Friday, February 13, 2009

From Slave to Servant of God

The Episcopal Church commemorates its first African-American priest, Absalom Jones, on this day.  Absalom was born a house slave in 1746 in Delaware.  He taught himself to read out of the New Testament, among other books.  At age 16 he was sold to a store owner in Philadelphia.  Here he worked as a clerk and handyman in a retail store, and attended a night school for black people, operated by the Quakers.  In 1766, when he was 20, he married a young woman whose freedom, along with his own, he purchased with his own earnings by 1784.

Absalom served as a lay minister for his people at St. George's Methodist Church in Philadelphia.  Built in 1763, the church is the oldest Methodist church in continuous use in the U.S., and is considered the "cradle" of American Methodism.  Black members, though given a place at the church, had to hold their services at 5:00 AM.  During this time Absalom met and befriended Richard Allen, and the two worked hard at evangelizing people in the African-American community. Richard, later the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (A.M.E.), was the first black person licensed to preach Methodism at St. George's in 1784.  However, in a disgraceful move one Sabbath in 1787, the all-white vestry insisted that the black members use only an upstairs balcony in the church as their prayer area. A row ensued and the African-American members walked out of the service in a body. 

In 1787, under the leadership of Jones and Allen, the first Afro-American society, called the Free African Society, was founded as a non-denominational community, both religious and benevolent, combining church, government, and charity. Members paid monthly dues which were used to help those in need. It was the only church organization to volunteer during the Yellow Fever Epidemic in Philadephia in 1793, receiving praise from Philadelphia's mayor for their valiant service.   

 In 1794 "The African Church" building was erected with the help of Episcopalians and Quakers.  Even after their shameful treatment at St. George's, both Jones and Allen wanted to affiliate with the Methodist Church, but the majority of the congregation favored the Episcopal Church.  Because of this, Richard Allen, along with a remnant of the congregation, regretfully left and established the Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1794. Absalom and the majority of the congregation remained at The African Church. In the same year Absalom applied for, and received from Bishop William White, recognition in the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania.  The agreement was made only under certain conditions which the petitioners set: 1) that they be received as an organized body; 2) that they have control over their local affairs; and 3) that Absalom Jones be licensed as a layreader, and, if qualified, be ordained.  

In 1795 the Diocesan Convention approved the affiliation, and St. Thomas African Episcopal Church came into being. Jones was dispensed from Latin and Greek as required for ordination,  was ordained a deacon in 1795, and as an Episcopal priest in 1804.

It is said that Absalom Jones was a good preacher.  Firmly convinced that religious and social action worked hand in hand, he denounced slavery and oppression.  He believed in God as a Father who acted on behalf of the poor and distressed.  He founded schools for African-Americans, and even an insurance company and a society devoted to eliminating vice and immorality.  Because of his constant visitations and gentle manner, Absalom Jones was so beloved by the church and the community that he was known as "the Black Bishop of the Episcopal Church", though he was never ordained a bishop.  The first African-American bishop, also from Philadelphia, was Bishop Barbara Harris, ordained 20 years ago this year.  As a deputy to the General Convention in Indianapolis in 1994, I believe, I had the privilege of sitting beside Bishop Harris in our morning Bible study group.

In the Episcopal Church today clergy of African-American descent number approximately 7.7% of the bishops, 3.4% of the priests, and 3.9% of the deacons.   

Set us free, heavenly Father, from every bond of prejudice and fear;
that, honoring the steadfast courage of your servant Absalom Jones,
we may show forth in our lives the reconciling love and true freedom of the children of God,
which you have given us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.


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