Sermons That Work

Absalom Jones

February 13, 2003

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)

What a wonderful coincidence that in Black History Month we celebrate the ministry of the Reverend Absalom Jones. When we consider the Reverend Absalom Jones, we are first reminded of a man whose faith in and love for 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 finally purchased his freedom from his earthly master, fully surrendering it to a new Master, the Lord Jesus Christ. Throughout his ministry, it can be observed that Absalom Jones demonstrated an exemplary faith and a steadfast commitment to follow his Lord and Savior. His life is a testimony to the theme for today’s sermon, “A Keeper of the Charge.”

In 1766, at the age of 20, Absalom Jones married Mary King, who was also a slave. Soon after their marriage, the first charge Absalom kept was to purchase his wife’s freedom before his own. The contemporary mind may think this a sacrificial act of love-and in many ways it was. However, under a lens of critical analysis, his action is more revealing. Absalom Jones was responding to the matter of the stewardship of life that would have impact on circumstances that circumscribed the future welfare of his family.

We must remember that slave masters had intimate relations with chattel property. As children were born, questions arose 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. However, 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 a child from such circumstances were amended to read that the child’s status would be that of his or her 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 door to black people. Absalom Jones became a licensed lay preacher at St. George’s, 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 2.5 million people, 8,000 ministers, and 6,200 congregations. [3]

It is sad to say that as the number of St. George’s black members increased, their presence was no longer welcomed. One Sunday morning, in the middle of prayer at the altar rail, a trustee demanded that Absalom and the other black congregants rise and move to a new gallery, a gallery they had built with their own hands. They had thought that this gallery was to be for the use of the whole congregation. However, they soon discovered it was constructed for their 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 from his place at the altar rail where he was praying. For this gross indignity, the entire company 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. Its purpose was to provide assistance for the economic, educational, social, and spiritual needs of the African community. In 1792, the membership recognized the need for a church. They also 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. In addition, they asked Absalom Jones to be their spiritual leader in this endeavor. Contrary to his own affections, 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 209 years of mission and ministry in the city of Philadelphia-and in the world. 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. 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 the Diocese of Pennsylvania 69 years (1794-1863) to invite and include this congregation in the business 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 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 of Philadelphia were dying in their homes or dropping dead in the street. Others fled for their lives to the safety of 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. Others paid with their lives by succumbing to the disease after ministering to their white sisters and brothers. By the way, it was thought that because they were black they were immune to the disease. Nevertheless, it can be said that Absalom Jones and the black people of Philadelphia honorably demonstrated that they had, as Absalom Jones had, a charge to keep. What’s more, they kept it with dignity and distinction!

By virtue of our baptism, a call and a charge to keep stands before all of us today. No matter what we have or endure in life, no matter what the indignities or blind spots that hamper our journey of faith and prophetic witness for Jesus Christ, we need to know that Jesus gives us a charge to keep and a God to glorify! We need never faint nor fail in our ministries, because the Holy Spirit will empower our noblest efforts in Christ’s name.

The charge we are called to keep is 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 tasks of the charge we are called to keep are found in Isaiah 61:1-2a, and in 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, we remember and celebrate the Reverend Absalom Jones as a living example of Christ’s love and as one who kept the charge. We remember him, not only because he was black, not just because he was a slave, and more than the fact that he was the first African-American priest in the Episcopal Church. We remember and celebrate Absalom Jones because of the exemplary Christian life he shared with the Episcopal Church, the people of St. Thomas Church, and the world. We celebrate him despite the fact that he was black, born into slavery, and the first of his race to be ordained to the Holy Order of Priests. We remember and celebrate Absalom Jones because he was a child of God whose life was firmly anchored in and unflinchingly committed to serve the Lord Jesus Christ!

If we can say the same about the example of our own lives, then let us join the chorus of saints past and present who, like Absalom Jones, are keepers of the charge from God, through 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:[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 alsoLesser Feasts and Fasts 2000, p. 158.

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Christopher Sikkema


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