A Thanksgiving Sermon
Annotated edition of a January 1, 1808 sermon by Absalom Jones, of the St. Thomas African Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, commemorating the end of legal importation of slaves into the United States. Digitized by the Antislavery Literature Project.
See also: Teaching Guide to Early African American Antislavery Sermons, Joe Lockard
Absalom Jones (1746-1818), together with Richard Allen, were among the earliest ordained black ministers in the United States. Jones was born in Delaware and sold to a Philadelphia storeowner at age 16. He later purchased freedom for both his wife and himself. Both Jones and Allen were educated by Quakers in Philadelphia, where they were students at antislavery activist Anthony Benezet’s school. See Henry Cadbury, “Negro Membership in the Society of Friends,” Journal of Negro History 21 (1936) 2:154. Following the segregation of blacks in an Episcopal church in Philadelphia in 1786, Jones and Allen founded a black congregation, St. Thomas African Episcopal Church. This was the ‘mother church’ for what became, beginning in 1816, the African Methodist Episcopal Church movement. Jones functioned as a minister in the Philadelphia community until his death, becoming one of the major African American figures to emerge from the eighteenth century.
Jones preached the Thanksgiving Sermon on January 1, 1808, the date upon which the United States outlawed importation of foreign slaves. This holiday became one of the central antislavery celebration days among free black communities in the antebellum North. See William B. Gravely, “The Dialectic of Black Consciousness in Black American Freedom Celebrations, 1808-1863,” The Journal of Negro History 67 (1982) 4:302-317. Jones begins by comparing African slavery in America to the events of Hebrew slavery in Egypt recounted in Exodus, adducing “that the deliverance of the children of Israel from their bondage, is not the only instance, in which it has pleased God to appear in behalf of oppressed and distressed nations, as the deliverer of the innocent, and of those who call upon his name.” (p. 10) He asserts that God has witnessed the events of African slavery, but divine intervention also brought an end to legal importation of slaves. Jones proposes that the duties of the faithful are devout gratitude for divine intercession against slavery; prayers for divine influence to bring further legal sanction against slavery; personal industry and integrity by blacks to remain deserving of divine deliverance; gratitude towards antislavery societies and individuals for their work against slavery; and annual celebration of New Year’s Day as an occasion for historical commemoration of slavery and liberation.
For further discussion of Jones, see Joanna Brooks, “The Early American Republic and the Emergence of a Black Print Counterpublic,” William and Mary Quarterly 62 (2005) 1:67-92; Philip Gould, “Race, Commerce, and the Literature of Yellow Fever in Early National Philadelphia,” Early American Literature 35 (2000) 2:157-186; Thomas E. Will, “Liberalism, Republicanism, and Philadelphia’s Black Elite in the Early Republic: The Social Thought of Absalom Jones and Richard Allen,” Pennsylvania History 69 (2002) 4:558-576; Jacqueline Bacon, “Rhetoric and Identity in Absalom Jones and Richard Allen’s Narrative of the Proceedings of the Black People, During the Late Awful Calamity in Philadelphia,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 125 (2001) 1-2:61-90; and Ann C. Lammers, “The Rev. Absalom Jones and the Episcopal Church: Christian Theology and Black Consciousness in New Alliance,” Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church 51 (1982) 2:159-184.
— Joe Lockard