If you asked people knowledgeable about religion to name the largest Pentecostal denomination in the United States, most would say the Assemblies of God. If you asked this same group to name the oldest Pentecostal denomination in the U.S., they would most likely answer the Church of God headquartered in Cleveland, Tenn.
Both answers are incorrect.
The oldest and largest Pentecostal denomination in the U.S. is the Church of God in Christ headquartered in Memphis, Tenn. Chartered in 1897, it was the first legally chartered body among the American Pentecostal denominations.
The Church of God in Christ was founded in 1897 by Arkansan Charles Harrison Mason, a Black minister.
Mason was the first senior bishop of the Church of God in Christ, serving from 1907 until his death in 1961. Under his leadership, the denomination built Mason Temple Church of God in Christ in Memphis, financed by Black church members who were sharecroppers, cotton pickers, and domestic servants. It has congregations in over 112 countries with an estimated worldwide membership of over 8 million, the largest African American Pentecostal church in the world and the third largest Protestant denomination in the U.S.
The Church of God in Christ holds a Holy Convocation each year; from 1908 to 2008, it was held in Memphis. In 2009, it was moved to St. Louis where it has been held every year since; it's scheduled to return to Memphis later this year. At least 50,000 people have attended each year since 1990.
All of this was started by an Arkansan in Arkansas.
Mason was born Sept. 8, 1866, on the Prior farm in Shelby County, Tenn. near Memphis. His parents, Jerry and Eliza Mason, were former slaves and members of the African American Missionary Baptist Church, having been converted during the dark crisis of American slavery. Mason was greatly influenced by his parents and their faith. While he had no formal education, he learned to read and write, and worked with his family as a sharecropper in Tennessee.
The Mason family left Tennessee when Charles was around 12 years old as the result of a yellow fever epidemic that took the life of his father. The family moved to a plantation near Preston (Faulkner County), Ark., owned by John Watson.
In 1880, when he was 14, Mason developed a severe case of tuberculosis. His family and church prayed for him, and he experienced a vision of God in September 1880, reporting that the vision healed him for the purpose of alerting him to his spiritual duty.
At that time his half-brother, a minister at the Missionary Baptist Church, baptized him at Mount Gale Missionary Baptist Church in Preston.
When Mason was 25, he was licensed to minister by Mount Gale. In 1893, he entered Arkansas Baptist College, but left after a couple of months because he was unhappy with the liberal teaching methods; he transferred to the Ministers Institute at the college and graduated in 1895.
By that time, he had already preached his first official sermon, on Holiness, in 1894 at Mount Gale. By 1895, he began preaching the doctrine of Holiness and Sanctification in Baptist churches in the area.
He became interested in the teachings of Amanda Berry Smith, an African American Episcopal Church evangelist who had converted to the new wave of Holiness spreading in the late 1800s.
The Holiness doctrine is the belief that God not only forgives a person of sin, but also removes the nature of sin which causes a person to commit sin. Once a person is purified, he or she is then baptized with the Holy Spirit. Total consecration to God is necessary to become sanctified.
As a result of his teachings, Mason met with opposition from the Baptist congregations. Most Christian denominations, including the Missionary Baptist Church at that time, emphasized the forgiveness of sins as a central teaching, while Holiness places a much higher regard on sanctification.
Many of Mason's congregations began to reject his ministry, and he was eventually expelled by the National Baptist Convention, along with others who embraced Holiness teachings.
This did not change his views. He decided to form a new fellowship of churches with the help of Charles Pierce Jones, a Baptist preacher from Mississippi, and J. E. Jeter from Little Rock. Many new Holiness groups being formed at that time were using the term Church of God, and Mason was trying to distinguish his organization from others.
While walking down a street in Little Rock in 1897, Mason had a vision and believed that God had given him the name Church of God in Christ, based on 1 Thessalonians 2:14: For ye, brethren, became followers of the churches of God which in Judea are in Christ Jesus, for ye also have suffered like things of your own countrymen, even as they have of the Jews.
Mason believed that God had said to him, "If you take the name that I give you, you will never build a building that will hold all those who will come."
For the next several years, Mason and Jones continued to preach and teach the Wesleyan view of entire sanctification as the second work of grace. They taught Perfectionist doctrines and believed those receiving the sanctification experience were holy and known as "saints." The people who followed their teachings did not smoke or drink, worked hard, and paid their bills. They praised the Lord with shouting and dancing.
The relationship between Mason and Jones continued to be peaceful until 1906, when the Azusa Street Revival began. Led by William J. Seymour, an African American preacher, the Revival started on April 9, 1906, in Los Angeles. Seymour and seven other men were waiting on a sign from God when suddenly they were knocked to the floor from their chairs. The other men began to speak in tongues and praise God. A few days later, Seymour received the Holy Spirit and also spoke in tongues.
When word spread of these events, huge crowds from all races and income levels began to gather to be baptized in the Holy Spirit. The revival is considered to be the primary catalyst for the spread of Pentecostalism in the 20th century. Seymour preached that the "saints," although sanctified, had not received the baptism of the Holy Ghost until they had spoken in tongues.
Mason was sent by the Church of God in Christ to Los Angeles to investigate the revival, which led to the loss of tranquility between Mason and Jones.
When he arrived, Mason reported that people were worshipping together in unity and equality, something he had never seen before. According to him, the color line was washed away by the blood. Not only did he witness speaking in tongues, but also healings and exorcisms of demons. In short order, Mason spoke in tongues and returned to Memphis eager to share the good news.
