Charles Harrison Mason organized and for many decades led the largest black Pentecostal denomination in the United States, the Church of God in Christ, now based in Memphis. Born on 8 September 1864 or 1866 in Bartlett, Tennessee, to parents who had been slaves, Mason grew up intending to be a minister. “It seemed that God endowed him with supernatural characteristics,” his daughter wrote, “which were manifested in dreams and visions that followed him through life.” In 1878 Mason’s parents moved to Plumersville, Arkansas, where Mason was saved and called to preach. However, Mason forsook his mission until he was stricken with tuberculosis. He saw his healing as a miraculous reprieve and divine message to pursue his spiritual duty.
Mason attended Arkansas Baptist College briefly in the early 1890s but left school after a few months, declaring that God had showed him that “there was no salvation in schools and colleges.” Mason received his preaching license in 1893 from a Baptist congregation. Four years later Mississippi Baptists ordered him to vacate his pulpit for the offense of preaching holiness doctrines, especially sanctification. Seeking to find a place for his own church, he received permission to use an abandoned gin house for a revival in 1897, and what became the Church of God in Christ was born.
In the early 1900s Mason walked from town to town in the Mississippi Delta, spreading the holiness teachings. Yet he was not satisfied with the second blessing of sanctification. Like other early Pentecostals, he sought an even more profound spiritual experience. He found it at the Azusa street revival in Los Angeles, where he received the final Holy Spirit baptism and spoke in tongues. During a night of prayer, Mason saw a vision. “When I opened my mouth to say glory,” he later remembered, “a flame touched my tongue which ran down in me. My language changed and no word could I speak in my own tongue.”
Mason returned from Los Angeles and split with his holiness compatriots. Legal tussles ensued, resulting in Mason’s establishing the Church of God in Christ in Memphis. Early Pentecostals recognized Mason’s special powers of discernment and saw him as supernaturally gifted. Criticized for importing conjure into the churches, Mason pointed to the scriptures indicating that Jesus taught the same kinds of healings and spirit possessions. Mason’s preaching skill garnered considerable attention. As he proudly recounted his early career, the Holy Spirit through him “saved, sanctified and baptized thousands of souls of all colors and races.”
For two decades, Mason traveled and preached throughout the entire Mississippi Delta region. With the migration of African Americans to the North, the Church of God in Christ increasingly established a presence in Chicago, Detroit, and other cities. The church became well known for its spirited singing, accompanied by tambourines, trumpets, and other instruments and by the kinds of “shouts” and emotional ecstatic release that had been driven out of many of the more respectable black Baptist and Methodist churches. Mason remained the church’s senior bishop until his death on 17 November 1961.
- Ithiel C. Clemons, Bishop C. H. Mason and the Roots of the Church of God in Christ (1996)
- Ithiel C. Clemons, History and Formative Years of the Church of God in Christ with Excerpts from the Life and Works of Its Founder—Bishop C. H. Mason (1969)
- David D. Daniels, in Portraits of a Generation: Early Pentecostal Leaders, ed. James R. Goff Jr. and Grant Wacker (2002).
- Karen Lynell Kossie, “The Move Is On: African American Pentecostal-Charismatics in the Southwest” (PhD dissertation, Rice University, 1998)
- E. W. Mason, The Man . . . Charles Harrison Mason (1979)
- Elsie Mason, From the Beginning of Bishop C. H. Mason and the Early Pioneers of the Church of God in Christ (1991)
- Mary Mason, The History and Life Work of Bishop C. H. Mason (1924)
- Cheryl Sanders, Saints in Exile: The Holiness Pentecostal Experience in African American Religion and Culture (1996)
- Calvin White Jr., The Rise to Respectability: Race, Religion, and the Church of God in Christ (2012)