Andrew Bryan was born in slavery and grew up as a slave on a plantation in South Carolina. In 1782, Andrew and his wife Hannah became Christians under the preaching of the Rev. George Liele (1752 - 1828), an African American born into slavery who ministered the Gospel to other slaves. (Liele was the first African American ordained as a Baptist preacher.) Only nine months after his conversion, Andrew – still a slave – was preaching to both black and white congregations. He evangelized slaves on neighboring plantations and erected a crude wooden church; his congregation grew rapidly, attended by both blacks and whites. On January 20, 1788, Bryan was ordained as a Baptist minister.
As a result of the rapid growth of his church, persecution was initiated by nearby slave owners who feared a revolt if slaves heard the message of freedom in the Gospel. Hundreds of converted slaves not only were denied water baptism by their masters but also were forbidden to attend Bryan’s services. Many who did attend were flogged and severely punished, and even Andrew was whipped, beaten, and imprisoned (much like Paul and Silas in Acts 16:19-25), and his church was seized. (Andrew’s master, who supported his ministry, helped arrange his release from jail.)
Was Andrew bitter at this unjust treatment? Not at all. Instead, just as Jesus had instructed in Matthew 5, Andrew exulted in his persecution, proclaiming that “he rejoiced not only to be whipped but would freely suffer death for the cause of Jesus Christ;” he also prayed for the men who had persecuted him. This Christ-like behavior in Andrew won the respect of many observers.
Upon the death of his “master” in 1790, Andrew purchased his freedom and that of his wife. In 1794, several influential whites helped him raise the money to purchase property upon which to build a new church – the Bryan Street African Baptist Church (the first black Baptist church in America). Andrew then purchased a lot near the church upon which to build his home.
Within six years, the church had grown to almost 700 members (a large church at any time, it definitely was a mega-church in that era). In 1800, the church was reorganized as the First African Baptist Church of Savannah, and one of its ministries was a black Sabbath school – the first in the city. However, because Andrew’s goal was not simply to have a large congregation and an impressive church, in 1802 he deliberately split the congregation and planted a new church: the Second African Baptist Church of Savannah (its pastor, Henry Francis, started a school in the church to educate black children). The church growth continued, and in 1803 Andrew split the church again, forming the Third African Baptist Church of Savannah. As these churches grew, their congregations pioneered churches in other parts of the State.
At that time in America’s history, Georgia was one of the most stridently pro-slavery states in America. Thomas Jefferson (who in 1783 proposed the first antislavery law in America) noted that it was the influence of Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina that kept the national anti-slavery law from passing in Congress. Georgia had even been unable to provide its share of soldiers for the American Revolution because its citizens feared that if they left their plantations to fight for American independence, their slaves would escape. Clearly, slavery was strongly embraced in Georgia, so Andrew labored in a region of the country in which ministry by – or to – African Americans was exceptionally difficult.
Nevertheless, upon Andrew’s death in 1812, the Savannah Baptist Association (comprised of the white Baptists of the city), praised Bryan’s work, proclaiming:
The Association is sensibly affected by the death of the Rev. Andrew Bryan, a man of color, and pastor of the First Colored Church in Savannah. This son of Africa, after suffering inexpressible persecutions in the cause of his divine Master, was at length permitted to discharge the duties of the ministry among his colored friends in peace and quiet, hundreds of whom, through his instrumentality, were brought to knowledge of the truth as “it is in Jesus.”
The ministry of Andrew Bryan brought thousands in Georgia to a personal relationship with God through Christ.