In 1786 the membership of St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia included both blacks and whites. However, the white members met that year and decided that thereafter black members should sit only in the balcony.
Two black Sunday worshippers, Absalom Jones (1746-1818) and Richard Allen (1760-1831), whose enthusiasm for the Methodist Church had brought many blacks into the congregation, learned of the decision only when, on the following Sunday, ushers tapped them on the shoulder during the opening prayers, and demanded that they move to the balcony without waiting for the end of the prayer.
They walked out, followed by the other black members.
Absalom Jones conferred with William White, Episcopal Bishop of Philadelphia, who agreed to accept the group as an Episcopal parish. Jones would serve as lay reader, and, after a period of study, would be ordained and serve as rector. This was the start of African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, in 1792.
It was July 29, 1794, when Methodist Bishop Francis Asbury was in Philadelphia formally to dedicate the new church. The pastor at St. Georege's Church was with Bishop Asbury to lead the dedication prayers.
Absalom Jones became the first African-American Episcopal priest in the United States in 1804. Born a slave in Sussex County Delaware, on November 6, 1746, Jones learned to read as a child. At age 16, he was taken to Philadelphia to work in his owner’s shop, where a clerk taught him how to write. In 1766, he was allowed to attend night school.
His savings enabled him first to purchase his wife’s freedom, then his own. The congregation moved to a building at 205 South 12th Street in 1892 and then to 52nd and Parrish Streets in 1942. Its current location is 6361 Lancaster Avenue in Philadelphia’s historic Overbrook Farms neighborhood.
Besides being the first, St. Thomas Episcopal Church is the oldest and largest African Protestant Episcopal Church in the nation.