It takes a person of strong character to perform acts of charity for a community that directs its animosity, disrespect, and racism towards his people. It takes a person of great self-awareness to connect with one’s greater self, the self created in God’s image. It takes a person of even stronger resolve to continually align their will with God’s will by living the gospel. We celebrate such a person today.
Absalom Jones defied the odds of a society and culture that looked at him as less than, simply because of his skin color. He was able to transcend the social norms and laws of his day to align his will with God’s will. He realized he was more than what society said he was. He ultimately embraced the image of God that existed within him and took the inward journey to discover that God called him to be more than society said he could be. For him, living the gospel became his purpose.
Absalom Jones performed great works for the church and colonial Philadelphia only to be discredited by the recipients of his charity. When he attracted new members to St. George’s Church, the church leaders realized they needed more space. Absalom Jones raised the funds to build a balcony to accommodate the overflow crowd. One Sunday, after the opening of the balcony, Absalom Jones and Richard Allen were told they were not permitted to sit in the nave. They and other Black members were escorted to the balcony. Absalom led an exodus of the Black members out of the church, which ultimately led him to found The African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, which remains one of the largest black Episcopal parishes in the country.
He felt called by God to remain with the Episcopal Church and to become a church leader. In 1795, Bishop William White ordained Absalom Jones to the transitional deaconate and in 1802 to the priesthood. The history is ambiguous, but some scholars suggest that Absalom Jones is the first formally trained ordained Black minister of any denomination in America.
During the various Yellow Fever epidemics that plagued Philadelphia, Absalom Jones remained in the city along with Bishop William White – who was the only clergy member to stay in the city during the epidemic. In 1793, the city lost 5,000 people to Yellow Fever, which counted for half of the population. Absalom Jones went door to door taking care of the sick and helping Bishop White properly bury those who succumbed to the illness.
Sadly, after the epidemic had run it course, Matthew Carey, a prominent city official, wrote a pamphlet of his observations. He claimed while Black Philadelphians eagerly volunteered for nursing, as the white population cowered; however, he claimed that Black nurses took advantage of whites with exorbitant fees. “Some of them were even detected in plundering the houses of the sick” (Smithsonian Magazine). Absalom Jones and Richard Allen wrote A Refutation of Carey’s ill-founded claims. Despite these character attacks, Absalom Jones transcended the outcomes of his work and completely aligned his will with God’s will. His mild manner and realization of his greater self gave him the strength and courage to move forward in building God’s kingdom here on earth by living the gospel.
In the end, Absalom Jones realized he was created in God’s image – the same as everyone else. He also realized that what he did was meant to glorify God. Consequently, he was able to rise above public criticism, racism, and bigotry to do the right thing. He knew he was more than the sum of his ministry. He knew he was more than just a tally of outcomes. He knew that all virtue pointed back to God. As a result, he was able to rise above the myopic vision of the society in which he lived and worked. For him, the gospel was the true vision of the world.
The story of Absalom Jones can be shared with our children to inspire them in their spiritual journey to claim their greater selves and to develop the courage to align their wills with God’s will. Our children can be taught that they are more than their outcomes, more than what they do, and certainly more than what other people say about them. As parents, teachers, and clergy, we can provide our children with open ears and open heart to listen to their spiritual needs and challenges. We can also provide Absalom Jones as an example of someone who never failed to be in touch with his greater self and the love God had for him. Through faith in God, Absalom Jones shows us life can be more.
[Image Credit: At Saint George’s Episcopal Church in Dayton, Ohio, one window is dedicated to the memory of Absalom Jones, the first African-American person ordained an Episcopal priest. This work of witness reminds us of the truths told by Absalom Jones and the struggles still faced by the church in coming to terms with racism, slavery, and marginalization. Photo by Alexis Fortuna Caoili]