As far as it can reckoned, George Liele came into this world the same year (1751) as James Madison, future member of the Continental Congress and fourth president of the United States. When Madison was fighting to have the Bill of Rights become part of the Constitution, he did not have George Liele in mind. Yet during the Revolutionary era, black men like George Liele were also striving to secure their own freedoms, both political and spiritual. Liele's life gives a glimpse into this lesser-known struggle in American history.

Free to preach

Of George Liele's early years we know little. But neither did he: "I was born in Virginia; my father's name was Liele, and my mother's name Nancy; I cannot ascertain much of them, as I went to several parts of America when young, and at length resided in New Georgia. … I cannot justly tell what is my age, as I have no account of the time of my birth."

We do know that for the first 22 or so years of his life, Liele belonged to Henry Sharp, a Baptist deacon in Burke County, Georgia. In that remarkable period of Baptist egalitarianism (sparked by the evangelical awakening of the mid-1700s), interracial fellowships of the twice-born sprouted in the southern colonies.

At the Baptist church both he and his master attended, a sermon convinced him he "was not in the way to heaven but in the way to hell." Liele confessed Christ near the end of 1773 and went up and down the Savannah River preaching the Good News. At Silver Bluff, South Carolina, he planted the seeds of one of the earliest independent African-American congregations, known as Galphin's Mill.

Recognizing Liele's ministerial gifts, Sharp, a British Loyalist, manumitted him shortly before the Revolutionary War. (In fact, many blacks supported ...

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