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Historical Document
"A Discourse...African Church"

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Click here for the text of this historical document.

Originally the dream of Richard Allen, the African Church of Philadelphia grew out of the Free African Society established by Allen and Absalom Jones. Because of religious differences, Allen had left the FAS in 1789, and Jones had become its leader. On January 1, 1791, the FAS began holding religious services, and this gradually led to the formation of the African Church.

The church opened its doors on July 17, 1794, as the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, making it the first black church in Philadelphia and one of the first in the country. The congregation had already ensured that control of their church would rest in the hands of the black members, with Absalom Jones qualified by the Episcopal Church to act as St. Thomas's minister. Nevertheless, the opening service was officiated by James Abercrombie, Second Assistant Minister of Christ Church and St. Peter's, and the sermon was delivered by Samuel Magaw, Rector of St. Paul's, both of them white ministers.

Taking his text from Isaiah ix, 2, Magaw stressed the "darkness" of the people -- the "Pagan darkness" of their African roots; the darkness and ignorance of slavery, an abhorrent institution which he claimed to be unknown "in this part of America...except in narratives from abroad;" and the "eternal and internal" darkness of sin.

He paternalistically informed the congregation of "certain duties" that "clearly arise" "[f]rom the words thus opened and explained": First, gratitude to God that they "should come from a land of Pagan darkness, to a land of Gospel light," made possible by those who had enslaved them and their fathers (and mothers). Magaw insisted that their "present situation" offered advantages "above what your masters have" for "humbleness of mind... patience, faithfulness, and trust only in God."

The second debt of gratitude was owed to their "earthly benefactors, who planned [their] emancipation from slavery," and in particular to the white Christians of Philadelphia who helped them.

He also advised them to check any feelings of pride in their freedom or accomplishments "by compelling privately and publicly, that 'a slave ready to perish, was my father,' or ... still more humbling... 'a child of hell, was my father.'" To "those of you are not free," Magaw cautioned that they "must not be...discontented" but "should submit in quietness, for conscious sake."

The sermon was subsequently published as "A Discourse Delivered July 17th, 1794, in the African Church of the City of Philadelphia, on the occasion of opening the said Church, and holding public worship in it the first time."

Despite this message of humility and passivity, the leaders of the African Church were clear about their own mission to seek dignity and freedom for themselves and all "people of color." One month after the church opened, Absalom Jones composed a document , "The Causes and Motives for Establishing St. Thomas's African Church of Philadelphia," that stated their intent "to arise out of the dust and shake [them]selves, and throw off that servile fear, that the habit of oppression and bondage trained [them] up in."

Jones was ordained as a deacon in 1795 and as a priest in 1804. He was the first black Episcopal priest in the United States.

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Related Entries:
Richard Allen
Portrait of Absalom Jones

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