First African Baptist Church

It would be hard to talk about Savannah history without mentioning the First African Baptist Church. It started before America was a nation, and the people who formed it fought for the freedom of religious expression under great duress and possible punishment/death.

The First African Baptist Church website details the church’s long history:

First African Baptist Church (FABC) was organized in 1773 under the leadership of Reverend George Leile. The 1773 organization date for the church makes it clear that FABC is older than the United States (1776).  In May of 1775 Rev. Leile was ordained as the pastor and December of 1777 the church was officially constituted as a body of organized believers.  Four converts Rev. Andrew Bryan, his wife, Hannah Bryan, Kate Hogg, and Hagar Simpson would form a part of the nucleus of First African Baptist Church’s early membership.

In 1782, rather than risk reenslavement, Pastor Leile left with the British when Savannah was evacuated and migrated to Jamaica.  He became the first American missionary, 30 years before Adoniram Judson left for Burma. He was also the first Baptist missionary in Jamaica.

Under the leadership of the 3rd Pastor Reverend Andrew C. Marshall, the congregation obtained the property where the present sanctuary stands. Reverend 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 4th Pastor, Reverend William J. Campbell. 

Andrew Bryan also played a pivotal role in the First African Baptist church, though he went on to create his own First Bryan Baptist Church.

The New Georgia Encyclopedia says this:

Bryan was born enslaved Andrew Bryan in Goose Creek, South Carolina, in 1737 but later was transported to the Savannah area. During the 1770s Bryan converted under the preaching of George Liele, an African American Baptist in Savannah and former member of a South Carolina congregation. After Liele’s departure to Jamaica, Bryan assumed leadership of the nascent Savannah fellowship. Bryan’s brother Sampson also converted, and both men suffered severe beatings and imprisonments for their preaching. Jonathan Bryan, their slaveholder, intervened with the authorities, thereby securing the Baptist movement some religious freedom, and provided a rice barn for meetings.In January 1788 a white minister, Abraham Marshall, who arrived in Savannah with a black colleague, Jesse Peters, officially recognized the Baptist group, baptized more than forty members, and ordained Bryan. First African Baptist Church Although believers still encountered opposition, news that Bryan had prayed for the person who had severely beaten him touched some whites and secured many black converts. Bryan later purchased his own and his family members’ freedom, bought property for church construction in 1794, and began a hauling enterprise that made him a relatively wealthy small slaveholder. First African Baptist Church grew steadily with 575 members in 1788, 850 in 1802, and 2,795 in 1831. Two satellite churches also emerged after 1800. Upon Bryan’s death on October 12, 1812, he was well known in both white and black Baptist circles in the United States and in England.

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