Absalom Jones Commemoration on February 15

January 28, 2015

Absalom Jones, the first black priest in the Episcopal Church, got on the path to ordination when he got kicked out of a church for being too successful at evangelism.

On February 15, 2015 at 3 pm at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, the Diocese of Chicago will celebrate the annual commemoration of Jones as a saint of the Episcopal Church. Dr. Eddie Glaude, the William S. Tod Professor of Religion and African American Studies and chair of the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University, will be the speaker.

Jones, who was born into slavery in Delaware in 1746, was sold to a shopkeeper in Philadelphia when he was 16 years old. There he learned to read and write at a Quaker school. He bought his freedom in 1784 and became lay minister for the black members at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church. As a result of his work, black membership in the church increased significantly.

In a 1991 sermon about Jones now in the Archives of the Episcopal Church, the Rev. Dr. Harold T. Lewis recounts what happened next. Jones, “along with fellow black worshippers in the balcony of Saint George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, were wrested to their feet, and told that they were no longer welcome to worship there. The problem was, perhaps, that blacks in that congregation had become too numerous and potentially too powerful.  Then, as now, integration, it would appear, was deemed to be a desirable end only if blacks were in a decided and controllable minority.”

“Black Episcopalians,” said Lewis, “are the spiritual sons and daughters of Absalom Jones, and have been among the victims of a racism, endemic in our society, that too often finds a happy home even in the bosom of holy mother church.”

The Union of Black Episcopalians in Chicago has been sponsoring the annual Absalom Jones Day observance for decades, but it is the continued evidence of systemic racism in our society, especially evident in issues of law enforcement and criminal justice, that makes the Rev. Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, the Diocese of Chicago’s director of networking, believe that the event has never been more important.

“The timing is always right for remembering and celebrating Absalom Jones and what his life and witness means for our church,” says Baskerville-Burrows. “I can't help but wonder how pleased Brother Absalom might be if he could see the young people of our day standing up, and lying down, and proclaiming that #BlackLivesMatter. The Black Episcopal Church is born out of that very same spirit.”

The Rev. Dr. Fulton L. Porter III, MD, rector of St. Thomas, agrees. While St. Thomas has often been the host of the diocese’s annual commemoration, this is the first year he has been actively involved.

“I think Jones offers a spark of hope to those who feel hopeless. If we look at his life and the obstacles he had to overcome, you might say they were much more grave than what we have to overcome,” says Porter. “I’m hoping that commemoration will put Jones in the context of contemporary issues of race, looking specifically at the black church and black life and where they intersect with social responsibility.”

Porter is especially looking forward to welcoming Glaude, a classmate of his at Morehouse College and a fellow native of Mississippi. “His whole goal is to be a public intellectual engaging with the community on issues of race, class and politics. He’s bringing the academic to the pragmatic.”

“It’s going to be a wonderful event,” said Porter. “We really want to encourage everyone to come out.” 

Category: Diocesan News