A frail Charles Harrison Mason lay coughing in an Arkansas swamp shack, hot and dying from tuberculosis. His parents, who were former slaves, stood by helplessly as the late summer air suffocated their 14-year-old son. Then on Sunday, September 5, 1880, the glory of God appeared. Mason sensed the Lord’s presence. Suddenly, “[Charles] got out of bed and walked outside all by himself,” recalls his wife, Elisa Mason, in the book The Man: Charles Harrison Mason. “There, under the morning skies, he prayed and praised God for his healing. During these moments [Charles] renewed his commitment to God.” And American religion would never be the same again.

This was the first of many supernatural experiences Charles Mason had during a life that some say rivals the lives of Christian heroes like John Wesley in its range of piety, social reform, mysticism, and evangelistic scope. “I see him as a part of the mainstream tradition in Western spirituality,” says Robert Franklin, director of black church studies at Emory University in Atlanta.

Today, the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), the Pentecostal denomination that Mason founded in 1897 (it didn’t assume its Pentecostal leanings, or its final name, until 1907), sits notably in the middle of the American Christian mainstream. President Bill Clinton has personally traveled to COGIC’s November convocation in Memphis to nurture their political friendship. And in 1994, a delegation of Pentecostal leaders from several white denominations traveled to Memphis to repent for excluding COGIC and other black Christians from their Pentecostal Fellowship of North America, which they formally disbanded, creating the new cross-racial Pentecostal Churches of North America and placing COGIC Brooklyn Bishop Ithiel Clemmons at the helm. The unprecedented event was dubbed “The Memphis Miracle” in newspaper headlines across the country.

COGIC’s rising profile is partly due to its astounding growth. With its 6.75 million members—more than twice the size of the Assemblies of God—COGIC has been gaining an average of 200,000 members and 600 congregations per year since 1982, making it America’s fastest-growing and fifth-largest denomination. The denomination grew by more than 48 percent between 1982 and 1991, compared to 22.3 percent for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 22 percent for the Assemblies of God, 14.4 percent for the Roman Catholic Church, and 9.1 percent for the Southern Baptist Convention.

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But COGIC’s numerical growth is not the sole reason for attention. More important, the denomination has produced a remarkable legacy of African-American piety and self-help—one that step-by-step mirrors the advancement of blacks through this century and stands on its own as deserving deep reflection.

From glory to glory

Church begins at noon in Jackson, Mississippi, at Bishop Hollis Musgrove’s Liberal Trinity Church of God in Christ. The congregation worships just an hour south of where Charles Mason birthed the first COGIC denomination in Lexington. While some COGIC churches have adopted a more subdued Pentecostal service, Musgrove’s congregation maintains many of COGIC’s traditional worship distinctives, including exuberant singing and dancing and a floor open for personal testimonies.

“How many of you are blessed of the Lord today? If you are blessed of the Lord, give him some praise,” an elder beckons from the pulpit, eliciting hallelujahs and clapping from some 200 worshipers. With hand fans waving all around, members gather in a nicely appointed sanctuary that could pass for Baptist or Presbyterian with its upholstered pews, choir loft, high ceiling, and shiny brass chandeliers.

A large woman emerges in place behind a microphone in the choir loft. “We have come into this house to gather in his name and worship him,” she sings a cappella; congregants join in. On the second verse, the organ joins the mix. “Forget about yourselves and concentrate on him and worship him.” Now a drummer adds a beat, then a bass guitar slides in; a few tambourines rattle. “Oh, what he’s done for me!” the congregants continue.

After an extended time of singing and testifying, several people read Scripture aloud before a gray-haired Bishop Musgrove preaches on rooting one’s whole life in the Bible, “the only infallible, written Word of God” that portrays “holiness as a way of life.”

The service is at once charismatic and evangelical in spirit. In fact, many of COGIC’s chief doctrinal tenets can be grasped from a single sitting at a local COGIC assembly like Musgrove’s. For instance, the Church of God in Christ is Trinitarian and adheres to the infallibility of Scripture, the need for regeneration, and the subsequent baptism of the Holy Spirit. The church emphasizes holiness as God’s standard for Christian living and observes Holy Communion, water baptism, and foot washing as its prime ordinances.

