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Preacher and co-founder of the Free African Society, Absalom Jones, was born on November 6, 1746, in Sussex, Delaware. Jones was born into slavery but went on to become a pioneer within the church.
Despite restrictions on the literacy of the enslaved population, Jones was very fond of learning. After saving his pennies he was able to purchase books that he used to learn how to read. At the age of 16, Jones was taken to Philadelphia where he worked as a clerk in his owner’s store. Jones worked and was even able to attend a school run by the Quakers where he learned mathematics and handwriting.
He married Mary Thomas, an enslaved woman, in 1770. After getting married, Jones was able to purchase his wife’s freedom through hard work and support from family. Fourteen years later, Jones received his freedom through manumission in 1784. During this time Jones was actively involved with the St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia and served as preacher for the Black members of the congregation.
In 1786, Richard Allen began attending the church and the two became lifelong friends. The congregation expanded and Black membership at St. George’s drastically increased as a result of Jones’s and Allen’s efforts. This created tension between white members and Black members so church officials decided to segregate the congregation. All of the tension came to a halt when Black members (led by Jones and Allen) left St. George’s and established “The African Church” shortly after.
Jones and Allen eventually split over denominational loyalties but continued to work towards the same mission. Allen withdrew from the African Church and a small number of followers went with him. Jones remained the leader of The African Church which was formally received into the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania in 1794 and renamed St. Thomas African Episcopal Church.
He became an ordained deacon and in 1804, Jones became the first ordained priest of African descent in the United States. He spent the remainder of his life working with the church and in 1817, he partnered with Allen to oppose the American Colonization Society, which encouraged freed slaves to return to Africa. Absalom Jones died the following year on February 13, 1818.