The African Americans

Search for Truth and Knowledge

By Dr. Leonard Jeffries, Jr.


Part Twenty: African American Church in the Revolutionary Era

The Black Church was established in the North and in the South during the Revolutionary War period and helped to provide a training ground for future leadership, institution building and communal organization. Several African American leaders of the Revolutionary Struggle were preachers, soldiers, teachers and political leaders. Often, one individual combined two or three of the different roles or all four at different times in his life. The churches built by these African Americans were able to survive the chaos and disruption of the War, and grow in the post-war period in the United States as well as continue to develop after transplanting in Jamaica, Canada and Africa.

The roots of the Black Church movement go back to the 1760's and 1770's, when Blacks began to respond in increasing numbers to the Religious revivalism of the period. Out of this movement grew the independent Black Church, which has continued to remain the most important communal institution in the African American Community. Revivalism of the day centered around newly introduced Protestant sects that had spiritualist and evangelical tendencies and emphasized the individual and his personal relationship with God. They opposed the highly structured religion of the Church of England and Anglicanism. Methodists, Baptists, Countess of Hunting Connection and Presbyterians were among the most popular forms of worship.

The Methodists Sect appeared in New York and Maryland in the 1760's and welcomed Blacks into the movement. In 1766, Philip Embury, an Irishman and a lay preacher who had been licensed by John Wesley, held the first Methodist meeting on American soil in his home with an audience of five, including one Black Person, Betty, a slave of Barbara Heck. Within a short time segregated classes for religious instruction were organized for both free and slave Black participation and were make distinctive so that the roots of the separate Black Church can be found in the earliest days of the Revivalist movement in the American Revolutionary era. In face, Wesley Chapel, built in 1768, which became the First John Street Church, the seat of American Methodism, had ladder stairways to the slave gallery. This type of segregation was a common practice in American churches from the earliest days, and has remained one of the most tenacious tenets of a segregated society. These discriminatory practices led Richard Allen and Absalom Jones to leave the White Methodist Church after Racial insults motivated them in the post-Revolutionary period to set up their own African Society in Philadelphia in 1787 that eventually became the seed which produced the Black Methodist Church Movement in America.

The history of African Americans in the Baptist Movements began on American plantations just before the Revolutionary War. The personal stories of three Black Church Leaders: George Lisle, David George and Andrew Bryan, are excellent examples of how and why the Baptist movement attracted African Americans and enabled them to develop independent Black institutions which were eventually planted in America, Canada, the West Indies, and Africa.

In a letter dated December 18, 1791, George Lisle, also called George Sharp, explained how he became involved in the Baptist Movement. Later, he helped to spread it in America as well as in Jamaica after he evacuated with the British Loyalists.

George Lisle was born in slavery and was influenced by memories of his family background to go into the ministry. He stated that: "I was born in Virginia, my father's name was Lisle and my mother's name was Nancy. I cannot ascertain much of them, as I went to several parts of America when young, and at length resided in New Georgia; but was informed both by white and Black people that my father knew the LordÂ…"

Lisle was baptized by the Rev. Matthew Moore of Burke County, Georgia, around 1774, and continued to worship in this white church for four years until Savannah was evacuated by forces loyal to Britain. His master, Henry Sharp, was a deacon in Rev. Moore's church and just before the war, he gave George Lisle his freedom. During these years, Lisle felt himself called to the ministry and he began preaching to the slaves on plantations in the area. One of the groups he preached to was David George's newly gathered church near Savannah. George eventually evacuated America and continued his church and community leadership in Canada and later in Sierra Leone in West Africa.

In 1782, when the British evacuated Savannah, Lisle went with the Loyalists who sailed to Jamaica in the West Indies. Two years after arriving, he established the first Baptist Church on the sugar growing island and eventually baptized over 400 free and slave Blacks.

Prior to his departure for Jamaica in 1782, George Lisle came up from the Tybee River and baptized Andrew Bryan and his wife Hanna, who were slaves of Jonathan Bryan. About eight or nine months after Lisle's departure, Andrew Bryan began to preach to whites and African Americans that would listen. Before long, he had an organized group of worshippers who erected a small church on the land of Edward Davis at Yamacraw outside of Savannah, Georgia. They were frequently interrupted by hostile whites who were upset that so many African Americans were fleeing to the British lines.

When this hostility resulted in Andrew Bryan and fifty of his followers being severely whipped, the group moved to a farm three miles outside of town, and worshipped for two years at Brampton's Barn. On January 10, 1788, a white minister, Rev. Abraham Marshall, certified the group as the Ethiopian Church of Jesus Christ. Eventually, the church became identified with Bryan. Thus, the first Bryan Baptist Church was formed. Its successor still stands in Savanna today, one of the oldest African American Institutions in the United States. This African American institutional base was a continuous threat to the plantation society in Georgia, and fear of a slave uprising subjected the church leaders and worshippers to constant persecution. Over the years the same type of religious institutional base provided a foundation for survival and development for African people in America, Canada, the West Indies and finally, African itself.

The History of another Black Baptist Leader, David George, provides additional information explaining how the Baptist Church had its beginnings on American slave plantations, just before the Revolutionary War. It shows how these early Blacks interacted with each other to reinforce their basic beliefs in the common struggle for freedom. George was born in Essex County, Virginia, in the early 1740's to slaves who had been born in Africa. At the age of 19, he fled his master's plantation and became a servant of an Indian Chief and eventually worked his way to Georgia. As a slave on a Georgia plantation, he experienced a conversion when a Baptist Cyprus revealed Christ to him. He soon joined an illegal Baptist congregation which slaves had secretly established in the woods, defying strict laws against forming their own churches. The loose congregational Baptist structure suited the secret slave worship groups because they met as small isolated unites. This loose pattern later proved suitable to the dispersed and decentralized African American Communities that developed in the United States.

One of the first African American institutional bases established during the Revolutionary Era was formed in 1773, when the first Black Church was organized in Silver Bluff, South Carolina. A slave owner, George Galphin permitted the preacher, David George, to be ordained as the first regular pastor. George became a Christian while in slavery in Georgia. He displayed superior intellectual abilities and leadership by teaching himself to read and write with the aid of his master's children, using the Bible as a primer and text. It was not long before he helped organize the Silver Bluff Church, and watched it grow from eight members to thirty in the period just before the American Revolution. During the Revolutionary War, George's Loyalist master abandoned his plantation and his slaves. The Silver Bluff Church now had its chance to seek freedom. David George, with fifty of the Galphin slaves, many of whom worshipped at his church, went over to the British in Savannah and were freed in 1778.

In 1782, when the British evacuated Savannah, Georgia sailed to Nova Scotia, and continued his preaching and organizing for the Baptist Movement. Ten years later in 1792 he joined the heroic Exodus to the Province of Freedom in Freetown, Sierra Leone and helped plant the Baptist religion on the West Coast of Africa.

African American life has revolved around the Black Church, which was not only the center of worship, but the focal point of all communal activities—social, business, political, even educational. It had become the pivotal survival institution. The origins of the Black Church and its growth and development in the Revolutionary Era were tied into the new quest for freedom by the ex-slaves. The church provided the vehicle for individual leadership, institution-building and community organization. A look at its roots reveals why it was held onto by the Black Pioneers and Refugees and transplanted initially in Canada, and later in Africa. Insights into the church as a communal organization help to explain why it has remained the center of African American Communities in the United States.


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