10. St. Thomas African Episcopal Church
Although a small minority of African Americans today are members of the Episcopal Church, in the late 18th century it may be the case that the majority of African Americans in America were Episcopalians or Anglicans – as the denomination was called prior to the Revolutionary War. St. Thomas African Episcopal Church was the first Episcopal Church under African American leadership and the first free black church of any denomination in the northern states of America.
Absalom Jones, the first priest of this congregation (ordained in 1802 at Philadelphia’s Christ Church) had previously been a leader at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church until a racist action on the part of St. George’s white members prompted a large walk-out in 1792 of many – but not all – of the African American members from that church. Together with Richard Allen, Absalom Jones founded The African Church which soon became St. Thomas.
Preferring Methodism at first, Absalom Jones was initially lukewarm to the idea of aligning with the Episcopal Church, but many of the first members of this congregation couldn’t stomach the idea of aligning with the Methodists as Jones would have preferred. A clean break, they thought, was needed, and Absalom Jones obliged.
Ground was broken in March of 1793, and it was Richard Allen who turned the first spade of dirt. This congregation would be led by his friend Absalom Jones instead of him, but since Allen was the first to propose an independent church the humble Absalom Jones suggested he be the first to break ground. St. Thomas would not be dedicated until July 17, 1794 – just twelve days before Mother Bethel AME had a similar ceremony.
Both of these dedications symbolized not only the start of a new chapter in American church history but also the rebirth of the city starting to recover from the devastating 1793 yellow fever epidemic.
In spite of the epidemic, Philadelphia was growing and the African American population along with it. The number of African American Philadelphians tripled between 1790 and 1800 to over 6,000 people. In a dramatic reversal from the 1760s, now only fifty-five were enslaved in the city because of the gradual abolition laws which had been put in place in Pennsylvania a few years earlier. The St. Thomas congregation grew quickly. Beginning with nearly 250 members it soon had over 400 – most of whom were some of the most affluent free Africans in the city. Mother Bethel AME eventually surpassed it in membership and by 1831 had over three thousand members.
St. Thomas African Episcopal Church lives on today in the Overbrook neighborhood on the western edge of today’s city. The Reverend Absalom Jones’ ashes are enshrined there and the Episcopal Church USA to this day celebrates February 13th as Absalom Jones’s Feast Day.