“God of peace! and grant, that this highly favoured country may continue to afford a safe and peaceful retreat from the calamities of war and slavery, for ages yet to come.”
Article 1 of the United States Constitution states that the importation of slaves “shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to” 1808, and indeed, the document does not require that the government ever implement such a prohibition. However, in 1807 Congress passed a law prohibiting the further importation of slaves as of January 1, 1808. On that date, the Reverend Absalom Jones, a former slave and the first African American Episcopal priest, preached a sermon of thanksgiving, celebrating that no more people would be brought into the country as slaves. Although slavery remained legal in the United States, and those born into slavery could still be bought and sold, the abolition of the importation of slaves was seen as a major step toward the overall abolition of slavery. In his sermon, Jones dramatically presents the anguish of the familial separation inherent in slavery and gives thanks that at least some suffering will now be prevented.
Slavery was a part of the American economic system from the early colonial days. Africans were sold to European slave traders and transported to the New World, where they were sold throughout the Caribbean and the Americas. Although slavery was built into the United States’ economic system, especially that of the southern plantations, it was not supported by all Americans. The treatment of slaves also varied widely between regions and from owner to owner. During the colonial period, the movement to end slavery developed largely based on the ideals of certain religious groups. The excesses of some slave owners also drew people into the movement. As the issue of slavery was incredibly divisive, the writers of the Constitution sought to compromise, ultimately stipulating that while Congress could eventually choose to prohibit the importation of slaves, such a prohibition could not take effect until 1808.
Some slaves in the United States were granted or allowed to purchase their freedom. One such individual was Jones, who after purchasing his freedom became an ordained minister and leader within the Episcopal Church. After experiencing discrimination at a church in Philadelphia, he helped found the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, where in 1808 Jones preached his sermon of thanksgiving, praising both God and the United States government for bringing an end of the importation of slaves. Although Jones saw this measure as a great victory, he was aware that it was only one step toward the ultimate goal of ending slavery. The joy Jones felt at the abolition of the slave trade was tempered by the need to end slavery everywhere, and to that end, he sought to remind his congregation that more progress could be made toward that goal if their lives were seen by white Americans as “regulated by the precepts of the gospel.”
Absalom Jones was born a slave in 1746 in Sussex County, Delaware. His exact date of birth is unknown, although some sources report that he was born on November 6 of that year. As a child, he was given the opportunity to attend religious services, at which he developed his strong Christian faith. At the age of sixteen, he was sold to a merchant in Philadelphia. The merchant allowed Jones to do as he wished in the evenings, and Jones pursued a formal education at a Quaker night school for students of African descent and later began to take on paid work. On January 4, 1770, he married Mary King, a slave in a neighboring household. Using the money earned during the evenings, Jones purchased Mary’s freedom, thus ensuring that any children would not be born into slavery. In 1784, Jones had earned enough money to purchase his own freedom.
Once free, Jones and another former slave from Delaware, Richard Allen, began attending St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church, which was unusual in that it allowed African Americans to attend its services. They became lay ministers and greatly increased the number of African American attendees. However, in 1787 the congregational leaders decided that African Americans should not participate equally with white members. Jones, Allen, and the other African Americans in attendance left the church for good and formed the Free African Society, a religious and social organization out of which a congregation known as the African Church eventually developed. During the yellow fever epidemic of 1793, Jones helped organize African Americans to aid the city of Philadelphia in dealing with the disease.
Jones decided to unite the African Church with the Episcopal Church in 1794, founding the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas as an independent congregation. The following year, Jones was ordained as a deacon, and he became a full priest in 1804. In 1800, he and other African American leaders petitioned Congress to abolish slavery, the first such petition by free individuals of African descent. During the War of 1812, he and Allen organized the African American community for the defense of Philadelphia. Jones died in Philadelphia on February 13, 1818
As one who had personally seen and experienced slavery, Jones knew of the cruelty that some slaves experienced and was deeply aware that although he had the good fortune to purchase his own freedom, many slaves were not given that opportunity. Although born in North America, he understood what it meant to be separated from one’s family because of someone else’s decision to sell a slave into an unknown situation. The enactment of a law banning the importation of slaves, then, was a cause for celebration. At the same time, Jones understood that for the antislavery movement to achieve further success, those African Americans who were fortunate enough to be free would have no choice but to withstand the harsh scrutiny of a society that did not readily welcome them as free. Jones believed that if those already free were able to demonstrate Christian qualities in their lives, they would be more able to achieve their goals. Thus, Jones’s sermon delivered on January 1, 1808, which was later distributed in printed form, serves two purposes. First, his sermon of thanksgiving is just that—a speech thanking and praising God for hearing the prayers of African Americans, both enslaved and freed. Second, his sermon reminds his parishioners that they too must play a role in achieving further reforms.
