A History of the Church of God in Christ

In honor of the current convocation of the Church of God in Christ that is taking place in St. Louis, Missouri right now (marking the 113th anniversary of the denomination), I’ve decided to devote some research to the denomination from a personal and theological standpoint. I grew up as a 4th generation member of the Church of God in Christ, so I had a personal interest in researching it. I’ll begin with an historical outline of the founder’s experiences that led him to establish this prominent denomination that is now recognized as the largest Black Pentecostal denomination in America.

Bishop Charles Harrison Mason was the founder of what is currently the fifth-largest and fastest growing denomination in this nation, the Church of God in Christ.[1] The Church of God in Christ (also known as COGIC) was founded in 1897, although it did not receive its official title until 1907. This denomination is Pentecostal or what is also commonly referred to as ‘Holiness’ in its doctrines and practices, and has historically been classified as the largest Pentecostal and African-American denomination in the nation, with over 7 million members. The Church of God in Christ was founded on a strong emphasis on the inspiration, infallibility, and final authority of Scripture, along with a firm stance on each of the essential Christian doctrines. But the doctrine it is perhaps most known for is the teaching that the baptism of the Holy Spirit is a phenomenon that takes place subsequent to one’s salvation, and is manifested specifically through speaking in tongues. This teaching, which the church derives on the basis of its interpretation of Acts 2:4, and its teaching concerning an elevated view of holiness and sanctification played a very significant role in the enlightenment of C.H. Mason in 1897, and his eventual emergence as the founder of what would become the largest Pentecostal denomination in America.

Charles Harrison Mason was born in 1866 to parents who were formerly slaves in Memphis, Tennessee. When Mason was only 12 years old (some reports claim he was 14 years of age), he was stricken with Tuberculosis, as the epidemic swept through his hometown. His family eventually left for Plumersville, Arkansas to avoid further illness. The outbreak claimed his father’s life, but fortunately C.H. Mason suddenly recovered from his illness. His wife, Elsie Mason, states in her book “The Man: Charles Harrison Mason (1866-1961),” that he “got out of bed and walked outside all by himself…There, under the morning skies, he prayed and praised God for his healing. During these moments [Charles] renewed his commitment to God.”[2]

Although Mason was raised by devout Christian parents who belonged to the Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church of Memphis, Tennessee, some reports claim he initially resisted involvement in Christian ministry as a child and did not encounter Christ personally until he had this experience of having been healed from Tuberculosis. His ‘healing experience’ thereby led to him recommitting his life to Christ and proclaiming to his friends what God had done for him. Once he was converted, he believed God had healed him for the express purpose of alerting him to his spiritual duty. He acknowledged God called him into full-time ministry, although he was still hesitant when it came to fully accepting and embracing his calling. In 1893, at the age of 27, he received his “preaching” license and was ordained by Mount Gale Missionary Baptist Church in Preston, Arkansas, but did not desire to enter full-time ministry, so that he could marry his wife, Alice Saxton, the daughter of his mother’s closest friend. However, Mason shortly thereafter became distressed when his new wife vehemently opposed his attempts to pursue ministry. They separated, and subsequently divorced after two years of marriage, and Mason vowed to not marry again while his former wife still lived. He would later remarry, to Elsie Mason, the wife to whom he remained married for the remainder of his life.

During the time that followed his divorce from Saxton, Mason’s determination to pursue higher learning was renewed, and he enrolled at Arkansas Baptist College shortly thereafter in November of 1893. However, Mason attended the school for only a short time before deciding to drop out. Although many members of COGIC since then (and even now) mistakenly claim he left Bible college because he was against the idea of religious intellectual pursuit, more careful research indicates Mason’s true reason for leaving was he believed the teachings being promulgated at this particular Bible college were liberal and did not have a strong enough emphasis on the Word of God; he was deeply disturbed by the particular hermeneutical and philosophical presuppositions that were underlying the curriculum set forth by certain faculty members. Therefore, he strongly disagreed with their approach, and decided to leave in January of 1894. He continued to faithfully preach in any available pulpit to which he received an invitation.

