In 1762 at the tender age of sixteen, a slave named Absalom Jones witnessed his mother and six siblings sold away while he was brought by his owner to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania from Sussex, Delaware. He was put to work in a shop as a clerk and handyman, but was allowed to work in the evenings and keep the earnings for himself.
Understanding the value of an education, Absalom acquired a reading and writing primer and a spelling book. With a courage and determination that would be characteristic throughout his life, he taught himself to read. The truth of God’s Word illumined his soul as he read the New Testament thoroughly, memorizing parts of it. As a result he gave his life to Christ at the age of seventeen.
Eight years later, Jones married a fellow slave named Mary King, and was able to purchase her freedom with his savings and the help of Quaker friends and his father-in-law. He worked and saved for several more years so that by 1784 Jones was able to purchase his own freedom. He remained in the employ of his previous master earning wages.
His owner was willing to allow this because he too had become a Christian, thanks in part to Absalom’s steady witness and excellent character. Jones then purchased a home for Mary and soon after he bought two more houses which he rented out.
Absalom Jones was fully committed to Christ. He could not remain silent, and like the Apostles, preached far and wide. His travels took him to South Carolina, New York, Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania. He was such a powerful speaker that his preaching, along with that of his friend, Richard Allen, saw the membership of St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church where they attended increase ten-fold.
St. George’s was an integrated church, but the increase of black members led the white members who felt overwhelmed, to relegate the black members to the balcony, an act not at all “Christ-like.” Jones and Allen left the church that very Sunday in 1786 with the majority of black members. They established the non-denominational Free African Society where God was worshiped and the community of Philadelphia was blessed by their efforts to help the needy. They provided many types of assistance to newly freed blacks who arrived in the city destitute.
It is thought that the Free African Society was the first black organization in the United States. This courageous group of individuals walked out their faith by remaining in the city of Philadelphia during the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793. They helped Dr. Benjamin Rush, a white man and signer of the Declaration of Independence, to nurse the sick and dying. Absalom Jones and Richard Allen buried as many as 120 corpses a day in an effort to contain the epidemic. In those days no one knew what was causing it.
Jones and Allen remained friends throughout their lives and worked together on many projects, but took different paths with regard to religion. Jones and many of his loyal church members sought membership in the Episcopal church through the Diocese of Pennsylvania. On October 17, 1794 their congregation was officially accepted as the first black Episcopal parish in the United States.
Absalom Jones was ordained a deacon in 1775, and became the first ordained priest of African descent in United States in 1804. The church he founded, St. Thomas African Episcopal Church, is still active in Philadelphia to this day. Visit them at http://www.aecst.org/.