February 14, 2015

Absalom Jones

Yesterday, February 13, was the day the church celebrates the life of Absalom Jones, the first black priest in The Episcopal Church. Jones was born on November 7, 1746, and died on February 13, 1818. The Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh had its Absalom Jones Day celebration a week ago. I was very much struck by the story of Jones, which was recounted in the service bulletin. His story is quite dramatic. Wouldn’t that story make a great opera? Is there a composer out there who would like to take on that project?

Here is the summary of Jones’s life, taken from Holy Women, Holy Men:
Absalom Jones was born a house slave in 1746 in Delaware. He taught himself to read out of the New Testament, among other books. When sixteen, he was sold to a store owner in Philadelphia. There he attended a night school for Blacks, operated by Quakers. At twenty, he married another slave, and purchased her freedom with his earnings.

Jones bought his own freedom in 1784. At St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church, he served as lay minister for its Black membership. The active evangelism of Jones and that of his friend, Richard Allen, greatly increased Black membership at St. George’s. The alarmed vestry decided to segregate Blacks into an upstairs gallery, without notifying them. During a Sunday service when ushers attempted to remove them, the Blacks indignantly walked out in a body.

In 1787, Black Christians organized the Free African Society, the first organized Afro-American society, and Absalom Jones and Richard Allen were elected overseers. Members of the Society paid monthly dues for the benefit of those in need. The Society established communication with similar Black groups in other cities. In 1792, the Society began to build a church, 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 local affairs; 3, that Absalom Jones be licensed as layreader, and, if qualified, be ordained as minister. In October 1794 it was admitted as St. Thomas African Episcopal Church. Bishop White ordained Jones as deacon in 1795 and as priest on September 21, 1802.

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 constant visiting and mild manner that made him beloved by his own flock and by the community. St. Thomas Church grew to over 500 members during its first year. Known as “the Black Bishop of the Episcopal Church,” Jones was an example of persistent faith in God and in the Church as God’s instrument.
Additional information about Absalom Jones can be found in the Wikipedia article about him.

The Rev. Absalom Jones
"Absalom Jones" by Raphaelle Peale, Delaware Art Museum


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