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These and other characteristics of COGIC, including its episcopal government, were shaped by founding bishop Mason, who presided over the denomination from its inception until his death at age 95 in 1961. Indeed, in the face of constant criticism and opposition, Mason—a slender, articulate, mustached mystic—managed to combine evangelical theology with African culture in a manner that continues to flourish to this day.

The last decade of the nineteenth century was full of hope for Southern blacks. Reconstruction opened new access to advancement; Jim Crow laws had not yet arrived. And black pastors freely traveled Dixie evangelizing and church planting. Among them was Mason, who was licensed to preach by an Arkansas Missionary Baptist Church.

In November of 1893 he enrolled in one of the many private, self-supporting black colleges speckling the Southern landscape: Arkansas Baptist College. Three months later, discouraged over what he saw as a lack of emphasis on the Scriptures, he left the school for good. “The Lord showed me that there was no salvation in schools and colleges, for the way that they conducted themselves grieved my soul,” Mason recounted later. “I packed my books, arose, and bade them a final farewell to follow Jesus, with the Bible as my sacred guide.”

Despite Mason’s abandonment of formal religious training, in future decades many would comment how thorough his Bible knowledge was. In 1895, Mason met Elder E. P. Jones of Jackson, Mississippi. Both were heavily influenced by the growing holiness and Wesleyan movement. With interest in their teachings about complete sanctification growing among the masses, they held meetings in 1897 in Lexington, Mississippi—first in a local’s home, and then in an abandoned cotton gin house, which became the meeting place for the first “Church of God in Christ,” a name Mason says he received from God while walking the streets of Little Rock, Arkansas.

Despite his early successes, Mason was troubled by the conviction that his own sanctification was not complete. Those doubts were cleared in 1906 when he traveled to Los Angeles to take part in the early stages of the legendary Azusa Street revival. There Mason encountered God’s Spirit as never before. He later wrote:

There came a wave of glory into me, and all of my being was filled with the glory of the Lord. So when I had gotten myself straight on my feet there came a light which enveloped my entire being above the brightness of the sun. When I opened my mouth to say “glory,” a flame touched my tongue which ran down to me. My language changed and no word could I speak in my own tongue. Oh, I was filled with the glory of my Lord. My soul was then satisfied. I rejoiced in Jesus my Savior, whom I love so dearly.

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Mason remained at Azusa for five weeks before returning home, where his new experience was rejected by his friend Jones, who, along with others, quickly excommunicated him from fellowship. Refusing to renounce his belief in a baptism of the Holy Ghost, Mason called a gathering in Memphis of others convinced of the tongues experience, and they formed their own church body. Years later, after a long court battle with Jones’s allies, Mason’s church won exclusive rights to bear the COGIC name.

Under Mason’s leadership, COGIC growth followed black migratory patterns during two world wars; Mason sent his new, mostly agrarian pastors into northern and western cities by the hundreds. “By World War II, the COGIC had become an urban church,” Franklin says. In fact, COGIC has remained planted in urban areas, even during the last three decades when numerous denominations fled to suburban locales. According to bishop and board member Charles Blake, this commitment to urban America is perhaps the chief reason the denomination has experienced such rapid and sustained growth in recent years. Blake himself pastors the 13,000-member West Angeles COGIC in Los Angeles’s rough inner city (see “Church Growth in the ’Hood,” p. 27).

COGIC has produced a legacy of African-American piety and self-help that mirrors the advancement of blacks throughout the twentieth century.

From the start, Mason inspired members to believe in God and their own abilities to accomplish things: storefront urban churches gave way to massive, black-funded edifices, such as Blake’s. Indeed, when Mason orchestrated the building of the 3,000-seat Mason Temple on Memphis’s South Side with all-black craftsmen—the largest black-built American structure at the time—it stood as “a sort of ecclesiastical counterpart to Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee experiment; concrete proof that black people could build, own, and operate their own nationally recognized institutions,” notes Franklin.

What continued to set Mason’s COGIC apart from the older black denominations, including the African Methodist Episcopalians and National Baptists, was COGIC’s conscious nurturing of African worship and religious forms compatible with Christianity. “As black people sought to assimilate the dominant culture, there was a tendency to exchange African-oriented religious practices for those of Euro-Anglo Christians,” says Franklin. “But by stridently reintroducing drums, spontaneous song celebrations, call-and-response preaching, dancing, and emotionally liberating worship, Mason sought to re-Africanize black churches.”

