Far more people probably know the importance of January 1, 1863 than they do the significance of January 1, 1808. Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the north winning the Civil War two years later have left 1863 as the marker for the end of all slavery in the United States. On March 2, 1807, Congress voted that the slave trade to the United States would become illegal on the first of the following year. On January 1, 1808, in Philadelphia’s St. Thomas African Episcopal Church, the Reverend Absalom Jones gave his Thanksgiving Sermon On Account Of The Abolition Of The African Slave Trade. For good reason, many do not recall or even know the significance of new year’s day in 1808; however, it is worth remembering for the problems then that remain with us now.
In hindsight, January 1, 1808 seems fairly insignificant. Not only did the institution of slavery continue to expand in the southern states, the consequent northern African American public celebrations of the ban drew racist and derisive responses from whites in the form of broadsides, newspaper articles, and even violence. Jones’ sermon marked the beginning of almost two decades wherein the black communities of Philadelphia, New York, and Boston celebrated the ending of the slave trade. However, these commemorations gradually disappeared. The celebratory momentum of 1808 ultimately dissipated against the force of a society continually hesitant if not outright hostile to the idea of black people as free and equal.
Yet, at the turn of the century, Jones’ sermon demonstrated and revealed several important changes. Free northern blacks, especially men, began to assert themselves in unprecedented ways via print and public speaking. Moreover, African Americans began to establish their own formal institutions such as fraternities, churches, and mutual aid societies. With Richard Allen, Jones formed the Free African Society, one of the first black mutual aid societies, and Philadelphia’s first black church, the African Church. Allen went on to establish the separate African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1816, and Jones accepted the offer from Anglicans to lead a black congregation that would sit within the Episcopal Church, the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas.
Implicit in Absalom’s sermon was the invocation of a covenant that African Americans had made with God. He began the sermon by giving a “short account of some of the circumstances which preceded the deliverance of the children of Israel from their captivity and bondage in Egypt.” Jones detailed the pains and burdens of slavery in the Old Testament to then explain the emancipatory power of God. As did many other black Protestant writers of his day, Jones understood the Biblical story of Exodus to have a contemporary meaning for enslaved blacks; Black Americans were modern Isrealites, a people who, on account of their suffering and their faith, attracted the concern and care of God. Yet, being an agreement, the covenant went two ways. Having illustrated “the mercies of God to our nation,” Jones then challenged his black audience that “it becomes us to ask, what shall we render unto the Lord for them?” He listed five things: to continually express “gratitude to God for his late goodness and mercy to our countrymen;” to continue to “dispose the hearts of our legislatures to pass laws, to ameliorate the condition of our brethren who are still in bondage;” “to conduct ourselves in such a manner as to furnish no cause of regret to the deliverers of our nation, for their kindness to us;” “to be grateful to our benefactors;” and lastly, to let the “first of January, the day of the abolition of the slave trade in our country, be set apart in every year, as a day of public thanksgiving.” (14-19). In effect, Jones described the abolition of the slave trade as both a watershed moment and a step in a longer unfolding of divine providence.1
The sermon reflected both the problems and promise of American nationalism. While this message of hope inspired blacks and whites to maintain a modern covenant with God on behalf of slaves and the young United States, it indirectly signaled the depths to which racism had rooted itself to the early formation of American nationalism. Moreover, it revealed a problem for free black leadership.
Jones’ sermon reflected his position as one of the most elite in Philadelphia’s first emancipated generation. Living from 1746 to 1818, Jones bought himself and his family from bondage, he witnessed the successful colonial revolt from Great Britain, his activism helped lead to Philadelphia’s gradual emancipation laws, and he gained prominence in public and in print as he established himself as the first black bishop within the Episcopal Church. Jones became a leader in a city that itself drew high numbers of mid-Atlantic slaves running to freedom.2 Jones’ sermon reflected his investment in American nationalism and an earnest hope in future liberation.
In hindsight, one might dismiss his sermon as appeasing a white audience or as an expression of a naive belief in liberal ideas and American democracy. Yet the sermon revealed a different set of more important issues arising from the problem of simultaneously trying to change society while also arguing for acceptance within the nation. Jones recognized that the challenges of slavery and racism would be enduring, but he foresaw a better future through a lens of piety, activism, and respectability. However frustrated Jones was with the slow progress of gradual emancipation in the north and the growth of southern slavery, he chose in his Thanksgiving Sermon to express a tone of moderation, persistence, and patience. That Jones accepted American nationalism while highlighting its limits reflected the complex development of national identities and the intrinsic problem of race.
Neither we nor the generation after Jones remember the Thanksgiving Sermon because it marked an event that ultimately had little effect on the abolition of slavery. After Jones passed, black and white abolitionists grew impatient, yet many, like Jones, remained invested in nationalist ideas of political inclusion. Scholars have explained how Lincoln could emancipate slaves less for their sake than for the sake of the nation. Yet, paradoxically, Lincoln’s nation was also the slave’s nation. Although we remember the Emancipation Proclamation and forget the Thanksgiving Sermon, it is worth understanding that both are part of traditions that have provided imperfect answers to continuing questions and troubles.