Photo Source: Baptist Press
In honor of Black History Month, we wanted to share the stories of four Black Americans who shared their faith with the world.
George Liele was born in 1750. He grew up as a slave in Virginia and Georgia. He was able to attend church, eschewing many of the common practices of the day. George was eventually ordained as the first Black Baptist pastor in the United States.
During his time as a minister, he preached to both Black and white congregants, which was extremely rare at the time. He also sometimes traveled to speak to slaves on other plantations. While preaching at one of these plantations, he met a slave named David George and shared the gospel with him. David George became a Christian and went on to become a pastor. Eventually he planted the first Baptist church in Canada before moving to Sierra Leone and planting a church there.
After obtaining his freedom, George Liele moved to Savannah, Georgia. After hostility increased there toward freed slaves, he moved his family to Jamaica. There, he began preaching to the slaves owned by the British people. It was against the law in Britain to preach to enslaved people, so George was thrown in prison. He continued to preach, though, once he was released.
George Liele was the first known Baptist missionary.
While in Jamaica, George Liele wrote a letter to the British Baptist Missionary Society asking for funding for a building and extending an invitation to join in his work in Jamaica. Several people from Britain came and visited. Their testimony of how slaves were being treated in Jamaica helped in the work to abolish the British slave trade. George Liele is still considered one of the men who helped Jamaica gain independence.
Phillis Wheatley was born around 1753, captured in Africa, and brought to America as a slave when she was seven years old. She lived in Boston, where she learned to read and write and attended church with her master’s family. Her master and mistress knew George Whitefield, the famous evangelist. Phillis Wheatley was so inspired by him, that upon his death, she wrote a eulogy for him. People were so moved by her eulogy it was published in newspapers and passed around in America and in England.
Phillis Wheatley continued to write in the midst of the upheaval of the Revolutionary War. She wrote about what was happening in the world around her, and she wrote about her faith in God. Her master, John Wheatley, took her works to be published. In order to be published, Phillis had to sit before a tribunal to prove she had written the words her master said she did. In the end, she passed the test, and her work was published.
She was the first African female poet to have a book published in America.
After a trip to London, Phillis Wheatley returned to America, and John Wheatley granted her freedom from slavery. She often wrote and thought about the freedom God gives, saying that serving Christ was “the most perfect freedom.” She also wrote about and fought for the freedom of all Americans. Today, a statue of Phillis Wheatley stands in Boston, honoring the gifts she used to point to the value of every image bearer and fight for freedom for all.
Read more about Phillis Wheatley here.
Charles Octavius Boothe was born into slavery in Alabama in 1845. He learned to read at a very young age, due in large part to teachers who boarded at the plantation. He started reading the Bible and grew up in the African American Baptist church. He often spoke of his grandparents’ legacy of faith.
He made a profession of faith in 1865 and went on to plant two churches, as well as play a pivotal role in the establishment of the Colored Baptist Missionary Convention of the State of Alabama. He was concerned with preaching the gospel and helping newly freed slaves, like himself, know Jesus.
Charles Boothe wrote two major works in his lifetime: Plain Theology for Plain People and the largely autobiographical Cyclopedia of the Colored Baptists of Alabama: Their Leaders and Their Work.
In Plain Theology for Plain People, Charles Boothe explained essential doctrines of God, man, salvation, the Bible, and more from a Baptist worldview. His book was recently reprinted by Lexham Press to continue educating today’s scholars and “plain people.”
Read more about Charles Boothe’s Plain Theology for Plain People here.
Mahalia Jackson was born on October 26, 1911 in Louisiana. She grew up singing at Mount Moriah Baptist Church. She sang hymns and gospel music her whole life, touring all over the world. She is often called the “Queen of Gospel.”
She became part of the Civil Rights movement, singing before Martin Luther King Jr’s speeches and at marches like the Freedom March in Selma, Alabama. She famously sang “There Is a Balm in Gilead,” one of King’s favorite hymns. Before King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington in 1963, Mahalia Jackson sang, “How I Got Over.”
A story is told that the famous line, “I have a dream …” was not part of the original speech that day in Washington. Mahalia Jackson, though, sitting near the stage and knowing Dr. King, yelled out, “tell them about the dream!” So King pushed aside his notes and began to share his vision for America—a time when his children could be judged by their character and not the color of their skin.
Mahalia Jackson’s voice is sometimes referred to as “the soundtrack of the Civil Rights Movement,” filled with truths from Scripture and the gospel proclaimed through song.
Read more about Mahalia Jackson here.