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  • Tom Strode

Neglected Christian history


February serves as a reminder of the deficiency in my education.

February is Black History Month. By failing to know black history, I not only have an inadequate understanding of American history. I also have fallen short in my knowledge of church history. My view of Christian history is more white-washed than the reality.

My personal experience demonstrates the poverty of my historical knowledge.

I grew up in a county seat town of about 15,000 people in southeast Missouri. Our community had several elementary schools, including one that was all black, Wheatley School. I am saddened and embarrassed to say only in the last year or two of my 66 years have I come to know why it was given that name.

Phillis Wheatley was a poet in the 18th Century who was a trailblazer for African-American and female writers. Only 7 or 8 years old when she was captured in West Africa and brought to Boston as a slave, she became a follower of Jesus. Though she was still a teenager, her poetic elegy to the Great Awakening evangelist George Whitefield brought her international recognition, according to the Poetry Foundation. With her poems published in New England and England, Wheatley became one of the best known poets prior to 1800.

She "applied biblical symbolism to evangelize and to comment on slavery," the Poetry Foundation reported. Her literary accomplishments motivated the early anti-slavery movement in America and later served for the abolitionists as testaments to the artistic and intellectual abilities of those bound by slavery, according to the foundation.

George Liele, whom I learned of only in recent years, provides another example of my deficiency in church history.

It is Liele -- not Adoniram Judson -- who was the first Baptist preacher to take the gospel from America to another country. Liele was the first ordained black Baptist preacher in this country and planted the first African-American Baptist church in North America, according to an International Mission Board (IMB) article.

Born into slavery in 1750 in Virginia, Liele became a Christian at the age of 23 in Georgia. Liele's owner freed him sometime after his conversion, and he began preaching to slaves in the Savannah, Ga., area before planting a church.

After an effort to re-enslave him failed, Liele and his family went to Jamaica with the help of a colonel in the British army. He preached to slaves there as well and planted a church. Liele faced persecution and imprisonment but continued to preach. He baptized 500 people in an eight-year period, and the church grew strong, according to the IMB article.

Leile's ministry affected Jamaica spiritually and socially. About 8,000 Baptists lived in Jamaica in 1814, a number that included slaves, freedmen and whites. By 1832, there were more than 20,000 believers as a result of his ministry, the IMB article reported. Liele's work as an evangelist and pastor helped produce an end to slavery in Jamaica in 1838, 10 years after his death, according to the IMB profile.

The church's history is a vibrant one not limited to the work of God in one ethnic group or skin color.

-- Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

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