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African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas records


Held at: African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas [Contact Us]6361 Lancaster Avenue, Philadelphia, PA, 19151

This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in their reading room, and not digitally available through the web.

Overview and metadata sections

"Originally established as the African Church, The African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas [in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania] was founded in 1792 by and for persons of African descent to foster personal and religious freedoms and self-determination. The original African Church was an outgrowth of the Free African Society, a mutual aid organization established in 1787 by Absalom Jones, Richard Allen and others, to assist the Black population in Philadelphia. The early religious services were held in private homes and in a school. Within the congregation were many who, because of growing racial tension and insults, had followed the lay preachers, Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, in an historic walkout from St. George's Methodist Church [in 1787]. Affiliation with the Episcopal Church was ratified in 1794. The Reverend Absalom Jones became the first Episcopal priest of African American descent and the first rector of St. Thomas' Church.

"The original church house was constructed at 5th and Adelphi Streets in Philadelphia, now St. James Place, and dedicated on July 17, 1794. Subsequent locations of the church included: 12th Street below Walnut; 57th and Pearl Streets (uniting with the Church of the Beloved Disciple); 52d and Parrish Streets; and the current location, Overbrook and Lancaster Avenues (formerly St. Paul's [Episcopal Church], Overbrook) in Philadelphia's historic Overbrook Farms neighborhood. The congregation has continued to be predominately African American.

"The parish's Eucharist-centered liturgy has evolved over the years from a traditional Anglican/Episcopal high church worship experience to one that is enriched with an evangelical Afrocentric focus.

"...St. Thomas' clergy and parishioners have played key roles in the abolition/anti-slavery/underground railroad movements and the early equal rights movement of the 1800s. [Since the mid-1950s], St. Thomas has figured prominently in the civil rights movement, the NAACP, Union of Black Episcopalians, Opportunities Industrialization Center [of America], Philadelphia Interfaith Action and Episcopal Church Women. Paramount, however, has been the movement to uphold the knowledge and value of the Black presence in the Episcopal Church. Today, that tradition continues with an ever-growing membership and through a host of ministries such as Christian Formation, the Chancel Choir, Gospel Choir, Jazz Ensemble, Men's Fellowship, Young Adult and Youth Ministries, Church School, Health Ministry, Caring Ministry, and a Shepherding Program."


Quoted text from: African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas. "About Us..." 2006. Accessed on July 2, 2014.

The collection consists mainly of original church records as well as some accumulated secondary-source materials. The latter include: newspaper clippings; research materials (historical/biographical articles and photocopies of primary-source documents held elsewhere); and pamphlets/ephemera from other organizations (including Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, PA). The collection also contains photographs, audio-visual materials, printed materials, and objects. The collection is organized into twelve series: I. Administrative, II. Financial records/ledgers, III. Building sites, IV. Bulletins/Programs, V. Individuals, VI. Registers/Records, VII. Parish organizations, VIII. Printed materials, IX. Plaques, X. Audio-visual, XI. Memorabilia, and XII. Photographs. A partial item-level inventory exists on site.

Church records include, but are not limited to: administrative materials, such as Vestry minutes, records of the Absalom Jones Theological Institute (a unit of the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, GA), annual reports, and correspondence; financial records, such as reports, check stubs, budgets, fundraising ledgers, receipts and disbursements, and accounts (Treasurer, Vestry, and Warden); church bulletins, 1880s-present (with gaps); event programs from church fundraisers, funeral services, music and other events; records and registers of membership, transfers, Church School students; marriage and other sacramental records; records from various church sub-groups and committees; materials relating to organizations associated with St. Thomas' Church or the Episcopal faith such as the Sons of St. Thomas, the Union of Black Episcopalians, and Episcopal Church Women; and a few scrapbooks.

Audio-visual materials include photographs of church buildings, rectors, members, church events, the Vestry, church committees, and other subjects related to the church; at least one DVD; and multiple copies of the phonograph recording for books 1 and 2 of "Francis Johnson: American Cotillions Volume 1." Original photographs in the collection mostly date from the 1930s to the present, but there are some that pre-date the 1930s. Some of the photographs are copies.

Also present in the collection are planning materials, research, and programs/flyers relating to the church bicentennial in 1992; research materials that pertain to the history of St. Thomas, people associated with the church, and African American history; and some materials relating to Boy Scout Troop 133, an African American troop that has operated out of St. Thomas church since its founding in the 1940s.

Of particular interest are early original records of the church, including: Vestry minutes, 1813-1965; pew rental records, 1791-1892; receipts and disbursements, 1790-1840; parish registers, 1796-1919; canonical registers, 1795-1952; and 19th century photographs depicting church members and the Vestry. A volume of financial statements of the Free African Society is a highlight of the collection.

Selected materials from this collection were digitized from 2018-2021 as part of the Philadelphia Congregations Early Records project. The Philadelphia Congregations Early Records project was made possible by a Digitizing Hidden Collections grant from CLIR, the Council on Library and Information Resources, funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Digitized materials are viewable on the website. Some items have been transcribed, and users are invited to contribute to the transcription effort. In addition, all of the digitized records are available in the ATLA (American Theological Library Association) Digital Library, and archival copies of the scanned images are preserved on the OPenn website at the University of Pennsylvania Libraries.

Links to Digital Resources for this Collection:

The Historical Society of the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas is the repository of the church's records.

Summary descriptive information on this collection was compiled in 2012-2014 as part of a project conducted by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania to make better known and more accessible the largely hidden collections of small, primarily volunteer run repositories in the Philadelphia area. The Hidden Collections Initiative for Pennsylvania Small Archival Repositories (HCI-PSAR) was funded by a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

This is a preliminary finding aid. No physical processing, rehousing, reorganizing, or folder listing was accomplished during the HCI-PSAR project.

In some cases, more detailed inventories or finding aids may be available on-site at the repository where this collection is held; please contact African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas directly for more information.

African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas
Finding Aid Author
Finding aid prepared by Celia Caust-Ellenbogen and Sarah Leu through the Historical Society of Pennsylvania's Hidden Collections Initiative for Pennsylvania Small Archival Repositories
This preliminary finding aid was created as part of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania's Hidden Collections Initiative for Pennsylvania Small Archival Repositories. The HCI-PSAR project was made possible by a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Access Restrictions

Contact African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas for information about accessing this collection. Some items in the collection are fragile; therefore, in some cases facsimiles will be provided to researchers instead of the originals.

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