Jones, Robert Elijah
Robert Elijah Jones
Active participation in the African American community was an important commitment that Robert Elijah Jones made to his church and his community. Early on he was ordained as a Methodist Episcopal minister and later became the first elected African American bishop of the Methodist Church. In his role as bishop Jones supported efforts to give African Americans a voice in the activities and decisions of the Methodist Church. The church previously did not allow African Americans in any major role. Jones played a key role in the relationship between African American and white Methodist churches of the time. As a clergyman, he offered strong and eloquent words to bring many to religious awareness. His opinion was sought by persons of influence not only because of his role as editor of the Southeastern Christian Advocate but as a person of character and commitment to the community.
Robert Elijah Jones was born on February 19, 1872 to Sydney Dallas and Mary Jane Holley Jones in Greensboro, North Carolina. While many in his community left to receive their education elsewhere, Jones stayed close to home. He attended public school and upon graduation attended Bennett College which is a historically black college that at the time was coeducational. (Bennett later became an all African American women's college.) Jones received his A.B. degree from Bennett College in 1895.
- Born in Greensboro, North Carolina on February 19
- Serves as pastor in Leaksville, North Carolina
- Ordained Methodist Episcopal (M.E.) minister, deacon
- Receives A.B. from Bennett College, Greensboro, North Carolina
- Receives B.D. from Gammon Theological Seminary, Atlanta, Georgia
- Becomes assistant manager, Southeastern Christian Advocate
- Receives M.A. from Bennett College
- Marries Valena C. MacArthur on January 2, who dies in 1917
- Becomes bishop in the M.E. Church
- Receives L.L.D. from Howard University, Washington, D.C.
- Marries H. Elizabeth Brown
- Dies in Waveland, Mississippi on May 18
Jones began his career as a preacher in Leaksville, North Carolina in 1891 and was ordained into the Methodist Episcopal ministry in 1892. His first church assignment was Reidsville, North Carolina, where he earned the rank of elder in 1896. While preaching and meeting the needs of his church, he attended Gammon Theological Seminary in Atlanta, Georgia and received a bachelor of divinity degree in 1897. He returned the following year to Bennett College and received his M.A. in 1898.
The Southeastern Christian Advocate appointed Jones assistant manager in 1897. After four years of service, Jones left the magazine and took an appointment as field secretary of the Board of Sunday School of the Methodist Episcopal Church. That same year he married Valena C. MacArthur, whom he shared sixteen years with before she died. (On February 4, 1920 Jones married H. Elizabeth Brown.) In 1904 Jones returned to the Southeastern Christian Advocate as its editor and maintained this role until 1920. During this time he was a popular speaker. Recognizing Jones's character and influence in the community, Booker T. Washington also sought his views.
In the early 1920s the Methodist Church saw the African American membership as separate from the white congregation. The Southern Church Commissions were supportive of African Americans leaving the Methodist Church and becoming a part of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church, and the African Methodist Episcopal Church Zion. The Northern Church Commissioners supported an independent church for African Americans only. The Northern Churches already had in place separate African American churches, schools, and annual conferences. The Methodist Church decided to support the northern structure of the African American congregation. The groups were segregated and many considered the African American Methodist as a church within a church. In 1920 Jones became the first elected African American bishop of the Central Jurisdiction which served African Americans. The bishops were to have full membership in the church's Council of Bishops. Jones became one of fourteen African American bishops covering an immense geographical area, including Liberia, West Africa. He fully understood the magnitude of these elections and was quoted in Black People in the Methodist Church as saying, "We of the Central Jurisdiction of the Methodist Church have an advantage for the promotion of interracial Christian brotherhood which is not held by any other religious group of people." African American bishops had a key role in the development and growth of Methodist African American communities. Rather than separate, Jones saw the role of the African American bishop as supporting the working together of the races in the Methodist Church.
Jones's commitment to community was reflected in a speech he made at Tuskegee Institute on May 29, 1913 entitled "A Few Remarks on Making a Life." In his speech he told the graduates: "prove to the world what you are by what you can do—that you let your achievements point to your diploma." Jones was the president of the Board of Trustees for Wiley University, Samuel Houston College, New Orleans University, and Haven Institute and Conservatory of Music; he was the chairman and board member of Flint-Goodbridge Hospital and Training School and a trustee of Gammon Theological Seminary and Bennett College; he was the president of the Colored YMCA in New Orleans and vice president of the International YMCA. He was the president of Gulfside Association; the president of the Travelers' Protective Association; the first vice president of the National Negro Press Association; and chairman of the Executive Committee of the National Negro Business League. Because of his distinguished service, Howard University in Washington, D.C. conferred upon him the honorary LL.D. in 1911.
Jones continued to travel and give sermons and speeches well into his eighties. He died May 18, 1960 and was buried in the Gulfside Assembly in Waveland, Mississippi.
McClain, William. Black People in the Methodist Church. Whither Thou Goest? Cambridge, Mass.: Schenkman Publishing Co., 1984.
Nelson, Alice Dunbar. "A Few Remarks on Making a Life." Masterpiece of Negro Eloquence New York: Bookery Publishing Co., 1914.
Nichols, J. L., and William H. Crogman. Progress of a Race. Naperville Ill.: J.J. Nichols & Co., 1925.
Yenser, Thomas. Who's Who in Colored America. Brooklyn: Thomas Yenser Publisher, 1940.
Historic Register—Louisiana Conference—United Methodist Church. http://www.iscuo.org/no_mtzion.htm (Accessed 19 January 2006).
Washington, Booker T. The Booker T. Washington Papers. Vol. 10. 129-30. June 1909. University of Illinois Press. http://www.historycooperative.org/btw/Vol.10/html/129.html (Accessed 19 January 2006).
Lean'tin L. Bracks