Pictured (L-R): Darrin Rodgers, director of the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center; Mother Mary P. Patterson; Byron Klaus, retired president of Assemblies of God Theological Seminary
By Darrin J. Rodgers
Dr. Byron Klaus, retired president of the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary (1999–2015), was a keynote speaker at the dedication of a State Historical Marker honoring the birthplace of the Church of God in Christ. The event, held in Lexington, Mississippi, on October 16, 2015, evidenced the deepening relationship between the Assemblies of God and the Church of God in Christ.
While the Church of God in Christ is now the largest Pentecostal denomination in the United States, its roots are often overlooked. Few people noticed when Charles H. Mason founded a small Holiness church in 1897 in Lexington. Rejected by his fellow African-American Baptists on account of his Holiness teachings, he represented a marginalized religious group within a marginalized race. But his teachings caught fire among both African-Americans and whites, and his followers soon stretched far beyond the small Mississippi town. When Mason identified with the Pentecostal revival in 1907, he parted ways with ministry colleague Charles P. Jones and reorganized his followers as the Church of God in Christ (COGIC). Immediately, the COGIC became one of the largest and most-respected fellowships in the fledgling Pentecostal movement.
Lexington’s role in COGIC history has been largely overshadowed by Memphis, home of COGIC international headquarters. Seeing this inequity, Mother Mary P. Patterson (widow of former Presiding Bishop J. O. Patterson, Sr.) launched a grassroots campaign to encourage COGIC members to rediscover their Lexington roots. Since 2006, Patterson has organized tours of the historic sites through her company, The Pentecostal Heritage Connection, and she built relationships with Lexington officials, church leaders, and historians.
Patterson’s efforts culminated on October 16, 2015, when a State Historical Marker honoring the COGIC’s birthplace was dedicated at the south entrance of the Holmes County Courthouse in Lexington. The Mississippi Department of Archives and History approved the marker, and the Church of God in Christ Board of Bishops, chaired by Bishop John H. Sheard, sponsored and paid for the recognition. David Daniels, Chairman of the COGIC Commission on Education, supported the project with historical documentation.
The dedication ceremony, organized by Patterson, featured three keynote speakers: Byron Klaus; Superintendent William Deans, pastor of St. Paul Church of God in Christ, Lexington (the first COGIC congregation); and Dr. Percy Washington, pastor of Sweet Canaan Church of God in Christ, Lexington (the second COGIC congregation). Each speaker provided historical insight into Lexington’s significance in COGIC history.
Two buses of ministers and members from the COGIC’s Tennessee 5th Jurisdiction, located in Memphis, traveled to Lexington, where they supported their bishop, Jerry W. Taylor, who unveiled the marker on behalf of the Board of Bishops. Over 80 young people from Taylor’s jurisdiction attended. Local government officials were in full force, each offering their heartfelt prayers and committing the city to provide hospitality for pilgrims. Speakers frequently drew parallels between scripture and COGIC history. “If Memphis is the Church of God in Christ’s Jerusalem,” stated Patterson, “then Lexington is its Nazareth.”
Byron Klaus noted that the marker’s location is “is a poignant reminder that following Jesus is not an easy path.” The Holmes County Courthouse, he explained, intersected with COGIC history several times. In 1897 Mason began preaching on the courthouse steps, and then moved services to private homes and an abandoned gin house. While in Lexington, he founded St. Paul Church of God in Christ, the world’s first COGIC congregation. Later, in 1918, Mason was incarcerated in the jail cell in the basement of the courthouse on trumped-up charges that he opposed American involvement in World War I. Other church leaders who opposed the Holiness message tried to sabotage Mason’s ministry by falsely accusing him of treason. The jail cell which once held Mason is now a pilgrimage site, open to the public and decorated with hand-painted murals depicting his incarceration.
Lexington was also home to Saints Industrial and Literary School, established in 1918 by Sister Pinkie Duncan and Professor James Courts to train African American children. Under Dr. Arenia Mallory, president of the school from 1926 to 1983, the school became known as Saint’s Academy and was a prominent K-12 school in the community. Dr. Mallory was a leading advocate for civil rights and the poor in Holmes County. The school closed in 2006.
Mason, a bridge builder, was ahead of his time. He worked with both blacks and whites, striving to overcome the color barriers of his day. Klaus recounted that Mason gave his blessing in 1914 to the formation of the Assemblies of God. “I am forever grateful for that blessing from a father in the faith,” Klaus told the crowd.
Patterson believes that God is bringing the Assemblies of God and the Church of God in Christ into closer relationship. She demonstrated her commitment to this in 2011, when she deposited her husband’s personal papers at the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center (FPHC). The FPHC, located in the Assemblies of God national office, is the world’s largest Pentecostal archives. Patterson stated, “I am entrusting the Assemblies of God to help preserve and promote my husband’s materials. I want to send a signal that our two churches can and should cooperate in areas like education and historical archives.”
The heritage of the Church of God in Christ has much to teach the broader church. Its Lexington roots remind believers that great things often germinate from small beginnings, that the way of holiness is often marked by suffering, and that Pentecostalism emerged at the turn of the twentieth century with an interracial impulse. These lessons come to life in Lexington, Mississippi.