational enslavement as surely as the forming of a black theology kept African Americans from psychic enslavement. From these organizational and intellectual bases, African Americans could confront slavery in various ways.

Both Liele and George fled the South for the British Empire, seeking to continue their ministerial work without the specter of slavery hanging over them. Liele went to Jamaica, establishing the first Baptist churches there. George went to Canada, where he worked with both blacks and whites before organizing a Back-to-Africa movements[Back to Africa movements] back-to-Africa movement, in which one thousand Canadian blacks African Americans;in Canada[Canada] went with George to Sierra Leone in 1792. Bryan, however, remained in the South, calling upon African Americans to lead better lives and, sometimes stealthily, urging whites to live out the Golden Rule in dealing with blacks. At his death, he was lauded by blacks and whites alike. By establishing churches that counseled patience while teaching a theology of ultimate deliverance, African American leaders like Liele, George, and Bryan helped African Americans survive slavery by encouraging them to expect freedom soon.

Further Reading

  • Bellew, Christopher Brent. The Impact of African-American Antecedents on the Baptist Foreign Missionary Movement, 1782-1825. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2004. Describes the missionary work of Liele and George at the close of the Revolutionary War. George established missions in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone, while Liele founded a mission in Jamaica, where he worked with Moses Baker, another black Baptist.
  • Fitts, LeRoy. A History of Black Baptists. Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman Press, 1985. A sympathetic and readable account of black Baptist leaders and churches.
  • Lincoln, C. Eric, and Lawrence H. Mamiya. The Black Church in the African American Experience. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1990. A well-written survey of African American churches since their earliest times and their meaning in the African American struggle in the United States.
  • Sernett, Milton C. Afro-American Religious History: A Documentary Witness. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1985. Contains letters from Bryan and Liele and many other representative documents of the African American religious experience.
  • Sobel, Mechal. Trablin’ On: The Slave Journey to an Afro-Baptist Faith. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1979. Emphasizes the hybrid quality of the African American Baptist Church.
  • Washington, James Melvin. Frustrated Fellowship: The Black Quest for Social Power. Mercer, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2004. History of the African American Baptist Church originally published in 1986. Washington explains how the church enabled African Americans to achieve a “peculiar and precarious religious freedom,” as well as a sense of identity, community, and social power. Paperback edition with a new preface by Quentin H. Dixie and a new foreword by Cornell West.
  • Wilmore, Gayraud S., ed. African American Religious Studies: An Interdisciplinary Anthology. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1989. A series of essays interpreting the fragmentary documentary record of early African American religious life.

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