Born November 6, 1746 (Sussex County, Delaware)
Died February 13, 1818 (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
Absalom Jones was the first black Protestant Episcopal priest in the United States. He was principal founder of St. Thomas African Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, the first black Episcopal church in America. Besides providing spiritual guidance and religious instruction to his church, Jones also offered economic aid and educational opportunities to those in need. He founded several schools and established the Female Benevolent Society and the African Friendly Society.
"[God] has seen ships fitted out from different ports in Europe and America, and freighted with trinkets to be exchanged for the bodies and souls of men. He has seen the anguish which has taken place...."
Jones helped organize the Free African Society and was a well-respected community leader in Philadelphia. As an ardent abolitionist (an opponent of slavery), Jones used his pulpit for protest in the fight against slavery. Jones was a leader in the African Masonic Lodge and also helped recruit men to form the "Black Legion," a group of black soldiers who fought in defense of Philadelphia during the War of 1812 (1812–15). His ministry among blacks was so significant that he was known as "the black Bishop of the Episcopal Church."
Absalom Jones was born November 6, 1746, in Sussex County, Delaware. His slave parents had at least five other sons and one daughter. As a small child, Absalom was taken from the fields to wait on his master in the house. Absalom was an eager student, and he saved the pennies occasionally given to him and used them to buy books. He initially bought a primer (a small book used to teach children to read) and begged instruction from anyone who would help him learn to read. Over time, he was able to buy a spelling book and finally a copy of the New Testament. In 1762, Absalom, his mother, and his siblings were sold. Sixteen-year-old Absalom was purchased by a man named Wynkoop. He was taken to Philadelphia to work in his new master's store as a handyman and clerk. Gradually, Jones learned how to write so that he could pen his own letters to his family.
In 1766, Jones was allowed to attend a night school for blacks operated by the Quakers in Philadelphia. His writing improved, and he learned the practical mathematical skills needed in trade. On January 4, 1770, Absalom Jones married Mary, a slave woman who belonged to a woman named Sarah King. Jones gathered donations and loans in order to raise the thirty pounds (British currency) necessary to buy Mary's freedom. He was able to pay twenty pounds, and King forgave the balance of ten pounds. For the next eight years, Jones worked past midnight each evening to repay the money he had borrowed. Mary's freedom meant that any children of their marriage would then be free of slavery. Pennsylvania law was undergoing changes as the American Revolution (1775–83) progressed. A 1780 antislavery measure was one of the first in the United States. The act provided that all children born after its passage would be free since she was now free. If she had remained a slave, her children would remain servants until they reached the age of twenty-eight.
By 1778, the couple had paid their debt and saved enough money to make application to purchase Jones's freedom. Jones's request was not immediately granted, but Jones and his wife continued to work hard and save their money. They found a house and a lot that they purchased. They registered the home in Mary's name because they feared Jones's master could otherwise lay claim to it. Jones once again made application to purchase his own freedom, and this time it was granted. He was released from slavery on October 1, 1784. With his freedom secured, Jones continued to work at the store owned by his former master. He earned a good wage and added to his family's financial security by building two small rental houses on his lot in the southern part of the city.
The Free African Society
The Methodist Episcopal Church was a new denomination in the United States. It was organized in 1784 under the leadership of Francis Asbury (1745–1816; see entry in volume 1) and Thomas Coke (1747–1814). Numerous blacks in the larger U.S. cities of New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia joined the church. Jones and his friend Richard Allen (1760–1816; see entry in volume 1) became lay (unordained) ministers among the free black members of St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church.
The spirited preaching and pastoral work of Asbury and Coke brought a large increase in membership; blacks and whites alike were joining the church in great numbers. Seating space within the church building became a problem in the late 1780s. Initially, black members of the church were asked to give up their seats and stand against the wall. With overcrowding still a problem, the church embarked on a campaign to build an addition. Black members contributed their share of muscle and money to the project, and when it was completed, they were told that in the future they would be sitting in the new galleries above the main floor. At one Sunday morning service, Jones and a number of blacks were directed to seats in the balcony, where they knelt for prayer. An usher determined they were not in the place intended for them and attempted to remove Jones and the others before they had finished their prayers. Indignant, the entire group of blacks walked out of the church and never returned. The incident marked the beginning of the independent black church movement.
On April 12, 1787, a group of black Methodists that included some who had walked out of St. George's met in a Philadelphia home and formed the Free African Society (FAS). It was the first organization among free blacks in America for which any record exists. Jones was the leader and Allen an overseer of this nondenominational society set up for the benefit of the black community. Its original purpose was to benefit widows and fatherless children and to pay for health care and burial expenses of those in need. Members paid dues of one shilling in silver Pennsylvania currency when they met each month. The society encouraged the organization of Free African Societies in other cities, including Boston and New York. Membership in the FAS required strict adherence to a specific code of conduct.
