Annual Absalom Jones Event Highlights UBE’s Role as Voice of Change - The Episcopal Diocese of Central Florida (2024)

“Absalom stayed.” That’s how Dr. John Robertson, president of the Canon Nelson Pinder Union of Black Episcopalians Chapter of Central Florida, summarized the legacy of the nation’s first Black Episcopalian priest. The local chapter from the Diocese of Central Florida held its 2024 Absalom Jones Celebration on Saturday, Feb. 24 at All Saints, Winter Park, featuring the Rev. Dr. Gayle Fisher-Stewart as guest speaker.

Fisher-Stewart focused on connecting the challenges of the past to the current challenges and successes as well as to those that lie ahead, Robertson said. An author and ordained priest who has also taught at the university level, she retired from the Metropolitan Police Department in our nation’s capital prior to accepting the call to ordained ministry.

(L-R): Diocesan Board member Ama Brown-Fenton, Carrie Brown, the Rev. Dr. Gayle Fisher-Stewart, Sonja Johnson and Faye Henderson at All Saints in Winter Park celebrating the legacy of Absalom Jones | Photo: Courtesy Faye Henderson

Robertson said the day’s theme of “Sankofa: From Absalom to the Future” reminded him of a key message for the UBE as a whole: “The struggle of having a Black voice within our larger church has been important from the earliest days of The Episcopal Church in the U.S. … Absalom Jones and Richard Allen [founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church] were discriminated against, and Allen decided to leave the church, but Absalom decided to stay.

“And so over the many permutations of groups that have attempted to become a voice within The Episcopal Church, that voice and that aspiration of staying within the church and becoming a voice of change has remained,” he explained. “Absalom stayed, and the founders of the UBE stayed. We felt we needed to be that voice, increasing our numbers within the church, also encouraging there to be more African American and diverse clergy along with increasing the diverse laity in the church, and really looking to carry out the baptismal covenant in our activities.”

“He was also influential in the yellow fever epidemic in the 1790s,” Robertson said of Jones, pointing to him as a model for the UBE’s continued emphasis on social justice. “He and Richard Allen were social advocates, and they formed a volunteer corps of individuals who went into the homes of yellow fever victims and cared for them. It’s estimated that through their leadership, they saved something like 10% of the population of Philadelphia. … Absalom Jones also formed a social service agency to help those individuals who were coming out of slavery – and again, this was before the Civil War.”

Fisher-Stewart’s message also emphasized the priority of social activism. “We are Jesus’ hands and feet and mouth,” she said, referencing a prayer from Teresa of Ávila. “And to cast out the demon of racism, to heal from the demon of racism, we are the ones who must look evil in the eye and do as Jesus did when he cast out the demon from the man in the synagogue. … When we challenge the evil spirits of racism and white supremacy with the power of love – that’s what love is, demanding that we be treated as the children of God we are – when we dedicate our very lives to making God’s reign real right here, right now, there will be a better world for our children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews and the generations that follow our time here on this earth.”

Dr. John Robertson speaking at the 2024 Absalom Jones Celebration at All Saints, Winter Park | Photo: Courtesy Faye Henderson

The diocesan UBE is serving as the hands, feet and mouth of Jesus in multiple ways, Robertson said. “No. 1, we were very active in the process of the selection of our current bishop by serving on the Search Committee. Second, we are working with the Becoming Beloved Community Task Force, which is taking a look at the history, the leadership and the opportunities to educate our diocese on racism and attempting to correct the wrongs that have been committed in the past. And then third, we’re attempting to look at recruitment and just how welcoming or not welcoming the diocese is to Black clergy. … These are just some of the things that we see that are really important.

“And so we feel that by dialoguing with our Absalom Jones event and dialoguing through talking with members of the BBC Task Force and then also talking with the bishop, we may be able to create the change in becoming an inviting place, both for clergy and for individuals who have moved into our area,” he said.

Robertson also noted that the UBE offers an annual scholarship to students from the two surviving Episcopal historically Black colleges and universities, Saint Augustine’s University in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Vorhees University in Denmark, South Carolina. “From Absalom to the present and future, we see the work that we do with students as part of an investment in the future,” he said.

The UBE is intentional in its partnership with various churches for its annual Absalom Jones event. “Father Stu Shelby of All Saints was wonderful in warmly welcoming us,” Robertson said. “He couldn’t be there because of a previous commitment, but his staff and everyone really welcomed us. One of the things that we’ve attempted to do with the Absalom Jones event is to carry the message of Absalom Jones to the entire diocese. This is a church-wide celebration, an Episcopal-wide celebration. Despite that, not that many individuals outside of predominantly African American churches know the importance and the significance of both Absalom Jones and the UBE.”

The Most Rev. Michael B. Curry, current presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church, is a longtime UBE member, he added. “We feel that the spirit of love that he has promoted in his tenure as the presiding bishop, and the focus on love and social justice, is something that the UBE has attempted to promulgate and to emphasize in our work.

