Absalom Jones was born into slavery in Sussex County, Delaware in 1746. In 1762 at the age sixteen, his owner sold his mother and siblings to a neighboring plantation, but kept Absalom and moved him to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where Absalom became a merchant.
In Philadelphia Absalom taught himself how to read and write, and he began to save pennies that were given to him by visitors at his master’s home, to buy himself some books.
Absalom married a slave woman named Mary King on January 4, 1770. Absalom read an law stating ” that all children born in this country shall be bond or free only according to the condition of the mother.” By 1777 Absalom purchase his wife freedom so that their children would be free.
He wrote asking for his freedom, but was initially denied. In 1784 Absalom saved enough money and eventually purchase his owner freedom.
Absalom was an active member at the interracial congregation of St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. He served as the lay preacher for the black members of the congregation. In November of 1786, during a Sunday service the usher of the church, told the black members they could not join the white members of the congregation in seating and kneeling on the first floor and instead they had to be segregated. The usher then attempted to remove all blacks, including Absalom, from the main floor of the church to the balcony. After completing their prayer, Absalom and the church’s black members got up and walked out as a group.
On April 12, 1787,Absalom, along with another free African American man named Richard Allen subsequently founded the Free African Society (FAS). Members of this organization met regularly and paid dues which helped benefit those in need and to help newly freed slaves. The Free African Society played a big part in give care for the sick and dying of Philadelphia when the Yellow Fever Epidemic swept that city in 1793.
As 1791 began, Rev. Jones started holding religious services at Free African Society (FAS), which the following year Out of the Free African Society grew, The African Church, was organized on July 7, 1791, in Philadelphia. Absalom wanted to establish a black congregation independent of white control, while remaining part of the Episcopal Church. After a successful petition, the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, the first black church in Philadelphia, opened its doors on July 17, 1794. Absalom was ordained as a deacon in 1795 and as a priest in 1804, and became the first African-American priest in the Episcopal Church.
A month after St. Thomas church opened, the Founders and Trustees published “The Causes and Motives for Establishing St. Thomas’s African Church of Philadelphia,” clearly stating their intent
“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.”
Absalom and Allen had different views on where the newly founded church should go, and ended up separating due to disagreements. Absalom remained as the leader of The African Church.
Famous for his oratory, Jones helped establish the tradition of anti-slavery sermons on New Year’s Day. His sermon for January 1, 1808, the date on which the U.S. Constitution mandated the end of the African slave trade, called A Thanksgiving Sermon was published in pamphlet-form and became famous. Nonetheless, rumors persisted that Rev. Jones possessed supernatural abilities to influence the minds of assembled congregations. White observers failed to recognize his oratory skills, perhaps because they believed rhetoric to be beyond the capabilities of black people. Numerous other African-American leaders faced similar rumors of supernatural activities.
In 1817 Rev. Jones and Allen were united again, when they formed the American Colonization Society, which encouraged freed slaves to return to Africa. One year later, Rev. Jones died on February 13, 1818 at his home in Philadelphia. On November 10, 1996, his remains were reinterred in a chapel of his church, St. Thomas African Episcopal Church (now located in Philadelphia’s Overbrook Farms) named in his honor, as is the church’s rectory. The Episcopal Church remembers his life and service annually on the anniversary of his death, February 13.