Sermons That Work

Absalom Jones Observance

February 13, 2004

A Keeper of the Charge!

A charge to keep I have, a God to glorify,
a never-dying soul to save, and fit it for the sky.
To serve the present age, my calling to fulfill;
O may it all my powers engage to do my Master’s will!

(Words: Charles Wesley, 1762. Music/Boylston: Lowell Mason, 1832)

In Black History Month, we celebrate the life and ministry of the Reverend Absalom Jones, the first African American priest ordained in the Episcopal Church. When we take into account his extraordinary life, we are first reminded of a man whose deeply rooted faith in Jesus Christ served as an example of godly love and prophetic witness in the history of the Episcopal Church. Born a slave in 1746, he used the Bible to teach himself how to read. In 1784, at the age of 38, Absalom Jones purchased his freedom from his earthly master, and surrendered it to the Lord Jesus Christ, his heavenly Master. Throughout his ministry, it can be observed that Absalom Jones demonstrated an exemplary faith and steadfast commitment to follow his Lord and liberating Savior. His life is a testimony to the theme for today’s sermon, “A Keeper of the Charge.”

What does it mean to distinguish Absalom Jones as a keeper of the charge? What did he do to acquire such an epigraph?

In 1766, at the age of 20, Absalom Jones married a slave named Mary. After their marriage, the first charge Absalom kept was to purchase his wife’s freedom before his own. The contemporary mind may consider this a sacrificial act of love-and in many ways it was. However, under a lens of critical analysis that characterize circumstances that circumscribed his generation, the transaction becomes more revealing. Absalom Jones was responding to the matter of the stewardship of life, one that would have impact upon the future welfare and “well-care” of his family.

We must remember that slave masters had intimate relations with chattel property. Children born out of such affairs raised a critical question concerning the legal status of the child. British Common Law understood a child’s status to be that of the father, with all rights to freedom and inheritance of property. Such an arrangement would have had a disastrous impact on the future industry and economy of America’s burgeoning slave trade. It has been brilliantly observed that of all the people who ever arrived on American soil, “slaves were the only ones who came fully employed.” [1] Therefore, in order to keep slaves enslaved (or “fully employed”) laws governing the birth of children from such circumstances were amended to read that the child’s status would be that of the mother. [2] Therefore, the first charge Blessed Absalom kept was to purchase Mary’s freedom so that their children would be born free!

Then there was the matter of Absalom Jones’ religious experience. As a devout Methodist, he worshiped in St. George’s Methodist Church, one of a few churches in Philadelphia that opened its doors to people of African descent. Absalom Jones became a licensed lay preacher at St. George’s along with his life-long friend, Richard Allen, who is credited with founding America’s first African American denomination in 1816, The African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME). Today, this historic denomination lists a membership of over 2.5 million people, 8,000 ministers, and 6,200 congregations. [3]

It is a sad commentary to report that as the number of St. George’s black members increased, their presence was no longer welcomed. One Sunday morning, in November 1787, during the time of prayer, a trustee demanded Absalom to rise and move to a newly constructed gallery in the church, a gallery built by the black membership with their own hands. They thought the new gallery was for the use of the whole congregation. However, they soon discovered it was for their exclusive use only. Unbeknownst to these faithful and industrious men and women of color, this new gallery was to become their “slave gallery.” In the end, Absalom Jones was physically lifted and removed from the place he was praying. For this gross indignity, the entire group of blacks walked out of St. George’s, vowing never to return.

In 1787, Absalom Jones and Richard Allen established the first benevolent society for African Americans. It was named The Free African Society (FAS) of Philadelphia. It was organized to provide assistance for the economic, educational, social, and spiritual needs of the African community. In 1792, the membership recognized the need for spiritual house of prayer, a church. In addition, they desired to affiliate with a religious denomination that would not be hostile to their presence and would receive them as an identified worshiping community. Although Absalom Jones preferred to remain a Methodist, a majority of the membership was so disaffected with Methodism because of their treatment at St. George’s that they voted to conform to the polity and worship of the Episcopal Church. They asked Absalom Jones to be their spiritual leader in this endeavor. Contrary to his own denominational affection, he saw another charge to keep. He graciously accepted their call to serve.

In 1792, the “First African Church” was formed. Two years later, the church was officially received into the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania, as the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, Philadelphia. This year, St. Thomas’ Church will celebrate 212 years of mission and ministry in the city of Philadelphia. This vibrant and prophetic parish is the oldest African-American mainline congregation established in the United States. Following the founding of St. Thomas’ Church was the establishment of two other equally vibrant and prophetic congregations: St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, Harlem, NY (1818), and St. James’ Episcopal Church, Lafayette Square, Baltimore, MD (1824).

