"For we walk by faith and not by sight"
A monument to Rev. George Leile, the first black Baptist missionary, marks the official site of First Bryan Baptist Church, the first black Baptist Church in Savannah Georgia, and possibly in the United States. This monument was erected by authorization of the capital national, capital missionary, capital Baptist, capital convention in 1916.
George Liele was a slave whose unusual talents and leadership ability was recognized by both races. As a result, he became converted about 1774, was baptized and was received into the membership of the Baptist church (white), in Burke County, of which Rev. Matthew Moore was pastor. His master, Mr. Henry Sharpe, who was deacon in this church, permitted George Liele to visit the neighboring plantation along the Savannah River and preach to the slaves.
On one of his visits to Brampton, a plantation owned by Mr. Jonathan Bryan, 4 slaves became converted, were baptized and became the nucleus of the first black missionary baptist church. These slaves were Andrew Bryan, his wife Hannah, Kate Hogg and Hagar Simpson. This was George Liele’s recorded visit.
Andrew Bryan was also talented, and with permission of Mr. Bryan, began to visit the plantations along the river as far as Yamacraw, preaching to black and white persons who gathered to hear him. Mr. Edward Davis (white) permitted the worshipers to erect a rough wooden building on his land in Yamacraw.
Rev. Thomas Burton and Rev. Abraham Marshall (white) became interested in the growing group of worshipers and on January 20, 1788 visited the services. Rev. Marshall baptized 45 converted, ordained Andrew Bryan to the ministry with full authority to preach the gospel and administer the ordinances of the baptist church. On this same date, he organized the group into what one day will be named the First Bryan Baptist Church, and install Andrew Bryan as the first pastor.
The church continued to hold services, often under adverse and painful conditions, at Brampton and in the temporary building in Yamacraw. Meanwhile, Rev. Bryan was able to secure his freedom from Mr. Bryan for a minimal sum and thereby devoted his time exclusively to his ministry. A third meeting place was provided by Mr. Thomas Gibbons who gave a lot to Andrew Bryan for this purpose. The lot was situated on Mill Street running to Indian Street Lane. A temporary building was erected here. This lot was conveyed June 1, 1790, to “free Andrew.” The main US Post Office is now located on this site.
With the help of the members and white friends who were sympathetic to the efforts of the church, Rev. Bryan was able to purchase the lot upon which the church now stands for “30 pounds sterling” (approximately $150.00), and erected a church making this site the oldest parcel of real estate own continuously by black people in the United States. This site is described as lot no. 7, middle Oglethorpe ward, 90-5 feet front and 100, 30-2 ½ feet deep. The deeds are dated September 4, 1793.
The First Bryan Baptist Church was incorporated by the State of Georgia in 1867, and appears for the first time in the records of deeds of Chatham County, September 4, 1793. Rev. Bryan pastored the church until his death in 1812. Andrew C. Marshall became the pastor in 1815. The congregation became confused and hopelessly divided on doctrinal matters, and as a result, Rev. Marshall and a large group of members left the mother church in 1832 and moved to Franklin Square where they occupied a building secured from a white congregation and organized the First African Baptist church. The remainder of the members stayed on the original site and continues to worship under the leadership of the Deacons until 1833.
From 1833 until 1861 First Bryan had 6 pastors and existed under trying conditions. In 1861 Rev. Ulysses L. Houston became pastor and First Bryan began to prosper and has continued to make phenomenal progress. During the period between 1788 and 1832, the first Sunday school for blacks was organized at the church in 1826 by Mr. Lowell Mason, who organized the first Sunday school in Savannah, at the Independent Presbyterian church. He was the first superintendent and was assisted by Messrs. George Coe, John Lewis and James Barr – all members of the Independent Presbyterian Church. This Sunday school was very successful and remained under supervision until December 1835, when the Presbyterian Church turn it over to First Bryan. It is still in operation.
On August 1873, the congregation, in conference, decided to tear down the building built by Rev. Andrew Bryan and erected a new and modernized edifice for worship. The draft of the plan made by John B. Hogg (white), a civil engineer and city surveyor, free of charge, was shown to the congregation. The plan was accepted on September 29, 1873, at the last communion in the old building, pictures were made, copies of which were sold for $1.00 to help with the building fund.
The cornerstone for the building (present edifice) was laid on October 13, 1873, by the Grand Lodge of Colored Masons in the State of Georgia, attended by two subordinate Lodges. The cornerstone contained a copper box presented by the Sunday School at a cost of $22 dollars. In the box are artifacts given by the members (jewelry, coins, etc.) and receipts, newspaper clippings and other church records.
The labor on the building was done exclusively by black mechanics under the supervision of the architect. The style of architecture is almost pure Corinthian and is similar in design to that of Wesley Chapel in London, England and the Trinity Methodist Church in Savannah, the plans for which were also made by Mr. Hogg and completed in 1850.
The outer dimensions are: length, 75 feet; breadth, 56 feet; height from the foundation to the peak of the roof, 45 feet; with a belfry above containing a bell. A spacious gallery occupies three sides, which with the lower audience room, provide a seating capacity of 1500 persons. On the inside the distance from the floor to the ceiling is 26 feet. The cost of this building was about $30,000 not including furnishings. A pipe organ was purchased from the Independent Presbyterian Church at a cost of $1, 350. This organ was built by H. Knauff Company of Philadelphia in 1856 and was brought by the Presbyterian Church. It was damaged by fire in 1889 and was sold to First Bryan in the early 1890’s. It is not in use now but remains as a beautiful showpiece in the sanctuary. Plans are now underway to restore this instrument. The building was completed, and on the evening of January 20, 1888, one hundred years after the organization of this first black baptist congregation, special services marking this occasion were held for the first time. In this same year, the first history of this congregation was written by Rev. James Merilus Simms, an officer and member of the church. The history was published by J. B. Lippencott and Company of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
In October 1940, the Yamacraw community became Yamacraw Village when the cornerstone was laid for this well-known federal housing project. First Bryan Church is in this project and extends its services community-wide to serve the population. In 1956, the Educational Building was dedicated. This building contains classrooms, offices and an assembly hall, named for Dr. M. P. Sessoms, who served as superintendent for many years, and under whose leadership the church school was highly organized and functioned effectively as a Christian education center.
The present edifices, built in 1888, and the educational center, are modern and updated in all aspects – physical and program wise. The site, buildings, and furnishings are estimated to be approximately one and a half million dollars. This church is now listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Tours of the church are available upon request.
The church is the subject of a book by Charles J. Elmore, “The History of First Bryan Baptist Church.” To purchase a copy, contact the church office.