February 13 is the feast day of Absalom Jones. Jones is one of the most important Episcopalians we remember and honor in our Church calendar. He is a man who broke barriers in many ways; beginning life as an enslaved human being in the time of slavery in the United States, and as a disciple called to the priesthood. He chose to work within the institution of the church and challenge it. The eternal charge of the Church, as followers of Jesus, is to be a living, breathing institution, rather than a stagnant one. It helps to have our systems in place to move more efficiently as an institution… AND Jesus calls us to wake up and stay awake: this calls us towards continual action, adaptation, and growth. Absalom Jones is a perfect example of one who responded to this call.
We celebrate Jones as the first Black Episcopal priest. We also celebrate him for the strong example he sets us as a Christian and an Episcopalian. Jones stayed faithful to his call, despite multiple obstacles. Born in 1746, he pursued learning when the law denied him education as an enslaved person. At the age of 20 in 1766 he purchased the freedom of his new wife who was also enslaved. 18 years later he was able to buy his own freedom.
As a child, he taught himself to read, mainly out of the New Testament. He clearly took what he read to heart and became a great spiritual leader. A member of St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, he and his friend Richard Allen actively evangelized and brought many Blacks to that parish. The White vestry became alarmed and with no notification decided to segregate the Blacks into an upstairs gallery (which had been built to accommodate the growing congregation they had created.) On Sunday when the ushers attempted to physically remove the Blacks from the lower level, beginning with accosting Jones, the Blacks all walked out in a body. The group then organized the Free African Society, the first organized Afro- American Society. Absalom Jones and Richard Allen were elected as overseers. The Society built a church that was dedicated on July 17, 1794. In time, the group decided to affiliate with the Episcopal Church.
The congregation applied for membership in the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania on the following conditions: “1) that they be received as an organized body; 2) that they have control over their own local affairs; 3) that Absalom Jones be licensed as layreader, and, if qualified, be ordained as minister.” In October 1794 the congregation was admitted as the African Episcopal Church of St Thomas. Bishop William White ordained Jones as deacon in 1795 and as priest on September 21, 1802.
The stipulation that Jones’ church have control over their own local affairs strikes a chord with an opportunity we have right now, as a people of faith seeking justice, to act to restore sovereignty to the Wabanaki over the territories in which they reside.You can submit public testimony to this effect here: Online Testimony Submission
For more information, please visit: LD 1626: Frequently asked questions – Wabanaki Alliance
Through a lifetime of opposing oppression, Jones understood God as acting on “behalf of the oppressed and distressed.” He was an activist who worked within the Church, speaking out against the injustice of slavery, and gaining sovereignty over his own church. He was known as being very pastoral to his flock. His ministry and accomplishments provide us all with a strong example of continuing to discern and follow our call despite all the outer circumstances of our lives and the world that make healing and justice seem so hard to accomplish. The church is only as dynamic as its disciples.
Jones’s life and work continue in many ways, one is through the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing out of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. Dr. Catherine Meeks who runs the center is a tireless advocate for racial healing and social justice.
To further the work begun by Absalom Jones in the 18th century, The Absalom Jones Fund honors Jones’ legacy for both education and faith through supporting Episcopal Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Read a complete biography of Absalom Jones.