Absalom Jones was born enslaved in 1746 in the Delaware colony. At 16, his mother and siblings were sold, and Jones was taken to Philadelphia. He had learned to read as a child and was allowed to attend a night school for Black people. At 20, he married and before long purchased his wife’s freedom. Eventually, at 38, Jones was freed.
The Joneses’ wedding had been in an Episcopal church. But once he was free, he began worshiping at a Methodist Episcopal congregation, as the Methodist movement was gaining steam. There, with Richard Allen, who would later found the African Methodist Episcopal denomination, Jones started an aid society for freed Black people. He and Allen were also lay ministers at the Methodist church, and through their work, the congregation grew by hundreds. The Black worshipers raised funds to build an upstairs gallery to hold the growing congregation. But the White members were threatened by all this, and the leadership decided to segregate the Black worshipers in the new upstairs gallery. One Sunday, as Jones sat downstairs, ushers tried to remove him physically; and all the Black worshipers walked out.
The aid society held religious services, and Episcopal clergy would sometimes officiate. Eventually, the congregation grew; and the group decided to affiliate with a larger church body, petitioning to become an Episcopal congregation. They did so with specific conditions: that their congregation would be received as its own body, that they would control their own affairs, and that Jones would be considered for ordination. The congregation was admitted into the Episcopal Church in 1794, and Jones was ordained a deacon a year later, eventually becoming a priest in 1802. In his preaching, Jones hammered away at the evil of slavery and called those benefitting from it to repent. But he was also a pastor beloved by his congregation for the depth of his care. He served them, and his larger community, until his death on Feb. 13, 1818.
Jones’ story is inspiring, and his example helped set The Episcopal Church on the course toward full incorporation of all people into the body of Christ and its leadership. But it’s been a long and halting journey … and one we continue to travel.
St. Andrew’s will join with other diocesan congregations to celebrate Absalom Jones, the first Black person to be a priest in The Episcopal Church. We’ll gather for worship at 4 p.m. on February 6 at St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church, 2732 Benton Blvd. in Kansas City, and I hope you’ll come or watch the livestream.
This article was originally published in St. Andrew’s weekly newsletter, Messenger.
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- 02-03-2022. The original first paragraph has been moved to the end of the article to avoid confusion.