Church of God in Christ

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CHURCH OF GOD IN CHRIST. The Church of God in Christ, the largest black Pentecostal denomination in the United States, emerged out of struggles within the black Baptist churches of the American South in the 1890s. Leading figures in its establishment were Charles Harrison Mason and Charles Price Jones, both of whom subscribed to the Wesleyan doctrine of a "second blessing," or sanctification experience following conversion. They also defended slave worship practices, challenging the notion that former slaves should conform to non-African modes of worship and endorsing such practices as the ring shout and the use of dancing and drums in worship. The newly formed "Sanctified Church" became the focus of piety among southern blacks and insisted that they maintain a separate identity through forms of dress, fasting, and rites of passage. Mason was the only early Pentecostal pastor whose church was legally incorporated; this allowed it to perform clerical ordinations, recognized by the civil authorities, of pastors who served other Pentecostal groups throughout the South.

The 1906 Asuza Street Revival in Los Angeles, presided over by the black preacher William J. Seymour, drew the approval of many Pentecostal leaders. Mason sought the baptism of the Holy Spirit at Asuza Street and acquired a new comprehension of the power of speaking in tongues, a gift he soon applied in his public ministry. Debate arose in 1907 between Mason and Charles Jones over the use of speaking in tongues as initial evidence of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, and Mason took about half the ministers and members with him; those who remained with Jones became the Church of Christ (Holiness) U.S.A. The Church of God in Christ quickly built upon its southern constituency, expressing a greater faith in the power of God to transcend human sinfulness than other black denominations. It stressed freedom as the essence of religion and the need for an infusion of the Holy Spirit in order to give power for service. Such power assured individuals and communities of personal security in a region where they lived under oppressive conditions.

Under Mason the Church of God in Christ sought to capture the guiding essence of the Holy Spirit while avoiding the contentiousness of Baptist-style conventions. The instrument for this was the Holy Convocation at Memphis, Tennessee, a combination of annual revival and camp meeting. Held in late November and early December, it consisted of twenty-one days devoted to prayer, Bible teaching, testimonies, and singing. The intention was to preserve, through repetition, the essence of the covenant with God and to inspire listeners with their special status as God's chosen. Following the great migration of African Americans from the rural South to the cities in the early twentieth century, Mason sent out preachers and female missionaries to Texas, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Ohio, New York, California, and Michigan. The church experienced phenomenal growth that was aided by the willingness of missionaries to care for children, pray for the sick, and teach homemaking skills.

In 1911 Mason established a Women's Department to make full use of the skills of the church's female members. He welcomed women's free expression of their spiritual gifts, but insisted on the reservation of the offices of pastor and preacher for men; all female leaders remained subordinate to a male. First under Lizzie Roberson and then Lillian Brooks-Coffey, churches were founded and Bible study and prayer groups were organized. They called on women to dress modestly and to respect a pastor's authority. Mother Roberson also succeeded in raising, through her subordinates, the funds needed to open the denomination's first bank account. Ultimately the Women's Department took responsibility for foreign missions to Haiti, Jamaica, the Bahamas, England, and Liberia.

The church experienced a tempestuous transition to a new generation of leaders after Mason's death in 1961. In more recent years, however, it has grown dramatically and become visible to the American public. The church became a leader in ecumenical discussions with nonfundamentalist denominations, and C. H. Mason Seminary, established in 1970, was one of the few Pentecostal seminaries in the nation accredited by the Association of Theological Schools. During the 1970s the church also established military, prison, and hospital ministries. By the early 1990s, the Church of God in Christ, headed by Presiding Bishop Gilbert E. Patterson, had become the fifth largest denomination in the United States, with 5,499,875 members in 1991.


Clemmons, Ithiel C. Bishop C. H. Mason and the Roots of the Church of God in Christ. Bakersfield, Calif.: Pneuma Life, 1996.

Franklin, Robert Michael. "My Soul Says Yes, the Urban Ministry of the Church of God in Christ." In Churches, Cities and Human Community: Urban Ministry in the United States, 1945–1985. Edited by Clifford J. Green. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eeerdmans, 1996.

Paris, Peter. The Social Teaching of the Black Churches. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985.


See alsoPentecostal Churches .

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