Building upon a reading from the biblical book of Exodus, Jones compares the situations of the Israelite slaves in Egypt and the African slaves in the United States. He emphasizes that when God comes to free the Israelites from bondage in Exodus, God says, “I am come down”; thus, for the Israelites it is a personal salvation. Moving on the situation in the United States, Jones outlines the sufferings of those being enslaved and those already in bondage, giving graphic depictions of their struggles and despair.
For Jones, just as God saw the suffering of the Israelites in Egypt, he sees the suffering of the slaves in the United States. The first aspect of this suffering that Jones cites is the pain of not being taught about Christianity. This “neglect” of the slaves’ “immortal souls” is inflicted upon them by their owners. For Jones, a Christian leader, this neglect was a problem that desperately needed to be addressed. However, he does not ignore the physical torture that some slaves endured. Listing various devices commonly used to torture slaves who disobeyed their owners or tried to run away, Jones calls attention to the difference between overseers, who were normally in charge of the day-to-day affairs of slaves, and slave owners. Generally, he argues, the owners are more educated and worldly than the overseers and therefore should better understand compassion. However, Jones charges that when owners are involved, the torture is often worse. The owners and overseers are “deaf to the cries and shrieks of their agonizing slaves.”
Placing the human lords, the slave owners, in opposition to the heavenly Lord, Jones states that the slaves’ “cries and shrieks” are heard “in Heaven.” Returning to the parallel between the Israelites and African slaves, Jones indicates that God has heard them both and that the abolition of the slave trade is therefore the result of divine intervention. Although some might question Jones’s belief that God influenced the writing of the Constitution and the passage of the law banning the importation of slaves, for Jones this was clearly God at work. Although Jones makes his understanding of this ban clear, he somewhat overstates the role of the Constitution in bringing it about. The Constitution stipulates that legislators may end the importation of slaves in 1808 but does not mandate that they do so, as Jones implies. However, Jones also acknowledges the role of Congress in implementing the prohibition, which “commences on this happy day,” and he also cites a similar law that banned the slave trade in Great Britain the previous year.
Jones then discusses the blessing that these laws will give to Africa. The general suffering caused by the slave trade, as well as the personal suffering, will end. However, Jones’s assessment is somewhat optimistic. While British and American ships transported a substantial number of slaves, and the British colonies and American states were two of the major markets, the new laws outlawing the importation of slaves did not totally end the slave trade. Slaves could still be taken to other countries and colonies, and smuggling was and is always a problem with any precious commodity, including human beings. Thus, while Jones had good reason to celebrate a major step forward, his sermon begins on a more optimistic note than is truly justified.
Jones goes on to ask how African Americans should respond to “the mercies of God to our nation.” He declares that sacrifices, burnt offerings, public worship, and special ceremonies such as those described in the Old Testament will not suffice and lists five appropriate responses to God’s mercy. These “duties,” as Jones calls them, are acts of thanksgiving and actions that will bring about further change. Jones explains that African Americans should continually give thanks to God for the changes he has wrought, pray for the further liberation of the people of Africa, live exemplary lives in order to achieve further reforms, give thanks to the human agents who supported and brought about the changes, and commemorate January 1 as a day of thanksgiving and remembrance. After explaining these duties, Jones finishes the sermon with statements of exaltation for God and more prayers for further progress.
Within his exhortations to give thanks and statements about the progress that has been made, Jones presents four additional goals toward which free African Americans and their white allies should work. These are expertly woven into the calls for prayer and thanksgiving and add depth to the sermon. Jones’s first goal is to end the slave trade everywhere. While this is only a preliminary step toward the second goal of ending slavery altogether, it is still an important one. The importation of slaves to the United States or to British colonies was no longer legal, and Jones and the congregation were thankful for this progress even if it did not represent a full reform. Within the description of the second duty, which states that the congregation must pray for its “brethren in Africa,” Jones advocates the cessation of the slave trade throughout the world. He instructs the congregation to ask God to cause all European nations to stop participating in the slave trade. Within his explanation of the fourth duty, Jones urges free African Americans to give thanks for those individuals and groups who write and speak against the slave trade, knowing that with support, their work will continue.
Jones expresses his desire for a complete end to the institution of slavery on many occasions throughout his sermon. In his explanation of the first duty, Jones states that the congregation should give thanks to God for the state leaders who ended slavery within their states. In his discussion of the second duty, Jones echoes the idea from the biblical Epistle to Philemon that Christianity should be shared with slaves so that “they may become, even while they are the slaves of men, the freemen of the Lord.” Jones’s statement implies that if a person is accepted as free by God, then that person should be accepted as free by humans as well. Describing the third duty, Jones states that if God allows slavery as a means of spreading Christianity among Africans, then African American slaves should be freed and allowed to go back to Africa to share the gospel. The duty of gratitude to “abolition societies” laid out in the fourth section implies that these societies have chosen the right path; Jones’s fifth point, which stipulates that African Americans must teach their descendents about the struggles of slaves, indicates Jones’s belief that, in the near future, slavery will be a mere memory. In the closing prayers and benedictions of the sermon, Jones makes it totally clear that slavery should end. He prays that “this highly favoured country,” the United States, will safely move toward peace and away from slavery. This was the ultimate political and social goal for Jones, and the duties he outlines are steps toward achieving it.
