Gilbert Earle Patterson
Gilbert E. Patterson, Church of God in Christ (COGIC) minister and presiding bishop, media pioneer, and religious entrepreneur, was born in Humboldt, Tennessee, the son of COGIC Bishop W. A. and Mary Patterson. He grew up in Memphis and was educated in city schools until his family moved to Detroit in 1952. As a child, he began preaching as early as the age of four and by the age of seventeen accepted a call to the preaching ministry of COGIC. He was ordained in 1958. He married his wife, Louise, in 1967.
Patterson prepared for the ministry at the Detroit Bible Institute and then at LeMoyne Owen College once he returned to Memphis in 1961. He was installed as co-pastor at Holy Temple COGIC that same year, serving the church alongside his father. It was as co-pastor of Holy Temple that Patterson served as one of nine local civic and religious leaders on a Civil Rights initiative committee that invited Martin Luther King Jr. to come to Memphis and help with the local garbage workers’ strike. King accepted the invitation and came to the city, delivering his famous “Mountain Top” speech at the home church of COGIC, Mason Temple, on April 3, 1968. King was assassinated the following day.
In 1975, Patterson left COGIC after years of feuding with the denomination’s presiding bishop J. O. Patterson, his paternal uncle and the son-in-law of COGIC founder, Charles Mason. Patterson believed that his father should have been installed as bishop in the West Tennessee District of COGIC, having been a bishop in North Carolina years earlier. His uncle, Presiding Bishop Patterson, reserved that bishopric for himself instead, based on his belief that, like the Roman Catholic pope, a presiding bishop should have a territorial bishopric as well. Years of internal family squabbles followed.
When he left, young Gilbert founded an independent church, Temple of Deliverance, the Cathedral of Bountiful Blessings. The small congregation moved into the Mt. Vernon Baptist Church building and outgrew the facility within three years. In 1978, Temple of Deliverance constructed a new twelve-hundred-seat sanctuary on the property, the first church facility with a price tag of over one million dollars to be built by African American workers in Memphis. During the next decade, though Patterson was shunned by the COGIC community, his leadership in the black community and in Pentecostal circles grew. His exemplary preaching delivery and message of hope and healing gained him notice and opportunity in Pentecostal churches across America. He also became a strong moral voice within the black community and was once the target of an assassination attempt by a parishioner who disagreed with his stance against domestic violence. He eventually mended his rift with his uncle and was invited back into the active COGIC ministry in 1988.
After returning to COGIC, Patterson quickly became a nationally known religious figure and leader in the denomination, being made COGIC bishop in West Tennessee and the city of Memphis in 1988, the post his uncle had installed himself in years earlier. In the early 1990s, Patterson, whose flock extended across the Mississippi River into neighboring Arkansas, befriended the state’s governor, Bill Clinton, who recognized Patterson’s influence within the black community in Memphis and throughout America with his weekly television and radio broadcasts. Clinton campaigned extensively at Temple of Deliverance during both of his presidential runs. In 1993, through the support of Patterson, President Bill Clinton delivered his famous “Memphis Speech” touting the need for gun control and better police protection in America’s inner cities at the Mason Temple COGIC.
Patterson’s ministry continued to thrive during the 1990s. By 1999, Temple of Deliverance had a membership of over ten thousand and moved into its current thirteen-million-dollar facility, which houses a five-thousand-seat auditorium, day care facilities, radio station, and recording studios. Patterson also franchised the church in two other locations within Memphis, making it one of the first churches in America of any kind to do so. In 1992, Patterson was elected as one of the twelve members of COGIC’s governing board, and in 2000, he was elected COGIC’s presiding bishop, defeating the sitting office holder, the first time such a feat had been accomplished in COGIC history.
Worldwide numerical growth of the denomination marked Patterson’s seven years of service as presiding bishop, and the church is now recognized as one of the largest Pentecostal denominations of any ethnicity in the world. Patterson’s tenure as presiding bishop and chief apostle also saw the recognition of COGIC as an ever increasing economic, cultural, and educational force.
Patterson, ever an innovator in church planning, continued using novel marketing and media techniques to build the ministry of the church. In the 1970s, he was one of the first charismatic leaders to use mass mailing and created a church magazine, Bountiful Blessing, to reach his flock and followers. During his tenure as the head of the denomination, the magazine became a beacon for the entire church, and the mailing-list ministry reached over 100,000 subscriptions worldwide. Patterson also recognized the power of television and radio. In the 1970s, he had trouble finding air time in Memphis for a black church service, so he marketed videotapes of his sermons through Bountiful Blessing magazine and church conventions. He was eventually was so well known that he was able to land air time on national cable networks Black Entertainment Television (BET) and the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN).
In the last years of his life, Patterson’s preaching and Bible studies were seen or heard in over 350 media outlets worldwide every week. He led Temple of Deliverance to purchase its own radio station, WBBP AM, and founded Podium Records, which recorded black gospel music, both of which he used to promote the efforts of COGIC. Under Patterson’s leadership, COGIC’s yearly conference in Memphis became the city’s largest convention. It annually draws more than sixty thousand members and brings thirty million dollars to the local economy. Patterson also led the denomination to open its own Bible college, All Saints, next door to the denomination’s headquarters at Mason Temple COGIC. The school was formed out of a merger of three COGIC Bible colleges in Tennessee, one of which had been started by Patterson. The school currently has over three hundred students enrolled. Recognized for bringing COGIC to prominence as a religious and cultural institution, Patterson won numerous national and international awards, receiving an honorary doctorate from Oral Roberts University and being named to Ebony’s list of the hundred most influential black Americans. Patterson died on March 20, 2007, due to complications from cancer.