GEORGE, DAVID, Baptist preacher; b. c. 1743 in Essex County, Va, son of African slaves John and Judith; d. 1810 in Freetown, Sierra Leone.
As a young slave to a man named Chapel, David George was employed fetching water and carding cotton, and when he grew older he took his place among the adult slaves in the corn and tobacco fields. His master was “a very bad man to the Negroes”: George witnessed with horror his mother being stripped and whipped, and he himself was scourged “till the blood has run down over my waistband.” In 1762, when he was about 19 years old, his independent spirit asserted itself, and he ran away. Pursued by his master’s son, he fled farther and farther south, eventually finding refuge, in 1764 or 1765, among the Natchez Indian nation. There a white man by the name of George Galphin (Gaulfin, Gaulphin) purchased him from the Indians and set him to work on his estate at Silver Bluff, near the Savannah River and about 12 miles from Augusta, Ga.
At Silver Bluff George married Phillis, another slave, and began a family. Soon afterwards, upon being introduced to the Christian religion by a fellow black, he started attending religious services held on the estate by George Liele, a free black Baptist preacher, and “brother Palmer,” whom one scholar has identified as Wait Palmer, a white Baptist preacher from Connecticut. At some point between 1773 and 1775 Palmer organized the Silver Bluff Baptist Church, the first black Baptist church, and possibly the first black church of any denomination, in North America. George became the leading elder and preached between the visits of Palmer and Liele.
With the outbreak of the revolution in 1775 Lord Dunmore, the governor of Virginia, issued a proclamation offering freedom to any rebel-owned slave who joined the loyalist forces. Thousands of slaves, attracted by Dunmore’s offer, deserted their masters and flocked to the British. At Silver Bluff, George later stated, preachers were not allowed to visit the slaves “lest they should furnish us with too much knowledge.” In these circumstances the black congregation elevated George to the position of pastor. In 1778, when the British took Savannah and were pressing close to Silver Bluff, Galphin fled his estate and left the slaves to fend for themselves. George and a group of 50 others then went out to greet the British and to claim protection as black loyalists.
A list of black loyalists dated 1791 shows that George became a soldier in the loyalist cause. In his own memoir, however, he makes no such claim. According to this source, he worked on the fortifications of Savannah during the siege by American forces, but for most of the war he joined his colleague Liele in preaching amongst the black loyalists, supporting himself by keeping a small butcher’s stall. When Savannah fell to the Americans he moved to Charleston, S.C., and when a similar fate befell that city he accompanied the British and thousands of white loyalists to Halifax, N.S. He arrived there in December 1782.
Determined to carry the Gospel to his fellow blacks, George moved in June 1783 to Shelburne, N.S., where 1,500 black loyalists had settled two months previously. At first the local magistrates forbad him to hold his services in town, and so he set up camp “in the woods” where his preaching drew blacks from “far and near.” However, when a sympathetic white gave him a town lot, George began conducting his meetings in Shelburne itself. By mid 1784 a chapel had been built and George had attracted a congregation of 50 blacks and several whites.
George’s problems were not at an end, of course, for as a black and as a dissenter he continued to encounter opposition not only from the white settlers but also from the blacks of other denominations. In the summer of 1784 a near-riot occurred when a mob attempted to prevent the baptism of a white couple at one of George’s services. Following this episode, according to George, “the persecution increased, and became so great, that it did not seem possible to preach, and I thought I must leave Shelburn.” The climax came in late July and early August, when unemployed soldiers, resentful of cheap black labour, attacked the black district of Shelburne and forcibly drove George from his chapel. Along with many Shelburne blacks George sought refuge in nearby Birchtown. He remained there a few months, preaching and baptizing another 20 black loyalists. Even here, however, he encountered hostility, this time from black Anglicans and Methodists. He therefore returned to Shelburne in December 1784 and regained possession of his chapel.
From Shelburne, George’s fame as a preacher began to spread: in the 1780s he was invited to preach in communities throughout Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. At Saint John, N.B., he held a mass baptism in the river, with both blacks and whites present, but some other whites complained and he was forced to obtain a licence permitting him “to instruct the Black people in the knowledge, and exhort them to the practice of, the Christian religion.” The clear implication was that he was not to preach or baptize among the white citizens. After organizing black Baptist congregations in both Fredericton and Saint John, he returned to Nova Scotia, visiting Preston, where he founded a chapel, Horton Township, and Liverpool.
