Pioneering priest embodied Black faith tradition and struggle for freedom
Each February, the Episcopal diocese of Pennsylvania celebrates the life and legacy of Absalom Jones. The first African-American to be ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church, Jones also founded the first Black Episcopal congregation, the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, and is in the Episcopal Church’s calendar of saints.
In the view of Fr. Jordan Casson, rector at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Yeadon, Penn. and organizer of the annual celebration, Jones made his own ordination and sacramental life possible.
“Every Black cleric … every Black bishop that’s been ordained, is all part of the legacy that the Rev. Absalom Jones has left for us,” Casson says.
“My interest in Rev. Jones, in celebrating his life, his ministry, his parish—which is extremely vibrant and extremely healthy—is that I see myself. I look in the mirror, I see Absalom Jones. I see him in me. And I see him in every Black boy and Black girl, Black man, Black woman who is either a priest, will be called to be a priest, or has been ordained in this tradition.”
Born enslaved in 1746, Jones worked in the fields of wealthy Anglican planter Abraham Wynkoop until the latter recognized his intelligence and ordered that he be trained to work in the house. Jones avidly learned how to read and saved up money he was given to buy books.
After the elder Wynkoop died, his son Benjamin sold the plantation along with Jones’s mother, sister and five brothers. He brought Jones to Philadelphia and opened a store there. Jones attended a night school for Black people run by Quakers and worked at the store.
At age 20, Jones married Mary Thomas, who was enslaved to a fellow member of Benjamin Wynkoop’s congregation at St. Peter’s Church. Together with father-in-law John Thomas, Jones used savings and sought donations and loans to buy his wife’s freedom.
Though Jones repeatedly tried to buy his freedom, Wynkoop refused until finally granting him a manumission in 1784, freeing him from slavery. While Jones continued to work at Wynkoop’s store, he left St. Peter’s and began worshipping at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church, where he met preacher Richard Allen. The two became lifelong friends and founded the Free African Society, a mutual aid organization that helped support freed enslaved people in Philadelphia.
The Free African Society held religious services and began to build the African Church of Philadelphia, which attracted Black parishioners who had left St. George’s due to racial discrimination. After Allen decided to stay with the Methodist Church, Jones accepted the call to provide pastoral leadership to the new congregation, which applied for membership to the Episcopal diocese of Pennsylvania. In October 1794, the diocese admitted the congregation as the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas. Bishop William White ordained Jones as a deacon in 1795 and as a priest in 1802.
For Arthur Sudler, director of the historical society at St. Thomas, two major themes define the life of Absalom Jones: faith and freedom.
He describes the situation in which Jones found himself after ordination: “having charge of the congregation and having to work with white clergy with whom he could not sit in diocesan convention, and to have to deal with people in the general community who had never seen a Black Episcopal priest before—had never seen any Black man ordained in any of the denominations.”
But Jones was a pathbreaker, Sudler says, and though circumstances like these must have weighed on him considerably, they did not lessen his desire to see freedom for his people.
Jones’s ministry extended beyond church walls to include support for the abolitionist cause. In 1797, he helped present a petition to Congress in response to the Fugitive Slave Act, which guaranteed the rights of slaveowners to recover escaped slaves. The petitioners asked Congress to consider the plight of formerly enslaved people and to adopt “some remedy for an evil of such magnitude.”
Jones began a tradition of giving anti-slavery sermons on New Year’s Day, gaining fame for his powerful oratory. On Jan. 1, 1808, he gave what became known as “A Thanksgiving Sermon,” which celebrated the end of the transatlantic trade in people and was published widely in pamphlet form.
Within Philadelphia, Jones’s role in lifting up the community crossed racial lines in 1793 when the city was struck by a yellow fever epidemic. At the time, it was rumoured that Black people were immune to the disease. In response to a plea from friend and local physician Dr. Benjamin Rush, Jones and Allen enlisted the help of Black residents to help the sick and bury the dead.
“In that work, there is clearly a selflessness, an understanding that God has called them to help their brothers and sisters even at the risk and peril of their own lives,” Sudler says.
Casson compares the role of Black Philadelphians during the yellow fever epidemic to that of many racialized people during the COVID-19 pandemic, “where frontline workers tend to be African-American or Black and brown people who—whether they want to or not—because they have to work and because [of] the way these kind of divisions still exist in America, they’re out there…. This is where we were in the late 1700s, and we’re still there in 2020.”
But Casson highlights the importance of lifting up these frontline workers prepared to sacrifice their own health due to a feeling of responsibility to others. He points to the example of a hospice nurse in his congregation who caught COVID-19 in March and recovered, but has since gone back to work.
“She still feels that this is part of her Christian responsibility to be there for those in hospice, especially those who are in hospice from COVID,” Casson says.
“The selflessness and this kind of empowerment of the Holy Spirit to help even in unprecedented times is just really I think the backbone of Black theology, regardless of denomination. But it is a Christian ethic that you see alive and well and not only [in] Rev. Jones, but Rev. Allen, his colleague.”
Jones died in 1818, but his influence continues to be felt. His work inspired later figures such as Octavius Catto, a St. Thomas vestry member and civil rights activist assassinated on election day in 1871 while trying to help Black men vote.
Sudler sees a “continual line” from Absalom Jones to activism at St. Thomas today, where current rector Canon Martini Shaw “takes a position that we will affirm marriage equality through the sacrament of holy matrimony” and parishioners can be seen “marching in the streets of Philadelphia advocating that Black lives matter.”
The annual celebration of Absalom Jones in the diocese of Pennsylvania has become what Casson describes as an occasion to “speak about our continued advancements towards freedom and erasing systemic and institutional racism in the church and in the world.” Further strengthening the legacy of St. Thomas’s founder, Sudler and Casson are currently working on a project to erect a statue of Jones.
Though Absalom Jones is most celebrated in the United States, he has also found admirers in the Anglican Church of Canada.
The Rev. Steve Greene, rector at St. Luke’s, Cambridge, and St. Thomas the Apostle, Cambridge, in the diocese of Huron, wrote a paper on Jones in seminary. He finds inspiration in the “profound spiritual strength” of a person born into slavery taking up the cross and persevering despite displacement and marginalization.
“He’s one of my boys, I can honestly say,” Greene says of Jones. “I like him a lot. What he did, his theology, his fervency, his faithfulness, his strength, his ‘I’m not going to quit’ [attitude], the things he had to do in order to proclaim the Good News—to me he’s a beast.”