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Bridging racial divides

Despite his focus on traditional black culture and regular demonstrations of racial bigotry on the part of his white colleagues, Mason’s vision for COGIC also sought to underscore interracial harmony. It was not an easy road.

Some early white Pentecostal leaders, such as Charles Parham of the Apostolic Faith Movement, attacked Mason and COGIC’s worship customs, arguing that they reeked of voodoo culture and animal spiritism, observes Fuller Theological Seminary professor Cecil Robeck. But Franklin and others say Mason simply was a “virtuoso of the slave religion,” able to draw for his mostly agrarian flock practical nature lessons much as Jesus did.

People like Parham poisoned the water against black charismatic leaders like Mason. Yet Mason—whose COGIC was at one time the only Pentecostal church in America to have government-licensed clergy—ordained about 300 white Pentecostal pastors in 1910; these white ministers, who typically sought official ordination in order to get discounted railroad rates, found Mason’s denomination to be the only one that would welcome them.

It is a subject of debate as to how much fellowship actually occurred early on between white and black COGIC pastors; Robeck, himself an Assemblies of God (AOG) member, believes it was “a marriage of convenience,” especially since the white pastors soon after reorganized as the Assemblies of God.

Both COGIC and AOG share several Pentecostal doctrinal distinctives, notes Bishop George McKinney of Saint Stephen’s Church of God in Christ in San Diego, including belief in the baptism of the Holy Spirit. COGIC also emphasizes total sanctification or “holiness” (a Wesleyan throwback from Mason’s early days).

Though it is not clear just how intertwined the early COGIC and AOG were, one thing is certain: Mason never showed racist or hostile intent. After whites dropped his church’s name, Mason still accepted the AOG’s invitation to speak to their 1914 organizational meeting. Says one COGIC leader, “A favorite saying of Mason’s was that the church is like the eye: it has a little black in it and a little white in it, and without both it can’t see.”

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Mason’s words were not empty platitudes. He traveled regularly with his aide, William B. Holt, a blond-haired German who was also a COGIC pastor. “They were like blood brothers,” recalled the late Louis Henry Ford, the noted COGIC presiding bishop who died in March 1995.

The odd duo of Mason and Holt sparked far more than the standard suspicions over black-white alliances. FBI files show that the agency monitored Mason and Holt during World War I, especially since Mason preached pacifism. Still, Mason preached strong allegiance to the United States and condemned the Kaiser; nonetheless, his close friendship with Holt led the FBI to think Mason might incite American blacks to align with Germany. “The secretary of war could not reason why a white man (Elder William B. Holt) would be connected with an almost all-Negro church,” recounts COGIC churchman and historian Donald Weeks.

Once Mason was arrested by federal agents and thrown into a Lexington, Mississippi, jail on charges of “violation of the Sedition Act.” Holt eventually gathered the money to bail out Mason, who continued to fellowship with whites, while condemning segregation and the widespread burning of black soldiers’ uniforms upon their return home from overseas.

In spite of such conflicts, Mason’s church continued to grow, establishing the Young People’s Willing Workers program for youth in 1914, the Sunday-school program in 1924, the home and foreign mission board in 1926, and numerous women’s auxiliaries. By Mason’s death in 1961, the church’s membership numbered about 1 million.

Dilemmas of tradition

Today, the massive, newly refurbished Mason Temple presides over Memphis’s tiny Mason Street; it was here on April 3, 1968, that Martin Luther King, Jr., gave the last speech (“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”) before his assassination. The meeting hall is now surrounded by an iron fence and low-income housing that is spray-painted with gang graffiti. Visitors entering the foyer see on three walls gold and purple listings of COGIC bishops from even state.

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From the beginning, the hope of becoming a bishop has been a key motivation for many COGIC pastors in their tireless planting of local churches. But some bishops, including McKinney, acknowledge that not all the byproducts of this policy and the rapid growth it has fostered have been handled well.

“One of the things that has been most positive and negative is that we have honored the call [to the ministry] that members have professed and have not required that a man or woman complete college or graduate school before practicing as a proclaimer of the truth,” explains McKinney. Indeed, although the denomination does offer elementary training for the pastorate through lay ministry experience and a system of more than 70 nonaccredited Bible colleges, it has only one accredited seminary (Mason Theological Seminary in Atlanta).

