Two years remain before the arrival of their eightieth anniversary, but already black Pentecostals concentrated in the three-million-member Church of God in Christ (COGIC) are celebrating gains. More than 40,000 gathered in November at the Cook Convention Center in Memphis, Tennessee, for the sixty-eighth annual Holy Convocation, calling attention to the fact that this is possibly the largest black religious gathering in the United States, as well as the largest Pentecostal denomination.
The educational and economic gains of blacks generally, coupled with dramatic changes ushered in under the administration of the Most Reverend J. O. Patterson, presiding bishop for the past seven years (he succeeded the founder, Charles H. Mason), have produced the “best of times” for COGIC.
“God has brought us to a position of prominence. We rightfully take our places,” Patterson told the convention. “We boast of our numerical strength as the largest Pentecostal group in the world. God has blessed us to ride in the best automobiles, live in the best homes, wear the finest minks and exclusive clothing, and to have large bank accounts. Our churches are no longer confined to storefronts, but we are building cathedrals.”
To COGIC members, such progress speaks of divine approval. But it has not come easily. The church has traditionally been snubbed by white Pentecostals (there are only white organizations in the Pentecostal Fellowship of North America), or looked upon as a sort of “weaker brother” by them (although some early white Pentecostal leaders received their first ministerial credentials from Mason and his all-black COGIC).
It also endured six years of litigation in the courts, after Mason’s death in 1961, over rival claims to succession of authority (Mason had had plenipotentiary powers). During that period the denomination was practically split, although a constitutional convention in 1968 and Patterson’s lenient recognition of splinter jurisdiction subsequently returned most to the fold. A spin-off group, the Church of God in Christ, International, was formed in 1969 in Kansas City, Missouri, and now claims 1,006 churches.
There have been personal deprivations as well. Not only were members formerly harassed by the Ku Klux Klan, but they were often derided by the more established churches. Some were even shot at and—together with Bishop Mason—jailed. Vestiges of racial discrimination still surface, as James Baird, 62, a Chicago layman, learned during this year’s convention. Memphis police handcuffed Baird, kept him prone on a precinct floor as police dogs lurched at him, and jailed him overnight—all because they said they suspected his 1975 Cadillac was a stolen car.
Baird, who had never before been arrested, said the encounter was “the worst time I’ve ever had.”
In other respects, however, the convocation was a success. Only a minimal amount of business was transacted, since business sessions, held semi-annually, were limited to two days. (Although the constitution provides for a combination episcopal-presbyterian form of government, most decisions are made by a Board of Bishops, composed of the ordinaries of 109 ecclesiastical jurisdictions.) Approved were: a $2 million budget for the coming year, a pilot radio program projected for thirteen weeks nationwide, and a new finance plan for the church, whereby pastors will begin to tithe to COGIC international headquarters. In past years, national projects have depended upon annual assessments and special drives for financing. Bishops are traditionally supported by similar arrangements, as well as by salaries derived from churches they pastor.
Attendants also heard reports listing three million members in 4,676 churches. The body now has churches in twenty-three other countries, also, mostly African and Caribbean, and negotiations are currently under way to merge twenty smaller, independent African organizations under the COGIC umbrella, General Secretary Dewitt A. Burton told members. Largest state memberships are located in California, Texas, New York, and the Midwest, rather than the South—a somewhat unusual pattern, which shows that COGIC is an urban-oriented denomination. The new statistics are the results of studies conducted by the church’s Department of Research and Survey, which was formed to update and verify membership statistics.
Elder A. J. Hines, director of the Charles Harrison Mason System of Bible Colleges, announced that campuses are now operating in sixty-seven cities and that more than thirteen are scheduled to open this coming year. All the affiliate schools operate under an identical four-year curriculum, with uniform textbooks and course offerings. In addition, the church is constructing a $1.7 million administration building for its C. H. Mason Theological Seminary, which is an accredited component of the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta and the first graduate-level Pentecostal seminary in the United States.
Plans also call for the development of the group’s Saints College in Lexington, Mississippi, into a new Saints University with campuses in both Lexington and Memphis, states Elder Woodrow Hicks, president of the Board of Education. Dr. Arenia Mallory, currently head of Saints College, is the only black woman college president in the country. She was a protege of the late Mary McLeod Bethune.
Norman N. Quick, director of the Office of Urban Affairs, spoke of denominationally sponsored housing developments completed in Washington, D. C.; Kansas City, Missouri; New York City; and Memphis. COGIC also has a $2 million senior-citizens home in Norfolk, Virginia, and another in Brooklyn.
Visitors to the convention toured the new bookstore, recently opened in a $3 million hotel complex given to the church by white Memphis benefactors Robert G. Snowden and Mrs. Thomas H. Todd. Plans call for the relocation of many departmental offices from the present Mason Temple headquarters building. Already the publishing house has moved.
Two years ago the official discipline was completed, uniform rituals were prepared, and newly drafted Articles of Religion were approved. Doctrine remains typically Pentecostal and evangelical, although the state of the dead is left open to varying interpretations, footwashing and the christening of infants are practiced, and the typical description of tongues as “the initial evidence” of the baptism of the Holy Ghost is not found in the articles.