Under Absalom Jones’ able leadership and shared ministry with the people, as a condition of their reception into the Diocese of Pennsylvania the members of St. Thomas laid before the diocese three requirements for their admission: 1.That they be received as a body already organized: 2. That they have control over their affairs: 3. That if they found fit, Absalom Jones be ordained as their minister. [4]

On August 16, 1795, at the age of 49, 11 years after purchasing his own freedom, Absalom Jones was ordained to the diaconate, and on September 21, 1802, he was ordained the first African-American priest in the Episcopal Church.

St. Thomas’ Church started with a congregation of 250 people. However, in one year, The African Church of St. Thomas grew to more than 500 registered communicants. In that year St. Thomas’ became the second largest congregation in the Diocese of Pennsylvania. Yet it took 69 years (1794-1863) for the Diocese of Pennsylvania to fully recognize the congregation in the business affairs of the Diocesan Convention — with voice and vote!
Nonetheless, it can be said that for more than 20 years, Absalom Jones faithfully served the people of St. Thomas as a keeper of the charge by being among them as a faithful prophet, priest and pastor.

From Absalom Jones’ experience in Philadelphia, there have been countless other black Episcopal congregations across the nation that have struggled in the heat of the day for voice and vote in the local and national affairs of the church. It is through the historic and prophetic witness of the Conference of Church Workers Among the Colored People, the Episcopal Society for Cultural and Racial Unity (ESCRU), the Union of Black Clergy and Laity — now the Union of Black Episcopalians (UBE) — and other commissions and committees, that men and women of valor have called our beloved church to be the “one holy catholic and apostolic Church” of Jesus Christ “in the world and not of the world.”

In addition to his priestly and pastoral care of St. Thomas’, Absalom Jones served Christ in the civic affairs of the city of Philadelphia. During a yellow fever epidemic in 1793, many white citizens were dying in their homes or in the city’s streets while others fled for their lives to the countryside. Absalom Jones, mindful of his charge to keep, rallied the black citizens of Philadelphia to help the sick and dying of the city. These noble and unselfish men and women comforted the sick and buried the dead, sometimes at their own expense. Although it was mistakenly thought that because they were black they were immune to the disease, others paid with their lives by succumbing to the disease after ministering to their white sisters and brothers. Nonetheless, it can be said that Absalom Jones and the black citizens of Philadelphia honorably demonstrated that they, with Absalom Jones, had a charge to keep. What’s more, they kept the charge with dignity and distinction!

By virtue of our baptism covenant, among which is to “seek and serve Christ in all persons; to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being” (BCP, p. 305), a call and a charge to keep continues to stand before us in this present age. No matter what we have to endure in life, no matter what indignities or blind spots hamper our pilgrim journey of faith and prophetic witness for Jesus Christ, we need to know that our Lord has given each of us a charge to keep and a God to glorify! We need never faint nor fail in our mission and ministry, because the Holy Spirit will empower our noblest efforts in Christ’s name.

The charge we are called to keep is rooted in Christ’s command to his disciples, found in John 15:12-13: “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.”

The task of the charge we are called to keep are found in Isaiah 61:1-2a, and Luke 4:18-19: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor..”

So on this day, let us remember and celebrate the Reverend Absalom Jones as a living example of Christ’s love and as one who kept the charge. Not only do we remember him because he was a slave who, after obtaining his freedom, became the first African American priest ordained in the Episcopal Church. We remember and celebrate Absalom Jones because he was a child of God and an exemplary Christian who shared his life with anyone in need of the warm embrace encountered by the low reach of a high God.

In the exercise of our Christian commitment and responsibility, let us pray for power to pattern our lives after the example of Absalom Jones. Our awareness of and willingness to participate in the struggle for justice and freedom continues to stand before you and me. In this age, and for ages to come, may the Holy Spirit inspire us to join hands and hearts with the chorus of saints past and those who presently seek to become “A Keeper of the Charge.”

In the precious name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


Notes: [1] Quote attributed to the Hon. Byron Rushing, State Senator of Massachusetts, in a sermon on Absalom Jones delivered at the Church of Intercession in New York City on February 10, 1995. [2] Pritchard, Robert. The History of the Episcopal Church, (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Pub., 1991, p. 16. [3] See Mother Bethel Church: http://www.ushistory.org/tour/tour_bethel.htm [4] The Annals of the First African Church, the African Church of St. Thomas, Philadelphia, the Reverend William Douglass, Rector, (Philadelphia: King & Baird Printers, (1862), pp. 96-99. See also Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2000, p. 158.

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