In the post-revolutionary era, the Episcopal Church was struggling to find its identity. On the one hand, with many of the founders being Episcopalian (including George Washington who had served as a vestry member) the Episcopal Church had a pseudo-establishment role. On the other, with many clergy who had retained ties with and continued to pray for England, the Episcopal Church was met with suspicion and subject to prejudice (something very true in Maine ). Perhaps the biggest issue was that – having missed the energy and excitement of the Great Revival and Methodism and rejected anything that appeared “popish” or catholic – it was monochromatic and frankly rather dull.
Into this context came two freed slaves, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, whose presence would turn that church upside down. Both had Episcopal roots. Both also were inspired by and became lay preachers in the new Methodist Church. Both saw the need for ministry to and with African Americans. Together they formed the Free African Society and both became strong voices for abolition. Their paths, however, took different directions. Richard Allen went on to form and become the first bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Absalom Jones stayed in the Episcopal Church, in 1804 became the first African American Episcopal priest, and formed the first black Episcopal Church, the African Church of St. Thomas, in Philadelphia.
The Episcopal Church is again searching for its place in society. Like Richard Allen, some feel like we haven’t gone far enough and have responded by seeking and starting something new. Like Absalom Jones, others have stayed with the church and both used it both as a platform from which to work for societal change and also helped it evolve and change from within. Absalom Jones’ passion and presence set the stage for inclusion and empowerment, not just for people of color but for women, LGBTQ, immigrants and others – all of whom continue to enrich and enliven the Episcopal church today.
We say we celebrate diversity and welcome all people. Are we willing to accept the change they bring? Are we willing to let them use the church as a platform from which to speak? Absalom Jones suggests that we should.
Absalom Jones’s feast Day is Monday, February 13. We remembered him at this week’s Tuesday 12:10 service, in which we said the following prayer: 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.