November 7, 1746|
Sussex County, Delaware, United States
|Died||February 13, 1818
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States
|Known for||Anti-slavery petitioner|
|Relatives||Julian Abele (architect)|
Absalom Jones (November 7, 1746 – February 13, 1818) was an African-American abolitionist and clergyman. After founding a black congregation in 1794, he was the first African American ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church of the United States, in 1804. He is listed on the Episcopal calendar of saints and remembered liturgically on the date of his death, February 13, in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer as "Absalom Jones, Priest, 1818".
Jones was born into slavery in Sussex County, Delaware in 1746. When he was sixteen, his owner sold him along with his mother and siblings to a neighboring farmer, who in 1762 kept Absalom but sold his mother and siblings and moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where he became a merchant. Jones attended a school and learned to write. While still a slave of Mr. Wynkoop (also a vestryman of Christ Church and later St. Peter's), Absalom married Mary King (slave to S. King who was a neighbor to the Wynkoops), on January 4, 1770. Rev. Jacob Duché performed the wedding ceremony. By 1778 Jones had purchased his wife's freedom so that their children would be free; creating an appeal for donations and loans. He also wrote asking for his freedom, but was initially denied. In 1784, however, Wynkoop manumitted him, and he took the surname "Jones" as an indication of his American identity.
Around 1780, a Methodist movement was sweeping through the colonies. The movement was especially popular in New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. Methodists were Evangelicals within the Church of England. In December of 1784, Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury established the Methodist Church as a new denomination, separate from the Church of England.
Jones became a lay minister at the interracial congregation of St. George's Methodist Church. Together with Richard Allen, he was one of the first African Americans licensed to preach by the Methodist Church.
In 1792, while at St. George's Methodist Church, Absalom Jones and other black members were told that they could not join the rest of the congregation in seating and kneeling on the first floor and instead had to be segregated first sitting against the wall and then on the balcony. After completing their prayer, Jones and the church's black members got up and walked out.
Absalom Jones and Richard Allen founded the Free African Society (FAS), first conceived as a non-denominational mutual aid society, to help newly freed slaves in Philadelphia. Jones and Allen later separated, as their religious lives took different directions after 1794 as discussed below, but they remained lifelong friends and collaborators.
As 1791 began, Rev. Jones started holding religious services at FAS, which the following year became the core of his African Church in Philadelphia. Jones wanted to establish a black congregation independent of white control, while remaining part of the Episcopal Church. After a successful petition, the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, the first black church in Philadelphia, opened its doors on July 17, 1794. Jones was ordained as a deacon in 1795 and as a priest in 1804, became the first African-American priest in the Episcopal Church.
A month after St. Thomas church opened, the Founders and Trustees published "The Causes and Motives for Establishing St. Thomas's African Church of Philadelphia," clearly stating their intent
"to arise out of the dust and shake ourselves, and throw off that servile fear, that the habit of oppression and bondage trained us up in."
Famous for his oratory, Jones helped establish the tradition of anti-slavery sermons on New Year's Day. His sermon for January 1, 1808, the date on which the U.S. Constitution mandated the end of the African slave trade, called A Thanksgiving Sermon was published in pamphlet-form and became famous. Nonetheless, rumors persisted that Rev. Jones possessed supernatural abilities to influence the minds of assembled congregations. White observers failed to recognize his oratory skills, perhaps because they believed rhetoric to be beyond the capabilities of black people. Numerous other African-American leaders faced similar rumors of supernatural activities.
Fugitive Slave Act
In 1775 North Carolina had made it illegal to free slaves unless approved by a county court, a provision largely ignored by members of the Society of Friends (Quakers), who not only continued to free their own slaves, but in some cases bought slaves in order to free them. North Carolina then passed another law in 1788 allowing the capture and sale of any former slave who had been freed without court approval, with twenty percent of the sale price going to the person who reported the illegal manumission. Many freed African Americans fled the state to avoid being captured and sold back into slavery.
After becoming the first slave raised to priesthood, and as the Constitution's deadline for abolition of the slave trade passed, Jones took part of the first group of African Americans to petition the U.S. Congress. Their petition related to the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act, which they criticized for encouraging cruelty and brutality, as well as supporting continuing criminal practice of kidnapping free blacks and selling them into slavery. Rev. Jones drafted a petition on behalf of four freed slaves asking Congress to adopt “some remedy for an evil of such magnitude.”
The petition was presented on 30 January 1797 by U.S. Representative John Swanwick of Pennsylvania. Rev. Jones used moral suasion:, trying to convince whites that slavery was immoral, offensive to God, and contrary to the nation's deal. Although U.S. Representative George Thatcher of Massachusetts argued that the petition should be accepted and referred to the Committee on the Fugitive Law, the House of Representatives declined to accept the petition by a vote of 50 to 33. Rev. Jones submitted a similar petition two years later which was also declined.
