Absalom Jones 1746-1818
Absalom Jones (November 7, 1746 – February 13, 1818), born a slave in Sussex County, Delaware, was an African-American abolitionist and clergyman who became prominent in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. When he was sixteen, his owner sold him along with his mother and siblings to a neighboring farmer. That year the farmer kept Absalom, but sold his mother and siblings, and moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he became a merchant. Absalom was allowed to attend a school and learned to read and write. While still enslaved by Mr. Wynkoop (who was a vestryman of Christ Church and later St. Peter's), Absalom married Mary King (an enslaved woman owned by S. King, a neighbor to the Wynkoops), on January 4, 1770. Rev. Jacob Duché performed the wedding ceremony.
By 1778 Absalom had purchased his wife's freedom so that their children would be free; he asked for aid by donations and loans. (According to colonial law, children took the status of their mother, so children born to slave women were born enslaved.) Absalom also wrote to his master seeking his own freedom, but was initially denied. In 1784, however, Wynkoop manumitted him, possibly inspired by revolutionary ideals. Absalom took the surname "Jones" as an indication of his American identity.
Around 1780, a Methodist movement was sweeping through the colonies as part of the Second Great Awakening. It came at a time of revolutionary ferment in the closing period of the American Revolutionary War. The movement was especially popular in New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. Methodists had developed in Great Britain as evangelicals within the Church of England. In December 1784, Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury established the Methodist Episcopal Church as a new denomination, separate from the Church of England.
Disappointed at the racial discrimination he experienced in a local Methodist church, he founded the Free African Society with Richard Allen in 1787, a mutual aid society for African Americans in the city. The Free African Society included many people newly freed from slavery after the American Revolutionary War.
In 1794 Jones founded the first Black Episcopal congregation, and in 1802, he was the first African American to be ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church of the United States. He is listed on the Episcopal calendar of saints. He is remembered liturgically on the date of his death, February 13, in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer as "Absalom Jones, Priest, 1818".
Pennsylvania abolished slavery and became a free state in the new United States. Jones became a lay minister of the interracial congregation of St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. The Methodist church admitted persons of all races and allowed African Americans to preach. Together with Richard Allen, Jones was one of the first African Americans licensed to preach by the Methodist Episcopal Church.
But members of the church still practiced racial discrimination. In 1792, while at St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church, Absalom Jones and other Black members were told that they could not join the rest of the congregation in seating and kneeling on the first floor and instead had to be segregated first sitting against the wall and then in the gallery or balcony. After completing their prayer, Jones and most of the church's black members got up and walked out.
Jones and Allen founded the Free African Society (FAS), first conceived as a non-denominational mutual aid society, to help newly freed slaves in Philadelphia. Jones and Allen later separated, as their religious lives took different directions after 1794 as discussed below. They remained lifelong friends and collaborators.
As 1791 began, Jones started holding religious services at FAS, which the following year became the core of his African Church in Philadelphia. Jones wanted to establish a Black congregation independent of white control, while remaining part of the Episcopal Church. After a successful petition, the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, the first Black church in Philadelphia, opened its doors on July 17, 1794. Jones was ordained as a Deacon in 1795 and as a Priest in 1802, became the first African-American Priest in the Episcopal Church.
A month after St. Thomas church opened, the Founders and Trustees published "The Causes and Motives for Establishing St. Thomas's African Church of Philadelphia, saying their intent was “to arise out of the dust and shake ourselves, and throw off that servile fear, that the habit of oppression and bondage trained us up in.”
Famous for his oratory, Jones helped establish the tradition of anti-slavery sermons on New Year's Day. His sermon for January 1, 1808, the date on which the U.S. Constitution mandated the end of the African slave trade, was called "A Thanksgiving Sermon" and published in pamphlet form. It became famous. Rumors persisted that Jones had supernatural abilities to influence the minds of assembled congregations. White observers failed to recognize his oratory skills, perhaps because they believed rhetoric to be beyond the capabilities of Black people. Numerous other African-American leaders were similarly said to have supernatural abilities.
In 1775, the state of North Carolina had made it illegal to free slaves unless approved by a county court, a provision largely ignored by members of the Society of Friends (Quakers). They not only continued to free their own slaves, but in some cases bought slaves from other men in order to free them. In 1788 the North Carolina legislature passed a law allowing the capture and sale of any former slave who had been freed without court approval, with twenty percent of the sale price going as reward to the person who reported the illegal manumission. Many freed African Americans fled the state to avoid being captured and sold back into slavery.
After becoming the first black and freedman to be ordained as a priest, and as the Constitution's deadline for abolition of the slave trade passed, Jones took part in the first group of African Americans to petition the U.S. Congress. Their petition related to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, which they criticized for encouraging cruelty and brutality, as well as supporting the continuing criminal practice of kidnapping free blacks and selling them into slavery. Jones drafted a petition on behalf of four freed slaves and asked Congress to adopt "some remedy for an evil of such magnitude."
The petition was presented on 30 January 1797 by U.S. Representative John Swanwick of Pennsylvania. Jones used moral suasion: trying to
convince whites that slavery was immoral, offensive to God, and contrary to the nation's ideal. Although U.S. Representative George Thatcher of Massachusetts argued that the petition should be accepted and referred to the Committee on the Fugitive Law, but the House of Representatives declined to accept the petition by a vote of 50 to 33. Jones submitted a similar petition two years later, which was also declined.
On a parallel path, Richard Allen founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), the first independent Black church within the Methodist tradition. He and his followers converted a building and opened on July 29, 1794, as Bethel AME Church. In 1799, Allen was ordained as the first Black minister in the Methodist Church by Bishop Francis Asbury. In 1816, Allen gathered other Black congregations in the region to create a new and fully independent denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1816, Allen was elected as the AME's first bishop.
Absalom Jones died on February 13, 1818, in Philadelphia. He was originally interred in the St. Thomas Churchyard in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His body was relocated to Lebanon Cemetery and then to Eden Cemetery. In 1991, his remains exhumed, cremated and placed in a reliquary in the Absalom Jones altar of the current African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas (now located at 6361 Lancaster Avenue in Philadelphia). The chapel is named in his honor, as is the church's rectory. A cenotaph was placed at Eden Cemetery in Collingdale, Pennsylvania marking the site of his former grave. The national Episcopal Church remembers his life and service annually on the anniversary of his death, February 13. The Diocese of Pennsylvania honors his memory with an annual celebration and award