Today the church honors a revolutionary figure in the life of Lutheranism, Saint Jehu Jones, Pastor, Reformer, and Trailblazer.
St. Jehu was born in 1786 in South Carolina. His father was the proprietor of a hotel, and had purchased the freedom of a number of slaves. They attended St. John’s Church in Charleston, where Jones owned a pew.
Jehu felt a call to ministry and desired to be a missionary in Liberia, but knew that the Lutheran church in the South would not ordain him. In this way he mirrored many contemporary call stories of people on the margins of society who feel a call to serve, but know that the church writ-large won’t accept that call as legitimate…
St. Jones traveled north to New York City bearing a letter from the pastor of St. John’s testifying to his character and acumen. He was ordained the first official African American Lutheran pastor into the Ministerium of New York on October 24th, 1832, and headed back to South Carolina to prepare for ministry across the seas…until he was jailed under the Negro Seaman’s Act. This barbarous act prohibited free black persons from re-entering South Carolina and directed that they be put on the auction block.
He was freed on the condition that he’d never set foot in South Carolina again. It is unknown if the church took any formal steps to protect him…but it is unlikely.
He left his whole family behind and returned to New York City, and then landed in Philadelphia with his wife and nine children where he organized St. Paul’s Church.
When the Ministerium of Pennsylvania came on hard times, they took the title of the building away from St. Jehu, and refused to offer him payment. St. Jehu turned to the Ministerium of New York, his ordaining body, for financial help…and they refused him, too.
Despite his success as a pastor and evangelist, St. Jehu was met with roadblock after roadblock in his struggle to minister in the church. He died on this day in 1852.
Though there are incidents of advocacy and solidarity, and individuals throughout Lutheran history who have stood on the side of the oppressed, especially in the abolitionist movement (Henry Melchior Muhlenberg comes to mind), the church as a whole has historically had a difficult time speaking with one voice against systemic oppression, especially when reputation and finances were on the line.
This must change.
St. Jehu Jones, Jr. is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that it was not so long ago that American Lutheranism formally rejected the gifts of our black sisters and brothers, and indeed continues to wrestle with full-throated endorsements even today.
It is no secret that black and brown seminarians wait considerably longer for calls in the church, especially female people of color.
It is no secret that systems of oppression still operate in the cathedral halls of America, across all denominations.
It is no secret that, though strides have been made and continue to be made, equity lags in the church across race, gender, and orientation lines.
St. Jehu Jones, Jr. calls to us from the past and encourages us to continue the struggle.
Let those with ears to hear, hear.
-historical notes from Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations
-icon written by Mary Button