As a group of African-Americans knelt for morning prayers in 1787, ushers tapped them on the shoulder and demanded that they move to the balcony so as not to mingle with white members. Outraged, they refused to comply and walked out of the church service. Within this group was a former slave that would become the first African American Episcopal priest in the newly formed United States of America.
Absalom Jones was born a slave in Sussex, Delaware, on November 6th, 1746. As a small child, he served as a house servant. By doing additional jobs, he saved enough money to buy a primer, a spelling book, and a New Testament and taught himself to read. In 1762, his family was split apart as his mother, five brothers and sister were sold to different masters. Jones was taken from rural Delaware to the urban setting of Philadelphia.
He was put to work in a grocery store but, determined to educate himself, he attended a night school for slaves that was run by a Quaker congregation. Jones married in 1770 and by working long hours beyond his assigned tasks, he eventually earned enough money to purchase freedom for his wife – and eight years later, his own freedom.
Jones was converted to Christianity through a Methodist preacher and began to attend the St. George Methodist Episcopal Church, where he would develop a life long friendship with Richard Allen, another leader in the Philedelphian African American community. Jones and Allen committed themselves to sharing the gospel with the slave population throughout the city and were successful in bringing many into membership of the Church. By 1786, Jones was a licensed Methodist lay preacher.
However, as the black members increased, church officials became uncomfortable with the notion of having to interact so closely with the Africans while at worship. To avoid this, they constructed an upstairs gallery designated for black worshippers. On the Sunday immediately following its completion, Jones and his companions were no longer allowed to worship in their usual places but were forced to sit in the upstairs gallery.Â Â After walking out out of the church, Jones and Allen organized their own religious community, naming it “The Free African Society.”
The Society reached out to serve the spiritual and physical needs of the free and enslaved African population of Philadelphia. It encouraged its members to live moral and orderly lives, to support one another in sickness, and to provide for the benefit of widows and fatherless children. It also provided a structure where people of African descent could worship God in an atmosphere of dignity and self-respect. During the yellow fever outbreak that struck Philadelphia in 1792, Jones and the members of the Society remained in the city, nursing and burying many of 4,000 people who died during the plague.
As numbers in the Society increased, the members felt a need to affiliate with an official religious denomination. They split into two groups. One following Robert Allen and the other voting to affiliate with the Protestant Episcopal Church, and to have Absalom Jones serve as their pastor. In 1794, the Diocese of Pennsylvania established the “St. Thomas African Episcopal Church,” the first African-American Episcopal parish in the United States. In 1804, Jones was officially ordained as its pastor.
Jones was a caring and earnest preacher. He denounced slavery and declared that God was the Father of everyone and that He always acted, â€˜on behalf of the oppressed and distressed.â€™ Under his leadership, the church grew to over 400 members during its first year.
Jones main influence, however, was in the gentle and loving manner with which he engaged his congregation and community. His tireless visitations and mild character made him beloved by his own flock and among the greater Philadelphian society. He established many schools for slaves, was co-founder of an insurance company, and gave leadership to a group of Philadelphians who sent an anti-slavery petition to Congress in 1800.
At the age of 71, Jones died on February 13th, 1818 and was mourned by his congregation and community leaders throughout Philadelphia. Buried in the churchyard of St. Thomas, the inscription on his tomb gives testimony to his life and character: “To the memory of the Rev. Absalom Jones, who, born a slave, and becoming possessed of freedom by good conduct, and rendered respectable by a course of virtuous industry, was principally instrumental in founding the African Church of St. Thomas.”
In Romans 12:21, the apostle Paul encourages us to, “not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”Â There have always been individuals or groups, who have been horribly abused, exploited and oppressed based on ethnic lines. As Christians, how are we to confront and overcome such oppression and evil? The Scriptures tell us it by surrendering our lives to the Lord Jesus Christ and being empowered to follow His example of love, forgiveness and good works.
Absalom Jones, although submitted to the most hideous injustice of being another man’s slave because of the color of his skin, was enabled to overcome this evil by living a God-centered life of good works.Â His trust in God, his loving characterÂ and lifestyle of selfless labors, accompanied by the wise use of small opportunities open to him, allowed him to overcome the evil of his day and rise to a respected and honored member of his community.
He constantly encouraged his fellow African Americans to imitate the Christian lifestyle he modeled, saying they should â€˜arise out of the dust and throw off that servile fear, that the habit of oppression and bondage trained us up in â€¦ and in meekness and fear .. desire to walk in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free.â€™
Kiefer, Absalom Jones
Editors, Priest of Brotherly Love: Absalom Jones
Rev. Rufus T. Brome, Absalom Jones: Black Saints
Rev. Archie Rich, Richard Allen & Absalom Jones: Pioneers for Freedom and Justice