Charles Harrison Mason founded the Church of God in Christ (COGIC). In doing so he preserved and cultivated the religious culture of his ancestors as well as fighting for religious freedom of expression and an integrated church. He was the son of former slaves and born in Shelby County, Tennessee. Because of the family’s poverty, young Mason worked as a sharecropper and did not receive a formal education, but he still learned how to read and write. As a child, Mason was influenced by the religion of his parents and other former slaves. He admired their religious devotion to God (prayer ritual, spontaneous singing, and shouting). At age twelve, Mason embraced the Afro-Baptist faith; he was later baptized and worked in his older brother’s church.
In 1893, Mason’s first marriage ended in divorce. That same year, Mason received his ministerial license, experienced sanctification, embraced the Holiness movement, and started preaching the sanctified/holiness doctrine he read about in evangelist Amanda Berry Smith’s autobiography. Mason also enrolled in the Arkansas Baptist College (ABC) in Little Rock. He attended classes for two years until he started traveling as an itinerant preacher. Before Mason left ABC, he enrolled in the school’s distance learning program and later received a ministerial certificate.
In 1895, Mason met Rev. Charles Price Jones. Jones was a Baptist preacher and graduate of ABC. Like Mason, he had also come under the influence of the holiness movement. After being rejected by the Baptists and Methodists, Mason and Jones, along with J. A. Jeter and W. S. Pleasant, established a Holiness association of churches. Their association had two names: Church of God and Church of Christ. Their movement consisted of blacks and whites who had become dissatisfied with mainstream denominations. Mason and Jones taught that being sanctified was an inner experience that caused outward changes in individuals and in their communities. They taught believers to seek higher spiritual development and encouraged them to rekindle the dynamism of slave religion.
In 1897, Mason established St. Paul COGIC in an old cotton gin located in Lexington, Mississippi. Then Mason started using the name “Church of God in Christ” because he said God told him that if he used that name it would cause people to follow him. Jones adopted the name in 1906.
In 1900, Mason established COGIC in Memphis, and by 1904 he was pastoring four churches: St. Paul in Lexington, Saints Home and Dyson Street in Memphis, and a COGIC church in Conway, Arkansas. In 1905, Mason married Leila Washington. Together Leila and Mason had nine children, and Leila helped him establish the early COGIC church. In 1907, Mason attended Bishop William J. Seymour’s interracial Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles, but after he returned, claiming he had experienced a spiritual metamorphosis and that he believed in speaking in tongues, Jones and Jeter excommunicated him from their Holiness association.
Mason and Jones’s twelve-year partnership ended over theological differences, rights to church properties, ecclesiastical power, and the COGIC name. After three years of legal battles (1908-1911), Mason’s legal victories catapulted him into historical prominence and placed COGIC in the Mid-South’s religious pantheon. In September 1907, Mason, David J. Young, Robert E. Hart, Edward R. Driver, and other leaders who believed in speaking in tongues met in Memphis and organized the Church of God in Christ into a Pentecostal denomination. During that first General Assembly meeting, Mason was elected chief apostle/general overseer and D. J. Young was appointed editor of the Whole Truth periodical.
In 1911, Mason appointed Mrs. Lizzie W. Robinson as head of COGIC’s Women’s Department. Robinson established the Prayer and Bible Bands and helped structure the Foreign Missions Department. When Robinson died in 1945, the Women’s Department was the largest in the country.
Mason dreamed of an integrated church and believed that all races were entitled to equal rights and authority. From COGIC’s inception, Mason ordained and allowed whites to join his denomination. From 1907 to 1914, Mason ordained hundreds of white ministers. In 1914, a group of whites left COGIC and established the Assemblies of God. Throughout his tenure, Mason continued to integrate COGIC. A white COGIC pastor named Leonard P. Adams pastored Grace and Truth in Memphis, and COGIC’s first general secretary was a white man named William B. Holt. Mason also conducted integrated funerals, baptisms, and worship services. At the height of Jim Crow, Mason allowed blacks and whites to sit next to each other in church. In the 1930s, Edward Hull “Boss” Crump told Mason he could not continue to allow blacks and whites to sit together. However, Boss Crump did not stop Mason from holding integrated meetings. Mason used COGIC as a platform to fight against segregation and encouraged blacks and whites to embrace racial unity.
Mason was also an outspoken conscientious objector. He was arrested in 1918 and probed by the Bureau of Investigation and later by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for teaching pacifism and encouraging black men not fight during World Wars I and II.
In the early twentieth century, the black middle class frowned upon anything resembling Africa. They believed shouting and dancing, and especially speaking in tongues in church, were shameful activities that hindered black progress. In defiance of the black middle class, Mason encouraged blacks to embrace their cultural heritage and gave them space to express themselves in church. He allowed the working classes to shout, dance, testify about their daily struggles, speak in tongues, use musical instruments, and sing gospel music. Mason’s preservation of the black cultural heritage, freedom of religious expression, and his ability to cultivate leadership and delegate authority caused COGIC’s astronomical growth.
In the 1920s, COGIC’s Sunday school and Young Peoples Willing Workers (YPWW) operations were thriving. COGIC had thirty thousand members and, as a result of the Great Migration, 68.7 percent worshiped in urban cities. In 1926, Mason appointed Dr. Arenia C. Mallory as president of COGIC’s Saints Industrial School (founded in 1915). Under Mallory’s leadership, the school became the first black high school in Holmes County, Mississippi, and the first school to employ an integrated staff. By the 1930s, COGIC was an urban phenomenon. During the Depression, Mason’s churches fed and clothed poor whites and blacks in Memphis. In 1936, Leila Mason died, and in 1944, Mason married Elsie Washington.
In 1952, Mason instituted the Executive Commission of Bishops to help him govern COGIC. That same year, Mason and a group of leaders traveled to London and attended the World Pentecostal Conference. In December 1954, seven months after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, Mason and the General Assembly sent a letter (drafted by Elder James Feltus) to the U.S. Supreme Court commending its decision that “separate education facilities are not inherently equal.” Four years later, Mason and his son, Charles Jr., were both probed by the FBI and accused of “stirring up racial tensions.” Charles Jr. had integrated the previously all-white Glenview neighborhood in Memphis. Before Mason’s death, he earned a doctorate of divinity from Trinity Hall College in 1957. Additionally, Fifth Street was renamed Mason Street in 1953, and Mason received the Pittsburgh Currier award for contributing to racial equality in America.
Mason died in Detroit on November 17, 1961. When he died, COGIC claimed one million members. Today, COGIC is the largest African American denomination in the United States, with eight million members worldwide.