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Founder of the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, Absalom Jones was born into slavery in Sussex County, Delaware, on November 6, 1746. He taught himself to read and knew the New Testament thoroughly at an early age. When he was 16, Absalom’s owner took him to Philadelphia, Pa., where he served as a clerk and handyman in a retail store.
He was allowed to work for himself in the evenings and keep his earning. He was married in 1770. By the time Jones was 38 years old, he had purchased his wife’s freedom, and his own, and had bought a house. Later he built two more houses and used them for rental income.
During this period he met Richard Allen, and they became lay preachers in St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church and lifelong friends. Their efforts met with great success, and the congregation multiplied tenfold.
Jones and Allen, in 1787, organized the Free African Society. The Society was both religious and benevolent, helping widows and orphans and assisting in sick, relief and burial expenses, and the assimilation of newly freedmen into urban life. Because of racial tensions and an altercation with church officials, they left St. George’s congregation.
In 1792, under the leadership of Absalom Jones, “The African Church” was organized as a direct outgrowth of the Free African Society. In 1793, the two men organized the Black community to serve as nurses and attendants during Philadelphia’s severe Yellow Fever epidemic.
In 1794, “The African Church” building was completed and dedicated on July 17th of that year. Absalom Jones led his African Church in applying to Bishop William White for membership in the Episcopal Church. On Sunday, September 14, 1794, the congregation was received into the fellowship and communion of he diocese of Pennsylvania. The following year the Diocesan Convention approved the affiliation with the stipulation that the Church could not participate in the Diocesan Convention this was not resolved until 1864. So “The African Church” became The African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, and Absalom Jones was ordained Deacon. Some nine years later he was ordained Priest, becoming the first priest in America of African descent.
In 1797, when the first African Masonic Lodge of Philadelphia was warranted, Absalom Jones was installed as First Worshipful Master and in 1815 he was elected the First Grand Master of the First African Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania.
During his ministry, Absalom Jones never lost his deep conviction that religious and social action go hand in hand. He founded schools for his people, helped them in distress, and supported them in their protest against slavery and oppression. He helped to found an insurance company, and a society which fought vice and immorality. Absalom Jones died at his home, 32 Powell Street, Philadelphia, Pa., on February 13, 1818. In 1973, the 64th General Convention of the Episcopal Church added his name to the Church calendar as an optional feast to be celebrated.