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FIRST-PERSON: Who really was the first U.S. missionary?

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP) — Earlier this year Jeremy Webber at Christianity Today asked: Was the first U.S. missionary black, not white? Referencing the little-known George Liele (1750-1820), Webber rightly questioned whether this freed slave should supplant Adoniram Judson as the first Protestant missionary from America.

Not only was George Liele the first Protestant missionary from America, but his departure for Jamaica in 1782 actually puts him ahead of the widely recognized progenitor of the modern missions era, the British Baptist, William Carey. The right ordering of these pioneers of Gospel advance has been noted in recent years by Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, first in a biographical sermon on Liele and then in various publications, most recently in his book “Ten Who Changed the World.” Akin writes, “[Liele] was the first Baptist to leave his homeland and take the Gospel to foreign soil.”

As early as 1964, E. A. Holmes, then-professor of church history at Stetson University, noted in an essay on Liele that clarified the matter: “Though supported by no church or denominational agency, [Liele] became the first Protestant missionary to go out from America to establish a foreign mission, ten years before William Carey set out from England” (source: biblicalstudies.org.uk).

Discovering this important corrective in recent years has been one of the most instructive things for me as one who loves the rich historical and theological heritage of the Baptists. As I teach students, the pursuit of every fact and detail in the spirit of careful and colorblind scholarship often leads to new discoveries of monumental significance. As I have researched the life of Adoniram Judson over the last few years for a collaborative book project that seeks to honor the bicentennial celebration of his departure from America in 1812, I was faced with the very task of how to classify Judson’s work.

After originally categorizing Judson, as most have throughout history, as the first American missionary, it was Dr. Akin who shared with me the life and ministry of George Liele. Delighted to learn of Liele’s proper place in history, I gladly changed the subtitle of the volume of Judson from “A Bicentennial Celebration of America’s First Missionary,” to “A Bicentennial Celebration of the Pioneer American Missionary.”

In the volume, Akin and I are joined by Paige Patterson, Nathan A. Finn, Robert Caldwell, Gregory A. Wills, Keith Eitel, Candi Finch, and Michael A. G. Haykin. With regard to the proper ordering of Liele, Carey and Judson we make the distinction that George Liele is properly the first missionary in the modern era. Carey, in England in 1792, is the second chronologically, though the first to create a missions-sending agency and to be sent in an organized and formal manner. Judson, then in 1812, is third overall, the second American, and the first to organize and receive the commission of an American board for the sending of missionaries.

While all three men are pioneers in their own settings and all overcame significant opposition and obstacles to take the good news about Jesus to those who had yet to hear — even at great cost — George Liele is worthy of particular commendation in our day as he advanced the Gospel while this nation still gripped tightly to the constrictive fetters of slavery.
This column first appeared at TheologicalMatters.com, a blog of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. Jason G. Duesing serves as vice president for strategic initiatives and assistant professor of historical theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (Fort Worth, Texas) and is the editor of the forthcoming book, “Adoniram Judson: A Bicentennial Appreciation of the Pioneer American Missionary” (B&H Academic, 2012). Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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  • Jason Duesing