George’s missionary tours won him the largest following of any contemporary Baptist preacher, white or black, in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. His success partly derived from his impassioned preaching style; a Shelburne white who visited George’s chapel described a scene where the congregation was so overcome that they could not refrain from crying out hosannas, and George himself was obliged to interrupt his sermon because of the tears streaming down his face. Another reason for his success was the fact that his brand of religion satisfied some of the most deeply felt needs of the black loyalists. From the time of their arrival in Nova Scotia, they had been treated in a discriminatory fashion: unlike their white counterparts, who received three years’ provisions upon settling in the colony, black loyalists received enough to last only 80 days, and as a result were forced to support themselves by working on the roads. Further, only one-third of the black loyalists who moved to Nova Scotia obtained land grants, and even these fortunate few were given plots only large enough for kitchen gardens. Under such conditions, it was hardly surprising that George enjoyed great success as a preacher, for his chapels offered blacks freedom and equality, the very things they did not enjoy in a society dominated by whites. At the same time, since the black loyalists were mostly former slaves, they naturally felt drawn to a preacher who provided them with an opportunity to manage the affairs of their church in complete independence from any outside white authority.
Besides spreading the Baptist message through Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, George joined other black preachers, notably Boston King and Thomas Peters*, in implementing plans for a mass emigration of black loyalists to Sierra Leone. In 1790 several hundred blacks, upset by their failure to obtain the grants of land to which they were entitled, appointed Peters to bring their grievances to the attention of the British government. In response to these complaints of ill-treatment, the Sierra Leone Company, a philanthropic organization dedicated to the creation of a colony of freed slaves, offered to transport the black loyalists to Africa, to provide them with free land, and to guarantee them full rights as British subjects. David George became an enthusiastic supporter of this scheme, and he assisted Lieutenant John Clarkson of the Royal Navy, whom the Sierra Leone Company sent to Nova Scotia to recruit emigrants, in carrying his invitation to the blacks of Shelburne County.
“The White people in Nova Scotia were very unwilling that we should go,” George later recalled, “though they had been very cruel to us, and treated many of us as bad as though we had been slaves.” The fact was that the landless black loyalists provided the bulk of labour available in Nova Scotia, and as customers they created a market for the produce of white-owned farms. George was personally threatened with violence; false debts and charges were concocted to keep the blacks in place; bribes were offered; and a vigorous propaganda campaign claimed that the Sierra Leone Company intended to sell the free blacks into slavery. Despite this opposition 1,196 black loyalists, about one-third the total black loyalist population of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, embarked with Clarkson in January 1792. Included among them were almost all the Baptists from George’s chapels in Saint John, Fredericton, Preston, and Shelburne. Clarkson organized his black emigrants into companies, each under a captain who was to maintain discipline and relay information, and over the entire body he placed three superintendents, Thomas Peters, the Methodist preacher John Ball, and David George.
Unfortunately, the great promise of Clarkson’s mission was not to be fulfilled. Physical discomfort, the failure of the company to provide free land, and above all the fact that the independence-seeking black loyalists found themselves subordinate to a white government appointed in London, led to a confrontation on 8 April 1792 between Clarkson and Thomas Peters. Since George had great admiration and friendship for Clarkson and little sympathy for Peters, he rallied his Baptists, then the largest religious group in the colony, to Clarkson’s support. He was therefore responsible at that early point for the maintenance of company authority in Freetown.
In December 1792 George accompanied Clarkson to London, where he stayed until August 1793, visiting English Baptists and collecting financial support for his African mission. He also dictated his memoirs to the editor of the Baptist annual register, thus leaving for posterity one of the few existing black loyalist documents. While he was in London his compatriots in Sierra Leone came into conflict with their new governor, William Dawes, the workers struck against their company employers, and a public meeting sent delegates to England in an unsuccessful bid to acquire a new form of government. George missed all this activity and its emotional impact, and consequently he was prepared on his return to the colony to continue to believe in the good faith of men who had treated him with kindness and justice.
