Absalom Jones Biography
Told to Rise from Pew, Founded Black Episcopal Church, Honored with Portrait, Selected writings
The transformation of Absalom Jones from slave into one of the founders of the black Episcopal church in America and a leading figure among Philadelphia's African-American community shows the great strides made by blacks during this eventful period of early American history. Jones bought his own freedom as well as that of his wife's through years of hard work, and went on to lead the African Church of St. Thomas in Philadelphia, the first black Episcopal church in the United States. He was also a respected community leader who put his own life in danger to help those afflicted by a yellow-fever epidemic during a terrible few months of 1793.
Jones was born into servitude in Sussex County, Delaware, on November 6, 1746. His master was Benjamin Wynkoop, a merchant and planter, and Jones's siblings and mother were property of Wynkoop as well. As a youngster, Jones held a coveted position inside the Wynkoop house, where he was able to earn small tips, which he saved up to buy a primer, a book that taught children the basics of reading and writing; reportedly he would ask everyone whose paths crossed his to help him learn how to read. Other prized possessions he managed to acquire through his earnings included a spelling book—though his abilities in this remained poor throughout his life—and a New Testament bible.
When Jones was around 16 years old, Wynkoop sold off Jones's mother and six siblings, but retained the teenager and took him with him to Philadelphia, where Wynkoop had a store. Jones worked in the business, and even went to a school set up for African Americans for a time. In 1770, he married a slave woman named Mary King, and began seeking donations in order to purchase her freedom. But he also worked overtime to fund this goal, and finally in 1778 was able to begin saving money to buy his own freedom. He was manumitted, or released from slavery, on October 1, 1784, but remained in Wynkoop's employ as a wage-earner.
Philadelphia was home to a large number of freed blacks like Jones during the era. Some were members of St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church, which was notable in that it welcomed black as well as white members into its congregation. It is known that around 1786 Jones became a licensed Methodist lay preacher, and the following year founded the Free African Society with Richard Allen, another recently freed slave. This society, which may have been the first independent black organization in the United States, provided economic and medical aid to African Americans transitioning from slavery to freedom. It also sought to further ties between blacks in America and those in Africa.
Told to Rise from Pew
On a Sunday in November of 1787, Jones and Allen kneeled for prayer in a newly constructed gallery of St. George's. Some white members of the congregation, however, felt that the black members should be confined to the balcony, and the sexton, or church officer, collared Jones and tried to pull him to his feet during opening prayers. Appalled, Jones and Allen walked out, and set to work on forming their own group with others who had also left St. George's in disgust. On January 1, 1791, the Free African Society held religious services for the first time, and the congregation that grew out of that began to raise funds to build their own church.
The mission of Jones and Allen to establish their own black Protestant church was supported by William White, the esteemed bishop of the Philadelphia Episcopal diocese and a leading figure in the formation of the American Episcopal creed as an offshoot of the Church of England. They were also supported by whites among Philadelphia's devout, liberal-minded Quaker community, and Jones's and Allen's reputation in the city was boosted immensely when they courageously worked to aid the sick and bury the dead felled by a three-month yellow fever epidemic in 1793, when the city was the seat of the U.S. government.
Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and prominent Philadelphia physician and abolitionist, believed that blacks were immune from the epidemic, and Jones and others took on the task in order to enhance the reputation of Philadelphia's black community. Many blacks died anyway, though Jones and his colleagues were spared, and for their role they were attacked in a pamphlet that attempted to discredit them. He and Allen penned a response, A Narrative of the Proceedings of the Black People, During the Late Awful Calamity in Philadelphia, In the Year 1793, that defended their service to the city during a time when many whites, including the highest-ranking members of the federal government, had fled.
Founded Black Episcopal Church
Despite such setbacks, the church Jones co-founded, the African Church of St. Thomas, was formally dedicated on July 17, 1794. It was affiliated with the white Episcopal church in order to be granted official recognition by the state, and Jones served as its first lay reader. On August 6, 1795, he was ordained a deacon in the Episcopal church. Rules required that Episcopalian deacons must to know some Greek and Latin, but this requirement was waived for him. Nine years later, in 1804, he became an ordained priest, and he and Allen would become the first black Americans to be formally ordained in any denomination.
Jones led St. Thomas for many years, and it became a center of social and religious life for Philadelphia's African-American community. At the pulpit, his sermons advocated the abolition of slavery, and he also organized petition drives—one of them the first ever from an African-American group—that pleaded with government to end slavery in the United States. Jones was also active in education, both as a teacher and the founder of a school for blacks, and in the Black Masonic lodge in Philadelphia, of which he served as a Grand Master. In 1809, he co-founded the Society for the Suppression of Vice and Immorality with Allen and James Forten, an affluent sail-maker. The group campaigned against the sale of alcoholic beverages, and was also active in civil defense efforts in Philadelphia during the War of 1812.
Richard Allen eventually formed a Methodist congregation that became the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, and was ordained the first bishop of that church on April 11, 1816, with his longtime colleague likely there that historic day. Jones was also known to have been present at large meeting of African Americans in January of 1817, at which some formal opposition was organized in response to the American Colonization Society, which had offered to provide passage for free blacks to Africa. A year before he died, Jones founded a literary organization, the Augustine Society. He died on February 13, 1818, and was buried in the St. Thomas churchyard.
Honored with Portrait
Jones's prominent role in early Philadelphia history is confirmed by the existence of a formal portrait of him, in ecclesiastical robes and holding a bible, that was painted by Raphaelle Peale, son of well-known Philadelphia portrait artist Charles Willson Peale. For a black to be depicted in a portrait that honored his status in life was still a rarity at the time, and the work hangs in the Delaware Art Museum. Jones's legacy also survived in the church he founded. "For decades, Saint Thomas's was emblematic of the striving for dignity, self-improvement, and autonomy of a generation of African Americans released or self-released from bondage," noted Gary B. Nash in the Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. "In his first sermon at the African Church of Philadelphia, Jones put out the call to his fellow African Americans 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.'"
(With Richard Allen) A Narrative of the Proceedings of the Black People, During the Late Awful Calamity in Philadelphia, In the Year 1793, privately printed, (Philadelphia), 1794.
African American Almanac, edited by Jeffrey Lehman, 9th edition, Charles Scribner's Sons, 2003, pp. 417-433.
Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History, 5 vols., Macmillan, 1996.
Notable Black American Men, Gale, 1998.
Christian History, May 1999, p. 38.
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