Absalom Jones Day
Today is the feast day of Saint Absalom Jones. Jones was the first African American priest in the Anglican Church. When I was in seminary at Trinity School for Ministry, this was a big deal. We celebrated it each year with guest speakers, featured choirs, and a big party. It was a day we could focus on the contributions and importance of African Americans in the history and life of our church. It was a day when we were reminded that our little Episcopal denomination was damnable if it was just a club for whites.
Today, the Anglican Church is dominated by Africans. Our Archbishop, the supreme Pastor of our congregation, is the Rwandan bishop Emmanuel Kolini. I am blessed and humbled to be under the leadership of this great Christian.
So, in honor of our Lord Jesus Christ and his call to all of us to reach across all ethnic divides, I want to introduce you to this important man. May God make us more like St. Absalom.
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.” 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.
Let us Pray
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.