*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***

It is the 20th of January 2022. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org; I’m Dan van Voorhis.

Sometimes I come across historical questions that remind me just how difficult it can be to tell certain stories. To put it simply, most human actions have not been recorded by historians. We’ve written a lot down, even so much that it might seem that we’ve recorded everything- but there is so much we haven’t. And often for a good reason. Sometimes writing things down can be dangerous.

In church history, dissenters often don’t get their stories told because writing down important information was dangerous; it could act as a kind of damning confession. Today, I will tell you the story of the first African Baptist Church in North America or at least reconstruct as best as possible. On this day, the 20th of January in 1788, the First African Baptist Church was organized-itinerant Baptist preacher Abraham Marshall ordained the formerly enslaved person Andrew Bryan and 60 or so slaves and former slaves made a barn in Savannah, Georgia, the first official home of Black Baptists in America. Or maybe not?

A google search will show several churches claiming to be the first African Baptist church- to some extent; it’s like asking which is the original Ray’s Pizza in New York. But it’s more than just being a question about “who was first?” It reveals how dangerous it was to be both black and baptist in 18th c America. We don’t have primary sources in the traditional sense- the first printed record of the church comes almost 100 years after the fact and based on personal recollections- many by elderly members of the church reminiscing about what they saw or heard decades prior.

The story of the first Black Baptists in America most likely takes us to George Leile (Lee La or Lyle). George was a slave converted by a white Baptist who worked out of the Bethesda Orphanage set up by George Whitefield. You might remember that Georgia was one of the initial havens of relative religious freedom. The history of Baptists and Catholics in America both run through the Peach State.

In 1773 Leile is said to have organized a congregation in Savannah as part of his itinerant preaching across Georgia. His master allowed him to preach to slaves on other plantations despite being enslaved. Several slaves would form their unofficial congregations, and thus the “first” is always going to be contested.

By 1778 George’s master had died, and George swore his loyalty to the British who had taken Savannah. Leile took a call as an evangelist and missionary to Jamaica, but before he left (he was waylaid by weather), he preached to and converted Andrew Bryan, his wife Hannah, Kate Hogg, and Hagar Simpson.

The newly converted and then ordained Reverend Andrew Bryan and his brother Sampson were emboldened by the growth of their church and began to have public baptisms in the Savannah. A mob attacked the brothers, whipped, and put them in prison. It was Bryan’s master who vouched for their character- that they weren’t agitators- and they were let go.

Their master gave them and their congregation the freedom to meet in his barn. This Brampton Barn church was called the Ethiopian Church of Jesus Christ. It would move closer to downtown Savannah where it would be known as the Bryan Street Church (after Andrew Bryan, who purchased the land). It would later be known as the First Colored Baptist Church and then the First African Baptist Church.

Soon, there was a second and third African Baptist church in the area, but in the 1830s, many members of the original First African Baptist left- perhaps in the thousands- and took the name with them. So there were two first African Baptist churches for a time. Despite the confusion and lack of primary sources, we can put a date on one crucial event in the history of Black Baptists in Savannah- the ordination of Andrew Bryan and the official recognition of his congregation on the 20th of January in 1788.

The last word for today comes from Acts 8 and the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch:

34 The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35 Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36 As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” 38 He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.

This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 20th of January 2022 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.

The show is produced by a man who can eat his weight in Georgia peaches, peanuts, cobbler, and pecans- Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man who counts Savannah as a top 5 American city- I’ll place it just ahead of Asheville, NC, and Oxford, Ohio on my list. I’m Dan van Voorhis

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.