Bishop Carlton Pearson's preaching against the existence of hell began making news headlines in 2002, and he has enjoyed sporadic media interest ever since. Pearson's story plays on two themes that make for good copy: theological dissent and, on a more titillating note, the idea of modern heresy.
A story today by the Chicago Tribune's Margaret Ramirez shows that Pearson is a journalistic gift that keeps on giving. His appointment as interim senior minister of Christ Universal Temple, a 6,000-member congregation on Chicago's South Side, has stirred up opposition even among the adherents of New Thought. This is no small feat, considering that temple members emphasize positive thinking and positive confession so strongly.
Ramirez quotes two pastors on the temple's staff:
"Pearson is a fourth-generation Pentecostal, and we are a New Thought church," said Rev. Fred Randall, a church minister for 40 years. "He could be a student in New Thought. Yes. But a leader? No."
Rev. Roderick Norton said: "It's like bringing a Catholic priest into a Baptist church. It's an insult to us."
Ramirez adds: "Opposing members argued that Pearson's appointment violates church bylaws that state 'only an ordained, licensed UFBL minister' can fill the position of interim senior minister."
If this list of UFBL congregations is any indication, the pool of eligible ministers is not plentiful, although it does include a celebrity, Della Reese Lett, formerly of CBS TV's Touched By an Angel. Would you want to argue with the powerful angel named Tess?
If a 6,000-member church sounds familiar, it's the same size that Pearson's original church, Higher Dimensions reached before crashing and burning amid Pearson's abolition of hell.
This American Life devoted a full show to Pearson's story in 2005. Both host Ira Glass and reporter Russell Cobb emphasized the angle of heresy. In 2004 the Joint College of African-American Pentecostal Bishops declared Pearson's teachings to be heresy. The majority of Pearson's congregation left, and Pearson embarked on a walking tour of liberal denominations.
What was left of Pearson's congregation, renamed New Dimensions, met for a time at Trinity Episcopal Church in downtown Tulsa. Pearson became a United Church of Christ pastor in 2006, and last year his congregation merged with All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa.
Compared to other dissidents (such as former Dominican Matthew Fox, or excommunicated Catholic priest George A. Stallings Jr.), Pearson has remained in the spotlight more reliably -- perhaps because some reporters show their own fascination with hell. (See Keith Morrison's report for Dateline NBC that tops this post. A second portion of the report is here.)
The angle of "Preacher rejects hell, driven out of church" was great lurid fun while it lasted, but Pearson's story is now more complicated -- and interesting.