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  • Rev. Helena Martin

A Bit of History: Absalom Jones and the Episcopal Church

Yesterday, February 13, the church celebrated the life and ministry of the Rev. Absalom Jones. He was born in 1746, enslaved. As a young man, he bought the freedom of his wife Mary, then himself. Toward the end of his life, he became the first African American Episcopal priest.

Black Episcopal Churches

Absalom Jones and his friend Richard Allen were on fire for the Holy Spirit. They increased the membership at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia—too much for the white leadership’s taste. The white vestry started segregating the Black members to the balcony.

After the Black worshipers walked out in protest, they founded the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, the first Black Episcopal church.

Stories like this are prevalent in the history of our denomination (see also: Trinity Church on the Green and St. Luke’s in New Haven, Connecticut). As a diocese last year, we asked each church to begin uncovering the stories of their parish’s past: the beautiful and the challenging alike.

Jones' Ordained Ministry

When the Rev. Jones was ordained a deacon in 1795, Eli Whitney had only just patented the cotton gin, thus increasing the value of enslaved labor. Slaveholders could cross state lines to pursue the enslaved people fleeing them, and it was illegal to help someone fleeing enslavement.

What was it like for him to enter into ordained ministry at that time?

The Rev. Jones built up the body of Christ at his church as a talented preacher and pastor, preaching God’s word of liberation for all oppressed people.

From the Episcopal Church’s book of saint commemorations, Lesser Feasts and Fasts (2018), I offer this prayer this weekend:

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; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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