“Anti-intellectualism is an ongoing battle,” adds McKinney. “There are those who are anti-intellectual who are in positions of great power in the Church of God in Christ. We’re a church that boasts millions of members and thousands of churches, yet we have only one theological seminary—that reveals our failure to grasp the reality of this age, that we must develop regional centers for training of workers and evangelists.”

McKinney, however, contends that the denomination’s traditional de-emphasis on pastors acquiring college and graduate-level training is changing. Some once interpreted Mason’s own premature departure from college as being an anti-intellectual gesture. This inaccurate assumption—Mason actually left the Arkansas Baptist College because of what he viewed as liberal Bible teachings—led for decades to an anti-education climate among many COGIC members who were already inclined not to pursue higher education due to their lower socioeconomic status and lack of access to higher education. But today many bishops and pastors, including McKinney and Blake, have graduate degrees. And their children, with greater opportunities for education now available, are following suit.

A changing landscape

The death of 80-year-old COGIC presiding bishop Louis Henry Ford last year left an unexpected void in denominational leadership. Ford, who assumed command in 1990, was only the second bishop to take the COGIC helm since Mason. Ford nurtured Saint Paul Church of God in Christ in Chicago from a small storefront to an entire city block after moving north from Lexington, Mississippi. He first garnered national media attention in 1955 when he eulogized Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Mississippian who was brutally killed and dumped in the Tallahatchie River. Many believe that Ford’s address at Till’s funeral helped inspire the early civil-rights movement.

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Under Ford’s administration, COGIC grew more politically active. Ford himself sought links to various social power structures; he was friends with boxer Joe Louis and singer Lena Horne, as well as the late Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley, who appointed him to several political positions.

“Not unlike the Reverend Adam Clayton Powell [of Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church fame and the United States House of Representatives], Ford’s personal flamboyance often brought him into conflict with more conservative church members,” observes Franklin, who grew up in Ford’s congregation.

Last November, COGIC minister C. D. Owens was named as the denomination’s new presiding bishop. Nonetheless, the aftermath of Ford’s sudden death brought many to the realization that COGIC’s course has been less than certain since Mason’s unchallenged and revered reign as presiding bishop. “During Bishop Mason’s lifetime, he had plenipotentiary powers which he used wisely and discreetly,” states an official COGIC polity book. “Since his demise, the balance of power still rests with the presbytery or clergy by tradition, yet the General Assembly came into a new focus and presently maintains a significant place in the government of the Church.”

Among the 12 who now preside on COGIC’s general board, two traits seem common: (1) These leaders, many of whose parents migrated north and west from the rural South, now hail from mostly urban areas, and (2) they are now all members of the middle to upper-middle class, arriving at their Memphis meetings in new luxury cars and wearing the finest tailored suits.

“The COGIC is possibly the prime example of the self-help tradition in America,” says general board member Ithiel Clemmons. “It is a people that started as the children of slaves—sharecroppers, farmers, oppressed people. They asked no one for anything. They migrated to the major cities of America and became successful. They felt that the experience of the baptism of the Holy Ghost took the apostrophe and the t from the word can’t, so they could say, ‘We can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.’ ”

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A new generation

It is this dynamic sense of faith and purpose among COGIC members that drew Frank Robinson to the church. And it is people like Robinson, 40, and his good friend David Moore, 40, whose stories reveal generational adjustments now taking place in the denomination.

Robinson recalls his reckless years of shooting dope and “chasing women” while growing up in California during the late sixties and early seventies. He found a friend at school in Moore, who eventually left the wild life to embrace God in his family’s COGIC church. Robinson started hanging around Moore’s mother, who talked to him about God and brought him to their church.

This was not so unusual except that Robinson is white. “It was way on the other side of the tracks, almost in no-man’s land for white people,” he recalls. At first, Robinson was taken aback by the lively worshipers, who shouted and danced and clapped and raised their hands. “They were very exuberant, almost cartoonish, but there was something very legitimate about them.” With time, Robinson came to Christ in that church and never left.

For the last several years, Robinson has been an ordained COGIC pastor and special aide to Charles Blake in Los Angeles. And now Robinson is pushing a new border, having just accepted a call to be the white pastor of a mixed-race California COGIC church.

