Born into slavery in Delaware in 1746, Absalom Jones was taken to Philadelphia at sixteen by his enslaver, who sold his mother and siblings before the move. He was allowed to attend school and learn to read and write. He married in 1770, and by 1778 had purchased his wife’s freedom in order to ensure that their children would be born free. In 1784, after his second application to his enslaver, he was released from slavery.
After independence, Jones became a lay minister at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. The Methodist church admitted people of all races and, unusual for the time, allowed African Americans to preach. Jones was among the first African Americans licensed to preach by the Methodist Episcopal Church. This is not to say, however, that there was not still racism in the pews. In 1792, Jones and other African American members were told, after being seated as usual, that they must move to the gallery. Jones and most of the church’s African-American congregants responded by walking out.
Together with his friend Richard Allen, Jones founded the Free African Society (FAS), a non-denominational mutual aid society for Philadelphia’s newly freed population. Jones started holding religious services at FAS, and founded the African Church in Philadelphia the following year. His goal was to establish an African-American congregation that, while independent of white control, remained part of the Episcopal Church. The first Black church in Philadelphia, the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, began holding services on July 17, 1794. Jones was ordained to the deaconate in 1795, and to the priesthood in 1802, becoming the first African-American priest in the Episcopal Church.
At the same time, Jones’s friend Richard Allen organized the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first Black church within the Methodist fold. Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church opened in Philadelphia in 1794. Allen was ordained as the first Black minister in the Methodist Church, and when the A.M.E. movement broke away and became an independent denomination, was elected its first bishop.
In a bid to persuade Congress to repeal the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, Jones led the first delegation of African Americans to petition Congress. The petition, and another like it two years later, was declined.
When the Yellow fever epidemic struck the cities of the east coast in the 1790s, Jones and Allen, like Constance and her Companions (also known as the Martyrs of Memphis), along with a number of African American volunteers, stayed in the city to nurse the sick and bury the dead. While most people with the means to flee did so, Jones, along with Dr. Benjamin Rush and his assistants, faced death rather than abandon those too poor to simply leave.
Jones died in Philadelphia on February 13, 1818, and after being relocated several times, his remains were at last cremated and placed in the Absalom Jones altar at the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas.
Now, to Philadelphian Episcopalians like me, the historical importance of Absalom Jones seems obvious and inescapable. But those who may never have heard of him might wonder why we make such a point of celebrating his legacy. A brief look at where we are now may be a good place to start.
During the past several years, we have seen white comfort prioritized over Black history again and again. We’ve seen Black writers—among them such luminaries as bell hooks, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, and Amanda Gorman—purged from school libraries. We’ve seen biographies of Black leaders removed from the shelves, and white novelist Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird suppressed because it made white readers ‘uncomfortable.’
We’ve seen the planned Harriet Tubman twenty-dollar bill scrapped; we’ve seen a presidential candidate deny the existence of systemic racism, omit slavery from her account of what caused the Civil War, and claim that Dylann Roof’s 2015 shooting of nine congregants at an historic Black church ‘hijacked’ the meaning of the Confederate battle flag.
Shortly after the opening of St. Thomas’s Church, the founders published a statement called ‘The Causes and Motives for Establishing St. Thomas’s African Church of Philadelphia.’ Among those motives was the desire ‘to arise out of the dust and shake ourselves, and throw off that servile fear, that the habit of oppression and bondage have trained us up in.’
We could argue about the extent to which the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream of racial equality has been realized, but there can be little doubt, when considering the increased scrutiny of racial inequity in law enforcement and the criminal justice system, the rise of Black Lives Matter, the short-lived but influential practice of ‘taking a knee’ during the playing of the National Anthem at sporting events, and the increasing size and outspokenness of BIPOC legislators in Congress and statehouses throughout America, that the call to ‘rise from the dust and…throw off servile fear’ is being heard and heeded.