The revolutionary process of institutionalization that the Patterson administration has accomplished in seven years has also included formation of a church-sponsored travel bureau and an insurance agency, a hospitalization and retirement plan, a centralized budget, and a fifty-year plan for the church.
Up for reelection for another quadrennium in 1976, Patterson is assured of keeping his post. His ambitious programs have transformed the church into a modern organization. Not only that, his marriage to one of Bishop Mason’s daughters provides a sense of added continuity and legitimacy to his leadership. And in COGIC circles, such a relationship is a definite asset, for Mason is venerated among black Pentecostals.
The church differs from white Pentecostal churches in obvious ways: women are not “called to preach,” the Sunday school is not given prominence in most churches, hymnals are not used, conversion is not a condition of membership if a person is seeking to be saved, the main worship service lasts until 2 or 3 PM., joyous dancing assumes a place of practical importance equal to that of tongues-speaking as evidence of Spirit-possession, and members are conscientious objectors.
“Yes, we are moving ahead,” Patterson explains, “But we are still traveling the road originally paved by God’s servant and visionary, Bishop C. H. Mason.”
JAMES S. TINNEY
Muhammad Ali: On A Spiritual Quest?
A Washington-based Campus Crusade for Christ staffer who recently talked with Muhammad Ali believes the outspoken world heavyweight champ is on a spiritual quest. The staffer, Robert Pittenger, 27, a special assistant to Bill Bright, was leaving a recent crusade banquet when he spotted Ali sitting quietly in the lobby of the Washington Sheraton Park Hotel. Earlier in the day Ali had set a selling record, autographing copies of his new biography The Greatest, My Own Story at the downtown Woodward and Lothrop’s bookstore, where a crowd approaching 5,000 had pushed and jostled for his autograph.
Pittenger, a soft-spoken University of Texas graduate who did public relations for Explo ’72, walked up to Ali and said quietly, “Muhammad, my name is Robert Pittenger. I just want you to know about the love of Jesus and how much he loves you. He sure changed my life. Do you know him?” Muhammad replied with a smile, “Yeah, I know about Jesus.” The two talked quietly for about five minutes as a crowd gathered. Pittenger handed Ali a copy of “Four Spiritual Laws.” “Several years ago, Muhammad, someone shared the contents of this booklet with me, and you may have it if you like.” Ali took the booklet. “Yeah, I want it,” and he took it and crunched it in his hand.
At this point a second crusade staffer, Gene Vurbeff, asked Ali what he thought about God. Ali stood up, looked around at the crowd, and launched into a long oration, gathering steam as the crowd increased.
“I’m a religious man,” Ali began. “Allah can be recognized without being seen. He always existed. He has no beginnin’ and no end. Nothin’ existed before him and nothin’ can be imagined to exist after him. He has no challenger and no equal. The solar systems are moving in space according to the ways ordained by him …
“If you could know God personally, would you want to know him?” Vurbeff persisted.
Ali pushed up a big hand and grasped Vurbeff by the coat lapel. “You tell me as much as I told you about him,” he demanded.
Vurbeff did not pull back, “Jesus said, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life.’ He is the way to personally know God. Do you know Jesus? Let me explain …”
Ali cut him off. “Look man, I’m the onliest man in America of wealth who will talk to you about Jesus. I’m worth twenty-two million dollars. Elvis Presley won’t talk to you. Frank Sinatra won’t talk about Jesus. I represent poor people. I see the people in the ghetto. I see the whores. Jesus talked with poor people. Jesus was humble. I love Jesus. But I’m not a white man’s Christian.”
Vurbeff asked, “When did you become a Christian?”
Ali dodged the question. “Jesus was a Muslim. Jesus taught Islam. Jesus prayed to Allah. People who wore turbans and rode camels had to be Muslims; they were not European Christians. Christianity is a good religion, but it was organized to make slaves out of black people. It is a good religion if the people practice what they teach.”
The two Crusade staffers kept throwing questions at Ali. Ali kept flailing back, sometimes with long, rambling monologues. Samples:
“You’ve seen a caricature of Christianity, haven’t you?”
“Christianity is a good religion. White Christians misrepresent Jesus.”
“Jesus is the only way to heaven. Do you know him?”
“I know God.”
“Do you know Jesus?”
“No, I know God.”
“You can’t know God when you don’t know Jesus.”
“That’s a lie they told you in Christianity.”
“You can’t go to God except through Jesus. Jesus is stronger than your muscles.”
Ali flexed his arm as he replied. “You’d better pray for white America that don’t live right. Go to New York City and see these Christians in night clubs and topless joints.”
“They aren’t Christians.”
“Christianity has to be taught a different way with Negroes, because you all beat us up and slaved us and we followed Jesus and we still got hung.”
“Oh no, that’s not true.”
