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The history of Absalom Jones is quite well documented. He was born a slave in 1746 in Delaware. At the age of sixteen he was sold to a merchant in Philadelphia; however, he was able to earn an income for himself working in the evenings. Using the New Testament he was able to teach himself to read and continued his education at a school run by Quakers. In 1770 he was married and upon completion of his schooling, along with the help of Richard Allen, he formed the Free African Society, which provided assistance to widows and orphans. It wasn’t until 1784 that he was able to purchase his freedom.
Later he would become a lay preacher at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church. Given the popularity of the services he conducted, the church grew ten times what it had been; however, there was a great deal of racial tension because the growth was through the addition of African-Americans members, which, due to the tension, prompted those members to withdraw and form the African Episcopal Church, with Absalom continuing as their lay minister. This work culminated in Absalom making application for Holy Orders, to become a priest, and he was first ordained a deacon in 1795 and a priest in 1802 making him the first African American priest in the Episcopal Church.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “I don’t want just words. If that’s all you have for me, you’d better go.” When I read about the lives of great Christian women and men, like Absalom Jones, I’m often drawn to their words, what they said or wrote, but I also want to see that they have put that faith – those words – into action. All of Absalom’s work spoke clearly to me of a man intent on fulfilling the Gospel message as he understood it, but there was one event that solidified it all in my mind: in 1770 he was married to Mary Thomas, who was a slave in the home next-door to his owner. With the money he earned working for himself at night he purchased his wife’s freedom; however, it wasn’t until 1784 that he was able to purchase his own freedom. He bought his wife’s freedom 14 years before he was able to buy his own. Jesus said in our Gospel, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” There is no question that his work in the African-American community is exemplary. Given the timeframe and the state of the nation at that time, it is truly amazing, but this one action, purchasing another’s freedom before his own, speaks the loudest to me about the character of Absalom Jones.
In our Gospel today, Jesus continued by saying, “You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.” Absalom is one who is called “friend” by Jesus. Friend because of the work he did for the many and friend because of the work he did for the one.
Absalom Jones did not allow the chains of slavery to prevent him from carrying out the work that Christ had called him to, so we can look to him for inspiration in overcoming the barriers that might prevent us from doing the same and to more fully understand what it means to lay down ones own life for the sake of another.
The Presiding Bishop has invited Episcopalians “to deepen our participation in Christ’s ministry of reconciliation by dedicating offerings at observances of the Feast of Absalom Jones to support the two remaining Episcopal Historically Black Colleges and University (HBCUs): St. Augustine’s University in Raleigh, NC, and Voorhees College in Denmark, SC,” so today’s offering will go to support this work.