Son of former slaves began with small church following

Bishop Charles Mason turned a small church following into what's now 6.5 million members


Today, the denomination founded by Bishop Charles Harrison Mason, the son of former slaves, is the largest Pentecostal denomination in the U.S, with more than 6.5M members.

Bishop Charles Mason turned a small church following into what's now 6.5 million members

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — He preached in living rooms, in the woods and in a cotton gin.

"Bishop Mason was one who lifted African Americans who were former slaves and the children of slaves, lifted them up from the degradation of slavery, ex-slavery, the brokenness of poverty," said Bishop David Hall Sr., prelate of the Tennessee headquarters of the Church of God in Christ."He through this church gave them esteem, position, status and encouraged their education."

On Monday, the Church of God in Christ, which is headquartered in Memphis, celebrated its founder, looking back on the life of a man born in West Tennessee in 1864, not far from Memphis, baptized as a teenager into the Missionary Baptist Church and who decided to pursue ministry after surviving a childhood illness.

"Bishop Mason preached my grandfather from sin and converted him to holiness in 1912, turned our entire family around," Hall said."It's to me strange that I now serve as pastor of the church that he served."

Mason and another expelled Baptist preacher then formed the Church of God in Christ, which grew to about 110 churches in 1906 throughout Mississippi and Arkansas, with a few in Oklahoma and one in Texas, Daniels said.

"When I opened my mouth to say glory, a flame touched my tongue which ran down in me," Mason later wrote."My language changed and no word could I speak in my own tongue. My soul was then satisfied."

In Pentecostal teachings about tongues, healing and prophecies, Mason found"the ability to bridge elements of slave religion with contemporary religious practices," White wrote.

"You have this very interesting phenomena that at the beginning of racial segregation, the Church of God in Christ as a larger body is interracial," Daniels said."This interracial impulse will continue to shape the Church of God in Christ in various ways all the way up until you get to the 1950s. . . . It's this interesting situation where African Americans are supervising white clergy, white pastors during this time of segregation."

The denomination continued to grow. Mason Temple was dedicated in 1945, then the largest convention hall owned by a black religious group in the United States.

The denomination spread to other parts of the world, with members in Asia, Latin America and Africa.

Goldie Frinks Wells, former head of a school founded by Mason, said she heard stories of her grandmother, who grew up in North Carolina, hearing Mason preach when visiting her church. He'd pray so long that her grandmother would sneak out of church and sneak back in again. If church members had a dispute, he'd have them pray until there was a resolution.

Hall, whose grandfather joined COGIC under Mason's leadership, sees that commitment to education in his own family history. His grandfather, who had a third-grade education, raised 12 children with his wife. Of those 12, 10 graduated college.

"I think the growth can only be attributed to the hand of God on Bishop Mason and his willingness to follow the directives the Lord gave him concerning the establishment of the church," said Bishop Charles H. Mason Patterson Sr., pastor of Pentecostal Temple COGIC.

Mason often told Patterson's father that"we needed to search for the God of the Bible," Patterson said.

Mason's first marriage ended in divorce since his wife opposed Mason's desire to be in the ministry. He remarried after her death and had several children with his second wife, Leila Washington. After Leila Mason's death, he remarried a third and final time.

Read more: NBC News

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