“All I’m saying is, Negroes accepted Jesus and they got hung like that by white Christians so we got a right to challenge Christianity. We have a right to say something is wrong with it because we don’t have nothin’, we don’t own nothin’. We got churches and Christianity has never helped Negroes. White people took the Bible, took the cross. I know I’m right. They went to Africa, all over the World. They told the people ‘Love Jesus,’ ‘Accept Jesus.’ You ended up with all the gold, all the money, and gave them the churches, and told them when they got to heaven they’d get some money and you had all the heaven now. Christianity has taught them the wrong way, because it made white folks rich and we got hell. That’s all I’m sayin’. I’m a freedom fighter for my people.”
“Jews don’t believe in Jesus,” Ali continued. “Jesus wasn’t no greater than Moses. He died on the cross sayin’, ‘my God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?’ Jesus failed. He was a good man who came to do a job, and they killed him. Jesus did not want to die.”
The exchange continued. The crowd grew to around 150. Periodically, black bellboys applauded Ali. After about thirty minutes, Vurbeff leaned down and said, “May I tell you something in private?” Ali turned slightly and cocked an ear. The Crusade staffer whispered, “I love you.” Ali roared back, “I love you, if you love me. I love God and all the prophets of God. I love all of God’s prophets. I love Jesus. I ain’t got anything against Jesus, but I ain’t gonna make Jesus greater than God. Who is Jesus? Well, the Bible was written by King James. He give his version about Jesus. That ain’t the way it happened. That’s just the way he saw it. King James says Jesus was God. And King James was a faggot and a drunk. I don’t believe him. I believe my version.”
With this, Ali pushed his way through the crowd, still talking, still insisting, “Jesus ain’t God. Jesus is a prophet. Jesus is a good man. I love Jesus.”
About two o’clock the next morning, Pittenger sent Ali a telegram: “DEAR MUHAMMAD: I was the first person to greet you in the lobby last night. I respect your comments about the white man’s Christian religion. The love of Jesus is something real and different. Where he truly is there is love, not bigotry. God bless you.”
Later that day Pittenger voiced to a reporter his hope of talking further to Ali in private. “I really believe the man is on a quest,” he said. JAMES C. HEFLEY
HUMBARD HUMILITY PAYS OFF
In what he said was his first press conference in the two and a half years since his difficulties with the Securities and Exchange Commission began, Rex Humbard revealed he has finished paying off 4,000 holders of $12.5 million in notes sold by the church since 1959.
The 56-year-old television evangelist and pastor of the Cathedral of Tomorrow in Akron, Ohio, said last month that he had made the final deposit a few weeks earlier, but that $1 million still is unclaimed by supporters of his ministry who apparently do not want their money back.
In 1973 the SEC and the Ohio Division of Securities accused the cathedral of using unlicensed salespersons to sell unregistered securities. An agreement was worked out that permitted the cathedral, without admitting it had done anything wrong, to establish a trust fund to enable holders of the church’s securities to recover their investments.
Humbard said later in an interview that the cathedral now has no outside business. At one time the church’s multi-million-dollar holdings included a girdle factory in Brooklyn, New York, an advertising agency in Akron; Mackinac College, Mackinac Island, Michigan; and a shopping, motel, and office complex in downtown Akron.
The evangelist told how he had fasted and prayed twenty-one days when his difficulties with the SEC came to a head in 1973. He said he told God that he was just the employee, hired to preach about Jesus Christ, and that as the employer, God had a problem. So while God was taking care of the problem, Humbard said, he concentrated on preaching about Jesus Christ, and in the last two and a half years he has seen more people saved than at any other period in his ministry.
HELEN T. GOTT
An expected showdown over issues involving the charismatic movement failed to materialize at the annual meetings of several state units of the Southern Baptist Convention. In October, five charismatic-oriented churches were “disfellowshiped” by area SBC associations in Dallas, Cincinnati, and Monroe, Louisiana (see November 7 issue, page 65), and there were rumblings that the Texas, Ohio, and Louisiana state conventions might take action to oust those and other churches at the state level.
At the meeting of the 2.2 million-member, 4,400-church Baptist General Convention of Texas, there was no attempt to deny seating messengers (delegates) from the two disfellowshiped Dallas churches. Messengers defeated a move to require that messengers be members of associations, and rejected by a large margin a proposal to poll Texas SBC churches “to find out their acceptance or rejection of neo-Pentecostal doctrine and practice.” The proposal was introduced by Pastor J. J. Wolf of Pinemont Baptist Church in Houston. Wolf was the author of a critical resolution passed by the 230-church Union Baptist Association of Houston. In it, the charismatic movement was implicitly described as “unscriptural” and “of the devil”; churches were cautioned to “be on guard against efforts of the devil to infiltrate the fellowship with false doctrines and divisive influences.”
There are “parameters of what constitutes Baptist faith and practice,” argued Wolf at the state meeting. Pastor Jimmy Allen of First Baptist Church in San Antonio warned that Wolfs proposed poll would move Texas Baptists “dangerously close to creedalism.”
A confrontation over the seating of messengers was averted at the meeting of Ohio Southern Baptists. The two disfellowshiped churches in Cincinnati did not send anyone to the meeting. Both pastors have denied that unscriptural worship practices take place in their churches.
Meanwhile, the pastors of five SBC churches in Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Florida, and Kentucky are proceeding with plans to sponsor a national charismatic conference for Southern Baptists in Dallas next July 21–24.
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