MEMPHIS, Tenn. — He preached in living rooms, in the woods and in a cotton gin.
When he returned from the Azusa Street Revival speaking in unknown tongues, Bishop Charles Harrison Mason was followed by just 10 churches out of more than 100 in the split over the theological disagreement.
Today, the denomination founded by Mason, the son of former slaves, is the largest Pentecostal denomination in the United States, with more than 6.5 million members.
"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.
Years after Mason's death in 1961, people in Memphis speak about the influence he had on their grandparents or great grandparents.
Today, Hall pastors Temple COGIC, which was once Mason's church.
"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."
Although Mason received a license to preach from the Mount Gale Missionary Baptist Church in Arkansas, where his family had moved after leaving Memphis, Mason was expelled from the Baptist Convention after preaching the doctrine of holiness and sanctification.
"They were seeking to change the expectations of what a Christian life could be," said Bishop David Daniels, chair of the board of education for COGIC and professor at McCormick Theological Seminary.
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.
At about the same time, Mason and other leaders in the church began to hear about the Azusa Street Revival, where African American preacher William Seymour led large gatherings of both black and white worshippers in emotional prayer, weeping and ecstatic spiritual experiences.
Seymour taught that baptism in the Holy Spirit would be accompanied by speaking in "tongues," and it was at the revival that Mason himself "received the baptism of the Holy Ghost and spoke in tongues for the first time," according to "The Rise to Respectability: Race, Religion, and the Church of God in Christ" by Calvin White Jr.
"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."
When Mason returned from the revival, fierce disagreement over the details and meaning of speaking in tongues led to a second split, with Mason taking about 10 churches and keeping the "Church of God in Christ" name.
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Mason believed Pentecostalism was the experience described in the New Testament, but it also hearkened back to the religion of his childhood. His mother, a former slave, had "exposed her children to a religious culture composed of emotional prayer, song, dance, and most important of all, clandestine 'brush harbor' meetings," according to White's book.
In Pentecostal teachings about tongues, healing and prophecies, Mason found "the ability to bridge elements of slave religion with contemporary religious practices," White wrote.
The Azusa Street Revival impacted Mason and COGIC's beginnings in other ways.
By 1910, there were white networks of churches and clergy within the denomination, Daniels said.
"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."
Although some of Mason's formative years were spent in Arkansas and Mississippi, it was in Memphis in 1907 that the first convening of the Pentecostal General Assembly of the Church of God in Christ was held.
"The city of Memphis remained conducive for the growth of the denomination," White wrote. "During the years of the Great Migration, Memphis became a popular destination for poor rural Delta blacks, and this ever-increasing population brought Mason a steady flow of converts who transplanted their religious customs and traditions once practiced on plantations into urban Memphis."
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.
Mason was also an activist: Mason Temple would host civil rights activists and rallies in his lifetime. During World War I, Mason was monitored by the government and even jailed for his preaching on pacifism.
He traveled often to evangelize, including to the Caribbean and Great Britain.
The denomination spread to other parts of the world, with members in Asia, Latin America and Africa.
In the United States, however, it has become less racially diverse, Daniels said.
"The closer you are to the Azusa Street Revival, the closer one is to this multiracial, interracial revival, excitement and the newness and the sense that all this is possible," Daniels said. "The further away you get from that, I think the vision dims."
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.
"I think just as the Azusa Street Revival changed Bishop Mason's life, the doctrine he espoused was adopted by other people and their lives were changed and enriched," Wells said. "At first it appealed to those who were downtrodden, and it was hope. . . . As people joined, lives were made better."
Mason was also a proponent of education: He established the Saints Industrial and Literary School in Lexington, Mississippi, which eventually became Saints College.
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.
"That's what Bishop Mason's legacy is," Hall said.
By 1973, COGIC had about 3 million members. In 1997, it had grown to an estimated 5.2 million.
"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.
Patterson is Mason's great-grandson. His grandfather, Mason's son-in-law, was the first elected presiding bishop of COGIC, elected several years after Mason's death.
Growing up, Patterson said he remembered hearing his father describe Mason as someone who prayed often throughout the day.
Mason often told Patterson's father that "we needed to search for the God of the Bible," Patterson said.
"I think the lasting impact of Bishop Mason's ministry is leading people into their own personal relationships with God," Patterson said.
Today, people describe Mason as almost a mythic figure due to his role in founding COGIC, Patterson said, but he was also an "approachable" person who loved his family dearly.
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.
Mason loved athletics, often visited his grandchildren at college and loved to swim, Patterson said. This has had an impact on Patterson's own life, he said, as he's tried to remember not to lose himself in his ministry, but to continue to be a family man.
"He did have a comical and funny side to him," Patterson said. "He was extremely dedicated to his children, his sons and daughters," Patterson said. "Along with being a powerful and anointed man of God, he remained down to earth."