Walton, the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church at Harvard University, will preach at the Union of Black Episcopalians Chicago’s celebration of Jones’ feast at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Chicago on Sunday, February 19 at 3 p.m.
“My parents and grandparents are in the African Methodist Episcopal Church,” Walton says. “Richard Allen, Absalom Jones, Morris Brown, Jarena Lee,” he says, ticking off the names of some of the key figures in the black church movement of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. “These were all our saints when I was growing up.”
Jones and Allen were parishioners at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia when, in 1786, white members of the church decided that black members of the integrated church would henceforth have to sit in the balcony. They walked out. Allen eventually founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) while Jones led a group that joined the Episcopal Church and later became the first black American priest.
“For me, growing up, there were two levels of saints,” Walton says. “On one level were those civil rights protestors from Fannie Lou Hamer and Martin Luther King and Ella Baker who served as a cloud of witness for me. I am a post-civil rights kid in Atlanta, and all that was possible for my black middle-class existence was made so by these people and others like John Lewis.
“So that was a kind of level of sainthood, and then beyond that, there were those who served as the cornerstone and bedrock of this thing we call ‘the black church’ and for that Absalom Jones and Richard Allen and those early leaders of the AME take all the credit.
“They were courageous freedom fighters,” he says. “I was taught to believe, and still do, that at a dark time in this nation’s history that they, along with some of the abolitionists, were the true Christians.”
The example of Jones and his colleagues is especially relevant in the current political climate, Walton says.
“I feel we have too many Constantinian Christians,” he says. “There are too many people who would rather be in Rome than in Bethlehem and Nazareth. Absalom Jones refused to be one with his age. He was able to take the best of the Episcopal tradition and yet use it to achieve a vision that he thought the Episcopal tradition had fallen woefully short of as it related to what a multiracial democracy looked like and what the kingdom of God looked like.
“And I think particularly in this time, when so many of our white evangelical brothers and sisters have become complicit in the spread of empire, and complicit in promoting value systems that seem to belie the beatitudes, that people like Absalom Jones can serve as a reminder that it is the troublemakers that stand the test of time and make history. It’s those who refuse to be at one with their age and who refuse to align with power who make a difference.”