Friday, February 13, 2015
Feast of Absalom Jones
Absalom Jones was born in 1746, in rural Delaware. He was a slave born into a family of slaves. At the age of sixteen, his entire family was split apart when his parents, his siblings, and Absalom himself were sold to different slave masters. His new master took him to the city of Philadelphia, and it was in that city, through the preaching of the Methodists, that he was converted to Christianity. He was a very intelligent person and taught himself to read using the Bible as his text book. In 1766, at the age of twenty, he married Mary King, another slave. Absalom took on extra jobs outside of his duties as a slave in order to earn money to buy her freedom, and eventually, his own. Many slave owners used their female slaves to satisfy their sexual desires and children would be born of these unions. The slave owners didn't want these children to inherit the plantation, so children born to slave women were considered slaves also, even though they were the children of the slave owner. By purchasing his wife's freedom before his own, he was ensuring that their children would be born free.
Absalom Jones attended St. George Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. St. George's was one of the few churches which had opened its doors to Blacks. He met Richard Allen there and they became close friends. They both served as licensed lay preachers, and they both shared the Gospel with the African Americans of Philadelphia, and, as a result of their evangelism, the African American population of St. George's increased. Unfortunately, the White members of the church became uncomfortable with the idea of worshiping with so many Black people and they decided that the Blacks would worship in an upstairs gallery of the church, a gallery which the black members had built. On the Sunday immediately following the completion of the gallery, the Black members of the church were rudely informed that they were no longer to worship at their regular places, but were to worship upstairs in the gallery. They were informed of this while they were praying at the altar rail! Absalom refused to move and was physically lifted from his place at the altar rail where he was praying, and carried away by the ushers (there is only one usher at San Cristóbal who could pull that off!). Jones and Allen objected to this humiliating treatment, and all the Black members of the church walked out with them, never to return. This took place in 1787. Jones and Allen formed their own religious community and named it The Free African Society. It was the first black independent organization in the newly formed United States of America. Its main purpose was to provide assistance for the economic, educational, social and spiritual needs of the African American community in Philadelphia. In 1792, the membership recognized the need for a church and they wanted to affiliate with religious denomination that would not be hostile to their presence and would receive them as an identified worshiping community. Absalom wanted to remain a Methodist, but the majority of the group was so hurt by their treatment as St. George's that they wanted nothing to do with the Methodists. Absalom Jones went and spoke with Bishop William White, the first bishop of Pennsylvania and the second Bishop of the Episcopal Church. Absalom presented the following terms of the Free African Society to Bishop White: 1. That the Free African Society be received as a body already organized; 2. That the Free African Society have control over their affairs; 3. That, if found fit, Absalom Jones be ordained as their priest. Bishop White accepted these terms in 1794 and the St. Thomas African Episcopal Church was established, becoming the first African American Episcopal Parish in the nation. On August 16, 1795, Absalom Jones was ordained a Deacon, and on September 21, 1802, he was ordained the first African American priest in the Episcopal Church. Richard Allen and another group joined with the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1795, where he served as a minister. Allen became the first bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, or AME, on April 11, 1816, and his friend Absalom Jones was there to participate at his ordination.
St. Thomas' African Episcopal Church started with 250 members, but in one year they doubled their membership, and it became the second largest church in the Diocese of Pennsylvania, although it was 69 years until this congregation was invited to participate in the business of Diocesan Convention with voice and vote. Absalom Jones served as the Rector of St. Thomas' and also as prophet, priest and pastor, for over twenty years. As a priest, Absalom Jones did a lot to help empower African Americans. The Rev. Samuel Magaw, rector of St. Paul's in Philadelphia, gave the sermon at the opening of St. Thomas' Church, and he preached a terrible sermon, talking about the "Pagan darkness" of the people's African roots and that they should be grateful to God that they had been brought from the "land of darkness to the land of Gospel Light." He also said that they had a debt of gratitude to their "earthly benefactors, who planned their emancipation from slavery" and in particular to the white Christians of Philadelphia who helped them. He told them to check any feelings of pride in their freedom or accomplishments, and to remember that they were the children of slaves. I guess he didn't know about Tertullian or Augustine or other African Fathers of the Church. Thanks be to God, Father Jones did not take the advice of Father Magaw; he and the people of St. Thomas were very clear about their mission to seek dignity and freedom for all people of colour. One month after the Rev. Magaw's sermon was published, the Rev. Jones composed a document entitled The Causes and Motives for Establishing St. Thomas' African Church of Philadelphia. It stated their intent to "arise out of the dust and shake themselves, and throw off that servile fear, that the habit of oppression and bondage trained them up in." The Rev. Absalom Jones and the members of the church attributed their commitment to "establish some orderly, Christian-like government" to their desire "to avoid all appearance of evil, by self-conceitedness, or an intent to promote or establish any new human device among us." They were adamant that the church be "governed by us and our successors for ever." Where the Rev. Magaw's sermon was condescending and paternal, the Rev. Jones' response was valiant and inspiring.
Absalom Jones also served Christ in the civic affairs of the city of Philadelphia. In the year 1793, the city was hit with an epidemic of Yellow Fever and many of the white citizens of the city were dying in their homes. Some were even dropping dead in the street. Others fled for the countryside, thinking that they would be safe there. This was long before the days of Dr. Gorgas; no one knew that mosquitos passed the disease to humans. They had the crazy idea that Black people were immune to the disease! Absalom Jones rallied the Black citizens of the city to help the sick and dying. These noble and unselfish men and women comforted the sick and buried the dead, sometimes at their won expense. Others paid an even higher price: they paid with their lives, succumbing to the disease after caring for the sick. Father Jones continued to work with Richard Allen on behalf of African Americans' they, along with Prince Hall of Boston, MA, and Benjamin Banneker of Washington, D.C., petitioned the House of Representatives to adopt measures that would in due course emancipate all persons held in slavery in the new nation. This was on January 2, 1800, and it was the very first formal effort on the part of Black Americans to redress their grievances to the federal government. Unfortunately, the petition was overwhelmingly defeated. Absalom Jones and Richard Allen also solicited the aid of 2,500 Black men to help defend the city of Philadelphia during the War of 1812. Absalom Jones died on February 13, 1818.
Absalom Jones understood the covenant of baptism, the promise to work for justice and righteousness, and to respect the dignity of all human beings. He was a living example of Christ's love, and he was a living example of one who stood up to oppression. We remember him today, not just because he was a Black man, not just because he was a slave, not just because he was the first African American ordained a priest in our Church, but because he lived the Christian life and was faithful to God. We remember him because he was a child of God and a person who was committed to to serve the Lord Jesus Christ. His life, as are the lives of all the Saints, is a wonderful example to us all.
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.