Born a house slave in 1746 in Delaware, Absalom Jones taught himself to read out of the New Testament and other books. When sixteen, he was sold to a store owner in Philadelphia. There he attended a night school for African Americans, 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 black membership of the church walked out as a body.
In 1787, a group of Christians organized the Free African Society, the first organized African 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 received communications with similar African American 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 the Church was admitted as St. Thomas African Episcopal Church. Bishop White ordained Jones as deacon in 1795, and as priest in 1804.
Jones was an earnest preacher. He denounced slavery, and warned the oppressors to “clean their hands of slaves.” Jones believed that God the Father 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.
- Adapted from Lesser Feasts and Fasts
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.
A Thanksgiving Sermon, preached January 1, 1808, in St. Thomas’s, or the African Episcopal, Church, Philadelphia: On Account of the Abolition of the African slave trade, on that day, by the Congress of the United States is published on the Project Canterbury website.