“Many people wonder, because we’re the Union of Black Episcopalians, whether that’s an exclusive social club,” Robertson said. “But UBE has always had a diversity of members across ethnic and racial lines, including quite a diversity in our chapter. And so again, while we’re the Union of Black Episcopalians, our aim is to become that voice that aims to promote social justice and aims to become a voice in the church as Absalom attempted.”

Annual Absalom Jones Event Highlights UBE’s Role as Voice of Change - The Episcopal Diocese of Central Florida (2024)


What role did Absalom Jones play? ›

In 1794, Jones founded the first Black Episcopal congregation, and in 1802, he was the first African American to be ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church of the United States. He is listed on the Episcopal calendar of saints.

Which church did Absalom Jones minister to and what was important about that church? ›

By 1784, he was able to purchase his freedom and enter business for himself. Along with Richard Allen, Jones became a lay preacher for the African American members of St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church. Under their ministry, black attendance increased to an extent that alarmed the white clergy.

Are there black episcopalians? ›

Though small in comparison to other Black Church bodies, there are around 100,000 baptized Black Episcopalians or 3.5% of the 3,500,000 total membership of the Episcopal Church. Over the past 145 years, there have been 44 Black Bishops consecrated in the Episcopal Church.

Who is the head of the Episcopal Church in America? ›

The Most Rev. Michael Bruce Curry is presiding bishop and primate of The Episcopal Church.

Who was the first black episcopal priest? ›

Absalom Jones was born enslaved in 1746 in the Delaware colony. At 16, his mother and siblings were sold, and Jones was taken to Philadelphia. He had learned to read as a child and was allowed to attend a night school for Black people.

Was Absalom Jones born into slavery? ›

Absalom Jones was born into slavery in Sussex, Delaware in 1746. He taught himself to read in his early teens from books he purchased by saving pennies given to him by visitors to his master's home.

What church did Absalom Jones end up leading? ›

In 1794, Jones and the Free African Society helped Allen found Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church, the first African Methodist Episcopal Church in the nation. As a Minister, Jones was very outspoken on the evils of slavery and became a leader within the anti-slavery movement.

Who ordained Absalom Jones? ›

Bishop William White ordained Absalom Jones as the first black Episcopal priest in 1804 whereupon he denounced slavery and warned slaveholders to “clean their hands of slaves.”

Why are Richard Allen and Absalom Jones important? ›

The names of Richard Allen (1760–1831) and Absalom Jones (1746–1818) are inseparable in Philadelphia African American history as founding fathers of the free black community. Both were born slaves who worked to purchase their freedom.

What religion is Episcopal closest to? ›

The Episcopal Church (TEC), based in the United States with additional dioceses elsewhere, is a member church of the worldwide Anglican Communion. It is a mainline Protestant denomination and is divided into nine provinces.

Can Episcopalians drink alcohol? ›

The Episcopal Church, along with other "mainline" Protestant denominations, the Roman Catholic Church and the major American branches of Judaism, allows its members to consume alcohol.

Are Episcopalians like Lutherans? ›

The two denominations have different histories. Additionally, their governance structures differ at the church level and at the diocese-synod level. For example, the Vestry serves as the Episcopal church governing body, while the Congregation Council serves that function for a Lutheran congregation.

What is a female Episcopal priest called? ›

Female Episcopal or Anglican priests are referred to as “priests” just like male priests. If you mean how are they addressed, I prefer to be addressed as Rev. Denise rather than Mother Denise but this depends on local custom and varies even from church to church.

What is an Episcopal preacher called? ›

The proper, written title of an Episcopal priest is, The Reverend (The Rev.)

How is Episcopal different from baptist? ›

Although most Baptist groups are congregationalist in polity, some have different ecclesiastical organization and adopt an episcopal polity governance. In those churches the local congregation has less autonomy and the bishop oversees them, assigning pastors and distributing funds.

What is Absalom famous for? ›

Absalom (Hebrew: אַבְשָׁלוֹם‎ ʾAḇšālōm, "father of peace") was the third son of David, King of Israel with Maacah, daughter of Talmai, King of Geshur. 2 Samuel 14:25 describes him as the handsomest man in the kingdom. Absalom eventually rebelled against his father and was killed during the Battle of Ephraim's Wood.

Why did Absalom do what he did? ›

Absalom is best known for his betrayal of his father King David, but that betrayal did not occur in a vacuum. It was long brewing and it was sparked by the rape of his sister, Tamar.

Who is Absalom in the story? ›

Absalom (flourished c. 1020 bc, Palestine) was the third and favourite son of David, king of Israel and Judah. The picture of Absalom that is presented in 2 Samuel 13–19 suggests that he was the Alcibiades of the Old Testament, alike in his personal attractiveness, his lawless insolence, and his tragic fate.

Why are Richard Allen and Absalom Jones important in African American history? ›

Absalom Jones established the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in 1792 and became the first African American ordained priest. Allen built the Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church (NAID 71997374) in 1793.

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