Lifted Hands, Broken Chains: Exploring the Liberating Theological Praxis of Absalom Jones and the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, 1794-1808
AuthorHalley, Marcus George
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SubjectSchool of Theology Thesis 2015; School of Theology, Sewanee, Tennessee; School of Theology, University of the South; Jones, Absalom; African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas; Afrocentric theology; Free African Society; Slave religion
AbstractVast resources in theological scholarship have been dedicated to the evolution of the African American religious experience. Likewise, extensive scholarship has been devoted to understanding the work of Absalom Jones, the first African American priest of the Episcopal Church; however, there has been scant mention of where the two fields of study overlap, particularly in locating Jones within the broader spectrum of that religious expression. This void of scholarship presents an opportunity to engage Absalom Jones as the practitioner of an Afrocentric liberating theologian. The purpose of this thesis is to explore that gap and examine the ways in which Absalom Jones engaged Christian theological praxis as a liberating space; engaged Christian scripture through a systematized Afrocentric, or black, hermeneutic lens; and framed the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, the first African American church in the Episcopal Church, as a safe place for the expression and development of black culture. This study begins by analyzing African traditional religions before tracing the development of the Absalom Jones prior to 1792. In 1792, the black membership of St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church, where Jones served as a lay minister, departed after being refused equal access to the worshiping community and space they helped build. This revolutionary action envisaged a larger protest and boycott of the dominant school of theology which, up to that point, refused to grant black people the dialogue and access necessary to be incorporated into the larger Christian narrative and to help shape that narrative. The departing members would go on to found the Free African Society which would become St. Thomas’s African Episcopal Church. Absalom Jones, who would serve as the first priest of this church and the first black Episcopal priest, framed the ethos of this community by incorporating a myriad of religious and cultural influences including aspects of Slave Religion developed in the Invisible Institution of the African American heritage, Quakerism, Episcopalianism, and strands of Methodism. The end result was the creation of sacred space where the black community of Philadelphia was granted permission to show up in their full presence and power to encounter a God who was present in the same way. This meeting place between God and the gathered community challenged the dominant narrative of theological thought in that scripture was read through and Afrocentric interpretive lens that brought the concerns of the black community to the forefront. This analysis of Jones’s work engages primary historical resources; second historical sources; and contemporary sociological, and liturgical analysis.
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