There is an overgrown and oft-forgotten crossroads along the pathway of history. For most of us, this intersection is one of those “blink-and-you’ll-miss-it” places from the past. Few have ever seen it. Even fewer have taken the time to stop and appreciate what’s there. I am talking about that place where Church History and Black History converge.
February is designated, in our nation, as Black History Month. Schoolchildren will learn, some for the very first time, about the great achievements and courageous acts of many African-American men and women of the past. The twenty-eight days of this month are not enough time to praise the contributions and legacies of the likes of Rosa Parks, Eli Whitney, W.E.B. DuBois, and the Tuskegee Airmen. Frankly, twenty-eight years would not be enough time either.
Among these more familiar figures, however, there are a handful of lesser known Black History heroes. Though the names of most of these men and women have been omitted from textbooks, they should not be forgotten. No, you won’t find them in the Hall of Fame, but you will find them in the Hall of Faith.
For the next few weeks, in February, I’d like to introduce you to some of your lesser-known African-American brothers and sisters who, right now, await you in heaven. May these brief Church History biographies remind us,
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28-29)
Born into slavery in 1798, Betsey Stockton was originally from New Jersey. As a child and teen, she was owned by two ministers, Rev. Nathaniel Todd and Rev. Ashbel Green. No doubt she heard the gospel many times while in their company.
At the age of 19, Betsey received her personal and spiritual freedom simultaneously. She was manumitted by her owner, Rev Green (then, the president of what is now known as Princeton University) and also became a member of the First Presbyterian Church in Princeton, New Jersey.
While she continued her work as a paid domestic servant with the Green family, Stockton also learned from them how to read and write. Her thirst for knowledge grew more and more, especially about the things of God. Before long, the student became the teacher.
Hearing about a nearby family (the Stewart family) who was leaving from Princeton as missionaries to go to the Sandwich Islands (now known as Hawaii), Stockton sought Rev. Green’s help to go with them. Not only did Green agree, but in a time when it was most unheard of, both the all-white Stewart family and the all-white missionary Board agreed. She was on her way.
On November 22, 1822, Betsey Stockton became the first single American woman sent overseas as a missionary. Her contract, written by the missionary board, stated clearly that Stockton accompanied the Stewarts not “as a servant, but as a humble Christian friend.” Later in life, Betsey Stockton also served as a missionary and teacher in Canada. Today she is buried in Cooperstown, New York. You can read more about Betsey Stockton from her own diary entitled Christian Advocate (published by her former owner, Rev. Green himself. Read it for FREE from Google books.)
Most people mistakenly think that the first missionary family to leave America were Adoniram and Ann Judson. However, that distinction was rightfully earned by a self-emancipated slave named George Liele (also spelled Leile or Lisle).
George Liele was born in 1750, in Burke County, Virginia. His father, it was said, was the only slave in the entire county who knew the Lord. When he was 23 years old, Liele was listening to a preacher, Rev. Matthew Moore, explain the work of Christ. In his own words George stated:
I “saw my condemnation in my own heart, and I found no way wherein I could escape the damnation of hell…only through the merits of my dying Lord and Savior Jesus Christ…”
Liele repented of his sin, trusted Christ was soon baptized by immersion.
As he preached to his fellows slaves, those around him began to notice Liele’s giftedness for ministry. While working the plantation, he would sing the spiritual songs, explain their meaning, share Scripture and call those around him to trust Christ. So great were his zeal and talents, that, surprisingly enough, his slave owner’s all-white church, Buckhead Creek Baptist Church, ordained George Liele into the ministry. His owner, Henry Sharpe, granted him, and his family, their freedom as well.
Liele’s first order of business was to plant a church. Despite conventional wisdom and warning, Liele moved deeper into the South to Savannah, Georgia and started one of the first Black Baptist congregations in America. The year was 1788, the same year that Adoniram Judson was born. Liele’s preaching style was rousing and drew great crowds. Unfortunately, for him, among the crowds were some who sought to re-enslave Liele and his family.
To avoid this, George Liele, together with his wife and four children, moved to Jamaica. There he planted the First African Baptist Church of Kingston. In the years ahead, he baptized over 500 people.