Robinson can get advice from his old friend Moore, who also broke new ground. While many COGIC ministers pastor more than one flock, Moore is the first to pastor both a COGIC congregation (New Covenant Worship Center in Santa Barbara) and one from a separate, predominantly white denomination (Church for the Nations Four-square Gospel in Oxnard). Moore cites not only the formative influence of COGIC pastors like Blake, but of white pastors like Jack Hayford of the Church on the Way in Van Nuys, California.

Moore and Robinson’s generation, with its new ways of thinking, shows that times are changing for COGIC churches. Still, as with many denominations, sociological differences have produced some generational gaps among COGIC leaders. For instance, notes Moore, many COGIC pastors still want to use agrarian sermon metaphors about cows and creeks; but most black youth now speak a cowless urban language.

Emory’s Franklin agrees: “Many [COGIC] preachers and parishioners assume that ministry consists in proclaiming the gospel in traditional terms. Too little attention is given to the difficult work of reinterpretation and adaptation to modem sensibilities.”

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COGIC observers note several post-Mason, late-century questions the denomination must cope with:

• What final stance will COGIC take on women in ministry? Currently women minister in many official areas but do not hold ordained pastorates. Many are regularly noted as COGIC heroines.

• How will COGIC reconcile its modern leanings with original bans on such things as women wearing slacks and make-up? Indeed, many women are finding such stringent rules either sexist or nonsensical.

• How will COGIC resolve the ongoing debate about whether tongues is for some or all believers? The current COGIC stance says it is not necessarily for everyone, a decided departure from Mason.

• And how, as Moore and Franklin note, will the church remain relevant to younger generations?

The hope continues

Perhaps the answers to the crucial questions facing COGIC can be glimpsed by returning full circle in the denomination’s history to its place of origin—Lexington, Mississippi. There, on the very land where Mason established the first COGIC church, Goldie Wells, a distinguished woman leader in COGIC, is now president of Saints Academy, a thriving junior and senior high school that is funded generously by the denomination and admits children and faculty of various Christian backgrounds.

Mason originally opened Saints Academy in 1918 as a private school for local black youth. And under the guidance of Arenia Mallory, another COGIC heroine, it nurtured generations of COGIC and civic leaders, including the late presiding bishop, Louis Henry Ford.

Today, with many of America’s urban public schools turning into war zones where few absolute values can be taught, Saints Academy in two years has drawn 26 boarding students from 13 states along with 124 local students to study in a safe, nurturing environment where they can also learn biblical principles. At least 25 other COGIC private day schools also exist around the country.

Wells, a fourth-generation COGIC member, became Saints Academy’s president after 29 years in the North Carolina school system, most recently as the state’s Chapter 1 director. “Here [at Saints] students are going to get the Bible,” she assures. “They are going to get Bible and prayer as part of their total education.”

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The denomination pumps $1.4 million yearly into Saints Academy; tuition averages $2,800; and recently COGIC leaders paid off the mortgage on a pristine new COGIC meeting hall that sits high on a hill at the back of the academy’s campus, looking down on two tiers of steps and two fountains that double as baptismals. Atop the building is a white steeple with a light that flashes around the clock—a symbol of COGIC’s ongoing theme of “love and hope and reconciliation,” Ford declared before his death.

How this theme is embraced and shaped by the future generation of COGIC leaders, like those here at Saints Academy, may decide the lingering questions faced by this flourishing denomination.

Almost every day, William Dean, now in his early 60s, who himself attended Saints Academy and now pastors Saint Paul’s Church of God in Christ of Lexington—the original local church founded by Mason—travels by the spanking new COGIC meeting hall. He thinks of Mason and Mallory and Ford and others who have gone before him. He looks at the children playing basketball in the parking lot down the hill.

What would the African-American mystic and social reformer Charles Harrison Mason think of this new Saints Academy in the town where his still-expanding movement began nearly 90 years ago? It is likely he would feel the same way about the denomination as a whole, posits Dean. “He would have a reassurance that what God gave him was really the work of God, and that the vision he had to nurture and train a person not just spiritually, but to train the holistic man, is preserved. I really think Bishop Mason would be smiling.”

Joe Maxwell is a freelance writer and a national correspondent for World magazine.

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