Honoring Absalom Jones' legacy, nation's first black Episcopal church celebrates 215 years

November 7, 2007

To commemorate its legacy and embrace its future, more than 400 people came to the church that the Rev. Absalom Jones founded to celebrate its 215th anniversary.

"Honoring our Past -- Embracing our Future" was the theme of the November 2-4 celebration at the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

"I am very humbled to serve as the 17th rector of such a historic parish within our city and nation," said the Rev. Martini Shaw. "I pray that God may continue to bless the dynamic work and ministry of the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in the years to come."

Founded in 1792 by Jones, a former slave, St. Thomas is the oldest African American Episcopal church in the United States and the first black church in Philadelphia. Jones was the first person of African ancestry to be ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church. He and Richard Allen, the nation's first African-American Methodist preacher, changed history when they initiated a walkout from St. George's Methodist Church after blacks were denied full membership.

The commemorative weekend included a music showcase featuring several of St. Thomas' choirs, a black-tie gala and a concluding, All Saints Day anniversary service at which Long Island Bishop Orris Walker preached.

"It is an honor for me to join in your anniversary celebration and in this day of commemoration of all the saints," said Walker. "Without St. Thomas in Philadelphia, which is affectionately known as 'First Church' in the Afro-American Anglican tradition, and without the faithful witness of many, beginning with blessed Absalom Jones, I would not be standing before you as the first African-American bishop elected from priestly orders.

"As we seek to honor the legacy of the founders of this historic church, we must remember and affirm that special calling of the black church, to remind the whole church that the full gospel must be preached and practiced as we strive to live out our discipleship faithfully," he added.

Reconciling the past
In the spirit of reconciliation, the Rev. Fred Day, pastor of Historic St. George's United Methodist Church, the denomination's oldest church building in continuous service, attended with his wife.

"Because of the very inhospitable and unwelcoming events which lead Richard Allen and Absalom Jones and those who followed them to leave Historic St. George's, part of our legacy as a historic church isn't just looking backwards to the past and telling those stories of the past," said Day. "It's living that past into the present in ways that I hope are redemptive and I hope can be reconciling for all of our communities."

Day said it was important for him to represent his church at the "landmark anniversary celebration."

"We wanted to celebrate with our brothers and sisters, who are the spiritual children of Absalom Jones, the great accomplishments of their church," he said. "We also wanted to claim and reconnect with the common heritage that we have and celebrate that as well."
The events of the past "still speak to us today" in terms of the work still needed to combat racism as well as to create churches that are both "welcoming and hospitable," he said.

In his sermon, Walker said, "The whole church must be reminded of the cancer of racism that is still within the very fabric of American society and life."

"If we are to experience the fullness of Jesus' victory over sin and death, we must be diligent in our pursuit of justice and peace among and for all people," he said. "Having been excluded from the decision-making institutions of American society for hundreds of years, we know that we must be insistent that all people, being created in the image of God, are always welcome into our journey and fellowship. And, as contemporary followers of that steadfast and courageous Absalom Jones, we should do no less."

All proceeds from the weekend celebration will benefit the St. Thomas scholarship fund and Outreach Ministries.

"The grace and mercy of God has kept St. Thomas through these 215 years," said Shaw. "So it's certainly God's grace and mercy that is leading us towards the days ahead."