Mason’s major turning point came in later in 1894 when he experienced, what his wife, Elsie Mason, referred to as his “sanctification.” She explains, “In the year 1894, Charles Mason was sanctified through the Word. He preached his first sermon on holiness using the text of II Timothy 3:12, ‘Thou therefore endure hardness as a good soldier…’After his very first sermon on sanctification, Mason was away for two weeks. He returned to discover that a revival had broken out due to that first holiness sermon.”[3] Upon a pastor’s request that Mason assume the position of Evangelist for the revival, Mason went into the woods, seeking solitude. He later recounts, “I felt it was my first duty to consult the Lord. I went into the woods, fell to my knees, and asked the Lord to give evidence of my call to the ministry by giving success and converting leading sinners of that community in the revival.”[4] Just then, it appeared God had indeed confirmed his calling when people approached him, eagerly crying out for salvation that very moment. Once the revival ended, Mason began to proclaim his dogmatic teachings against sin and the need for “sanctification and holiness” in the life of the believer. His popularity with the “grass roots” population continued to increase, as he continued to pastor at the Tabernacle Baptist Church in Selma, Alabama. He recalls, “My ministry with that church and with the Alabama Baptist Ministry at large seemed to be accepted and much beloved. But as I read my Bible and observed conditions, I felt that we were not, as a brother once said to me, ‘toting fair with Jesus.’ I began then to seek Him with all my heart for the power that would make my life wholly His…I was not satisfied with a faith that brought no fruit, or else fruit of so poor a quality, spiritually…I wanted to be like Abraham, a friend of God.”[5]

Shortly after he began teachings that emphasized holiness and sanctification, he encountered opposition from critics who were uncomfortable with his strong stances on these subjects. In 1897, the Mississippi Baptists ordered to vacate his pulpit for his unwavering preaching of Holiness doctrines. Later, in the early 1900s Mason had an epic encounter at the Azusa Street Revival, and there received what he claimed was the “Baptism of the Holy Ghost,” and subsequently spoke in tongues. Once he returned and shared with his colleagues his experience, they opposed him. Legal battles ensued, and Mason eventually lost in a case that went to the Supreme Court, thereby severing his ties with his former co-laborers for good. He then formed his own denomination, which he termed the “Church of God in Christ” officially in 1907. The first meeting place for COGIC was a gin house, but Mason, having lived to the age of 95, had the privilege of seeing his denomination become one of the largest of his time.

Having grown up a member of the Church of God in Christ, and daughter, granddaughter, and great granddaughter of members of the same denomination, I experience a certain level of admiration for the founder of this particular denomination. Although I have not claimed membership with COGIC for almost 10 years and am not in agreement with all of its doctrines (namely, its interpretation of the meaning of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit and the implications thereof, its teaching of the possibility of loss of salvation, and tendency towards legalism), I can still both appreciate and learn from a life well lived by its founder, Bishop Charles Harrison Mason. I find great value in the humility and brokenness of Mason. His honesty with God regarding each stage of his ministry provides realistic insight into the true heart of one who has been called, and rightfully humbled by said calling. A review of his life makes his struggles with God very apparent and humanizes his journey with God, in that he recognized his frailty, and relied upon the express statement from God that His calling was sure and that God would be the One to see to it that he would succeed in his ministry. His life serves as an example that God equips those whom He calls and calls those whom He has equipped. I have great appreciation for the sincerity with which Bishop Mason sought God, especially when he writes that he has an unquenchable, earnest thirst to know God deeply and intimately in such a way that it transforms every aspect of his life. I can relate to his eager expression that he has no desire for a faith that bears no fruit and bears no testimony, but that it is his earnest will that the evidence of his regeneration be shown in his life to the same magnitude to which it was shown in Abraham’s life, as a friend of God.

Undoubtedly as his popularity and fame grew, Mason was tempted to seek the approval and praise of people, yet he unwaveringly retained a firm grip on the anchor for his soul, his intimacy with the Lord Jesus Christ. Reports of his life serve as evidence of a steadiness in his direction toward living out a sanctified life in his newfound life in Christ. In this respect, it was difficult for Bishop Mason to lose focus and suffer loss of perspective, since he was constantly recalibrating his actual life with the original calling God had placed on his life, as evidenced from his intense journaling of personal matters of the heart. Later in his life, reports reveal that whenever he thought he might have heard God saying something he was eager to listen and ready to respond, according to whatever God would reveal to him. Bishop Charles Harrison Mason indeed lived up to the reputation promulgated by the members of the Church of God in Christ even today. However, I believe that because his struggles and ‘human’ traits are so deemphasized in COGIC circles, many people are kept from benefiting from the bigger, more realistic picture of who he truly was as a man who acknowledged his frailty and utter dependence upon the living God to sustain him as he sought to carry out the will of the One who called him. His was a life well lived to the glory of God in Christ, as evidenced by a legacy of a denomination that though imperfect in some ways, continues to thrive in the light of truth in a culture marked by darkness.

 

 


[1] Joe Maxwell, Building the Church (of God in Christ), Christianity Today, 8 April 1996; 23.

[2] Elsie Mason, The Man: Charles Harrison Mason (1866-1961) (Memphis: Church of God in Christ, 1979), p. 10.

[3] Elsie Mason, The Man: Charles Harrison Mason (1866-1961) (Memphis: Church of God in Christ, 1979), p. 17.

[4] Ibid., p. 18.

[5] Elsie Mason, The Man: Charles Harrison Mason (1866-1961) (Memphis: Church of God in Christ, 1979), p. 18.

 

candace@apologetics.com

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