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Black History Month: Former slave David George was first Baptist missionary to Africa

An engraving depicts a village in Sierra Leone from 1838 book on the history of missions.

David George (1742-1810) spent much of his life as a refugee. He endured beatings, hunger, persecution, poverty, loneliness, harsh environments and war. Yet by God’s grace, he blazed a trail that thousands have followed. Escaping slavery in South Carolina following the American Revolution, George pioneered Black Baptist work in Nova Scotia, Canada, for 10 years before sailing to Sierra Leone in 1792 to becoming the first Baptist missionary to serve in Africa. As a pioneer preacher, church planter and international missionary his valuable contributions have been largely overlooked, His courageous leadership and example should not be forgotten.

George’s parents were born in Africa and survived the terrors of the Middle Passage, the violent capture and transport of slaves across the Atlantic. He was born and raised on a plantation in Essex County, Va. Because of the cruelties endured by himself and other members of his family, he fled South, even as his mother lay on her deathbed — the result of a recent beating. He eventually made his way to Georgia living several years at a Creek Indian village. He was located by the son of his old master and sold to a plantation near Augusta, Ga., at Silver Bluff, S.C.

This region of South Carolina and Georgia, along the Savannah River, became a spiritual incubator for developing Black Baptist leadership and the establishment of some of the earliest black churches in America. It was the home of George Liele, preacher, evangelist, church planter and pioneer Baptist missionary to Jamaica, and Jeffery Peters (Galphin), the founding pastor of the Springfield Baptist Church, Augusta (1787) among the oldest black congregations in America. It was the home of Andrew Bryan, the founding pastor of the First African Baptist Church of Savannah (1787) which is also one of the oldest Black congregations in America. Silver Bluff also was home to another early African American congregation of which George was a founding member upon his profession of faith and baptism.

George described his parents, in an autobiography recorded by English Baptist historian Dr. John Rippon, as having, “not the fear of God before their eyes.” He further related attending church in Virginia on a few occasions but as to his spiritual state at that time he confessed he, “did not fear hell, and was without knowledge.” He did not embrace the Gospel until he was living on the Silver Bluff plantation. After the birth of his first child, he came under conviction because of the sinful life he was living. He began to seek God and in time came to understand if was God’s grace and not his works that made salvation possible. He said when he made his commitment he knew his sins were gone because, “I had such pleasure and joy in my soul that no man could give me.”

Waite Palmer, a white Baptist preacher, and George Liele came to Silver Bluff and preached to the slaves. Sharing his conversion with these men, and others having found God’s grace too, Palmer organized them into a Baptist church. Three of those baptized that day were George, his wife and Jeffery Peters (Galphin) who would be the founding pastor of Springfield Baptist in Augusta. Palmer baptized them, served communion and organized Silver Bluff Baptist Church. Palmer, George noted, was allowed to preach “frequently” to the slaves at Silver Bluff.

George, wanted to learn to read in order to study the Bible. White children on the plantation taught him the alphabet and he acquired a spelling book and taught himself to read. He at first reluctantly began to openly exhort in services and later began to preach.

After the Revolutionary War began, his master who was a patriot, fled with the arrival of the British army. The slaves were left alone on the plantation and many of them including the George and Galpin families were told by the British to go to occupied areas around Savannah. During this time George and Liele (a freedman) raised crops together and preached on outlying plantations. It was during this season that Andrew Bryan, founding pastor of First African in Savanah was converted under Liele’s preaching.

Nearing the end of the war, the George family made its way to Charleston, S.C. The British offered about 12,000 southern loyalists and 1,500 slaves free passage to Nova Scotia, Canada. They were promised freedom, land and other provisions. In the meantime, the Jesse Peters (Galpin) family who had remained in Savannah returned to Silver Bluff and slavery under their old master. Both would continue in ministry, one in bondage and the other as a freedman.

In Novia Scotia the George family endured broken promises by the British government, unrelenting prejudice by the white population and an uninviting climate. Nonetheless, under duress and opposition, George established a Baptist church. He spent 10 years in Nova Scotia before the British government extended an offer to former slaves to help colonize Sierra Leone, Africa.

In Sierra Leone, George established a Baptist church in 1792, and became the first Baptist missionary to that continent. Several years later the British Baptist Missionary Society, which had sent William Carey to India, sent two white missionaries to Sierra Leone. Because of the hardships of life in Africa, the mission was short lived. George on the other hand continued to pastor until his death in 1810. Within a few years, Lott Carey and Colin Teague, freedmen from Virginia, would arrive in Sierra Leone and Liberia to build upon the foundation laid by David George.

One Baptist historian observed, “The first settlers of Sierra Leone were what they needed to be, men of bravery. They consisted of about 12,000 colored men who had joined the British forces in the American Revolution. At the close of the war, they went to Nova Scotia, but the climate proving unfriendly to them, they were in 1792 transported to Sierra Leone.” (The Story of Baptist Missions in Foreign Lands, Rev. G. Winfield Hervey, 1885)

Among those brave men and women, were David George and his family. Pioneer evangelist, church planter and first Baptist missionary to the African continent. A runaway slave from South Carolina. A refugee from many things, but never grace.

    About the Author

  • Charles Jones/Christian Index

    Charles Jones is a Baptist historical researcher and freelance writer. He is currently serving as transitional interim pastor at Oak Grove Baptist Church in Gainesville, Ga.

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