St. Thomas African Episcopal Church is Officially Accepted as the First Black Episcopal Parish in the United States by Former Slave, Absalom Jones

In 1762 at the tender age of sixteen, a slave named Absalom Jones witnessed his mother and six siblings sold away while he was brought by his owner to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania from Sussex, Delaware. He was put to work in a shop as a clerk and handyman, but was allowed to work in the evenings and keep the earnings for himself.

Understanding the value of an education, Absalom acquired a reading and writing primer and a spelling book. With a courage and determination that would be characteristic throughout his life, he taught himself to read. The truth of God’s Word illumined his soul as he read the New Testament thoroughly, memorizing parts of it. As a result he gave his life to Christ at the age of seventeen.

Eight years later, Jones married a fellow slave named Mary King, and was able to purchase her freedom with his savings and the help of Quaker friends and his father-in-law. He worked and saved for several more years so that by 1784 Jones was able to purchase his own freedom. He remained in the employ of his previous master earning wages.

His owner was willing to allow this because he too had become a Christian, thanks in part to Absalom’s steady witness and excellent character. Jones then purchased a home for Mary and soon after he bought two more houses which he rented out.

Absalom Jones was fully committed to Christ. He could not remain silent, and like the Apostles, preached far and wide. His travels took him to South Carolina, New York, Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania. He was such a powerful speaker that his preaching, along with that of his friend, Richard Allen, saw the membership of St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church where they attended increase ten-fold.

St. George’s was an integrated church, but the increase of black members led the white members who felt overwhelmed, to relegate the black members to the balcony, an act not at all “Christ-like.” Jones and Allen left the church that very Sunday in 1786 with the majority of black members. They established the non-denominational Free African Society where God was worshiped and the community of Philadelphia was blessed by their efforts to help the needy. They provided many types of assistance to newly freed blacks who arrived in the city destitute.

It is thought that the Free African Society was the first black organization in the United States. This courageous group of individuals walked out their faith by remaining in the city of Philadelphia during the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793. They helped Dr. Benjamin Rush, a white man and signer of the Declaration of Independence, to nurse the sick and dying. Absalom Jones and Richard Allen buried as many as 120 corpses a day in an effort to contain the epidemic. In those days no one knew what was causing it.

Jones and Allen remained friends throughout their lives and worked together on many projects, but took different paths with regard to religion. Jones and many of his loyal church members sought membership in the Episcopal church through the Diocese of Pennsylvania. On October 17, 1794 their congregation was officially accepted as the first black Episcopal parish in the United States.

Absalom Jones was ordained a deacon in 1775, and became the first ordained priest of African descent in United States in 1804. The church he founded, St. Thomas African Episcopal Church, is still active in Philadelphia to this day. Visit them at http://www.aecst.org/.


The life and legacy of The Reverend Absalom Jones is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit, his faith, and his commitment to the causes of freedom, justice and self-determination.

Absalom Jones was born into slavery in Sussex County, Delaware on November 6, 1746. During the 72 years of his life, he grew to become one of the foremost leaders among persons of African descent during the post-revolutionary period. In his younger years in Delaware, Absalom sought help to learn to read. When he was 16, his owner Benjamin Wynkoop brought him to Philadelphia where he served as a clerk and handyman in a retail store. He was able to work for himself in the evenings and keep his earnings. He also briefly attended a school run by the Quakers where he learned mathematics and handwriting. In 1770, he married Mary Thomas and purchased her freedom. It was until 1784 that he obtained his own freedom through manumission. He also owned several properties.

During this period, he met Richard Allen, who became a life-long friend. In 1787 they organized the Free African Society as a social, political and humanitarian organization helping widows and orphans and assisting in sick relief and burial expenses. Jones and Allen were also lay preachers at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church, Philadelphia, PA where their evangelistic efforts met with great success and their congregation multiplied ten-fold. As a result, racial tensions flared and ultimately they led an historic walk out from St. George’s.

In 1792, under the dual leadership of [lightbox full=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rQtlUdZkUHs”]Absalom Jones and Richard Allen[/lightbox], “The African Church” was organized as a direct outgrowth of the Free African Society. Both Jones and Allen wished to affiliate with the Methodists, but the majority of the congregation favored the Episcopal Church. Richard Allen withdrew with a part of the congregation to found Bethel Church (later, Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church). The African Church became The African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas with Absalom Jones as its Lay Reader and Deacon. In 1802, Jones was ordained by Bishop William White as the first African American Episcopal Priest.

During the severe yellow fever epidemic of 1793, Absalom Jones and Richard Allen mobilized the Black community to care for the afflicted. In 1797 and 1799 Absalom Jones, with other free Africans, presented tenable petitions to Congress and to the President of the United States opposing slavery. Two schools and supportive services for the Black community developed under his leadership.

African Masonry began in Boston during the British occupation when British Masons chartered a group organized by Boston black leader Prince Hall. In 1797 Absalom Jones, Richard Allen, and James Forten, rejected by the city’s white Masons, called on Prince Hall to help organize Philadelphia black Masons and Absalom Jones was installed as First Worshipful Master in 1797. On June 22, in a bold assertion of equality, they held their first celebratory parade at the same time as the white Masons’ parade. The Masonic movement grew among Philadelphia’s growing black middle class, who built their first Masonic Hall in 1815 and Jones was elected the First Grand Master of the First African Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania.

Absalom Jones died on February 13, 1818 at his residence, 32 Powell Street, Philadelphia, PA. Tributes and accounts of his funeral appeared in several periodicals. The Episcopal Bishop, William White, spoke of Jones’ devotion and care of his congregation and of his many contributions to the life of the city. The February 13th Absalom Jones Feast Day was added to the Episcopal Church Calendar in 1973. His ashes are enshrined in the altar of the Reverend Absalom Jones Chapel of the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, and a memorial stained glass window commemorates his life and work.

 

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