Absalom JonesJun 6th, 2014 | By BHS | Category: Faith & Religion, Social Sciences
1746-1818 Absalom Jones was born into slavery, but purchased his freedom and became the first African American to be ordained an Episcopal minister. He responded to the overt racism prevalent in white churches during the 18th century by pioneering the establishment of African American congregations.
A Passion for Reading
Jones was born in Sussex, Delaware, on November 6, 1746. A slight, somewhat sickly child, he was given a job within the house of the master and thus, to his good fortune, was able to escape the typical slave lot of spending his life in the fields. Exposed to the world of the master’s household, Jones developed a passion for books, teaching himself to read and to spell using primers. As he grew older, he used the extremely limited means at his disposal to begin building a library. Devoutly Christian, he made certain that a copy of the New Testament was among his earliest acquisitions.
At age 16, Jones found himself suddenly and permanently separated from his family when his mother, sister, and five brothers were sold off. Jones was taken to Philadelphia where he was put to work in the slave owner’s store, packing and carrying goods. He was able to continue his education, however, reading and writing letters to his family whenever he could secret the time. At age 20, Jones was allowed to attend a night school for African Americans operated by abolitionist Quakers. Four years later, he married. His bride, a woman known only by the name of Mary, was a slave like him, but Jones was able to borrow enough money to buy her freedom, working late into the night for years to earn recompense. It was a decade more before he had saved enough to purchase his own freedom, and harder still, persuade his owner to agree.
Jones was 31 years old when on October 1, 1784, he finally became a free man. Still devout, he found himself swept up in the religious revival then occurring in the United States. Particularly attracted to a newly formed denomination known as the Methodist Episcopal Church, which had split off from the Episcopal Church of England and was nominally receptive to African American members, he joined a small group of fellow Blacks who attended services at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church. But the policy of racial tolerance professed by diocese leaders was less than complete in practice. Jones, along with fellow congregant Richard Allen, became increasingly impatient with the treatment they received at St. George’s, which included relegating Blacks to the balcony, or depending on the number of Whites who showed up, some other uninviting portion of the hall. The last straw came one Sunday morning in the spring of 1787 when Jones was physically removed from a pew while he was in the middle of a prayer in order to make room for white congregation members. Jones, Allen, and the other black congregants left St. George’s forever.
On April 17, 1787, Jones and Allen invited fellow black congregants to a private home in Philadelphia to form a new organization. Its mission would be to give financial and other assistance to the black community, and provide African Americans who had won or were about to win their freedom with the education they would need to function as free members of society. The group called itself the Free African Society. When the bishop of the Episcopal church in Philadelphia heard about Jones’ and Allen’s plans, he encouraged them to take the next step and establish their own church. In 1792, the two men did so under the simple name of the African Church.
Like many black religious leaders, then and now, Jones and Allen welcomed responsibilities outside the church, including defense of the African American community when it was under attack. In 1793, for instance, after an epidemic of yellow fever devastated Philadelphia’s population, newspapers published insinuations that African Americans were profiteering. Jones and Allen fought back by writing and distributing a tract with the long but self-explanatory title Narrative of the Proceedings of the Black People, During the Late Awful Calamity in Philadelphia in the Year 1793 and A Refutation of Some Censures Thrown upon them in some late Publications. In the piece, Jones and Allen describe heroic, self-sacrificing actions taken by members of the African American community to save lives and relieve suffering in the white community.
By 1794, property had been acquired for the African Church, a building constructed, and services held. Because the African Church had been formed at the behest of an Episcopal bishop, the congregation voted to ally itself with the Church of England, even though its leaders, Jones and Allen, were Methodists. Jones accepted the will of the majority and assumed the role of pastor at what now became St. Thomas Episcopal Church, but Allen was a strict Methodist and decided to leave and form a new congregation. The split between Jones and Allen had historic significance: St. Thomas paved the way for historically black Episcopal congregations that spread across the United States, while Allen’s new Methodist congregation evolved into the now ubiquitous African Methodist Episcopal Church. Despite the different paths they took, Jones and Allen continued to work together and remained lifelong friends.
In 1795, lay members of the Episcopal community in Philadelphia demonstrated their own hostility toward Blacks when they voted to deny them equal status in the diocese, and directed St. Thomas not to “interfere” in diocese governance. But Episcopal leaders, demonstrating their great courage, broke new ground by ordaining Jones a deacon, and in 1804, made history by naming him the first black Episcopal minister. Jones would serve in this position for the next 14 years, until his death in 1818. In his service as a minister, he baptized more than 250 black adults and nearly 1,000 infants. He is remembered colloquially as “The Black Bishop,” and for his contributions to the creation of an African American church.