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The Church of God in Christ (COGIC) is a predominantly African-American Pentecostal Christian denomination, headquartered at Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee. Its doctrine and practice are charismatic in nature, much like the Assemblies of God, meaning that they emphasize personal religious experience and divinely inspired powers, such as healing, prophecy, and speaking in tongues. Founded in Arkansas in 1897, the COGIC is the fourth-largest Christian denomination in the United States (as of 2003), with 5.4 million members, behind the Roman Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, and the United Methodist Church.
Its founder, Charles Harrison Mason, became a Christian in 1879. He was baptized by his brother, who was then pastoring near Plumerville (Conway County). Mason later became a minister when he was ordained by the Mount Gale Missionary Baptist Church in Preston (Faulkner County).
In 1895, Mason met with several of his bishops who conducted a revival in Jackson, Mississippi. The church reports a number of supernatural healings, conversions, and other charismatic manifestations at this revival. Mason relayed several then-controversial teachings on sanctification (probably related to the idea of sanctification being an “event,” the work of baptism in the Holy Spirit), which caused him to be banned from the Baptist Association. As a result, the church meetings moved to a gin house in Lexington, Mississippi. Later, the elders formalized this organization, calling it the “Church of God.” In 1897, the church reports, while walking down a street in Little Rock (Pulaski County), Mason conceived of the name “Church of God in Christ,” which would distinguish the church from other churches with names similar to “Church of God.” This reputed revelation was, the church says, based on 1 Thessalonians 2:14—“For ye, brethren, became followers of the churches of God which in Judaea are in Christ Jesus.”
In March 1907, Mason traveled to Los Angeles, California, to take part in the Azusa Street Revival with D. J. Young and J. A. Jeter, under the preaching of William J. Seymour. According to the church, it was then that Mason came to believe that a second “outpouring” of the Holy Spirit, similar to the Day of Pentecost recorded in Acts of the Apostles, was necessary. Seymour reportedly closed his sermon with, “All of those that want to be sanctified or baptized with the Holy Ghost, go to the upper room; and all those that want to be justified, come to the altar.” Under Seymour’s doctrine, baptism in the Holy Ghost was an experience during which one has a special experience—generally an emotional one—in which the Holy Spirit comes upon an individual and imparts upon them certain spiritual gifts. This event is evidenced by speaking in tongues, according to the church doctrine. Justification, by contrast, refers to one’s being “saved” from his or her sins; it is the act of becoming a follower of Jesus Christ, and thus being saved from hell by this forgiveness. This is a reference to Romans chapters 3, 4, 5, and 8:30.
The church was charismatic from the start, interpreting the “baptism” of the Holy Spirit to be accompanied invariably by signs and wonders, the most necessary of which was speaking in tongues. The Church of God in Christ reports that Mason said the following at the Azusa Street Revival, on April 9, 1906: “So when He had gotten me straight on my feet, there came a light which enveloped my entire being above the brightness of the sun. 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.” When Mason proclaimed this to others, division sparked in the church, as some thought that this, as well as speaking in tongues, was in his mind. Thus, the Baptist General Assembly in Memphis, Tennessee, turned its back on Mason. It was then, however, that Mason organized the first General Assembly of the “Church of God in Christ,” using the name that had come to him in Little Rock. He was then given, in 1907, by the assembly, the titles “General Overseer” and “Chief Apostle” of the COGIC.
During the following decades, the church grew in strides, despite Bishop Mason’s death on November 17, 1961, at the age of ninety-five. In 1973, the Office of the General Secretary of the COGIC reported that the estimated membership was three million. Since then, the church has grown to a reported 5.4 million members.
Annually, the church facilitates its Auxiliaries in Ministry (AIM) Conference, which holds several days of extremely large church services and related edificatory events, taught and organized by various prominent members of the church, culminating with a sermon by the presiding bishop. As of 2010, thirty-six out of approximately 3,700 Churches of God in Christ are located in Arkansas. Further statistics are currently unavailable, but at the 2005 AIM Convention, a presentation was given on the importance of gathering accurate statistics within the church, so this is likely to change.
For additional information:Church of God in Christ. http://www.cogic.org/ (accessed March 27, 2013).
“Church of God in Christ (COGIC).” Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly. November 1, 2002. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/week609/cover.html (accessed March 27, 2013).
Clemons, Ithiel C. Bishop C. H. Mason and the Roots of the Church of God in Christ. Bakersfield, CA: Pneuma Life Pub., 1996.
Weaver, Elton Hall, III. “‘Mark the Perfect Man’: The Rise of Bishop C. H. Mason and the Church of God in Christ.” PhD diss., University of Memphis, 2007.
White, Calvin, Jr. “In the Beginning, There Stood Two: Arkansas Roots of the Black Holiness Movement.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 68 (Spring 2009): 1–22.
———. The Rise to Respectability: Race, Religion, and the Church of God in Christ. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2012.
Alvin C. Grissom IIHendrix College
Last Updated 3/27/2013
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