From Azusa Street to Memphis: Sometimes reporters have to tell old stories to new readers

I do not go out of my way, as a rule, to praise the religion-beat work of one of my former students in the old Washington Journalism Center (which has now evolved into the New York City Journalism semester at The King’s College).

But it’s time to break that rule.

I say that because of a feature story by Katherine Burgess — a name to watch on the religion beat — that ran at The Memphis Commercial Appeal. The headline: “Bishop Mason built COGIC out of revival, the faith of former slaves.

In roughly 40 years of religion-beat work, I know of no organization that is harder to cover than the Church of God in Christ (COGIC). As a result, this massive Pentecostal flock receives way less coverage than it deserves. I don’t think the denomination’s leaders are hostile to the press (although I have encountered one or two who were), but they certainly do not seek out the attention.

How many news-consumers in West Tennessee, white and black, know the history of this important institution or even know that it is based in their region? Thus, Burgess needed to start at the beginning, with the story of one man:

He preached in living rooms, in the woods and in a cotton gin.

When he returned from the Azusa Street Revival speaking in unknown tongues, Bishop Charles Harrison Mason was followed by just 10 churches out of more than 100 in the split over the theological disagreement.

Today, the denomination founded by Mason, the son of former slaves, is the largest Pentecostal denomination in the United States, with more than 6.5 million members.

“Bishop Mason was one who lifted African Americans who were former slaves and the children of slaves, lifted them up from the degradation of slavery, ex-slavery, the brokenness of poverty,” said Bishop David Hall Sr., prelate of the Tennessee headquarters of the Church of God in Christ. “He through this church gave them esteem, position, status and encouraged their education.”

The hook for the story, a national celebration of Mason’s work, was basic — if someone is already plugged into COGIC. Readers who do not have, well, the “gift of interpretation” needed to hear lots of history and that history included detailed talk about doctrine.

In other words, it’s impossible to tell Mason’s story, and the history of that giant church based in Memphis, without discussing one of those doctrinal terms that can make a newspaper editor’s eyes roll. The term is “speaking in tongues.”

This long passage covers this man’s leap from Baptist life to Pentecostalism.

… Mason was expelled from the Baptist Convention after preaching the doctrine of holiness and sanctification. …

Mason and another expelled Baptist preacher then formed the Church of God in Christ, which grew to about 110 churches in 1906 throughout Mississippi and Arkansas, with a few in Oklahoma and one in Texas, Daniels said.

At about the same time, Mason and other leaders in the church began to hear about the Azusa Street Revival, where African American preacher William Seymour led large gatherings of both black and white worshippers in emotional prayer, weeping and ecstatic spiritual experiences.

Seymour taught that baptism in the Holy Spirit would be accompanied by speaking in “tongues,” and it was at the revival that Mason himself “received the baptism of the Holy Ghost and spoke in tongues for the first time,” according to “The Rise to Respectability: Race, Religion, and the Church of God in Christ” by Calvin White Jr.

“When I opened my mouth to say glory, a flame touched my tongue which ran down in me,” Mason later wrote. “My language changed and no word could I speak in my own tongue. My soul was then satisfied.”

In the beginning, the Azusa Street revival was profoundly and radically interracial, especially for that time in history. Soon, however, Pentecostal denominational structures began returning to the sad norm — in which Sunday morning is one of the most segregated moments in American life.

But Pentecostalism, as a movement, has grown into one of the most powerful religion forces around the world, even affecting some of the the “frozen chosen” in mainline Protestant pews and in charismatic Catholic circles. See this classic Pew Forum study for a glimpse of that.

The church and personal politics involved in the rise of COGIC receive quite a bit of attention here. But what stuck with me was this mysterious quote — pointing to the ties that bind one generation to the next, even in times of great change.

Mason believed Pentecostalism was the experience described in the New Testament, but it also hearkened back to the religion of his childhood. His mother, a former slave, had “exposed her children to a religious culture composed of emotional prayer, song, dance, and most important of all, clandestine ‘brush harbor’ meetings,” according to White’s book.

In Pentecostal teachings about tongues, healing and prophecies, Mason found “the ability to bridge elements of slave religion with contemporary religious practices,” White wrote.

Read it all. And reporters should file the information for future work with this important, but little known, branch of American and global Protestantism.

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