Early on, Absalom Jones got in the habit of thinking of others ahead of himself. While serving as a slave in Philadelphia, he secured the help of several Quakers and his father-in-law, and bought his wife’s freedom. Only then, six years later in 1778, did he buy his own.

Jones became active in Saint George’s Methodist Episcopal Church, and with Richard Allen, was a key player in the emerging black church of Philadelphia. Jones was one of the blacks who left St. George’s when they weren’t allowed to sit where they pleased. With Allen and other blacks, he nursed and buried many of the nearly 4,000 who died in Philadelphia’s 1793 yellow fever epidemic (while many whites, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, fled to the safety of the countryside).

Jones and Allen eventually split over denominational loyalties but continued to work together in founding the black counterpart of the Masons, and opposing the Fugitive Slave Law and the African Colonization Society (whose solution to the racial problem was to ship blacks back to Africa).

In the meantime, Jones became a deacon and, in 1804, the first black priest in the Episcopal Church. In 1794, he had helped found Saint Thomas African Episcopal Church in Philadelphia to encourage blacks to live a pattern of life he had modeled: “To arise out of the dust and shake ourselves, and throw off that servile fear, that the habit of oppression and bondage trained us up in,” he wrote. “And in meekness and fear, we would desire to walk in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free.”

By the Editors

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #62 in 1999]

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