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Celebrating Absalom Jones

1/30/2014, 1:35 p.m.

The New York Chapter of the Union of the Black Episcopalians and the Anti-Racism Committee of the Episcopal Diocese of New York are pleased to present a celebration of the life of blessed Absalom Jones. The event, in honor of the first African-American priest in the Episcopal church, will be held at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on Saturday, Feb. 8 at 10:30 a.m.

The Rev. Andrew M. L. Dietsche, the bishop of New York, will celebrate the Eucharist, and the Rev. Canon George W. Brandt will deliver the sermon. The Male Gospel Choir of the First Corinthian Baptist Church will sing as a guest choir. The service will be followed by a reception and live entertainment reflecting the rich cultural diversity of the Episcopal Diocese of New York.

The Anti-Racism Committee aims to educate the clergy and the laity about racial issues. The committee offers training sessions several times a year in various locations throughout the diocese. Beginning with the establishment of St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Philadelphia by Jones in 1794 through the election of Barbara Harris as Suffragan bishop of Massachusetts, there has always been a strong corps of Black Christians in the Episcopal Church—people like James Holly, Henry Delaney, John Walker, Tollie Caution, Charles Lawrence, Deborah Harmon Hines and countless others.

Organized in 1968 as the Union of Black Clergy and Laity, the union is the proud inheritor of the work of these people and earlier organizations—including the Convocation of Colored Clergy and the Conference of Church Workers Among Colored People—that were dedicated to the ministry of Blacks in the Episcopal Church. The name was changed to the Union of Black Episcopalians in 1971.

The Union of Black Episcopalians is a confederation of more than 55 chapters and interest groups throughout the continental United States and the Caribbean. The union also has members in Canada, Africa and Latin America.

To learn more about the Anti-Racism Committee of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, please visit www.dioceseny.org. For more information about the Union of Black Episcopalians, visit www.ube.org.

Born into slavery in the mid-1700s in Delaware and separated from his mother and six siblings at the age of 16, Jones was taken to Philadelphia by his owner. Through extraordinary efforts, young Jones acquired a reading and writing primer, a spelling book and a New Testament Bible. For a time, he even attended a school set up for African-Americans. In 1770, he married a slave woman, Mary King, and put together donations and savings in order to purchase her freedom. By 1784, he was able to buy his own freedom as well.

Philadelphia was home to a large number of freed Blacks during this era, some of whom attended St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church, which was notable because it welcomed Black as well as white members.

Around 1786, Jones became a licensed Methodist lay preacher, and the following year, he founded the Free African Society with Richard Allen, another recently freed slave.

On a fateful Sunday in November of 1787, while Jones and Allen knelt in prayer in the gallery of St. George’s Church, some of the white congregation decided that Blacks should be confined to the balcony. Pulled to their feet by a church official during opening prayers, an appalled Jones and Allen walked out and formed their own group with other members of St. George’s who had also left in disgust. Allen wanted the group to remain Methodist, so in 1793, he formed a Methodist Congregation, but in 1816, Allen left the Methodists to form a new denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

After years of struggle, the church founded by Jones, the African Church of St. Thomas, was formally dedicated on July 17, 1794, and in 1802, Jones was ordained as the first African-American priest in the Episcopal Church. St. Thomas Church became a center of social and religious life for Philadelphia’s African-American community. From the pulpit, Jones advocated the abolition of slavery. He was also active in education, both as a teacher and founder of a school for Blacks. He was also active in Philadelphia’s Black Masonic Lodge, where he served as grand master. He cofounded the Society for the Suppression of Vice and Immorality, campaigning against the sale of alcoholic beverages, and was also active in civil defense efforts in Philadelphia during the War of 1812.

Jones left as his legacy the journey for dignity, self-improvement and autonomy from bondage. He is listed on the Episcopal calendar of saints and blessed under the date of his decease, Feb. 13, in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer as “Absalom Jones, Priest, 1818.”