Absalom Jones (November 7, 1746 – February 13, 1818)
This year, the New York Diocese will celebrate the ministry and legacy of blessed Absalom Jones on Saturday, February 10, 2018 at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. The Rt. Reverend Andrew M. L. Dietsche, Bishop of New York, will celebrate and Ruby Sales will preach. This will be the sixth consecutive year of this celebration as a diocese and I think it’s safe to say that it has become permanent addition to our annual Eucharistic calendar. Last year, a number of Transfiguration parishioners participated in the festive Mass, both in service and in worship; each returned “filled with the Spirit”.
Why do we celebrate Absalom Jones? A few factoids will make the compelling case for his feast day in the Episcopal Church:
Absalom Jones was enslaved at birth. His owner was Benjamin Wynkoop; he was vestryman, warden and benefactor of Christ Church and St. Peter’s in Philadelphia. Wynkoop manumitted Jones (freed him from enslavement) in 1784.
In 1786, Absalom Jones walked out of St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church along with his fellow worshiper, Richard Allen, after the white parishioners decided that Blacks should only sit in the balcony. Jones spoke to the Episcopal Diocesan Bishop who agreed to assist him, and his Black followers, to establish an Episcopal parish. Eventually, Absalom Jones would go on to be the first African American clergyman ordained in the Episcopal Church in 1802. (Richard Allen remained with the Methodists, but established a new denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, A,M.E.). Absalom Jones’ church would be called the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas. That parish thrives today in the Overbrook Farms neighborhood of Philadelphia.
During the course of his life, Absalom Jones lived Fides Opera; he summoned faith and action into---through---and out of St. Thomas: He was an ardent and outspoken abolitionist; he founded, along with Richard Allen, the Free African Society, a non-denominational mutual assistance society for newly free enslaved African Americans; and he and Richard Allen mobilized the Black population in Philadelphia to provide nursing and assistance to their communities during several outbreaks of Yellow Fever during the 1790's.
In 1992, my husband Sidney and I sojourned south to Philadelphia to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the founding of St. Thomas, Philadelphia. The energy and aura were spectacular. But the most remarkable feature of that visit was a walnut-brown stand, tucked away in plain sight, no taller or wider than a five year old child. We asked a parishioner about it because it looked very old and it didn’t seem to serve a purpose. Her reply stunned and elated us: “That’s the pulpit Absalom Jones preached from.”
Why celebrate Absalom Jones? There are many reasons to be sure. What stands out most for me, however, is this: Absalom Jones chose the Episcopal Church---the Church of his enslavers---to join and minister to. A counter-intuitive choice if there ever was one. But I think the logic of his choice does not derive from experience, or wisdom or even deep thought. The nature of that choice was made possible by God’s grace.
Absalom Jones is the cornerstone of conscience in the American Episcopal Church. A cornerstone of conscience laid a generation before the transatlantic Trade in African People was banned here, and three generations before the abolition of slavery, six generations before the American Labor and the Women’s Suffrage Movements; almost two centuries before women were ordained in our Church; 250 years before Holy Orders and the sacrament of marriage were granted to our LGBTQ members. Even as this arc of justice has unfolded ---and we must celebrate that---lest we forget: The struggle for the just inclusion of people from all communities continues in our Church and will for years to come.
Church, stay woke:
“The stone that the builders rejected, has become the chief cornerstone”