C(harles), H(arrison) Mason (1866-1961), Pentecostal African American preacher and founder of the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), was born the son of former slaves outside Memphis, Tennessee. Mason grew up on farms there and in Arkansas. His family were members of the Missionary Baptist Church and in 1891 he was ordained into the Baptist ministry. In 1893 he briefly attended Arkansas Baptist College but could not adjust to a formal educational environment and dropped out. However, during this period he became enamored of the autobiography of Amanda Smith, the black Holiness preacher, and began to claim that he had likewise undergone the experience of entire sanctification. Mason also became friends with Charles Price Jones, a popular Baptist preacher from Mississippi who shared his enthusiasm for holiness teachings. Both men became embroiled in a series of disputes over the doctrine of Christian perfectionism that swept African-American Baptist ranks in Mississippi, Arkansas, and western Tennessee.
In 1899, Mason and Jones formed a new fellowship of churches Mason dubbed the Church of God in Christ, a name he said came to him during a vision in Little Rock to distinguish the church from a number of “Church of God” denominations which were sprouting up. In 1905 they came into contact with another holiness preacher, William J. Seymour, who the next year became a central figure in the Azusa Street Pentecostal awakening in Los Angeles. Mason went west to investigate the revival and in March 1907 experienced the Baptism of the Holy Spirit and spoke in tongues. He returned east to advocate the new Pentecostal teachings but found Jones in opposition. The two men split their following; Mason won the legal rights to the Church of God in Christ title and was elected the General Overseer of his group. In the years that followed, Mason ably directed his fledgling, Memphis-based denomination, commissioning traveling evangelists to spread COGIC’s message, establishing working partnerships with some white Southern Pentecostals, and particularly targeting the masses of African Americans headed for work in Northern cities. By the time of Mason’s death in 1961 COGIC had nearly 400,000 members. Today, it claims to have nearly 5.5 million members, making it the fourth largest denomination in the United States.
For further reading, see I.C. Clemmons, Bishop C.H. Mason and the Roots of the Church of God in Christ (Pneuma Life, 1996), and Grant Wacker, Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture (Harvard, 2001).