The AG and Black Heritage

During the month of February, I have read several great articles on Pentecostalism’s black heritage. Vinson Synan wrote about William Seymours’ role as the father of Pentecostalism.  Darrin Rodgers highlights 10 African American ministers that were in important to the AG and the Pentecostal movement.  David Daniel’s highlights what happened to the racial diversity in the Pentecostal movement.

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Leaders of the Azusa Street Revival

When you read these articles you realize just how diverse the Pentecostal movement was and how it began as a multi-racial movement.  Blacks and whites worshiped, prayed and ministered together.Many of the earliest leaders were African Americans.    The Assemblies of God owes a great deal to the African American leaders of Pentecostalism. There would be no AG without C.H. Mason and the Churches of God in Christ.  After Charles Parham was disgraced, members of Parham’s Apostolic Faith network needed to reorganize around new leaders.  Around 1910, several of those leaders such as Howard Goss and E.N. Bell approached C.H. Mason about offering COGiC credentials to their ministers.  For the next 3 years, several hundred white ministers held COGiC credentials and became the nucleus of what would become the Assemblies of God (See Word and Witness Dec 20, 1913, p. 4). Bishop Mason even attended several early AG General Councils.

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Bishop C.H. Mason, founder of the Churches of God in Christ

Despite all of this, the AG has been predominantly made up of white Pentecostal ministers.  Why didn’t the AG stay COGiC?  Why has the AG been predominantly white?   Was it racially motivated?  Some have suggested that the AG was made up of  people associated with Charles Parham and some of his racist ideology. However, most of those who came out from Parham were the same ones that sought out Mason for credentials.  Some suggest that the strong presence of black pentecostal groups like the COGiC church in the midwest made it hard for the AG to be diverse. Some believe the AG was a group subject to its time and the cultural conditions and the racial relations in the midwest.

I can’t say race hasn’t been an issue in the AG.  I am sure it has played a part. But my research into the AG has left me with a couple of other factors that I think people overlook that I believe also may have contributed to the AG becoming predominantly white:

  1. In all my research through over 100 years of AG periodicals, I have yet to read anything that would suggest that the separation between black and white was intentional.  If there were racial motivations for leaving the COGiC or intentionally being a white Pentecostal group, they didn’t admit it.  Of course, I haven’t found anything about advocating for racial diversity either. Perhaps they avoided that issue all together because of the social tensions of their day.
  2. Prior to the AG, many of the AG founders were followers of William Durham and his ‘finished work’ orientation of just salvation and baptism in the Spirit.  Holiness groups believed in three experiences (salvation, sanctification and baptism in the Spirit).  Durham started preaching against holiness teaching on 3 works of grace which caused a bitter controversy between the finished work (which became AG) and other holiness Pentecostals. Mason’s COGiC church was a holiness organization.  This controversy began AFTER these men began issuing credentials to members of the Apostolic faith network.  It is likely that as the divide between the finished work and non-finished work grew, they grew more and more uncomfortable with being under a holiness organization.
  3. Mason’s COGiC church had a different polity than the AG wanted to have.  The AG was founded as a cooperative fellowship that desired to have no ruling governance (which of course was not sustained).  Each AG church was to be sovereign and independent.  Mason’s church had a presbyterian government with ruling bishops like many other holiness Pentecostal groups.  It is likely their founding of their own organization was as concerned with polity as anything else.

In the last 100 years, the AG has taken steps to become more diverse.  There are more African American ministers and fellowships in the AG today.  Progress has been made and there is more to do.  I am proud of what our General Superintendent George Wood has done to partner with COGiC leaders to foster greater racial empathy and understanding.  He has a worked to help our fellowship understand how we are to share in the conversation on race and culture. 

As we look back this month, I am thankful there was a group of men who were not afraid to reach out across racial lines to a Black Pentecostal leader in C.H. Mason for help when they needed it.  I am also thankful that Mason was willing to help those men, though it appears he gained nothing in return.  Even though they eventually parted ways, this is part of the AG story. I am thankful the influence of Black Pentecostal leaders. I am proud to be part of a movement that has honored our differences but encouraged the multi-ethnic vision of the Spirit being poured out on all flesh. I pray we will continue to work towards this vision.