The third goal outlined in Jones’s sermon is not to achieve a great political victory. Rather, it is to understand why the institution of slavery has been allowed to exist and what its existence implies about God. Given Jones’s view of God as a being who oversees all things, he believed that God must have allowed the institution to develop and exist. He states, “It has always been a mystery, Why the impartial Father of the human race should have permitted . . . all the miseries of slavery.” Jones indicates that the only reasonable answer he can discern is that God uses the institution of slavery to spread the Christian gospel to Africans and people of African descent. This theory was common in the early nineteenth century and was even used by those hoping to justify the continuation of slavery. Jones understood that even for slaves who were well treated, there was the “anguish of families, parted for ever by a publick sale.” For Jones, the only way to counterbalance this suffering was by allowing slaves to “become wise unto salvation.” Thus, Jones admonishes slave owners to treat their slaves with kindness and allow them to develop the skills necessary to “understand the doctrines of the Christian religion.” If the “knowledge of the gospel” is not shared or accepted, then according to Jones’s line of thought, the whole institution of slavery will be contrary to God’s purpose. Thus his exhortation that freed slaves live good and moral lives reflects not only his desire to gain further political support but also his belief regarding the reason for slavery’s existence. He further states, “Let our conduct be regulated by the precepts of the gospel.” If salvation is not the end product of slavery, Jones implies, then all the suffering will have been for nothing.
In his outline of the congregation’s final duty, Jones states that African Americans should hold annual celebrations on January 1 commemorating the abolition of the slave trade. This duty ties into his fourth goal, which is to ensure that even after slavery has been entirely abolished, African Americans remain aware of the “history of the sufferings of [their] brethren, and of their deliverance.” Jones believed that the descendants of slaves and former slaves should pass down an understanding of the cruelty of slavery, even to the “the remotest generations.” This goal has largely been achieved, although Jones’s goal that the end of the slave trade be commemorated each year has not. However, a number of similar days of celebration and thanksgiving commemorating other victories in the movement away from slavery occur throughout the United States. For example, the Juneteenth celebrations held each year on June 19 commemorate the day in 1865 that the slaves in Texas received word of their freedom, more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln’s issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. Such celebrations further fulfill Jones’s goal of raising awareness and ensuring the remembrance of the horrors of slavery. While Jones’s desire for remembrance is most clearly stated in his description of this last duty, it is reflected in each of the previous duties through his instructions to give thanks. In his explanation of the third duty, Jones reminds members of his congregation that they should remember that their ancestors were “African slave[s], ready to perish.” In addition to believing in the importance of thankfulness, he wanted everyone of African descent to remember why they were giving thanks.
The final section of Jones’s sermon consists of statements of thanks for what had come to pass and pleas for further change. Jones begins with the affirmation that all people are related, noting that God has “made of one blood all nations of men.” He then gives thanks for those who have received the Christian faith and hopes for a brighter future in the “perfect day of [God’s] goodness and mercy.” Jones asks that the areas of the world that have not yet received the Christian message soon receive it. He refers to the un-Christianized area of Africa from which most African Americans have come as Ethiopia, although in actuality, Christianity had existed in Ethiopia since before the religion spread into most of Europe. His use of Ethiopia as a signifier for a larger area derives from the biblical tendency to refer to sub-Saharan Africa by that name. Jones prays that those following “false religions” will accept Christianity, and he closes his sermon with a prayer seeking blessings upon all people in Great Britain and the United States for the ending of the importation of slaves. Jones was thankful for what had come to pass, and through his thanksgiving sermon, he hoped to establish a firmer foundation for the changes still to come.
Jones lived in a time of great tension between those seeking to abolish slavery and those seeking to solidify its position in US society. As a church leader and former slave, Jones spoke out forcefully on the inhumanity of the institution and the need for it to end. His thanksgiving sermon looks beyond the prohibition of the slave trade to the abolition of slavery itself. While the individuals and groups working to abolish slavery early in the nineteenth century were not as numerous as they would be a few decades later, this sermon supported their work.
As the first African American Episcopal priest, Jones had great standing within his religious community. This standing ensured that his message reached a wide audience, even if not everyone who heard or read his sermon agreed with his point of view. Sermons such as Jones’s encouraged audiences to seek the abolition of slavery and further movement toward equality. Naturally, Jones spoke in the language of his day and from a worldview that to twenty-first-century readers may seem very limited. However, even from a twenty-first-century point of view, Jones’s statements calling for an end to slavery are bold. It would be more than five decades before his dream of freedom for all African Americans was realized. However, as a social and religious leader, Jones made a substantial contribution to the political and social movement that brought slavery to an end.
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