The FAS began to hold regular religious services in a rented room on January 1, 1791. Gradually, the FAS transformed itself into a nondenominational "African Church." The church leaders met in the summer of 1792 and passed a resolution to purchase property and erect a church building. However, construction was interrupted in 1793 when a yellow fever epidemic broke out in Philadelphia. Thousands of people fled to the countryside as the death toll climbed. The epidemic would eventually claim nearly four thousand lives.
Jones helped mobilize the black community to provide aid for the sick and dying. The assistance came in various forms, including nurses, grave diggers, and undertakers. As the weather cooled and the deaths stopped, a pamphlet began to circulate accusing many in the black community of profiteering from the disease by charging excessive rates and plundering the houses of the sick. Jones and Allen responded to the false accusations by publishing their own pamphlet, titled A Narrative of the Proceedings of the Black People, during the Late Awful Calamity in Philadelphia in the Year 1793 and A Refutation of Some Censures Thrown upon Them in Some Late Publications. In the pamphlet, the men documented the courageous actions of the blacks who aided the sick and dying when others turned their backs on them. They also included a detailed accounting of payments and expenses. Their defense was endorsed by the mayor of Philadelphia.
A black Episcopal church in America
The new home of the African Church was finally completed, and the building was dedicated on July 17, 1794. It was the first church built for blacks in Philadelphia and one of the first of its kind in the country. The members met to decide whether to affiliate themselves with the Methodist Church or the Church of England. Because of their treatment in the Methodist Church, the majority voted in favor of the Church of England. Allen believed that Methodism was more appropriate for the black congregants and withdrew from the African Church with a few followers. Jones remained as the sole leader of his congregation as they applied for membership in the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania. The African Church asked that they be received as an organized body and that they retain control over their local affairs. They requested that Jones be licensed as a lay reader (a nonclergy given responsibility to lead parts of a religious service) and, upon qualification, be ordained (formally granted priestly authority) as a minister. Episcopal bishop William White (1748–1836; see entry in volume 2) of Pennsylvania was an avid supporter of the FAS. He agreed to accept the group as an Episcopal parish. On August 12, 1794, the African Church became St. Thomas African Episcopal Church. It was formally received into the diocese of Pennsylvania at the annual Episcopal convention in October 1794.
At the October convention, Jones was licensed as a lay reader, and the church's request that they be allowed to retain local control was granted. Jones was received as a candidate for ordination in the Episcopal Church. That same month, he accepted the position of pastor of St. Thomas Church. However, at the convention the following year, it was decided that St. Thomas was not allowed to send a clergyman or delegates to church conventions and that it must not interfere with the general government of the Episcopal Church.
While most Episcopalian deacons (nonclergy with responsibilities in the church) were required to learn Greek and Latin as a condition for ordination, the requirement was waived for Jones. Bishop White ordained him a deacon in August 1795. Under his leadership, St. Thomas Church grew rapidly. In September 1804, Bishop White ordained the fifty-eight-year-old Jones as a priest. He was the first black American to be ordained by a major religious denomination.
Jones spent the remainder of his life performing his pastoral duties and working toward racial and moral reform in his community. Because no state-supported education was available for blacks in Pennsylvania, Jones began schools of his own. He also petitioned the state legislature and Congress for the immediate abolition of slavery. In 1808, Jones published a sermon on the abolition of the slave trade. Congress banned the importation of slaves in 1808.
As the number of free blacks in the North increased, interest in transporting free blacks out of the country also grew. Many whites who opposed slavery also opposed a racially mixed society. In 1817, Jones helped organize a massive convention to denounce the plan to transport free blacks to Africa.
In the early nineteenth century, artist Raphaelle Peale (1774–1825) painted a portrait in oil of Absalom Jones. The half-length portrait shows Jones in his ecclesiastical robes with his Bible in hand, reminiscent of formal paintings of European clergy. The portrait demonstrated the respect paid to Jones and displayed a dignity rarely allowed black subjects at that time, when it was typical to display only the head. On February 13, 1818, Jones died at his home in Philadelphia at the age of seventy-one. After a funeral attended by blacks and whites alike, Jones was buried in the churchyard of St. Thomas.
For More Information
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, eds. African American Lives. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Prichard, Robert W. A History of the Episcopal Church. Rev. ed. Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse, 1999.
Walker, Clarence E. A Rock in a Weary Land. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982.
"Biographical Sketches of Memorable Christians of the Past: Absalom Jones." The Society of Archbishop Justus.http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bio/98.html (accessed on August 14, 2005).
"The Pioneers, Origin, and Organization of the AME Church." The African Methodist Episcopal Church.http://www.amecnet.org/history.htm (accessed on August 14, 2005).
Public Broadcasting Service. "Portrait of Absalom Jones." Africans in America: Brotherly Love.http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part3/3h85.html (accessed on August 14, 2005).