The Church of God in Christ, the largest Pentecostal denomination in the United States, was birthed in the belly of a man who thirsted for more—more of the Holy Spirit.

Charles Harrison Mason was born Sept. 8, 1866, on the Prior Farm near Memphis, Tenn., the son of former slaves Jerry and Eliza Mason, who found salvation in Christ during the dark days of slavery.

Reared in the Missionary Baptist Church, Mason gave his life to Christ at the age of 12. As a child he prayed with his mother, asking “above all things for God to give him a religion like the one he had heard about from the old slaves and seen demonstrated in their lives.”

“This yearning for the God of his forbears underlies the dynamic of his life,” wrote Ithiel C. Clemmons in {Bishop C. H. Mason and the Roots of the Church of God in Christ}.

In 1880, according to that historical account, Mason experienced the supernatural work of God when he was miraculously healed of a debilitating disease. His mother took him to the Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church near Plumerville, Ark., where he was baptized by the church’s pastor and his brother, I.S. Nelson.

Following in his brother’s example, Mason became a lay preacher, traveling throughout Arkansas, spreading his testimony.

But despite his being licensed and ordained to preach in 1893, Mason harbored misgivings about his church’s doctrine, some of which seemed to be assuaged by his reading of the autobiography of African-American Methodist evangelist Amanda Berry Smith. One of the most widely respected black holiness evangelists of the 19th century, Smith’s testimony led many Blacks into the Holiness movement, including Mason, who claimed sanctification after reading her autobiography.

With the lens of his faith altered, Mason did not last long at Arkansas Baptist College, where he had enrolled Nov. 1, 1893. He withdrew after three months because of his dissatisfaction with the methods of teaching and the presentation of the Bible message.

Mason returned to preaching wherever he was called.

In 1895, he met the men who would become his closest companions in ministry: Elder C.P. Jones of Jackson, Miss.; Elder J.E. Jeter, of Little Rock, Ark.; and Elder W.S. Pleasant of Hazelhurst, Miss. Together, these spiritual pioneers conducted a revival in 1896, in Jackson, Miss., converting, sanctifying and healing large numbers of attendees.

Rev. Mason’s dogmatic teachings on the doctrine of sanctification stirred much controversy among Black Baptists and caused him to be vehemently criticized, ostracized and later expelled from the body.

The men returned to Jackson in 1897 for another miracle deliverance revival. The attendance was so overwhelming that the event had to be moved to an abandoned warehouse on the bank of a little creek in Lexington, Miss., which was owned by a Mr. Watson.

Subsequent to the revival, it became necessary to organize the new converts into a church that emphasized the doctrine of entire sanctification through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

Elder Mason, Elder Jones, and Elder Pleasant, and 60 stood as charter members for the new denomination known as the “Church of God.” Jones was elected the general overseer, Mason was selected as overseer of Tennessee, and J.A. Jeter was selected as overseer of Arkansas. The gin house was the church’s first meeting place, but land was soon bought on Gazoo Street, from Mrs. John Ashcraft, just beyond the corporate line, upon which was built a little 2,400-square-foot edifice.

Mason tarried over a name for the church, seeking a spiritual one that would distinguish the church from others of the similar title. He prayed and read the Bible. Then, one day in 1897, he was walking along a street in Little Rock, when the name “Church of God in Christ” was revealed to him. The revelation was supported by the scripture I Thessalonians 2:14: “For ye brethren became followers of the Churches of God which in Judea are in Christ Jesus: for ye have suffered like things of your own countrymen even as they have of the Jews.” All of the brethren unanimously agreed to the name of “Church of God in Christ.”

But such unanimity did not prevail, particularly after Elder Mason traveled to Los Angeles, in 1907 to participate in the Azusa Street Revival led by Black evangelist Rev. William Seymour. Seymour was preaching concerning Luke 24:49, “And behold I send the promise of my Father upon you; but tarry ye in the city of Jerusalem until ye be endued with power from on high.” And, Rev. Mason became convinced that it was essential for him to have the outpouring of the Holy Ghost.

According to the church history, Mason said he received the power to speak in tongues in that revival. He wrote in his personal testimony that he prayed and asked God for that spiritual baptism:

“I got a place at the altar and began to thank God. After that, I said Lord if I could only baptize myself, I would do so; for I wanted the baptism so bad I did not know what to do. I said, Lord, You will have to do the work for me; so I turned it over into His hands.”

As he tarried at the altar, Mason said he got up and began to sing the hymn “He Brought Me Out of the Miry Clay.”

At that moment, he said, “The Spirit came upon the saints and upon me…Then I gave up for the Lord to have His way within me. So there came a wave of Glory into me and all of my being was filled with the Glory of the Lord.

“…When I opened my mouth to say Glory, a flame touched my tongue which ran down me. My language changed and no word could I speak in my own tongue.

Oh! I was filled with the Glory of the Lord. My soul was then satisfied.”

Rev. Mason returned home, preaching what he considered the “good news” of his Pentecostal experience. But Elder J. A. Jeter, General Overseer Jones and others dismissed the doctrine of speaking in tongues as the initial evidence of Spirit baptism and deemed it a delusion, causing a fracture in the body.

At the 1907 general assembly held in Jackson, Mason was expelled. He subsequently called a conference in Memphis, Tenn., inviting all those who believed in receiving the baptism of the Holy Ghost according to the scriptures in Acts 2:1-4. The early pioneers of this reorganized Holiness-Pentecostal church were E. R. Driver, J.Bowe, R.R. Booker, R. E. Hart, W. Welsh, A. A. Blackwell, E. M. Page, R.H. I. Clark, D. J. Young, James Brewer, Daniel Spearman and J. H. Boone.

These elders became the first Pentecostal General Assembly of the Church of God in Christ. They unanimously chose Mason as general overseer and chief apostle, giving him authority to establish doctrine, organize auxiliaries and appoint overseers.

After years of litigation, Mason’s group retained the COGIC name, becoming the first legally incorporated Pentecostal body in the United States; Jones’ faction remained a Holiness church, changing its name to the Church of Christ (Holiness) U.S.A.

From 10 churches in 1907, the Church of God in Christ has grown to become one of the largest Pentecostal denominations in the world, with more than 6 million members in nearly 60 countries.

Though it was racially diverse in its beginnings, the era of Jim Crow oversaw a drawing away of the church’s White membership. Now, the church is predominantly African-American, and has attracted various famous African Americans including the Winans Family of entertainers, the Clark Sisters and Rev. T.D. Jakes, a leading televangelist and spiritual leader.


Zenitha Prince

Special to the AFRO