St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Lewes announced that the Right Rev. Kevin S. Brown, Bishop of Delaware, will dedicate its newly renovated sacristy/chapel in honor of Absalom Jones at 7 p.m.,Tuesday, Feb. 13.
St. Peter's was founded in 1681, when a fledgling worshiping community in Lewes wrote to London to request a clergyperson to serve its congregation. London was the home of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, an Anglican program that provided ministers and resources to colonial congregations in the British Empire. The plantations were mostly worked by slaves. While SPG did not, at that time, object to the morality of slavery, they did believe they had a Christian duty to care for slaves spiritually. They stipulated that all of their clergy should baptize any and all slaves, including infants.
Included in the confines of the congregation at that time was a chapel of ease in what is now called Milford. It is there that Absalom Jones was born in 1746, and since the area was being ministered to by the Rev. Upshaw, from SPG, it is likely that Jones was baptized by him. While a school has been named in Jones' honor, to the church's knowledge, no church or chapel in Delaware bears his name. Naming St. Peter's Chapel seems fitting, given its history with Delaware's only recognized saint.
Jones is listed on the Episcopal calendar of saints and remembered liturgically on the date of his death, Feb. 13, in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer as "Absalom Jones, Priest, 1818."
All are welcome to attend this special dedication service.
Who is Absalom Jones?
Absalom Jones was born enslaved to Abraham Wynkoop, a wealthy Anglican planter in 1746 in Delaware. He was working in the fields when Wynkoop recognized that he was an intelligent child and ordered that he be trained to work in the house. Jones eagerly accepted instruction in reading. He also saved money he was given and bought books (among them a primer, a spelling book, and a Bible). Abraham Wynkoop died in 1753, and by 1755 his younger son Benjamin had inherited the plantation. When Jones was 16, Wynkoop sold the plantation as well as Jones’ mother, sister and five brothers.
Wynkoop brought Jones to Philadelphia where he opened a store and joined St. Peter’s Church. In Philadelphia, Wynkoop permitted Jones to attend a night school for black people that was operated by Quakers following the tradition established by abolitionist teacher Anthony Benezet.
At age 20, with the permission of their masters, Jones married Mary Thomas, who was enslaved to Sarah King who also worshipped at St. Peter’s. The Rev. Jacob Duche performed the wedding at Christ Church. Jones and his father-in-law John Thomas used their savings, and sought donations and loans primarily from prominent Quakers, in order to purchase Mary’s freedom.
Jones and Thomas worked very hard to repay the money borrowed to buy her freedom. Although Jones repeatedly asked Wynkoop to allow him to buy his freedom, he refused. Jones persisted because as long as he was enslaved, Wynkoop could take his property and his money. They saved enough money to buy property and to buy Jones’ freedom. Finally, in 1784, Benjamin Wynkoop freed Jones by granting him manumission. Jones continued to work in Wynkoop’s store as a paid employee.
Meeting Richard Allen
Jones left St. Peter’s Church and began worshiping at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church. He met Richard Allen, who preached at St. George’s and the two became lifelong friends. Together, in 1787, they founded the Free African Society, a mutual aid benevolent organization that was the first of its kind organized by and for black people. Members of the society paid monthly dues for the benefit of those in need. At St George’s, Jones and Allen served as lay ministers for the black membership.
The active evangelism of Jones and Allen greatly increased black membership at St. George’s. The black members worked hard to raise money to build an upstairs gallery intended to enlarge the church. The church leadership decided to segregate the black worshipers in the gallery, without notifying them. During a Sunday morning service, a dispute arose over the seats black members had been instructed to take in the gallery, and ushers attempted to physically remove them by first accosting Absalom Jones. Most of the black members present that day indignantly walked out of St. George’s as a group.
The Early African Church
Prior to the incident at St. George’s, the Free African Society had initiated religious services. Some of these services were presided over by the Rev. Joseph Pilmore, an assistant St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. The society established communication with similar black groups in other cities. In 1792, the society began to build the African Church of Philadelphia. The church membership took a denominational vote and decided to affiliate with the Episcopal Church. Richard Allen withdrew from the effort as he favored affiliation with the Methodist Church. Absalom Jones was asked to provide pastoral leadership, and after prayer and reflection he accepted the call. The African Church was dedicated on July 17, 1794. The Rev. Dr. Samuel Magaw, rector of St. Paul’s Church, preached the dedicatory address. Magaw was assisted at the service by the Rev. James Abercrombie, assistant minister at Christ Church.
Soon thereafter, the congregation applied for membership in the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania on the following conditions:
• That they be received as an organized body;
• That they have control over their own local affairs;
• That Absalom Jones be licensed as lay reader, and, if qualified, be ordained as minister.
In October 1794, it was admitted as the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas. The church was incorporated under the laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 1796. Bishop William White ordained Jones as deacon in 1795 and as priest on Sept. 21, 1802.
Jones was an earnest preacher. He denounced slavery, and warned the oppressors to “clean their hands of slaves.” To him, God was the Father, who always acted on “behalf of the oppressed and distressed.” But it was his constant visiting and mild manner that made him beloved by his congregation and by the community. St. Thomas Church grew to over 500 members during its first year. The congregants formed a day school and were active in moral uplift, self-empowerment and anti-slavery activities. Known as “the Black Bishop of the Episcopal Church,” Jones was an example of persistent faith in God and in the church as God’s instrument. Jones died Feb. 13, 1818.
- Background information below is by Arthur K. Sudler from the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in Philadelphia.