Each year on Feb. 13, we remember the life and legacy of Absalom Jones – the first person of African descent ordained a priest in The Episcopal Church, indeed the first in a major American denomination. It’s the anniversary of his death, at age 71, in 1818. But I’m not sure but that this great freedom fighter, prophet, and preacher wouldn’t have preferred New Year’s Day – which he reserved each year for a stem-winding sermon indicting the evil of slavery.
Because a little-remembered corner of shame in the U.S. Constitution – Article 1, Sec. 9, clause 1 – prohibited Congress from abolishing the slave trade before Jan. 1, 1808, a compromise with the southern slave powers that made it impossible for the United States to eradicate the sin of tracking in human beings, even if had wanted to, for 20 years after the Constitution was adopted.
In 1807, President Jefferson, personally complicit in slavery, signed a statute outlawing the slave trade, written to take effect the moment the 20-year moratorium expired. Most of those already kidnapped from their homes and enslaved would have to wait until the Civil War to receive their freedom.
But Absalom Jones, who had waited so long, who had struggled for each laborious step toward freedom for his family and himself – Absalom considered the absolution of the slave trade a cause of celebration. So on Jan. 1, 1808, at historic St. Thomas’ Church in Philadelphia, where he served as rector – not far from the place the Constitution was adopted – he preached his legendary “Thanksgiving Sermon.” Having finally studied it, I’ll think about it every New Year’s Day and each time we gather in the conference room that bears Absalom’s name at St. Paul’s Commons, Echo Park.
“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 public 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.”
— My remarks at Sunday evening’s Absalom Jones worship service at Holy Faith in Inglewood, sponsored by the H. Belfield Hannibal Union of Black Episcopalians and the Program Group of Black Ministry on the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles. the Rev. Margaret Hudley McCauley preached, the Rev. Joseph Oloimooja presided, and Canon Suzanne Edwards-Acton and the Rev. Guy Leemhuis saw to myriad details.