Yesterday we (the Episcopal Church) celebrated the saint's day of blessed Absolom Jones. Absolom Jones was the first black man ordained a priest by our Church, in 1802.
Long before that, he began life as a slave in 1746 in Delaware. Undertaking his own education, he purchased the freedom of his wife, and then his own. He served as a lay minister in the Methodist Church, until the day when so many black people had joined the church that the white congregants became upset, and demanded they sit in the balcony. Instead, they walked out, forming the Free African Society. Throughout the next year his city of Philadelphia was by yellow fever, so that there was sometimes no one even to bury the dead. Jones and fellow black citizens gave themselves to care of those in need (at a rate 20 times higher than white volunteers), and Jones himself became sick, but recovered. The year after the epidemic Jones led his congregation as they applied and were accepted for membership in the Episcopal Church, naming the church for St. Thomas. Jones was ordained first a deacon, and years later in 1802, a priest.
Absolom Jones' story is one I am very proud to recall, as a fellow Episcopalian. He was a person whose courage, and fortitude of dignity, I do not think ever to match, but always to be inspired by. I hope that all Episcopalians, and all people, would be glad to tell his story.
I must also say that I am unsettled by Absolom Jones' story. Because even in his bodily and spiritual triumph over slavery, he reminds me of the whole great slavery-wound which has been so much more persistent than a bout of yellow fever.
One thing Absolom Jones knew about was the need to know and respond to reality. He was clear in his vision, and clever, resourceful, and eloquent in his response. I believe that hearing from him directly, across the centuries, saves me from hero worship, and allows me to better know the context of his courage; better celebrate Jones with honesty.
Therefore I offer here some stirring, eloquent words from his 1808 sermon on the occasion of the abolition of the African slave trade by the US Congress. If you wish, perhaps read them, and join yourself a little more fully to this great saint, and to the reality of our land, where we give ourselves to the work of healing today.
The history of the world shows us, that the deliverance of the children of Israel from their bondage, is not the only instance, in which it has pleased God to appear in behalf of oppressed and distressed nations, as the deliverer of the innocent, and of those who call upon his name. He is as unchangeable in his nature and character, as he is in his wisdom and power. The great and blessed event, which we have this day met to celebrate, is a striking proof, that the God of heaven and earth is the same, yesterday, and to-day, and for ever. Yes, my brethren, the nations from which most of us have descended, and the country in which some of us were born, have been visited by the tender mercy of the Common Father of the human race. He has seen the affliction of our countrymen, with an eye of pity. He has seen the wicked arts, by which wars have been fomented among the different tribes of the Africans, in order to procure captives, for the purpose of selling them for slaves. He has seen ships fitted out from different ports in Europe and America, and freighted with trinkets to be exchanged for the bodies and souls of men. He has seen the anguish which has taken place, when parents have been torn from their children, and children from their parents, and conveyed, with their hands and feet bound in fetters, on board of ships prepared to receive them. He has seen them thrust in crowds into the holds of those ships, where many of them have perished from the want of air. He has seen such of them as have escaped from that noxious place of confinement, leap into the ocean; with a faint hope of swimming back to their native shore, or a determination to seek early retreat from their impending misery, in a watery grave. He has seen them exposed for sale, like horses and cattle, upon the wharves; or, like bales of goods, in warehouses of West India and American sea ports. He has seen the pangs of separation between members of the same family. He has seen them driven into the sugar; the rice, and the tobacco fields, and compelled to work--in spite of the habits of ease which they derived from the natural fertility of their own country in the open air, beneath a burning sun, with scarcely as much clothing upon them as modesty required. He has seen them faint beneath the pressure of their labours. He has seen them return to their smoky huts in the evening, with nothing to satisfy their hunger but a scanty allowance of roots; and these, cultivated for themselves, on that day only, which God ordained as a day of rest for man and beast. He has seen the neglect with which their masters have treated their immortal souls; not only in withholding religious instruction from them, but, in some instances, depriving them of access to the means of obtaining it. He has seen all the different modes of torture, by means of the whip, the screw, the pincers, and the red hot iron, which have been exercised upon their bodies, by inhuman overseers: overseers, did I say? Yes: but not by these only. Our God has seen masters and mistresses, educated in fashionable life, sometimes take the instruments of torture into their own hands, and, deaf to the cries and shrieks of their agonizing slaves, exceed even their overseers in cruelty. Inhuman wretches! though You have been deaf to their cries and shrieks, they have been heard in Heaven. The ears of Jehovah have been constantly open to them: He has heard the prayers that have ascended from the hearts of his people; and he has, as in the case of his ancient and chosen people the Jews, come down to deliver our suffering country-men from the hands of their oppressors. We celebrate Absolom Jones on Feb. 13th, the last day of his earthly life, because it was also the first day of his eternal life. He is living still. May his spirit strengthen us in Christian friendship, and for continued healing as God comes down to deliver still. Blessed Absolom, pray with us.