Religion, spirituality, and the African American community have been synonymous since before any ship carrying enslaved Africans landed on the shore of the “New World.”
However, upon landing here in the Western world after 1619, Christianity was the focused and forced spiritual practice that many of our African ancestors adopted as their own.
So much that, in 1773, at least three years before the country was created, in the beautiful seaport of Savannah, the First African Baptist Church — the oldest Black Church in North America — was built. The original name of the church was, “First Colored Baptist.”
The establishment of this sacred place of worship upon its creation was led by the Rev. George Leile. Leile was a former enslaved African American, who accepted Christ in 1773, at the age of 23, and baptized by his white pastor, the Rev. Matthew Moore.
A few years later, Liele’s conversion would inspire his owner, Henry Sharp, a Southern Baptist deacon, to grant Liele emancipation, allowing the young evangelist to go and pursue God’s call on his life.
After preaching for two years in slave quarters of plantations around Savannah and into South Carolina—by May 1775, George was ordained, becoming the first ordained African American Baptist preacher in America.
With founding members, the Rev. Andrew Bryan, his wife, Hannah Bryan, Kate Hogg, and Hagar Simpson in December 1777, the first construction of the church was finished.
Leile left Savannah with the British in 1782, avoiding re-enslavement, migrating to Jamaica.
He became the first American missionary, 30 years before Adoniram Judson left for Burma and 10 years ahead of William Carey, who is instead cited as being the “father of the modern missionary movement.”
Liele established the first Baptist missionary in Jamaica, growing the island Baptist community to over 20,000 believers between 1814-1832. Liele’s ministry led to a spiritual impact on the island, but his work also made a social difference for the enslaved Jamaicans. By July 31, 1838, slavery was eradicated in Jamaica, 27 years before the United States.
Upon Liele migration to Jamaica, First Colored Baptist experienced many other dynamic leaders at its helm.
The church’s third pastor, the Rev. Andrew C. Marshall and its congregation obtained the property where the present sanctuary stands. Marshall also organized the first black Sunday School in North America and changed the name of the church from “First Colored Baptist” to “First African Baptist.”
The sanctuary was completed in 1859 under the direction of the church’s fourth pastor, the Rev. William J. Campbell.
The Civil Rights Museum in Savannah honors the church’s fifth pastor, the Rev. Dr. Ralph Mark Gilbert, for his work during the Civil Rights movement in the South.
Under Gilbert’s pastorship, First African Baptist Church established the first federal credit union housed in a church in May 1954. The credit union continues to serve members of the church and their families by providing savings and credit accounts.
The Rev. Emmanuel King Love, the church’s sixth pastor, led the movement to establish Savannah State University, formerly known as Georgia State Industrial College for Colored Youth. Love also played big roles in the establishment of Morehouse College in Atlanta as well as Paine College in Augusta, GA.
Today, First African Baptist Church is being led by the Rev. Thurmond N. Tillman, who is, by lineage, the 17th pastor of the church, beginning his tenure in 1982.
At one point, Tillman and his congregation desired to restore the historical church back to the original structure of 1777 that was built by the hands of enslaved African Americans and funded by the heads of Savannah’s largest plantation owners.
Obtaining the assistance and services of Landmark Preservation LLC, a firm that is dedicated to the preservation of historic structures and sites that represent the fabric of America’s architectural heritage.
Based in Savannah, Georgia, with a satellite office at the Atlanta Preservation Center, Landmark’s team of historic preservationists has worked with First African Baptist to gather pivotal historic information that shows and tells the architectural story of this hollow ground.
After a full deep dive into the 247-year-old rich history of the First African Baptist Church, Greg Jacobs, co-founder of Landmark, said, “The restoration of this beautiful American history would have a total cost of $2 million, and when the total presentation was given to (Tillman) in the middle of a global pandemic.
“The reverend and congregation decided the best use for the church funds would be to instead support our community with housing assistance, food, medical, and other shortages that the community is experiencing right now,” Jacobs continued. “The restoration will have to wait. That is extremely honorable.”
At this time “The project is on hold until further notice” Jacobs explained. However, online donations are currently being accepted via the church website at https://firstafricanbc.com under the campaign “First African Baptist Restoration & Revitalization Project.”