Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Black Bishop of the Episcopal Church

Absalom Jones came a long way, after being born into slavery in Delaware in 1746, before he went to his rest, an honored Episcopal churchman, at age 71 in 1818. But, oh, the sufferings he endured along that way, and the continual indignities to which he was subjected, first by leaders of the Methodist Church, to which he belonged, and later by leaders of the Episcopal Church! For all our celebration now of Absalom Jones and honoring him with a yearly liturgical commemoration, I have to say that reading the story of his life and of his association with churches, particularly the Episcopal Church at the very time when we were proclaiming "liberty and justice for all" in America, is painful and embarrassing. Yet it also impresses on us what an extraordinarily strong and humble man Absalom Jones must have been.

He and his followers established the first black Episcopal parish in the U.S., St. Thomas African Episcopal Church, in Philadelphia in 1794, only five years after the Episcopal Church itself had been born in this country. Jones' parish was accepted as part of the Episcopal Church according to the three conditions which Jones and his people had laid out: 1) that St. Thomas Church as a whole be received; 2) that the parish maintain control over their affairs; and 3) that the choice and support of clergy was entirely theirs. Soon after the reception of of St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Absalom Jones was chosen to be the minister, first serving them as a licensed lay reader; in 1802 he was ordained as the first black priest by Bishop William White.

During his 23 years as leader of St. Thomas Church, the parish grew dramatically and Jones was responsible for nearly 1200 baptisms. He was noted for his preaching and fearlessness in publicly confronting the immorality and injustice of slavery. Yet, his people knew him as a gentle and devoted pastor who nurtured his flock and his community. So much so, that he came to be known as "The Black Bishop of the Episcopal Church", extolled, after his death, by Bishop White for "his eminent virtues, and...his pastoral fidelity".

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 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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