What We Can Learn from the First American Missionary

What We Can Learn from the First American Missionary

When I first began to read books and articles about global missions, I was deeply encouraged by the audacious faith and the courageous lives of the men and women who gave up comfort and familiarity to make Jesus known where He had not been named. As I continued to read and research, it occurred to me that every missionary I had come to learn about had one glaring commonality: they were from the West, and they were white.

Without realizing it, I began disqualifying myself from being used by God in this way. The Holy Spirit had given me a burden in reaching Muslim people groups in North Africa and the Middle East with the gospel, but as an African-American woman, wife, and mother of three children, I did not see a place for myself in God’s story of redeeming the nations.

Five years later, through continued research, I would meet pioneering African and African-American missionaries who would be known primarily among esoteric missiological circles. One name stood out: George Liele. He was not just the first Baptist missionary sent from North America, but also a symbol of hope and inclusivity. Despite being enslaved, he found freedom in his faith, dedicating his life to the spread of the good news of the gospel. 

His story is a testament to the fact that God’s call to global missions is not limited by our circumstances or background. His resilience and strength should serve as a beacon of hope for all of us.

Every Believer is Called to Bear Witness

In Jesus’ words to his disciples in Matthew 28:16–20, every follower of Jesus is commissioned to go and make more disciples. This command from Jesus was not given based on gender, ethnic identity, socio-economic status, or, in the case of George Liele’s life, status of freedom. Liele, likened to Paul circumstantially, was physically in chains due to being imprisoned on trumped-up charges. 

Yet, the Word of God was not bound (2 Timothy 2:9). He prioritized and remained faithful in bearing witness amid slavery and oppression for the sake of the salvation of the enslaved (2 Tim. 2:10). We, too, can use our freedoms, particularly those in the West, to boldly proclaim the person and work of Jesus all the more.

The Path Forward Will Not Be Easy

Any work done for the glory of Jesus and the advancement of the kingdom of God will be met with resistance. In Matthew 10, Jesus tells his disciples that they will be persecuted and hated because of him, and given these truths, they are called to endure. Scores of believers today still experience varying degrees of persecution for their faith in Jesus Christ, some to the point of death. 

While the conditions for following Jesus were exceptionally harrowing in the time of Jesus’ life, during the birth and growth of the Early Church, and in many contexts still today, we can find great comfort in knowing that God is immutable. He remains a good shepherd who will make our paths straight (Psalm 23:3). 

As a slave, George Liele’s owner, Henry Sharp, set him free so that he could preach without hindrance. This providential relationship indicated that the Lord gave Liele favor to continue his work of preaching the gospel. In this same fashion, we can be courageous and rest in the truth that the Lord has gone before us and will be with us as we live out His will for our lives (Joshua 1:9; Matthew 28:20).

The Son of God is Worth it All

Scholars suggest that some 8,000 Baptists in Jamaica can be directly or indirectly attributed to George Liele’s missionary endeavors. In the wake of living in one of the most challenging eras for African Americans, Liele embodied what it means to live given eternity. 

In the wake of living in one of the most challenging eras for African Americans, Liele embodied what it means to live given eternity.

His suffering, his persistence in sharing the gospel and teaching illiterate slaves Scripture, and uprooting his family on several occasions, all under deplorable conditions, resounded that he, like Abraham, was looking forward to the city whose architect and builder is God. 

There is a day coming when a great multitude from every nation, tribe, people group, and language will stand before the throne in worship of the Lamb. From the time of Jesus to George Liele’s era and the present, believers have abandoned their lives toward this coming reality. 

Under this great cloud of witnesses, by the power of the Spirit, we are invited and commanded to make the worship of the Lord among the nations the most urgent priority of our lives, come what may. And when our faith is made sight on the other side of eternity, we will have eternal rest in the presence of our Risen Savior, who is more than worth it all. 

Morgan Davis

Morgan Davis is a field staff missionary with unfoldingWord, a church-centric Bible Translation organization working among the unreached. Additionally, Morgan joyfully serves as the Director of Missions for Northwest Baptist Church in Maryland, is a Biblical Studies major at Lancaster Bible College, and serves on the Sex Abuse Reform Task Force for the Baptist Convention of Maryland and Delaware. She is married to the love of her life, Chris, and together, they have three remarkable children: Isaac, Kenneth, and Hannah.


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