Book Review and Reflections: George Lisle: A Faith that Couldn’t be Denied

About 5 years ago, in 2017, I first learned about George Lisle. Before that I had taught Missions History and I “knew” that the Judsons were the first (major) American international missionaries, and that William Carey was the first Baptist international missionary. But then I found out that a decade before Carey, and before Adoniram Judson was even born, George Lisle left the thirteen colonies that were in the process of being formed into a confederation now known as the United States of America. We went to Jamaica as a missionary.

Now the fact that my education had been deprived in this area was not necessarily a big thing at first glance. It seems like there is always a “first” before the first. Was George Washington the first President of the US? Yes, unless you count the presidents under the Articles of Confederation. Who was the first Christian missionary? Was it Philip the Evangelist? Perhaps it was some person whose name was not recorded for posterity? Maybe The Twelve? Perhaps it was Jesus. So the fact that George Lisle was not part of my missions training could be that he was a trivial figure… deserving of little more than a footnote in missions history.

But no, that was not true. George Lisle was a remarkably successful missionary despite great difficulties of ministering as an African man in a British colony built on the backs of slaves. Perhaps the fact that he was African, and was a slave in North America before being freed, or that he was an indentured servant for a time in Jamaica lowers him in the estimation of historians. I don’t know.

George Lisle: A Faith that Couldn’t be Denied. Jamaica 1783-1865 by Doreen Morrison serves as a corrective to this lack of historical recognition. Dr. Morrison is a Baptist minister and Clinical Chaplain in Jamaica. Her book covers the life of George Lisle as well as the turbulent times of Jamaica as a British colony centered on sugar plantations maintained by slave trade and labor. The period shows the slow transition from Jamaica being an active participant in the slave trade, to the period where trans-Atlantic slave trade was illegal but slavery was maintained, and through to the gradual process of abolition.

Central to the story of the book is the Ethiopian Baptist Society (EBS), established by Lisle in Jamaica. The book covers its formation, its battles with plantation owners and government leaders, and sometimes other denominational leaders (as well as its complicated relationship with the Baptist Missionary Society). The story is truly inspiring. The work of Lisle led directly and indirectly to thousands of converts to the Christian faith, mostly from among the enslaved. The EBS was a strongly contextualized church group, by Africans for Africans. That contextualization often led to fears from outsiders that the group was unhealthy and schismatic.

The EBS also had a strong role in the abolition movement, often seen as agitators for freedom of the enslaved. I find this rather comforting as Baptists where in my home country, on average, tend to steer clear of social justice, avoid addressing issues such as systemic racism, and may even pine for a (heavily rose-colored) view of the past. (I am speaking as a Baptist myself.) Complicating matters was the involvement of the (London-based) Baptist Missionary Society (BMS) in the EBS, especially after the first generation of EBS leaders had passed on. The missionaries from the BMS were a complicated lot, struggling with how to relate to the African churches as white missionaries. Some appeared much more attuned to this work than others. Their impact on the Ethiopian Baptist movement is hard to assess as they were a great help in some ways, but undermined the group in others. It is a good case study missionaries today when it comes to dealing with indigenous churches.

I found the book to be excellent in its research and its presentation. Much of the material shared is unknown to most, even among Jamaican Baptists today. Attention is given not only to what was going on in the churches, but how Jamaican society was structured, both before abolition and afterwards.As such, although I value it as a seminary professor who teaches missions history, I feel it would be valuable to a wide variety of readers, including secular researchers on colonialism and slavery.

I have no complaints about the book. However, I do need to point out something regarding the title of the book. The title is “George Lisle: A Faith that Couldn’t be Denied” with the subtitle “Jamaica, 1783-1865.” I think the average person would read that title and think something like this: “The book is a biography of a great man of faith, named George Lisle, who lived in Jamaica born in 1783 and died in 1865.” However, George Lisle was born in 1750 and died in 1828. He moved to Jamaica as a missionary in 1783 and served there for the rest of his life. The biographical material of the life of George Lisle is primarily in chapters 2 through 6. Much of the book covers after the death of Lisle.

1783 to 1865 covers the life of the Ethiopian Baptist movement in Jamaica. Lisle was instrumental in forming it upon his arrival in Kingston in 1783, and 1865 marks the end of the EBS as an identifiable movement separate from the Jamaican Baptist Union. Arguably a more accurate title for the book might be “The History of Ethiopian Baptists in Jamaica, 1783-1865.” That being said, the book is attempting to show George Lisle as an inspirational missionary, respected both by slaves and white religious and goverment officials, both in Jamaica and England. Much like a rock thrown into a pond with ripples radiating outward on the surface long after it is out of view, George Lisle’s impact in Jamaica, and among Baptists, cannot be understood properly if the book ends in 1828. The book provides considerable biographical information on other Baptist ministers and missionaries, both contemporaries of Lisle, and among those who served afterwards. Personally, I appreciated the more expansive look at what God was doing with great (and sometimes not so great) men and women in a truly hellish place and time.

I strongly recommend this book, with an especially high recommendation for Chapter One. This chapter gives an important overview of life and times in a British slave colony. It is an important chapter even for those not interested in the Baptist mission work in Jamaica.

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