In Sierra Leone, George devoted himself to the “Lord’s vineyard” both figuratively and literally: he kept an alehouse and engaged in mission work among the neighbouring Africans and his Freetown congregation. Until his death in 1810 he continued to shun revolts against the company’s authority. Those Baptists who sympathized with the demands of the more radical “Nova Scotians” split with their pastor, initiating a decline in George’s influence and in the position of the Baptist denomination. After 1808 the Baptists slipped from the primacy of place they had enjoyed in 1792 and became the smallest denomination in the colony, a denomination increasingly associated with poverty and low status.
But if there is no monument to him in Sierra Leone, David George is still regarded as a key figure in the early history of the Baptist church in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Through his efforts and those of later preachers such as Richard Preston*, the Baptist church was gradually built into the largest denomination among Maritime blacks. To these people, George remains a heroic and beloved pioneer.
David George’s autobiography, “An account of the life of Mr. David George, from Sierra Leone in Africa; given by himself in a conversation with Brother Rippon of London, and Brother Pearce of Birmingham,” was published in the Baptist annual reg. (London), 1 (1790–93): 473–84. Some of George’s letters from Sierra Leone appeared in Baptist annual reg., 2 (1794–97): 94–96, 215–16, 255–56, 409–10.
BL, Add. mss 41262A–41264. Huntington Library (San Marino, Calif.), Zachary Macaulay papers. PANS, MG 1, 219; MG 4, 140–41, 143 (copies); MG 100, 220, no.4 (photocopy). PRO, CO 217/63; CO 270/2–5. USPG, Dr. Bray’s Associates, minute-books, 3. [John Clarkson], “Diary of Lieutenant J. Clarkson, R.N. (governor, 1792),” Sierra Leone Studies ([Freetown, Sierra Leone]), no.8 (March 1927). [Boston King], “Memoirs of the life of Boston King, a black preacher, written by himself, during his residence at Kingswood School,” Methodist Magazine (London), 21 (1798): 105–10, 157–61, 209–13, 261–65. C. [H]. Fyfe, A history of Sierra Leone (London, 1962). E. G. Ingham, Sierra Leone after a hundred years (London, 1894). P. E. McKerrow, A brief history of the coloured Baptists of Nova Scotia . . . (Halifax, 1895; repr. Dartmouth, N.S., 1975). A. P. Oliver, A brief history of the colored Baptists of Nova Scotia, 1782–1953; in commemoration of centennial celebrations of the African United Baptist Association of Nova Scotia, Inc. ([Halifax, 1953]). J. W. St G. Walker, The black loyalists: the search for a promised land in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone, 1783–1870 (London, 1976); “The establishment of a free black community in Nova Scotia, 1783–1840,” The African Diaspora: interpretive essays, ed. M. L. Kilson and R. I. Rotberg (Cambridge, Mass., and London, 1976), 205–36. E. G. Wilson, The loyal blacks (New York, 1976). R. W. Winks, The blacks in Canada: a history (Montreal, 1971). W. H. Brooks, “The evolution of the Negro Baptist Church” and “The priority of the Silver Bluff Church and its promoters” in Journal of Negro Hist. (Washington), 7 (1922): 11–22 and 172–96 respectively. C. [H]. Fyfe, “The Baptist churches in Sierra Leone,” Sierra Leone Bull. of Religion (Freetown), 5 (1963): 55–60. Anthony Kirk-Greene, “David George: the Nova Scotian experience,” Sierra Leone Studies, new ser., 14 (1960): 93–120. J. W. St G. Walker, “Blacks as American loyalists: the slaves’ war for independence,” Hist. Reflections (Waterloo, Ont.), 2 (1975): 51–67. A. F. Walls, “The Nova Scotian settlers and their religion,” Sierra Leone Bull. of Religion, 1 (1959): 19–31.
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Cite This Article
James W. St G. Walker, “GEORGE, DAVID,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 6, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/george_david_5E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||James W. St G. Walker|
|Title of Article:||GEORGE, DAVID|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1983|
|Year of revision:||1983|
|Access Date:||June 6, 2023|