Absalom Jones was born into slavery in 1746 in Delaware. He taught himself to read from the New Testament, among other books. At sixteen, he was sold to a store owner in Philadelphia, where he attended a night school for African Americans, operated by the Quakers. At twenty, he married another slave and purchased her freedom with his earnings.
Jones bought his own freedom in 1784. He subsequently became involved with St George’s Methodist Episcopal Church, where he served as a lay minister for its African American membership. The active evangelism of Jones and of his friend, Richard Allen, greatly increased that community’s membership at St George’s, where the vestry, alarmed at the greatly increased Black membership, decided to segregate them into an upstairs gallery without notifying them. During a Sunday service when the ushers attempted to remove them, the African Americans walked out en masse.
In 1787, African American Christians organized the Free African Society, the first organized African American society in the United States, and Absalom Jones and Richard Allen were elected overseers. Membership of the Society paid monthly dues for the benefit of those in need. The Society established communications with similar associations in other cities, and in 1792, the Society began construction of a church in Philadelphia, which was dedicated on July 17, 1794.
The African Church applied for membership in the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania on the following conditions: 1) that they be received as an organized body; 2) that they have control over their own parochial affairs; 3) that Absalom Jones be licensed as Lay Reader, and if qualified, be ordained as minister. In October 1794 the church was admitted as St Thomas African Episcopal Church. Bishop William White ordained Jones to the diaconate in 1795, and to the presbyterate in 1804.
Jones was an earnest preacher. He denounced slavery, and warned the oppressors to “clean their hands of slaves”. To him, God was the Father who always acted on “behalf of the oppressed and distressed”. But it was his pastoral care, his constant visitation and mild manner that made him beloved by his parish and by the community. St Thomas Church grew to over five hundred members during its first year. Known colloquially as “the Black Bishop of the Episcopal Church”, Jones was a example of persistent faith in God and in the Church as God’s instrument.
Jones died on this day in 1818.
Jones friend, Richard Allen, who with Jones was one of the first African Americans to be licensed as preachers by the Methodist Episcopal Church, followed a parallel path. Allen and his congregation converted a blacksmith shop in Philadelphia into a church that was dedicated on July 29, 1794 as Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1799, Allen was ordained as the first African American elder in the Methodist Church by Bishop Francis Asbury. In 1816, Allen gathered four African American Methodist congregations in Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, and Maryland to establish the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first autonomous black Church in Methodism. In 1816, Allen was elected the Church’s first bishop. He died in 1831.
prepared from Lesser Feasts and Fasts (1980) and other sources
Set us free, heavenly Father, from every bond of prejudice and fear; that, honoring the steadfast courage of your servant Absalom Jones, we may show forth in our lives the reconciling love and true freedom of the children of God, which you have given us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
The propers for the commemoration of Absalom Jones, Priest, are published on the Lectionary Page website.
The image of Absalom Jones is taken from the portrait by Raphaelle Peale.