2021 NJ Synod Bishop’s Challenge: The Jehu Jones Mission Biographical sketch
By Pastor Michael Linderman April 14, 2021
In 1832, Jehu Jones Jr. was the first African American to be ordained as a Lutheran pastor in the United States. His story is one filled with inspiration and frustration. Although he found vocal support among white Lutherans for his ministry among African Americans on behalf of the Pennsylvania Synod of the Lutheran Church, he never received the material support that he needed to establish his congregation in a proper building. Over the years of his pastoral ministry, he lost the mortgage on the church building that he fought so hard for, and the Synod docked his salary to help repay the church’s debts.
Jones was born a free Black in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1786, and became a successful tailor. Originally an Episcopalian, he and his family joined St. John’s Lutheran Church in Charleston in 1818, where all of his children were baptized. Jones later became part of a local effort to send free Blacks to Liberia, on the West Coast of Africa. Jones’ pastor supported his efforts to become a missionary to the group, and in 1832, sent Jones to New York to be considered for ordination. The New York Synod ordained him right away at their meeting in New York, but he missed joining the group to Liberia because of a racist law that banned free Blacks from entering South Carolina. Barred from returning to South Carolina and leaving with the group for Liberia, he had his family join him in Philadelphia, and started working on behalf of the German Evangelical Synod of Pennsylvania as a mission developer among the African American community there. In 1834, he reported to the Synod that he had visited 2781 families, of whom 163 were sick.
That same year, Jones took out a mortgage to purchase two lots in Philadelphia, at $375 each, and build St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church. Construction was completed, but the debt was significant. He undertook several fundraising trips to white churches in neighboring states, and he appealed repeatedly over the course of seven years to the Synod for financial support. Unmoved by his situation, and unwilling to support the vision of a permanent established black Lutheran church in Philadelphia, the synod sold the church building and cut his $100 annual salary in half to pay off the debt. Despite these setbacks and the financial ruin he endured, Jones faithfully continued in his calling as a Lutheran pastor until his death in 1852.
Source: Johnson Jr., Karl E., and Romeo, Joseph A., “Jehu Jones (1786-1852), The First African American Lutheran Minister”, in Lutheran Quarterly, Vol X, No. 4, 1996, pp. 425-44.