Absalom Jones just wanted to pray. Thanks to faithful evangelism by him and his friend Richard Allen, the number of African members at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, had grown substantially. Anyone of any race could become a member of St. George–and despite slavery being something of a norm in colonial America in 1791, Africans were sometimes invited to preach. But as the non-white membership grew, others grew nervous. And on that Sunday when Jones and others tried to pray on the first floor, the ushers pointed to the balcony. As lay ministers for the black congregants, Jones and Allen had organized a mutual aid society for those in need, and their group had generously helped raise money for the church’s new balcony. With the balcony’s completion, its purpose now became clear: segregated seating. James 2:3-4 speaks about a
church segregating according to economics, but the rebuke applies to every way of separating people : “If you give special attention and a good seat to the rich person, but you say to the poor one, ‘You can stand over there, or else sit on the floor’–well, doesn’t this discrimination show that your judgments are guided by evil motives?”
When the ushers tried to forcibly move Jones, he and most Africans walked out the door. It would be another year until the completion of a new African Church of Philadelphia, which then affiliated with the Episcopal Church. In 1794, when it called Absalom as pastor, Rev. Jones became the first black priest in America.
This is black history month and Christians like me in need of ample amounts of sunscreen would do well to broaden our historical horizons. Jones‘ life and ministry is a great addition. In addition to being a great Christian leader in the church, so he was at home. Jones pestered a number of Quakers (all abolitionists) to buy his wife’s freedom from her master–while he remained a slave. True, there was a practical reason to begin with her. She had to be set free before they had children, or by law they would have became property since their mother was a slave. But if a woman was free, so were her children–regardless of the father’s status. She became a free woman in 1778, but it would be another 6 years before Absalom too was free. Leader, provider, protector; just what a husband’s called to be.