Source: Christianity Today, 4/8/96, Vol. 40 Issue 4, p22
Author: Maxwell, Joe
BUILDING THE CHURCH (OF GOD IN CHRIST)
This pentecostal church is america's fifth-largest denomination and one of its fastest growing. It predates the Assemblies of God and is twice their size. What is up with the Church of God in Christ?
Afrail 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.
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.Top of page
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 COGICs 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 roofing 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.
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:
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).
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."Top of page
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 recked 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."
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.
By JOE MAXWELL
Joe Maxwell is a freelance writer and a national correspondent for World magazine.
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Source: Christianity Today, 4/8/96, Vol. 40 Issue 4, p22, 6p, 3c, 1bw.