“Bishop C. H. Mason is the greatest religious leader in the world. The Church of God in Christ is one of the greatest churches in Christendom.”
(Bishop Williams J. Seymour to the Elders’ Council 12th Annual Holy Convocation Church of God in Christ – December 1919)
From November 1996 to November 1997, the Church of God in Christ (COGIC) celebrates the centennial year of its founding as a holiness church. Over 100 years ago, COGIC emerged out of a holiness revival in the Mississippi Delta, Western Tennessee, and Eastern Arkansas. COGIC has become one of the largest and most progressive denominations within American Christianity. The story of its origin is so closely tied to the life and ministry of its founder, Bishop Charles Harrison Mason (1866-1961), that it is important to know something of his life and ministry.
Charles Harrison Mason was born on September 8, 1866, to former slaves, Jerry and Eliza Mason, who had been converted to Christianity during the dark days of slavery. His place of birth was called Prior Farm (now Barlett, Tennessee). Prior Lee, for whom the plantation was named, had slaves in Jackson, Mississippi and in Tennessee. He was a wealthy member of First Baptist Church in Jackson, Mississippi – a church founded in 1834 with 34 blacks and whites, that gave rise to the Mt. Helm Baptist Church founded in 1867 following the Civil War.
Mason received the experience of sanctification around 1893, and was part of a body of “radical” preachers who preached the necessity of living free from sin in order to be true Christians.
In 1895, C. H. Mason met Charles Price Jones who had been called to pastor Mt. Helm Baptist Church in Jackson, Mississippi. Both were protégés of the godly, dynamic E. C. Morris, who had founded Arkansas Baptist Convention. They immediately became friends and colleagues in ministry. C. P. Jones, and C. H. Mason, had been “sanctified.”
They began to promote holiness within the churches, and to convene “Holiness Conferences” annually, during which leading black holiness men and women speakers preached the holiness message.
The Church of God in Christ pioneers were rapidly appearing on the stage of American Christianity; and, the moment had arrived when a separation from the newly formed National Baptist Convention, Inc. (1985) became inevitable.
In 1896, the General Baptist Convention of Mississippi was held at the Mt. Helm Baptist Church in Jackson, Mississippi with Jones as host pastor. At that time, Elders Kelly Bucks, A. Reed, R. J. Temple, W. S. Pleasant, and other Baptist Pastors came under the influence of Mason and Jones. Controversy arose over their preaching “sanctification.” Jones and Mason, through conducting holiness conventions and planting holiness congregations, became major bearers of the holiness doctrine. By 1897, an anti-holiness group emerged to stop the spread of the holiness doctrine. Holiness pastors were removed from Baptist congregations and from leadership positions within the state and district conventions and associations. The primary target of their campaign was Elder Charles Price Jones, because of his position as the pastor of the influential Mt. Helm Baptist Church in Jackson, Mississippi.
Within a year (1897), Jones was in trouble at Mt. Helm. He and his followers were dismissed. C. H. Mason had preached out a congregation over 60 persons in an old Gin House in Lexington, Mississippi. Having been totally rejected by his own denomination, Elder Mason sought prayerfully for a name for this large group of followers who were being expelled from their Baptist Associations. He wanted a name that “would not depart from the scriptures and yet distinguish these persons.” While he was walking down a street in Little Rock, Arkansas, the Lord spoke to him and inspired him with the scripture, I Thessalonians 2:14. The Lord said to him, “Take the name Church of God in Christ, and there will not ever be room enough to house the people whom I will gather.” On application for incorporation, the clergy bureau in Washington, D.C. objected to the name, where upon Mason prayed further and was guided to II Thessalonians 1:1 adding the prefix “the” to the name. The addition was approved for incorporation; the new denomination became “The Church of God in Christ.”
Between 1897 and 1899, Mt. Helm’s struggle with a dissident pastor preaching sanctification, spilled over into the general Baptist Association Mississippi and then into the National Baptist Convention. Minutes of the General Missionary Baptist Convention accused C. P. Jones, W. J. Pleasant, and C. H. Mason of preaching pernicious, heretical doctrines among the “most ignorant classes of our people, leading off individuals and corrupting churches.” Mt. Helm, the minutes said, had become the hotbed of corrupt doctrines and Mt. Helm leaders had taken steps to uproot this evil. The minutes were signed by Reverends Scott, Rollins, Wright, Bell, Newman, and Thompson. President E. C. Morris was forced to deal with this issue in his Presidential Address in 1899. On July 23, 1899, C. P. Jones, C. H. Mason, and all their followers were expelled from the National Baptist Convention. Thus, a new denomination was in the making that would transform the landscape of the Black Church and become a fledgling organization between 1897 to 1906. Mason and Jones soon recognized a need for further organizations to strengthen the rapidly expanding work. Charles Jones became the General Overseer with Mason as Overseer of Tennessee, and J. A. Jeter as Overseer of Arkansas. Jeter also soon headed the fledgling group’s Foreign Missions Board. From 1897 to 1906, the Church of God in Christ grew and spread rapidly through the south and on into the Southwest and Midwest. Every year they had a convention in Jackson, Mississippi. Before the Azusa Street Revival, Elders Jones and Mason had heard about the Pentecostal message.