African Methodist Episcopal Church
On a parallel path, Allen founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), the first independent black church within the Methodist tradition. He and his followers converted a building and opened on July 29, 1794 as Bethel AME Church. In 1799, Allen was ordained as the first black minister in the Methodist Church by Bishop Francis Asbury. In 1816, Allen gathered other black congregations in the region to create a new and fully independent denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1816, he was elected the AME's first bishop.
Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793
Yellow fever repeatedly struck Philadelphia in the 1790s, until sanitary improvements suggested by Dr. Benjamin Rush were completed. In the meantime, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones assisted Rush in helping people afflicted by the plague, for black people initially were rumored to be immune, and many whites (including most doctors except for Rush and his assistants, some of whom died) simply fled the city. Allen and Jones' corps of black Philadelphians helped nurse the sick, as well as bury the dead. Jones in particular sometimes worked through the night, although their later reliance on bleeding as a medical treatment proved to be misplaced. As African Americans often faced injustice when trying to do good, White elites blamed the Jones and his group for selfishness. After a city journalist accused poorer Blacks of profiting from nursing sick White citizens, Jones and his fellow leader, Richard Allen, published a protest pamphlet in response. Jones and Allen tackled the journalist’s attempt at degradation by underlining the acts of sacrifice that they and members of the Free African Society committed for the health of the city. As a result of their desire to improve the entire community, Jones and Allen received recognition from Philadelphia Mayor Matthew Clarkson. Jones’ responses to the overall crisis strengthened ties between free Blacks and many progressive whites, aiding him later on when establishing St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church. Adding to Yellow fever in Philly Almost twenty times more black people helped the plague-struck than did whites, which later proved crucial in gaining the new black congregations social acceptance.
Death and legacy
Rev. Jones died on February 13, 1818 in Philadelphia. On November 10, 1996, his remains were reinterred in a chapel of his church, St. Thomas African Episcopal Church (now located in Philadelphia's Overbrook Farms neighborhood) named in his honor, as is the church's rectory. The Episcopal Church remembers his life and service annually on the anniversary of his death, February 13. The Diocese of Pennsylvania honors his memory with an annual celebration and award.
- "Absalom Jones' Marriage to Mary", Brotherly Love, PBS, accessed 14 January 2009
- White, Deborah Gray (2013). Freedom On My Mind: A History of African Americans. Boston: Bedford/ St. Martin's. p. 179.
- "A Discourse...African Church", Brotherly Love, PBS, accessed 14 January 2009.
- "The Causes and Motives for Establishing St. Thomas's African Church...", Africans in America, PBS, accessed 15 January 2009.
- "Absalom Jones", The Gilder Lehrman Institute for American History
- "The 1797 Petition", The Making of African American Identity: Vol. I, 1500–1865, National Humanities Center, 2007
- White, Deborah Gray (2013). Freedom On My Mind: A History of African Americans. Boston: Bedford/ St. Martin's.
- Confession of John Joyce, Alias Davis, Who Was Executed on Monday, the 14th of March, 1808, for the Murder of Mrs. Sarah Cross; With an Address to the Public, and People of Colour (Philadelphia, 1808). Photograph. Accessed October 13, 2016. http://www.librarycompany.org/blackfounders/section7.htm.
- Will, Thomas E. (2002). "Liberalism, Republicanism, and Philadelphia's Black Elite in the Early Republic: The Social Thought of Absalom Jones and Richard Allen". Pennsylvania History. 69 (4): 558–576. America: History & Life, EBSCOhost (accessed November 12, 2013), 560–564.
- "Leadership Gallery: The Reverend Absalom Jones, 1746–1818", Episcopal Church Archives
- Lewis, Harold T., The Reverend Canon, "Absalom Jones: A Model for Self-Determination", sermon, Christ Church Cathedral, Hartford, Connecticut, Sunday February 10, 1991.
- Absalom Jones. "Free Black Petition to Congress, 1797" ISBN 978-0-312-64883-1 (Volume 1, 2013)
- Thomas F. Ulle, A History of St. Thomas' African Episcopal Church, 1794–1865, Dissertation, University of Pennsylvania
- "A Thanksgiving Sermon" (1808), Antislavery Literature Project
- "The African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas", Information at the Official Web site of the Episcopal Church
- African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, Official Website
- Official Web site of the Diocese of Pennsylvania
- Absalom Jones birthplace in Milford, Delaware is at coordinates