The Reverend Alcena E.C. Boozer, Rector Emerita, St. Philip the Deacon
“For freedom, Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” [Gal.5:1]
In celebrating and thinking about the life of Blessed Father Absalom Jones, an ugly part of our past, slavery must be uncovered. Slavery, how many of us often give serious thought to what it meant to be a slave.
When I taught Black History at Grant High School and it was always a difficult task to guide young minds through the tortured history that is a part, a sad, part, but nevertheless, a part of our collective experience as a nation where persons of African descent were held in involuntary servitude. Usually teenagers like their parents, didn’t want to deal with this story. That was a long time ago, they would tell me. One day, it hit me. No, it wasn’t that long ago. I am the great granddaughter of a slave, that’s just three generations back. Just 73 years before I was born. That got their attention.
Fr. Absalom’s experience and story and the immediate generations after him are close. What was it like? Fr. Jones described it in a sermon delivered on the occasion of the passage of the Abolition of the Slave Trade. He preached on the text, Exodus 3:7-8 “And the Lord said, I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their task-masters; for I know their sorrows; and I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians. After describing the trials and tribulations of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt he went on to describe the plight of the African slaves in America and the West Indies.
HE asserted that the God of heaven and earth is the same, yesterday, and today and forever. “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 different ports in Europe and American, 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 for the purpose of selling them for slaves. He has seen ships fitted out from 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 in the holds of those ships, where, many of them have perished for 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 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 wharves, or, like bales of goods, in warehouses of West Indian and American sea burning sun, with scarcely as much clothing upon them as modesty required. He has seen them faint beneath the pressure of their labors. He has seen own country in the open air, beneath a 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 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, deaf to the cries and shrieks.”
One might posit that given this view and understanding of what Ulrich Phillips called, the Peculiar Institution, and given his own experience of living under the yoke of slavery would have caused Absalom to be angry, and to get as far away from the oppression as possible. But not our blessed Father in God. As one who learned to read by studying Holy Scripture, he developed a deep, passionate love of Christ. Once freedom came for him as an in individual, he worked to lift the yoke of statutory slavery, loose the chains of economic imprisonment, and liberate the minds of his people.
We all know the story of how in the year of 1787, Absalom Jones and his friend Richard Allen were pulled from their knees at St. George’s Methodist Church in Philadelphia and told that they were no longer welcome to worship there. The Rev. Dr. Harold Lewis, preaching in 1991, suggested that the real problem was perhaps that blacks in that congregation had become too numerous and potentially too powerful. Then, as now, said Canon Lewis, “integration, it would appear, was deemed to be a desirable end only if blacks were in a decided and controllable minority.”
It’s interesting to note what happened after the incident. They both continued to preach in the Free African Society that they founded. In 1794 they went their separate ways. Allen believed that the plain liturgy of Methodism was more suited to the temperament of black people and joined the Methodists and later founded the A. M. E. church. Jones decided to appeal to the Episcopal Church for admittance. He ran into the inherent racism of the times. He remained in Deacon’s orders for 10 years and was finally ordained a priest in 1804 at age 58. His congregation, St. Thomas, Philadelphia, was accepted on the condition that they would not seek to be members of the convention of the Diocese of Pennsylvania.
Fr. Jones accepted the conditions and went on to minister in his community.
How did he liberate their minds?…….through education programs, and publications. How did he loose the chains of economic oppression?…… through the establishments of insurance companies, and the acquisition of property through the Freedmen’s Society. How did he lift the yoke of slavery?……..by purchasing his own freedom and that of his wife and encouraging others to also do the same. Additionally he was a prolific writer of pamphlets and articles in abolitionist newspapers, pressing for legislation to end the slave trade.
Like Martin he didn’t get there with the generations that would follow, but he caught a glimpse of the promised land through the growing number of freed blacks who participated in the community life of Philadelphia. During the yellow fever epidemic it was Fr. Absalom and his congregation who nursed the sick and buried the bodies of those who succumbed to the plague, a powerful Christian witness to the greater Philadelphia community.
Fr. Jones pointed the way. Study his life and work and you come to know a soul imbued with a deep love of Christ, awed by the Creative power of God and sustained by the Holy Spirit.
He could be knocked down, but not out.
He could be side tracked, but he never loss site of the track.
He could be insulted and denigrated but he never lost his dignity. It was Frederick Douglass who said, “Let no man make you sink so low as to make you hate him.”
Fr. Absalom never returned a slight. For him the most effective and appropriate response was to offer Christ’s love.
Sisters and Brothers we can learn a lot from such a life and witness. Rather than avoiding serious conversations about the ancient problems of race that divide us, let us revisit history and let it inform our own struggles. Wm. E. B. DuBois, a life-long Episcopalian, wrote in the preface to his 1903 book, The Souls of Black Folk, “The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line.” It continues to be the problem of the 21st century. Let today’s celebration be a beginning of a commitment to read, learn and inwardly digest the lessons to be learned by the life and witness of Fr. Absalom Jones.
We are living in an era where there is a concerted effort to reverse the gains made during the Civil Rights Revolution of the 1960s; voter suppression, economic discrimination, police brutality and hate crimes are recorded daily by the news media. A Muslim man praying in his own yard was murdered in Metzger. It is time for the church to act as it did in the 60s when church folks including many Episcopalians marched and worked for change. Clearly the battle isn’t over, the job isn’t finished. We still have much to do. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has reminded us that we are a part of the Jesus movement. The Jesus movement can bring to bear the power of love over the love of power.
I submit to you that the seeds of the Jesus Movement were sown by Absalom Jones, nourished by generations of dedicated, loyal Episcopalians, has been summoned to mobilize our resources, educate our people and move out into our communities with the message of love.
The message of Absalom’s life and witness is one that should be preached and lived not only on his Feast Day, but every day. In many ways Fr. Absalom Jones started the Jesus Movement on this continent, generations of committed Christians nourished it, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has revived it. It is up to us to take it out of our Churches and into the world.
 Phillips, Ulrich B., American Negro Slavery.
 Lewis, Harold, http://www.episcopalarchives.org/Afro-Anglican
 Lesser Feasts and Fasts, Third Edition, The Church Hymnal Corporation, 1980. p. 143.
For the text of the sermon in PDF format, click on this link: Absalom Jones 2016