The news received a divided response from the Church of God in Christ membership which now had strongholds in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee. Jones was not in favor of these new teachings. Mason always claimed God had endowed him with supernatural characteristics that manifested themselves in dreams and visions.
Jones did not accept the message of speaking in tongues. A struggle ensued for the future of the Church of God in Christ as the new Pentecostal party led by Mason fought with Jones for leadership.
By August 1907, when the General Assembly of the Church of God in Christ met in Mississippi, a three-day fight ensued. As a result, the Assembly withdrew the right hand of fellowship of Mason and expelled him and the Pentecostal faction from the Church of God in Christ. Half the ministers and laity left with him.
In November 1907, Mason's Pentecostal faction called its own Convocation in Memphis, retaining the name of Church of God in Christ and adding a Pentecostal statement to its Order of Faith, which stated that the full baptism in the Holy Spirit was evidenced by speaking in other tongues. Shouting and dancing in the Spirit were encouraged.
A long legal struggle over the name Church of God in Christ and the charter of the church ensued, and eventually in 1909, Mason was declared the winner by a court in Shelby County, Tenn. Jones and his non-Pentecostal followers founded the Church of Christ (Holiness) U.S.A.
After winning, Mason's church spread like wildfire, first in the South and then across the country, especially in Black neighborhoods. He proved to be a genius at organization, setting up dioceses led by bishops who normally served for life. By the end of World War II, the Church of God in Christ was in every state.
While Mason never fully fought the Jim Crow system of segregation, he never accepted the separation of Christians based on race. His church became one of the most integrated denominations in the country, ordaining hundreds of white Pentecostal preachers before World War I.
For many years, the Church of God in Christ was the only incorporated Pentecostal denomination in the nation. To be able to perform marriages or be deferred from the draft, a minister had to demonstrate that he was a minister of a recognized religious body. Hundreds of white ministers joined.
The Azusa Street Revival drew curious Christians from around the world. While worshippers saw racial integration of the Revival as a sign of God's presence, its multiracial character scandalized the entire United States.
The Revival arose out of a relationship between William J. Seymour, a Black minister, and Charles E. Parham, a white minister, when Seymour attended a Bible school in Houston taught by Parham.
Parham required Seymour to sit in the hallway since he was Black and listen to the lecture through an open door. Seymour came to learn about the radical new theory taught by Parham and was willing to undergo the humiliation. It was Parham who first theorized that speaking in tongues provided biblical evidence that a Christian was infused in the Holy Spirit, the central tenet of the Pentecostal faith.
The relationship between Parham and Seymour symbolized the interracial origin of the Pentecostal religion. However, the racial split that eventually occurred was a result of the difference in the opinions of Seymour and Parham.
Parham visited the Azusa Street Revival in October 1906. A Ku Klux Klan sympathizer, he did not approve of the ecstatic praying, frenzied dancing, and mixing of races at the services he described as "Southern darky camp meetings."
As a result, the Pentecostals split along racial lines into two major denominations, one Black, the Church of God in Christ, and one white, the Pentecostal Assemblies.
Once again, Arkansas enters the picture. The members of the white Pentecostal Assemblies recognized the need for greater organization and accountability. Eudorus N. Bell, a white Pentecostal Assemblies preacher, became pastor of a small church in Malvern in 1907. Between 1910 and 1913, he began to have his voice heard.
In the South, Bell and his colleagues had been promoting the Pentecostal faith in a newspaper called Apostolic Faith. H. G. Rodgers was heading another independent Pentecostal movement in the southeastern part of the country. Bell eventually merged his group with that of Rodgers, and the two formed a loosely knit organization called the Church of God in Christ and in Unity with the Apostolic Faith.
By 1914, the need for Bible literature, missionaries, specialized funds, and ministers for the Pentecostal Assemblies had arisen.
Bell called for a meeting with the Pentecostal Assemblies ministers and laymen in Hot Springs to discuss doctrinal unity and other common goals. Over 300 from over 20 states and foreign countries gathered at his request. He invited Pentecostal "saints" from everywhere to attend. This meeting, which began on April 2, 1914, and concluded on April 12, became the first General Council of the Assemblies of God.
Most of the founders who gathered carried credentials with the Church of God in Christ, as it was the only incorporated Pentecostal denomination at that time in the U.S. A large group of white Pentecostal ministers became dissatisfied with this arrangement, and the Assemblies of God denomination was born.
Mason and his group from the Church of God in Christ were only nominally invited. In fact, no Black ministers were sent a letter of invitation to the meeting.
Mason, however, attended, and was invited to preach on Thursday night. Despite his efforts to keep the Church of God in Christ intact, the white Pentecostal Assemblies organized the Assemblies of God and split from the Church of God in Christ. The leaders of Assemblies of God looked to the Church of God in Christ as the Black Pentecostal movement, and Black converts in white Assemblies of God churches were encouraged to join the Black Church of God in Christ.
At the conclusion of the conference, Bell was elected Chairman of the Assemblies of God, a title later changed to General Superintendent of the Assemblies of God.
The Assemblies of God has become the world's largest Pentecostal denomination, with more than 69 million members and over 236,000 churches in 191 countries.
Bell died in 1923. Mason died in 1961 at the age of 95. Mason Temple was given permission to bury him in the lobby of the Temple, the only person so honored in the history of the City of Memphis.
In 1968, Mason Temple was used as a meeting location for the strike of the Memphis sanitation workers which brought Dr. Martin Luther King to the city. Dr. King delivered his "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech at Mason Temple the night before his assassination.
Mike Mayton is a Little Rock lawyer.