Dear People and Friends of the Diocese of New Jersey,
So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. John 8:36
Thirty miles from Trenton, at 6361 Lancaster Avenue in Philadelphia, you can visit and experience a significant piece of Episcopal Church history: The African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas. It was originally founded as The African Church by and for persons of African descent in 1792. Its purpose was to “foster personal and religious freedom” among its members. According to their website:
The original African Church was an outgrowth of the Free African Society, a mutual aid organization established in 1787 by Absalom Jones, Richard Allen and others, to assist the Black population in Philadelphia. The early religious services were held in private homes and in a school. Within the congregation were many who, because of growing racial tension and insults, had followed the lay preachers, Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, in an historic walkout from St. George’s Methodist Church. Affiliation with the Episcopal Church was ratified in 1794. The Reverend Absalom Jones became the first Episcopal priest of African American descent and the first rector of St. Thomas’ Church.
Today, St. Thomas is a vibrant church offering a powerful witness well beyond its walls both through its rich worship informed by the Black Church tradition, through its social justice advocacy and through its amazing music program featuring nationally renowned Gospel choirs. In fact, it was through this latter that I discovered St. Thomas and its story when their Gospel Choir offered a concert at St. Paul’s in Delray Beach, Florida, where I served as rector. They took the roof off the place!
Most associated with St. Thomas African Church is the story and legacy of The Reverend Absalom Jones, the first African-American to be ordained a priest in The Episcopal Church. He had been born a house-slave in Delaware in 1746 and lived there until his “owner” moved to Philadelphia and opened a store. Jones was able to work and to go to school. He was also allowed to earn money and married Mary Thomas in 1779, purchasing her freedom in that year. In 1784, he received his own freedom through manumission.
In the 1780s, the Second Great Awakening swept across part of the new United States. Led primarily by Methodist preachers, it was a key moment of religious and evangelical fervor. The Methodist Church was established as a separate denomination from its Church of England mother in 1784 and Thomas Coke, a co-founder of the Methodist Church preached in the pulpit of St. George’s, explaining the formation of the new denomination. That year, St. George’s also licensed Absalom Jones and Richard Allen as lay preachers for ministry to the growing Black community. Three years later, Allen and Jones led their walk-out from St. George’s when vestry members told Black members on a Sunday morning that they would be required to sit in the balcony. This experience led to the founding of The Free African Society and, eventually, the African Church. Under Jones’s leadership, they sought affiliation with the Diocese of Pennsylvania and The Episcopal Church. According to Holy Women, Holy Men:
The African Church applied for membership in the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania on the following conditions: 1, that they be received as an organized body; 2, that they have control over their local affairs; 3, that Absalom Jones be licensed as layreader, and, if qualified, be ordained as minister.
Bishop William White and the Diocese of Pennsylvania agreed to these terms and the church was admitted as St. Thomas African Episcopal Church in October of 1794. Absalom Jones was ordained as a deacon in 1795 and a priest on September 21, 1802. Richard Allen went on to found the African Methodist Episcopal Church (A.M.E.) that would serve African-Americans who wished to belong to a more independent denomination.
In a sermon delivered on January 1, 1808, the first anniversary of the passage of The Slave Trade Act of 1807, which prohibited the importation of slaves into the United States (though it did not abolish slavery, or the slave trade within the United States), The Rev. Absalom Jones preached words that still have meaning and importance for us today. On that New Year’s Day in 1808, Jones said:
Let the first of January, the day of the abolition of the slave trade in our country, be set apart in every year, as a day of publick thanksgiving for that mercy. Let the history of the sufferings of our brethren, and of their deliverance, descend by this means to our children, to the remotest generations; and when they shall ask, in time to come, saying, What mean the lessons, the psalms, the prayers and the praises in the worship of this day? let us answer them, by saying, the Lord, on the day of which this is the anniversary, abolished the trade which dragged your fathers from their native country, and sold them as bondmen in the United States of America.
Absalom Jones died on February 13, 1818. On Sunday, February 13, his feast day, the Diocese of New Jersey will remember these events and, again, celebrate the life and legacy of The Reverend Absalom Jones with an online service beginning at 6:00 PM. I invite all to join us. Register here.
Also, please remember that tomorrow, Saturday, February 12 our Lifelong Christian Formation Committee is sponsoring an online, day long discipleship conference. For more information, or to register, go here.
Set us free, heavenly Father, from every bond of prejudice and fear; that, honoring the steadfast courage of your servant Absalom Jones, we may show forth in our lives the reconciling love and true freedom of the children of God, which you have given us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
God bless you and keep you.
The Right Rev. William H. Stokes
Bishop of New Jersey
 See “History” on the Website – St. Thomas African Episcopal Church found at http://www.aecst.org/about.htm
 Biographical details come from “Absalom Jones” on the St. Thomas African Episcopal Church website found at http://www.aecst.org/ajones.htm, from “Absalom Jones” on Wikipedia found at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Absalom_Jones and from Holy Women, Holy Men (New York: Church Publishing Inc., 2010) see “Absalom Jones”
 From Holy Women, Holy Men” op. cit.