Black Pastor To Finally Get His Due The Rev. Jehu Jones Jr. Was A Pioneer In The City For Civil Rights.

Posted: February 22, 1998

Together with the church he founded more than 160 years ago, the Rev. Jehu Jones Jr. is to emerge today from the shadows of history.

Pastor Jones is not a giant of Philadelphia's African American religious history, like Richard Allen or Absalom Jones.

And yet this son of a slave was the nation's first African American Lutheran pastor. Born in 1786, he sought civil rights for blacks in Philadelphia in the decades before the Civil War, and he paid dearly.

He died poor and obscure, but today city and religious leaders will gather to honor his memory.

The event, at 310 S. Quince St., will be the formal dedication of a Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission plaque marking the site of the recently rediscovered St. Paul Lutheran Church, which Pastor Jones built in the 1830s. Ceremonies begin at 3 p.m.

But the handsome blue-and-gold marker tells just part of the story.

What the plaque doesn't tell is how some ``respected white gentlemen,'' possibly resentful of Pastor Jones, evidently took the church from him and sent it into bankruptcy.

His sanctuary was later converted into a room where medical students dissected cadavers.

Still later it became a stable.

By the turn of the century little St. Paul's Church had vanished from city maps, and Pastor Jones had faded into obscurity.

Thanks to some detective work by a faculty member and a student at the Philadelphia Lutheran Theological Seminary in Germantown, however, his story has been found.

And the building that so briefly served as the first Lutheran church in North America serving African Americans turns out to be home now to the Mask and Wig Club of the University of Pennsylvania, which each spring puts on an undergraduate comedy show that draws hundreds to its theater in Pastor Jones' former church.

Today the interior of that once simple brick church sports elkhorn chandeliers, more than 600 commemorative beer steins, a bar, a stage, several pianos and a large Maxfield Parrish mural of Old King Cole. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 for reasons unrelated to Pastor Jones.

In Pastor Jones' day, however, ``it was a small house-church: the storefront church of its day,'' said the Rev. Richard Stewart, a professor at the Lutheran Theological Seminary. He discovered Pastor Jones' story in 1978 while researching the history of blacks in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Pastor Jones, he discovered, was born in Charleston, S.C., in 1786, the son of a slave who gained his freedom in 1798 and later owned a fine hotel in that city.

Although the Jones family was Episcopalian, young Jones was drawn to a Lutheran pastor in Charleston and joined his church in the 1820s.

In 1832 he traveled to New York, where he was ordained by the New York Synod of the Lutheran Church with the understanding that he serve as a missionary in Liberia, home to many freed slaves. Unable to raise funds for his Liberian mission, however, Pastor Jones headed instead for Philadelphia.

He got a cool reception. One of the local Lutheran pastors told him he would ``never be accepted because of his color,'' according to Pastor Stewart.

He persisted and in June 1833 the local synod appointed him to ``labour as a Missionary . . . among the coloured people in Philadelphia.''

CHURCH'S BEGINNINGS He evidently found a following, because in February 1834, his new congregation, St. Paul's, voted to build a church. That June he laid the cornerstone on a plot of land identified in the census tract as ``150 S. Quince St.'' - an address that would later confuse historians.

Although his poor congregation counted just 20 members, they and other supporters had contributed more than $1,000 by the time the church was dedicated in 1836. That was 40 percent of the mortgage.

And, with promises from community and religious leaders to help pay off the remaining $1,300, the future of St. Paul's looked bright.

So did Pastor Jones'. During this same time he was traveling a circuit that took him to Harrisburg, Gettysburg and Chambersburg, where he preached to, baptized, married and buried more than 2,700 African American families.

Then something went awry.

In 1838, community leaders whom Pastor Jones describes as ``respected white gentlemen,'' approached him and said they would pay off the mortgage on St. Paul's if he assigned ownership of the church to them.

He agreed. He stayed on as pastor, but his backers evidently paid nothing of the mortgage, which fell into arrears.

FENDING OFF FORECLOSURE According to research conducted in the early 1990s by Karl Earl Johnson, then a graduate student at the Lutheran seminary, Pastor Jones then attempted to stave off foreclosure by putting together a rummage sale to pay off the church's debt.

Members and friends of St. Paul's gathered sale items at a store owned by a ``Mrs. Rex'' on Sassafras Street. But, ``just as we were ready to have the exhibition set, in order to be open for public view, Mrs. Rex was prevailed upon to abandon the enterprise . . . and have nothing to do with us,'' Pastor Jones wrote later in his defense.

The rummage sale was canceled, and in 1839 St. Paul's was sold at sheriff's auction.

Pastor Jones continued to lead the congregation, which met for Sunday worship at Benezet Hall on Seventh Street. In 1845 he organized a convention in Philadelphia's Temperance Hall, where he urged listeners to petition local authorities for civil rights for blacks. He was also involved in organizations dedicated to improving living conditions of the African American community.

When he sought to open a church in New York City in 1849, however, he was rebuked by the New York Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church for his failure to manage the finances at St. Paul's.

Bitterly stung, he authored a lengthy pamphlet in his defense. ``I have not failed. . . . There was strong prejudice against me,'' he wrote. He died in 1853.

In 1989 Pastor Stewart began trying to locate the church based on 150-year-old census data showing there had been a St. Paul's Lutheran Church at 150 S. Quince St.

Nothing in the vicinity of 150 S. Quince St. remotely resembled a church, however. Then, in about 1995, Johnson began to pursue the case. He discovered Pastor Jones' self-defense pamphlet at the Free Library and learned that Philadelphia's streets were renumbered in the 1850s so that all north-south block numbers began at Market Street.

Lo, what had been 150 S. Quince St. in the 1830s was now No. 310, in a narrow alley between 11th and 12th and Spruce and Pine Streets - the improbably elegant Mask and Wig Club.

Best of all, when Johnson and Pastor Stewart visited the club that year they found the old cornerstone that read St. Paul' Lutheran Church 1834.

``We were in awe for about 45 minutes,'' Stewart recalled last week.

Because room at the Mask and Wig Club is limited, a reception in honor of Pastor Jehu Jones will be held at 5:30 p.m. in the Seminary Library Rotunda, 7301 Germantown Ave.

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