Bishop Charles H. Mason
Ordained Minister and Founder of COGIC | Class of 2002
An outstanding preacher and the founder of the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), the largest African-American Pentecostal denomination of the twentieth century, Charles Harrison “Bishop” Mason ordained both black and white clergy in the early 1900s, when few did so. Mason was baptized, licensed, and ordained in Arkansas.
Charles Mason was born on September 8, 1866, on the Prior Farm near Bartlett, Tennessee. His parents, tenant farmers Jeremiah “Jerry” Mason and Eliza Mason, had been converted to Christianity while they were slaves and attended the Missionary Baptist Church. Mason had two brothers and one sister. When he was twelve, a yellow fever epidemic forced his family to move from Tennessee to John Watson’s plantation in Plumerville, Arkansas. The following year, Mason’s father died from yellow fever, and Mason himself was sickened with tuberculosis in 1880. On Sunday, September 5, 1880, Mason experienced a vision of God and walked outside unaided. His half-brother, the Reverend Israel S. Nelson, baptized him at the local Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church. Mason then entered the ministry as a lay preacher.
Mason married Alice Sexton on January 15, 1890, in Faulkner County. In 1891 after formally being licensed to minister by the Mount Gale Missionary Baptist Church in Preston, Arkansas, he began his preaching career. Mason soon learned that his wife did not want to be married to a preacher. The couple divorced within two years, and Mason became depressed and suicidal. He entered Arkansas Baptist College on November 1, 1893, but he left within two months because he was unhappy with their teaching methods and presentation of the biblical message.
Mason preached his first official sermon, on holiness, in 1894 in Preston. In his doctrine, Mason was inspired by Amanda Smith, another African-American holiness evangelist, and by John Wesley, among others. While most Baptist groups, along with many other Christian denominations, emphasize the forgiveness of sins as a central teaching, holiness preaching places a much higher regard on sanctification—that is, on living a life fully obedient to God’s commands as written in the Bible. This difference in doctrine caused Mason’s congregations to reject his ministry, but expulsion from the Baptist pulpit in 1897 did not change Mason. He kept preaching holiness in various places, including an abandoned cotton gin in Lexington, Mississippi. The “gin house” became the birthplace of the Church of God in Christ. The name, which Mason said had been given to him by God as he walked down a street in Little Rock, was drawn from 1 Thessalonians 2:14. Mason’s many preaching forays brought him into contact with other preachers who preached sanctification, such as Charles Price Jones, John E. Jeter, and W. S. Pleasant. These men collaborated in organizing the new denomination; Jones was the general overseer, Mason was over Tennessee, and Jeter was over Arkansas.
As Mason worked at organizing the new denomination, he heard the news that his former wife had died. Consistent with his holiness doctrine, Mason had remained convinced that he could not remarry while his former wife still lived, even though they were legally divorced. After her death, though, Mason married Lelia Washington in 1905. By 1920, they had six children. She died in 1936. In 1943—when he was seventy-seven years old and she was thirty-five—Mason married his third wife, Elsie Louise Washington, a Memphis, Tennessee, schoolteacher. She became very active in the administration of the Church of God in Christ, both as an office secretary and as editor-in-chief of the church’s journal, The Whole Truth Newspaper.
When he learned of the Azusa Street Revival in California, Mason felt called to go to Los Angeles; he considered himself to have received Jesus in the form of the Holy Ghost in March 1907. He returned to Tennessee and began preaching the baptism of the Holy Ghost with the evidence of speaking in tongues. This theology of free and exuberant worship was not well-received by his former compatriots; and his associations with Jones, Jeter, and Pleasant were soon over. Mason called for like-minded men to join with him in organizing the first Pentecostal General Assembly of the Church of God in Christ, and twelve men responded. When the meeting was over, Mason had been named the General Overseer and Chief Apostle of the denomination with the authority to formulate doctrine, set up the organization, and assign responsibility. He went on to win a court battle to reclaim the name of “Church of God in Christ.”
From 1909 to 1914, roughly equal numbers of African Americans and whites came to him for ordination (in 1910 alone, Mason ordained 300 white Pentecostal preachers). He wanted to see the denomination adopt the same vibrant and emotionally moving mannerisms that he had seen among former slaves, which were considered controversial—holy dances, ecstatic worship, and falling under the power of God.
Mason is credited with establishing the Young People’s Willing Workers program in 1914, a Sunday school program in 1924, a foreign mission board in 1926, and numerous women’s auxiliaries.
Mason’s interracial work and his pacifism (although he preached allegiance to the United States and condemned the Kaiser during World War I) brought him to the attention of the Bureau of Investigation, the forerunner of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which kept a file on him during the war. In 1918, he was arrested and jailed in Lexington, Mississippi, because he had a German aide, Pastor William B. Holt.
Mason died on November 17, 1961, in Harper’s Hospital in Detroit, Michigan. His body was interred in the Mason Temple, headquarters of the Church of God in Christ in Memphis.